Episode 121

Vivian Shen ·  Education for the Real World With Juni Learning

“I've always sort of been like a burn, the ships type of mentality, which is that I think it's quite hard to have your feet in two places.”

 In 2017, Vivian Shen founded Juni Learning, an online education platform for 7-18 year olds, to be the educational opportunity she wished she had growing up. As a kid, Vivian had an interest in courses her school didn’t offer. When learning to code, Vivian remembers feeling insecure and learned best in personalized settings compared to lecture style. Through Juni Learning, Vivian is on a mission to provide students access to 1:1 teaching to ignite a passion for learning among all students – regardless of their interests and learning styles.


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Podcast Transcript

Vivian Shen

Intro: (00:00:00) Hey guys, welcome to Asian Hustle Network Podcast my name is Bryan, and my name is Maggie. We interview Asian entrepreneurs around the world to amplify their voices and empower Asians to pursue their dreams and goals. We believe that each person has a message and a unique story from their entrepreneurial journey that they can share with all of us.

Maggie: (00:00:23) Today, we have a very special guest with us her name is Vivian Shen and in 2017 Vivian founded Juni Learning an online education platform for seven- to 18-year-olds to be an educational opportunity. She wished she had as a kid, Vivian is on a mission to provide students access to one-on-one teaching, and to ignite a passion for learning among all students, regardless of their interests and learning styles. Vivian, welcome to the show.

Vivian: (00:01:05) Thanks so much. It’s exciting to be here.

Maggie: (00:01:12) Let’s jump right into it. We would love to know a little bit more about your background, where you grew up, and what was it like for you while you were growing up?

Vivian: (00:01:20) I grew up classic Asian American in the San Francisco Bay area and my parents came to the US from China after the cultural revolution. They had a strong emphasis on education because basically, that was one of the big reasons why they were able to move to the US they came here for grad school. I think in a really good experience for me to kind of get that push from my parents.

I think as I got older transitioned to starting to explore what I was interested in from a learning perspective and that I think was a big unlock for me as well and led me to found Juni because my dad was my first tutor, but he sat down with me and spent the time that I needed to get ahead. I think that our parents are always there to provide us with that support, but also it’s challenging.

Bryan: (00:03:01) I think hindsight 2020 when you are going through all of that as kids there’s like, why are you so hard on me about academics but when you’re finally adult and you look back, you’re like, wow they gave me a lot of skills that I use still use today.

With entrepreneurship, you draw upon like all experiences you had in your life how to help you get to the next level and I want to dive deeper into that for a little bit. What type of experience did you have growing up and, what type of experience did you have in your previous work experience that prepare you for what you’re facing today?

Vivian: (00:03:52) I think that my K-12 experience influenced me to a certain extent.  The boss boxes, which I find that you do in running a company as well. You need to have like all of these kinds of foundational things that companies try to offer and there were sort of literally basic things like how do you send an email? How do you sell to a customer? I think the X factor on top of that is the resilience that you get from coming from an immigrant family.

Being a startup founder is all about getting knocked down and getting back up again every single time. I think my parents have instilled that from it, in me from a young age. And how had we held a high standard for myself, which I think keeps me going and on the flip side I have very high expectations of myself? It kind of keeps me going forward and pushing on making the company as great as it can be.

Bryan: (00:06:05) Let’s dive deep into the nuances of the lessons learned. What did you learn during your startup experience that started you down the path of “about I become a founder and I want to create some that I’m passionate about and turn that into reality” What kind of lessons were learned?

Vivian: (00:06:42) There is so much about founding a company that’s more than what’s the real true minimum viable product. I was different from when I was at Google, every small change that you made could impact potentially millions of people losing access to Gmail. That was a big learning for me from a startup versus when I was at a big company. I also think people management and team culture was one where, when you go to a bigger company that’s already kind of imposed on you top-down. When you’re at a smaller company, you’re still defining the future of the company with everybody else.

Every additional hire can sort of shift the center of culture for the company as well, depending on what kind of a person they are. I think that I underestimated that when I was at a really big company because every new person is not going to change the culture.

When I was first starting Juni, that was a big consideration for us. Who did we want to be in those first couple of seats and on an ongoing basis as well and when we bring in new folks, there’s still such an outsized impact that they have on the team.

Maggie: (00:08:38) I mean, the first couple of people that you bring on, they do determine like the culture and just the work ethic because your personality seeps into the company or the organization that you have run. So the first couple of people are always very critical but yeah, let’s talk about when you were starting Juni because I know that when you were working at your startup you jumped right into it. What was that experience like and was any challenges that you had and possible imposter syndrome that you had and like what was going through your mind?

Vivian: (00:09:38) I’ve always sort of been like a burn, the ship’s type of mentality, which is that I think it’s quite hard to have your feet in two places. I think there are a lot of people who are excellent at it. I’m just not one of those people. At the time the last startup that I was at was shutting down and I sort of had to parallel process whether I was going to interview at other companies or start my venture.

I think that was in June 2017 and almost like the week or so after my debt self-imposed deadline we got into Y Combinator, which I think was a big source of like validation for us. But even before that, we had had a few customers, like I was handing out flyers for the product itself and just really trying to get out in front of as many people as possible. That was a source of initial validation that I needed.

Bryan: (00:12:37) That’s amazing. I mean, shout out to Juni Learning!

Vivian: (00:13:07) I mean, to your point, like everybody has a very different learning style and that’s, I think that it’s, it all kind of ties back because growing up my style was very different. Like I was a kid who would get like an 89.7% in the class and try to get that rounded up to an A- and other kids are like really struggle or they were always trying to get a 100% and you just have quite a different persona of people and what they resonate with. I know that project-based learning typically works for everybody and that’s why we focused on that. I think my mom tried to sign me up for a C++ class in high school and it was like a full day just to get the environment set up on your computer and then every time you reload back in, you had to reset up a bunch of stuff and you didn’t kind of focus on like the core logic of actual programming. You were so busy trying to set up your computer every single time. I remember that was like a huge barrier for me and I’m never going to use this. So, I refused to take this class, and then when I was in college. I took my first coding class in college, and it was very difficult. I wish I had just stuck with it when I was a little younger or that the intro that’s more productive the first time.

Bryan: (00:15:04) Let’s talk a little bit more about the early days of Juni because you mentioned that you jumped in with two feet to make it happen. Let’s talk about like the pressure and the financial struggle at the beginning, because this is the part that gets to a lot of early-stage founders. How did you structure it in a way where not only are you building a strong company but able to pay yourself in the process?

Vivian: (00:16:07) It’s really interesting because I had worked in some relatively well-paying jobs and they had very clear career trajectories. That’s not the case with being an entrepreneur, you can make nothing for a very long period, and then hopefully that turns into way more and it compounds.

Being an entrepreneur hopefully means that what you’re building compounds over time, and it kind of has like an exponential impact on your financial situation. But that initial period where you’re flat zone before it goes to exponentials. So I had a little bit saved up that was also part of the reason why I set that time box for myself in these six months, like, I’m going try to make this work because I don’t think I can afford to do this for that much longer if I still want to have the savings.

Maggie: (00:18:29) I mean as you know, Bryan and I just running Asian Hustle Network, we understand the first year or so. As an entrepreneur, you start to wonder like, should I be paying myself? How much should I be paying myself? Should I go back to the company? It’s extremely hard.

Bryan: (00:18:56) You have to keep a positive mindset too.

Vivian: (00:19:11) That’s one of the scariest things is like, you don’t know if you’re standing on it. It’s like, it is like climbing a mountain, and then all the mountains also kind of look the same while you’re climbing those. Do you don’t know if you’re climbing a mountain or a molehill and you also like can kind of see the other people who are climbing the mountain as well?

They always look like they’re ahead of you and once you pass somebody, you don’t think about it. The fact that you’ve like passed somebody or you’re, you’re doing like you’re at a higher camp and then that next person you’re always kind of like, never feeling like you’re, you’ve made it yet. Um, right.

I think even like incredibly successful founders feel like they’re still not at the top of the mountain.

Bryan: (00:19:56) Let’s talk about your turning point too. What was the turning point of the journey where it’s like, yeah, it made it past my six months?

Vivian: (00:20:15) raising funding, that’s a like a very real point where I am like “okay, I am the responsible for other people’s capital”. Other people have entrusted me with this so that was a big shift. Towards the end of 2017 and then we raised a little more money in the first half of 2018. Some people are expecting things out of us.

Maggie:  (00:21:42) You are building something so remarkable and I can say that you’re changing lives as you mentioned, like everyone’s learning style is so different and some people don’t learn well in settings where they’re in a classroom. There’s not a lot of like a one-on-one interaction with their teacher and I think a lot of parents feel the same way. Teachers don’t give that tender, loving care to every single student, because it’s just impossible.

I think in the last article that I read about Juni, you guys were teaching about 50,000 live classes to kids 8 to 18. I’m not sure how much that number has changed now, but, um, you know, just like growing from 20 employees to nearly 60, and then you have 300 student instructors. I kind of want to know the process of what that looks like. If someone wanted to teach for Juni, or if you were looking for an instructor to teach a class for Juni, what does that process kind of look like internally?

Vivian: (00:22:53) It’s a thorough process, I would say, but it’s interesting because we look for folks with subject matter expertise. I think, is so much more important to students who are at that age, where they get to decide if they love something and have it become their thing. That’s like such a key moment for kids and so for us. How can we spark more of those moments and how can we get kids thinking about what they want to do in the real world after school and get them prepared.

We try to expose students to a bunch of different teaching styles, subjects, and projects that they could work on and kind of like get the feel for what they’re excited about. They can double down on that as well and I think what you mentioned as well about that human experience of getting the support that you need is so critical. We expect some level of the subject matter expertise, but it’s more about do you have that drive to support students.

Maggie:  (00:25:53) That’s amazing. It’s so awesome to hear if it’s e-learning classes and courses to have that level of attention and for the instructors to know exactly where they are at, where the student is at in terms of their learning experiences.

Vivian: (00:26:41) I appreciate it. I wanted to share this story because I know y’all were asking a little bit about my experience growing up. When I was in high school, I was getting a C- in my math class, which we know is not a good thing to be doing. It was the honors class and I wanted to drop down a lane to the regular class and my dad was like, absolutely not. He sat with me for, I think it was like a month or two and he made me do every problem in the textbook front to back and extra problems as well. Then at the end of the tunnel, when we were done, I was like six months to a year ahead of whatever we were doing in school.

Feel lost and they feel like they’re not good enough to do something because it’s just about staying committed, like trying different things out if you do your best and you’re still just not for you like you’re not going to be an engineer. That’s okay. But there are some like foundational things that you should try and you should hopefully get the love and support of, um, you know, instructor to, to get you to love the subject as well.

Maggie:  (00:30:15) I love that story too and you bring up a great point because I feel like oftentimes there’s so much pressure, especially with Asians that if we think we’re not good at something, then it’s our fate. If we’re not good at math, maybe I’m not meant to be in this. But usually, it’s just because we don’t have the opportunities to learn more about it or the opportunity to dive into that subject more. If the opportunity was in front of us, we, even if like, it wasn’t meant for us, could at least know the fundamentals, the foundational stuff.

I think you bring up a great point and I love that story, my parents also kind of like forced me to learn math as well. I think all Asian parents did.

Maggie: (00:35:16) How do you view competition and what do you see as like the biggest differentiator for Juni learning compared to the others?

Vivian: (00:35:51) Yeah, that’s a great question., I’m very excited that the pie has gotten bigger for everybody like when we started the company in 2017, what was the market size? Does this exist for parents who want this for kids? All of those questions, I think are shelved to a certain extent. That’s been very exciting it means more folks in this space want a piece of that pie.

Bryan:  (00:37:48) I want to dive more personally on a personal level, as we view you as someone that every strong leader knows herself well, but we know that the founder’s journey is very rough and very tough.

And a lot of times we’re looking in the mirror and be like, man, I’m so lonely. If I can do this, you feel yourself with doubt. How do you take care of yourself and how do you take care of your mental health in particular? Because I feel like this is a topic that is still not talked about enough. And just to hear that from the found spirits to give us a sense that we’re not in this journey alone, and there’s a lot of people going through the same things that we are going through. So how do you take care of your mental health and, daily?

Vivian: (00:38:38) I was debating this with one of, my friends. I went to a therapist for probably two years when I was in college and at a certain point, I sort of just said, you know what? I can’t keep reopening scabs and I just, this isn’t working for me. I think that folks need external resources, but it can be very different for different people. Like I just found that sort of like traditional therapy was not very helpful.

For me, it’s very much like the daily ups and downs of the business, that’s where I think. The most tired. That’s why kind of having that kind of a support system works the best, obviously like investors as well are very vested in the company doing well, but they’re also there for you to get support from.

I think that’s one thing that people don’t talk about enough with investors. They’re buying a piece of your company and they share in the success and the failure of the company as well so they want to be there for you and you should use them as a resource.

Maggie:  (00:41:15) I mean, we all need a support system and help at the end of the day and sometimes it’s hard for founders and entrepreneurs to admit that we need help because oftentimes when people ask us, Hey, how’s the business going? We often like to say, everything’s perfect and everything’s going well. Sometimes we just need someone who understands for us to talk about all the nuances and things we’re going through. So that’s great advice.

Bryan:  (00:42:47) I think setting boundaries is really important.

Maggie:  (00:43:44) What is your goal for Juni Learning for the next five years?

Vivian: (00:43:55) Our vision is that we teach every student everything, wherever they are, whatever format they need. We just have a world where all these kids, can make their mark on the world. It’s just been incredible. I think the impact that the students can have on the world too and for me, if we can facilitate more and more of those kids coming out into the world and, and being those kinds of change-makers, um, that, that would be a success.

I am very excited about that and obviously, we’re very blessed because we can work for a company that is a big business. At the same time, have that dual impact of making something great for people. I just love it.

Maggie:  (00:45:07) We have one last question for you, Vivian, and that is if you could give to an aspiring entrepreneur. What would that one piece of advice be?

Vivian: (00:45:20) I think being a founder is all about sales. And so I highly recommend for folks to take a sales class. I think that’s very true for anybody starting their own company but at the same time you build so much resilience so quickly because so much happened so fast. I remember the first time something bananas happened, and I had to send an email at like two in the morning to fix something.

I was like, oh my God, I don’t even know how I dealt with that. And then now if something like that happens, you just become battle-worn and you can do it. You can take it.

Vivian: (00:47:46) That’s why having a mission that you care about is so important.

Maggie:  (00:48:28) You do have to be passionate and know what is the reason why you’re waking up every single morning. So we are wrapping up now and thank you so much for just being on this podcast and sharing your story with us, Vivian. I want to let our listeners have the opportunity to find out more about you. So where can they find out more about you and Juni Learning online?

Vivian: (00:48:50) You can find me on Twitter. [in the show notes]

Maggie:  (00:49:19)Thank you so much, Vivian. It was amazing having you on our podcast and for you to share your story with us today.