The term “ed-tech” seems to be quite the buzz these days. We’ve seen an explosion of ed-tech startups that encompasses everything from digital classroom smart boards to online collaborative learning platforms. Today, we had the opportunity to speak with Betty Hsu (WG14), co-founder of ProfessorWord. She has taken an innovative approach to personalized learning through doing things you already love to do – read the web.
Wharton Journal: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what ProfessorWord aims to achieve through education technology?
BH: My background prior to Wharton was in education, but not in ed-tech. I was an English teacher and then an educational consultant working with urban school districts on finance and strategy, but ed-tech was something I was always interested in. In my experience, I saw many students struggling with vocabulary, which is alarming because having a strong vocabulary is one of the most reliable predictors of a student’s future academic and career success. And so my boyfriend, a web developer, and I created ProfessorWord with the goal of helping students learn vocabulary as they read online.
WJ: How did you and your co-founder determine that this product and service was the best way to learn new words?
BH: Decades of research show that the only way for students to learn the estimated 75k words needed to read and write well as an adult is by reading from “a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts” (Common Core, 2010). But the challenge is that students today often don’t read enough, because too often they don’t find the content interesting. This means that they don’t acquire the vocabulary they need to succeed in life.
Existing vocabulary-building products don’t really help, because they still rely on old-school memorization-based techniques (i.e., memorizing flashcards, wordlists) that are less effective and that don’t promote long-term retention. ProfessorWord solves this problem by analyzing the content at top-quality websites and generating daily reading suggestions for students based on their interests, reading level, and vocabulary ability. We pair this content with tools that make it easy for students to learn vocabulary in context as they read online.
WJ: One very difficult problem in education is that everyone has various methods of learning and is motivated differently. How does ProfessorWord help keep students engaged and accountable for their own learning?
BH: That’s a great point. The importance of personalizing the learning experience for students is at the core of what we do. ProfessorWord reading subscriptions (currently in development) will be customized for students based on their interests, reading level, and the vocabulary words they need to learn. Students begin by taking a diagnostic test to determine their reading level and vocabulary ability and by indicating their interests (i.e., sports, video games). The premise is that if we can find interesting high-quality content in topics that the student cares about, it will encourage the student to read more, engage with the content more, and consequently help the student improve his or her vocabulary and literacy skills.
WJ: ProfessorWord was inducted into the 2012 Wharton Venture Initiation Program and the 2013 GoodCompany Ventures incubator – how have these programs helped you build your startup? What are some reasons why one might not consider applying to these programs?
BH: Both programs have been tremendously helpful. In terms of VIP, we are really grateful to be part of the amazing student entrepreneurship community at Wharton. Everyone is so supportive and helpful to each other, always willing to share time, resources, and connections. The GoodCompany Ventures program helps social entrepreneurs tackle their specific challenges, which is exactly what we needed last summer. It was a great experience and the program really helped us refine our idea and accelerate our progress. I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t apply to both programs! They both offer great resources, mentorship, and perhaps most importantly, a solid community of like-minded entrepreneurs who can provide you with the support and encouragement you need in your start-up adventure.
WJ: Effectively learning new words is only part of SAT success. Does ProfessorWord have plans to offer complementary products and services?
BH: Having a strong vocabulary is also highly correlated with reading comprehension ability, so we hope to eventually expand to help students improve literacy skills more broadly. But our first reading subscription, to be launched in 2014, will specifically help high school students learn vocabulary for the SAT/ACT. Over time, we hope to expand to serve other literacy needs as well as other student needs, including lower-performing students, middle schoolers, and English Language Learners both in the U.S. and abroad.
WJ: In social entrepreneurship, achieving both the social mission and financial success seems to be at odds. Assuming investors are also looking for both, are there lessons you’ve learned from pitching to investors or specific characteristics that they look for when investing?
BH: What I’ve learned is that achieving social impact and financial success can never be mutually exclusive. In any conversation with investors, even the most socially-minded investor, you have to recognize that talking about your social mission and financial success can never be an either/or question. Your primary focus always has to be on developing a business model with a reasonable path to financial success that can sustain you as bring about the desired social outcomes.
WJ: What have been the most challenging issues of being both a student and entrepreneur? Any advice you’d like to impart to aspiring entrepreneurs?
BH: The biggest challenge, like with anything at Wharton, is simply time management. There are so many things you want to do, both as a student and as an entrepreneur, and you often feel like you just never do enough on either front. I read somewhere once that “most people overestimate what they can do in one day but underestimate what they can do in one year.” That quote helps me a lot when I feel that I’m not achieving the right balance or I’m not making enough progress. So the only advice I would give is, don’t sweat the small stuff, just make sure you’re working towards what you really want, and have faith that things will work out!