The ABCs of Making a Difference

Categories: Entrepreneurship

As a child, Vu Van’s parents opened her young eyes to the exciting possibilities in life by paying attention to her passion and efforts.

“They encouraged me to look for something new that nobody had ever done before,” Vu Van said. The now CEO and co-founder of ELSA (English Language Speech Assistant) Speak later turned her creative ideas into “the world’s smartest A.I. assistant for pronunciation training and accent reduction.” To this day, ELSA has over a million users. 

In the beginning, her dream was simple – she wanted to make a difference. 

Back in her hometown of Vietnam, her dad set up the biggest bottled water company in the region. Meanwhile, her mom opened the first supermarket in their area. 

“It had a line around the block for weeks after it first opened,” she shared. Entrepreneurship was in her blood, and Vu Van had understood, early on, the value of taking risks.

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Vu Van worked for Maersk, a Danish shipping company. She learnt plenty, but eventually realized that this was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She longed for something else, something more. 

This longing led her to pursue her master’s degree at Stanford University, where she discovered her passion for education.

During her time at Stanford, she had difficulty speaking English fluently and confidently. This personal struggle eventually inspired her to create a software that would give everybody the freedom to speak up and be heard. She knew the difference it would make in the lives of people whose native language was not English.

While looking for a co-founder for her ELSA Speak idea, she started building a pilot with a friend. They competed at SXSWedu and won the startup competition in 2016. Within the first 24 hours after the win, more than 30,000 people had downloaded the app, a roaring success which caused every single one of their servers to crash. Since then, they have closed another two rounds of funding. 

Vu Van and her team at ELSA Speak are now helping millions speak and share their ideas without fear of being misunderstood or judged. Vu Van is not only living her dream of making a difference; she is also empowering more than a million English language learners from all walks of life so that they, too, can make a difference.


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