It was 2007 when the Virginia native first visited China. He was fascinated by the country’s eclectic activity, from its unprecedented economic growth to its 5,000 year old culture and history. He planned to visit his older brother in Guilin, an iconic southern Chinese city famed for its mountains and rivers, for three short weeks. After only a few days of exposure to Mandarin and to the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, he extended for two months. By 2014, he had spent over five years on the ground in Guilin studying the language and building a business.
While studying in China in 2008 and 2009, Robbie recognized an opportunity to fill a much needed void in the study abroad space. The programs in which he had participated isolated foreign students into international dorms with their own dining halls and social circles. More concerning, the primary medium of communication was English. Students needed to proactively venture out of this bubble to actually acquire Mandarin. The program was setting students up for failure. Furthermore, the programs lacked clear organization and any semblance of personalization. Robbie decided to solve this dilemma through entrepreneurship. In March 2009, the Chinese Language Institute (CLI) was born with a $10,000 loan and a vision for a better way to study abroad in China.
Under Robbie’s leadership, CLI has enjoyed impressive growth each year since its founding and has since hosted over 1,000 students in China. In 2012, he raised funds to support a renovation of the company’s five story building in Guilin. Today, CLI employs over 40 people and manages operations of custom short-term education programs, similar to Wharton GIP, in South Africa, Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia, India, and China on behalf of US universities. In addition, CLI operates a Chinese language school in Guilin and semester in China programs for American undergraduates.
Robbie entered the Wharton School in 2014 to broaden his skill set and expose his mind to new ideas. This past summer, he ventured to Colombia on a quest to validate his pedagogical philosophy by learning Spanish, a language completely foreign to him, in a total immersion environment. These learnings, along with his Wharton studies, are being integrated into the CLI experience to enhance the effectiveness of the organization’s educational services and to continue scaling operations.
Acquiring a new language is far more accessible than many realize, and a host of studies demonstrate the long-term cognitive benefits of multilingualism. If approached strategically, proficiency in a new language can be achieved in a matter of months. Robbie’s work in China and around the world has made this truth more attainable to students worldwide. His entrepreneurship is testament to the opportunities we have as Wharton students to embrace meaningful global experiences, learn new languages, and carve out our own unique path.