The day we were introduced to Michael Ngo, Country Director of ELSA Vietnam, was also the day his team in Vietnam was officially meeting him for the very first time. It wasn’t his first day on the job, however. Michael joined the ELSA Vietnam family back in June but due to the pandemic, he had to find a way to manage his new team remotely from Singapore, while waiting for the borders to reopen.
The intervening months gave Michael a chance to prove his management chops, which he did with flying colours. Thanks to an ingenious management strategy he implemented, coupled with the existing enthusiasm of the ELSA Vietnam team and the continuous support of ELSA’s partners such as IMAP and YOLA, the startup continues to thrive.
Today, the management is applying the same strategic approach that made ELSA’s pronunciation app so successful to their new CSR program, "For a better Vietnam".
Can you tell us about your responsibilities as ELSA’s Vietnam Country Manager? What is it like to be managing one of Vietnam’s fastest growing startups in its key market?
Truth be told, as much as it is exciting, it is also straight-up daunting. Ruby Nguyen, ELSA’ s previous Country Manager, did a fantastic job, so I have big shoes to fill. That being said, I’m not big on accolades. My personal motto is to always see myself as a challenger, to never stop hustling, and to stay hungry. And I try to instill the same mindset in my team as well. Success can only happen when we are all in it together.
I am fortunate to have started in this role with an incredibly dedicated and dynamic team. My responsibility lies in harnessing their passions by setting a clear career direction for them, so they can focus on doing their best work.
One of the biggest challenges we recently overcame was working through the last few months while being physically in different countries. I started in June this year when we thought the borders between Singapore and Vietnam would open soon. But as it turns out, I only got to Vietnam in late November.
For us, covid-19 has been both a blessing and a curse. A curse because I couldn't start my job in person, and a blessing because working remotely is now the new normal. Nevertheless, I am constantly amazed and proud of what my team has been able to accomplish against the odds.
What opportunities does English proficiency bring to the workforce in particular and to Vietnam in general?
Given the state of the world, between geo-politics and covid-19, Vietnam is in a great position to become not only a big regional player, but also to take its rightful place on the global stage. And English proficiency will definitely play a key position in Vietnam’s development.
But it’s not proficiency for proficiency’s sake that’s important. It's the confidence that comes from being able to communicate effectively and express yourself in another language — the confidence to bring your ideas, thoughts and values to the world. It gives you power to change lives.
And this is what really drives me and the ELSA team – our sense of purpose. We are not in the business of learning English as a second language, but the business of changing lives. We want to help people become better versions of themselves, so that they can achieve anything.
The pandemic has accelerated the rate of digitization in all fields, English education included. What potentials does ELSA see from this digital transformation?
Even pre-covid, digital transformation was already a big topic. You’re right to say that the pandemic didn’t necessarily change plans; it simply brought forward timelines. We are excited that there is a lot of investment going into building ed-tech platforms in the language space, driven by startups and education institutions alike. To ELSA, this means more partnership potential. We love to talk to companies to see how we can leverage our tech to support their platforms.
At the end of the day, we’re all after the same thing: to do our part in creating a better Vietnam. And that all starts with education.
Are there any difficulties and limitations that we need to overcome in order to fully capitalize on the potential of digitizing English education?
Digitizing English learning lowers the cost for students. This is key to increasing access to quality education as a whole; yet, there are still barriers to overcome. I see two main ones: access to the Internet and technological devices, and mass acceptance of online learning. For the latter, as I mentioned earlier, working and learning online is becoming more of an accelerant rather than a limitation now due to the pandemic. This will definitely continue to be the case as the industry matures.
Recently, ELSA has shifted its focus to developing partnerships. What role does this strategy play in realizing the mission of becoming the best and easiest-to-use pronunciation practice tool for over 1.5 billion language learners globally?
By developing partnerships with business partners and English language and test prep centers, ELSA is not so much shifting our focus, but taking that next step to realizing our mission.
On the corporate side, we know one of the main drivers for users of ELSA is to obtain better job opportunities, so it was a natural fit for us to go straight to the source. We work hand-in-hand with our clients to help them integrate ELSA into both their training benefits and their employee evaluation processes. We help companies save up to 80% on their training costs, which allows them to better maximize their investment in their employees!
When it comes to education, we’re helping learning centers and other ed-tech startups accelerate the digital transformation of their offerings by providing a platform to augment, complement, and integrate into their current offerings.
In fact, we’ve spent a lot of time building our AI and ML models to accurately predict what users would likely score on their IELTS speaking tests. Our lessons are designed with CEFR frameworks in mind to ensure they can quickly and easily be integrated into any curriculum.
What other solutions is ELSA developing and investing in?
We are actively building out our API business and working with education centers and ed-tech platforms to integrate ELSA’s technology. We see this as a key driver for us to accomplish our mission of helping the 1.5bn English learners across the world speak fluently and confidently.
Are there any case studies about markets similar to Vietnam where solutions have been successfully applied in English training?
One notable case study outside of Vietnam is the work we did with Rice University [in Houston, US]. After six weeks of using the app with an average of 8 minutes a day, students improved by 7%! Students who practiced 20 minutes a day improved by 14%.
We’re excited to see how our recent partnerships in Vietnam with IMAP, Yola, Speak Up, Biti’s, FPT Software, MoMo, Nash Tech, Speak Up, and other businesses and schools perform over the coming months.
What strengths do ELSA’s Vietnam and Global offices both share and how do they complement each other?
Being headquartered in Silicon Valley, with teams across the globe, there are a lot of attributes such as an appetite for risk-taking, a bias toward innovation and collaboration, and ideas from top talent that permeate across the company. Vietnam benefits from being able to tap into this resource.
Vietnam has always been seen to have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, so we’re able to explore different ways to translate our technology into the needs of users, businesses and schools across Vietnam. This also provides new markets with a go-to-market framework to adapt from.
How does ELSA plan to grow its business in Vietnam and globally in the upcoming years?
We’ll remain focused on building our product offering so that we can continue to bring value to our users. We’re increasingly investing more into our B2B partnerships as well, to make our technology and learning program as accessible to as many people as possible, wherever they are learning or whatever device they are learning on.
For enterprise inquiries, English centers or individuals operating in English education, please reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.