By Isabel Wong
When most 10 year-olds are still in school, Hillary Yip decided to launch her own language-learning app MinorMynas when she was 10. It was an idea she came up with after the struggles she had while learning Mandarin, and the CEO of MinorMynas hopes to create a positive peer-to-peer learning experience for children who are more comfortable learning in a non-judgemental environment. It is also her way to prove to the world that there is never just one surefire way to learn.
Almost five years on, the 15 year-old Hong Kong-based entrepreneur has made her app available in over 60 countries, and is working on the next stage of the business. While she thinks it’s too early to call her successful, Yip credits the achievements she has made so far to the supportive entrepreneur network in Hong Kong. She spoke to Lynk about her next steps and why age and gender should play no part in determining one’s success.
L: Lynk | H: Hillary Yip
L: Many schools and students are using online tools to continue classes due to the coronavirus outbreak, do you see this being an opportunity for online learning operators such as MinorMynas?
H: We have seen a lot more activities within MinorMynas’ platform these days, and there has been an increase in app downloads. The negative impact brought by COVID-19 on MinorMynas is so far limited compared to other sectors.
But if there are any challenges, it will be because we are migrating our server right now for MinorMynas app 2.0 that’s to be launched soon. So there have been more technical issues than usual. It will be launched as a web app as currently it’s only available on IOS which limits the access to different potential customer segments. The new version will be available to everyone who has access to the internet.
L: When it comes to using online social networking platforms, parents’ biggest concern is the safety of their children. For MinorMynas’ app, online group chats are a big part of the learning experience, how do you ensure the safety of its young users?
H: We have two key features on MinorMynas’ app, one of them is parental supervision. All kids’ accounts are linked to their parents’ accounts, and the parents are able to see exactly which public learning groups their children are in and read the messages in those groups. For private chats between two individual users, parents will not be able to see the message exchanges due to privacy concerns, but they will be able to see who their children are chatting privately with and how often the conversations take place. If needed, parents will be able to set restrictions based on age and gender.
The other current feature is that we charge a one-off fee of around USD$1 as a measure to ensure the safety of our community, as it will require identity verification for an individual to be able to pay that fee.
A new feature we will be launching is auto message screening powered by artificial intelligence and natural language processing. It will help flag any inappropriate languages used within the MinorMynas community.
L: What’s the future of education? Do you see online learning being a huge part of it?
H: The future of education will put a bigger focus on soft skills. The schooling system was created during the Industrial Revolution when workers needed were those who were able to follow instructions. The world has changed now, and if we think about any profession that relies heavily on hard facts and knowledge, technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence right now are able to almost eclipse those professions’ functions and abilities.
What’s irreplaceable humans have is the ability to connect with one another. Therefore, skills in the 21st century such as communications, creativity and collaboration are going to be the focuses of the new age education, and MinorMynas will play a huge role in shaping and enabling the future of education because we naturally provide an outside-the-school environment for kids to connect and learn with each other where skills such as communications and leadership can be formed during the process.
Separately, I do think online learning will be a huge part of the future. Online learning allows people in rural places to have better access to education, and enables opportunities that we might not have in the past due to limitations such as physical locations. Not to say online education will completely replace the existing education system, but it will democratise education and compliment the future of learning.
L: Will the future of education also change the way people obtain their qualifications?
H: In the near future, I don’t see prestigious institutions will become irrelevant anytime soon. But I think there will be a gradual process where qualifications from famous schools will become less important.
In fact, there are startups that allow people to get access to online courses with top schools such as Harvard University. The world will go increasingly to that direction and it’s becoming clear to people that online education options are not any less legitimate than physical education options.
L: You are one of the world’s youngest entrepreneurs. To many, success and leadership are the results of years of experience in the professional world, but you are setting the example to prove age and success are not necessarily positively correlated. Have your achievements ever been challenged because of your age or gender?
H: An investor once told me to tone it down when I was giving a presentation about MinorMynas because I got really passionate about it and was getting a bit too intimidating.
But the Hong Kong startup community has been really supportive, and I’ve been getting a lot of help from people in this community including my mentors who inspired me to continue working hard, and people who are just willing to point me to the right directions.
It is important for us to recognise that success is not tied to age, even though it’s still too early to consider myself successful. An interesting thing about the startup world and age is that there are also many CEOs who started their own businesses at an early age, think Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Nowadays, the average age of chief executive officers is 57 while the number 20 years ago was approximately eight years younger.
L: Being a CEO is a challenge on its own. But what are the challenges you have encountered as a young female CEO?
H: In general, being an entrepreneur is just challenging. This is because we are often doing things that do not have a clearly mapped out future, so there are no examples for us to follow.
When my team first launched MinorMynas’ app, we struggled to get new users to sign up. The team tried using social media channels as well as talking directly to parents in our target markets, but those methods were not generating the results that we wanted. I also did countless pitches during the early stage, so the challenge in managing my own business lies in having no prior examples to take reference from.
L: What are the factors that will lead to your ultimate success in your view?
H: I was fortunate enough to have met my mentor through a young entrepreneur programme who encouraged and gave me guidance on pursuing my current venture.
But other than luck, the mindset of seizing every opportunity is very important. I am sure everyone must have had at least one life-changing opportunity they could have taken at some point in life, but they decided against it without knowing where it could lead them. It’s not about the money you have or any fortunate situations that you’re born in, it’s about seizing the opportunity and staying persistent.
Another factor that could help people become successful is read more. I’ve been obsessed with books since I was a little kid, my only hobby is reading and there are at least 1,000 books in my bedroom!
L: Do you see yourself still leading the business of MinorMynas in 10 years’ time?
H: I would like to take MinorMynas as far as I can. But if at some point in the future, I am no longer the best person to lead MinorMynas to ensure its ultimate success, it will be the absolute worst of me to be blinded by my own ego and bring the company down. I am more than happy to appoint a new CEO for MinorMynas when the time comes.
This interview is a part of Lynk Elite Expert Women interview series, click here to learn more about the initiative.