Tina Tran Neville is the CEO of Lana Learn, a startup focused on building economic opportunities and bridging cultural gaps for students of all ages from around the world.
Tell us about your company. What inspired you to start it?
Lana’s mission to connect the world with education technology, starting with English. Lana has developed a global online matching portal and user-friendly proprietary video conferencing dashboard to offer premium English leaning services. Lana currently operates in China, Vietnam, and Thailand, and plans to soon expand to the rest of Asia and Latin America. We were inspired to launch Lana during an October 2018 trip to Asia to expand our first company Transcend Academy, a college preparation service. We discovered an enormous unmet demand for English instruction. More than 2 billion people are learning English around the world at any given time, and there are not nearly enough local English teachers. As the appetite for the $325B global e-learning market is increasing, we found a timely window of opportunity for online English learning. Lana is 21st century solution to enhance the global education experience, increase economic prosperity, and improve culture understanding.
Who are your cofounders and what makes you a great team?
Founders Tina and Paul Neville are a married couple who met in 2007 as colleagues in the U.S Department of State. Both were U.S. Foreign Service Officers overseeing U.S. diplomatic education programs: Tina in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Iraq; and Paul in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Mexico, and Honduras. They went from work partners to married partners to business partners, combining their comparative strengths to accelerate the expansion of Lana. Tina is the visionary, educator, and sales wizard, while Paul is the strategy leader, organizer, and operational executer. Tina and Paul met Zhuo Shan in December 2018 and have worked with him over the past four months to build Lana’s splash page, video conferencing platform, and a text translation bot. The team knows each other intimately well, has great chemistry, and excels better together.
How is your company making a difference?
We seek to build economic opportunities and bridge cultural gaps for students of all ages from around the world. For our clients, improved English skills increases their academic, professional, and financial opportunities. Learning English, especially with American accents, offers them improved access to higher-paying jobs and entry into premium universities. Additionally, the interaction between Americans and foreign students promotes cultural exchange. Many of the lessons taught by U.S. teachers help tell the American story and reduce misperception and misinformation. Subsidized online English instruction can also increase opportunities for poor, unemployed, and disenfranchised youth who may be vulnerable to extremism in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Finally, Lana taps into the “digital economy” to contribute to U.S. job growth. Teachers can work part time from anywhere to supplement household income.
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
We currently face the challenge of determining when to fundraise. We have built the basic infrastructure of the business, but to satisfy expected demand we need to hire more staff (sales, technology, operations, marketing). To hire more staff, however, we need capital, but before we can get capital we need more traction. Additionally, doing business in China has been a challenge in terms of regulations and financial transactions. To overcome this hurdle, we are seeking strong local partners.
What is your biggest win?
Within two weeks of Lana’s service launch in March 2019, we connected online 89 students from five countries in Asia to North American English teachers. A partner in Thailand offered to connect Lana to 500 new users. We anticipated a soft launch, but the unexpected spike in demand required Lana slow accepting new sales and focus on finalizing technology, increasing operational capacity, and hiring teachers. It was a good problem to have. We proved that there is a strong market for our services. We are now finalizing technology and hiring staff and teachers to handle the expected demand. We anticipate 3,900 users by end of 2019 and 100,000 users by the end of 2020.
Who is your role model?
I am inspired by the story of Amy Nelson, the founder of the Riveter, who built a nationally acclaimed “female forward” coworking space. We were an early client in their first location in Capitol Hill and have seen it rapidly grow over the past year. Amy is an effective executive and an inspiring leader. She is not only a successful entrepreneur, she is also a rising leader in women empowerment and a strong voice in family-first values (she built her business with four children under the age of four years old).
What do you wish you had known before starting your company?
Diverse teams make for successful results. The differences between my cofounder husband Paul and me have made for a stronger team. I am a Vietnamese immigrant from an entrepreneurial family with a deep passion for education. I bring a global perspective, creativity, and desire for educational outcomes to our technology company. Paul is a fifth generation Washingtonian, comes from a family of engineers and accountants, and prized his prior career in the U.S. Department of State for its large-scale social impact. He brings precision, process, and big thinking to the company. Together, we make a great team, and I learn from him every day.
What is your CEO superpower?
My superpower is achieving results. When we have a goal or milestone at Lana, I enjoy the challenge of working with the team to continually balance and prioritize tasks until we get it done. Growing up as an immigrant, my parents faced immense challenges just to make a life for themselves in a new home. They were new to the United States; English was their second language; and they were raising six children. When met with a challenge, my mother’s motto was to “find a way” to make things work. I apply the same approach in Lana to great results.
What has been your experience with FFA?
Female Founders Alliance is an integral part of the Seattle community. I learned of the Female Founders Alliance through Create33, where I am a member.
Anything else you want people to know?
My life circumstance has taught me perseverance. When I was only three weeks old, my parents and I fled war-torn Vietnam and walked across Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia to Thailand. After two years in a refugee camp, we arrived to the United States with only $5 to our name. I attended the University of Tulsa, where I was the first member of my family to go to college. After attending Yale University for a Master degree in International Affairs, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service and served in Vietnam, Iraq, and Pakistan. In my second career, I launched Transcend Academy, a national college preparation service that won Washington DC’s 2018 Best Education Service award. Today, I am proud to be recognized as an industry leader in education technology and an emerging voice advocating women in entrepreneurism in Seattle. In July 2019, I had the honor of being awarded as one of the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 business leaders.