Rob Sheppard began teaching English straight out of college. “Like so many others, a free one-way ticket enticed me to Korea to teach middle-schoolers at a cram school,” he says of those early years. Since then he’s held various teaching positions but started to grow weary of the challenges he witnessed in the systems: “In the for-profit schools, it often seems that the bottom line is at odds with good pedagogy. The nonprofit sector is perpetually underfunded, with waitlists for free classes all over the place.”
Sheppard decided it was time to act. So he quit his job and launched Ginseng English, an online program that offers live interactive video lessons from expert teachers that is also available for free to those who can’t afford it (he’s also backpacking across the world to bootstrap his initiative). We spoke with Shepard about what inspired the venture, its business model, social mission and how he plans to create the “the best English school money can buy.”
Tell us about you and how your past experience inspired this opportunity
I have been working in English language teaching for a little over a decade. I started teaching in some very profit-driven businesses: cram schools in Taiwan and Korea and academic-intensive English programs in Boston. The work was really satisfying but I frequently felt that the bottom line was at odds with quality teaching.
I made the switch to nonprofit around five years ago, working as director of an adult education program. I took a lot of satisfaction in building programs and leading a team of teachers there.
Even in nonprofit, though, I was frustrated by the need to spend half your time chasing funding and meeting funders’ priorities, which can sometimes be out-of-step with the needs of the community.
At the nonprofit, we had waitlists of hundreds of students who needed classes, but there just wasn’t enough funding to meet the demand. This is typical. Every state in the country has these waitlists. On the other hand, there are these for-profit schools like the one I began at, and they’ve got empty seats. That drove me crazy, and for a few years I’ve been thinking of different ways that [that issue] might be addressed.
I think these two experiences and the frustrations with both sectors led me to seek a sort of middle ground in social enterprise. You can make an impact and measure success in terms that aren’t strictly financial without becoming beholden to funders.
Describe your initiative and its mission
Ginseng English is an online English language school. Our mission is to provide learners around the world with access to the best online English classes that technology allows, informed by the most current theory and research, and delivered by the best teachers available.
We’re using a videochat software that enables us to have high quality, interactive classes with small group conversations and students from all over the world. The teacher sets up a virtual room and students from Japan, Turkey, Mexico, all log in for live lessons. Once I realized I could make these group classes work, I realized I might be able to address this “empty seats” issue that so frustrated me.
To me, that word access in the mission is key.
Ginseng’s classes start to generate a profit with just a few students in them. At that point, the cost of adding another student is for me virtually nothing. So, rather than just maximizing profit, we’re giving some of those seats to students in need. If you can pay, we charge tuition – a little above market rate because what we’re offering is honestly of higher quality than most of the market, where students are often getting unqualified teachers and photocopied materials.
For students who can’t afford to pay, we’re offering free tuition. At the start, we’re offering 10% of our class slots for free, but the goal is to get that to 50% by 2020. We’re calling this arm Ginseng Impact.
What inspired its launch? What gap are you trying to fill?
So there’s this issue of empty seats in for-profit schools and long waiting lists in nonprofit. But I’ve also just been shocked at how little high-quality online ESL is out there. The most successful companies out there are trying to be the Uber of English classes, just connecting as many people as possible, taking their cut, and doing little to ensure quality.
This isn’t a school, it’s a marketplace.
A lot of the smaller businesses out there are small one-on-one tutoring websites. There are some great teachers going that route, but they’re seldom building into anything big enough to make an impact. As far as I know, none of them are going the social venture route like Ginseng.
Beyond just the demand for more high quality classes online, I think there’s a kind of crazy lack of mission-based work out there in this field. Teaching English ought to be a mission-based field. We should be at the cutting edge of social innovation, but instead it’s coffee conglomerates and cosmetics companies doing the most innovative social impact work. I’d love to see that change, and I’d be really happy if Ginseng can be a part of making that happen.
Tell us about the importance of partners
We are actually actively seeking nonprofit partners with strong connections to communities where there’s an unmet need for English instruction. I’m working out some partnerships with community-based organizations that I know well, but we’d love to connect with some larger NGOs around the world. We’re happy to help out in our backyard, but there are some places with a much more profound need than Boston. We’re looking into partnerships with refugee-serving organizations in Europe and North Africa, as well as developing countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, where Ginseng will be headed in the fall.
What is your funding model? How will you be supporting your initiative?
Above-market rate tuition collected from paying students subsidizes free tuition to those who can’t afford to pay.
I’m a little wary of investors after my experience in nonprofit, so I’m bootstrapping for the foreseeable future. I’ll be living out of a backpack to keep my cost of living down and resources flowing back into the company.
Down the line, I’m open to partnering with a fiscal agent to grant-fund the coordination of the Ginseng Impact students, especially if that would make it more feasible to offer supplementary local services like advising and career counseling.
What’s your vision for this project? Where would you like to see it in five years?
I’m trying to keep hopes and expectations moderate. I’ll be thrilled if Ginseng is here and making an impact in any way, shape, or form five years from now. I do have some quantitative objectives in the business plan, but I’d rather keep them to myself for now. Don’t want to jinx it!