Corporate Q&A

Chinese lessons

Tech powers growth of Mandarin tuition firm


The Chinese idiom yan zhi you wu means there should be substance in people’s words. In the commercial context that lesson has underpinned the business model of Finance Mandarin over the past two decades. The Hong Kong-based firm teaches international executives how to use the correct terminology in Chinese when doing business in areas like the capital markets.

Here the company’s founder and CEO Vienne Lee talks to WiC about the rising interest she is seeing in the learning of ‘professional’ Mandarin.

You founded Finance Mandarin more than 20 years ago. What gave you the idea to set up the business back then?

When we started the business in 1998, I already had connections with bankers, lawyers and other financial professionals in the capital markets. Following the Hong Kong handover, a lot of expat professionals expressed more interest in learning Chinese and understanding China so that they could win a bigger market share. So we thought why not create tailor-made courses on IPOs, M&A or the debt capital markets for them?

We started up with a B2B model, targeting investment banks and law firms, providing one-to-one and in-house training for their employees. Of course we have gone through a lot of ups and downs over the past two decades but I think if we understand the needs of our clients and keep providing the training solutions that they need, then this is a sustainable business.

You knew your target clients were financial professionals from the beginning. Has your customer base changed over the years?

At Finance Mandarin our client base is still mostly business executives and buy-side and sell-side professionals in the capital markets. However, we get more younger students now, including people who have just graduated from business school or who are working as interns in investment banks. Before getting job offers they come to us to prepare themselves on how to do roadshows in Chinese – like talking about valuations or financial modelling – and how to talk in ways that wins the trust of Chinese clients.

We even help younger people to prepare for job interviews. Therefore, we can say that our new clients are getting younger and our renewing clients are getting older, which is a good thing, as they are moving into more senior positions as they get older. Some of our clients started as analysts but they are now managing directors or even partners.

How do you structure your programmes? What would a typical Finance Mandarin module look like?

Finance Mandarin courses are designed with linguistic and job-related content, plus market intelligence about China. Every module is well-prepared and handy to use.

We have 18 financial modules in total, on topics such as asset management, IPOs, M&A, private banking, credit ratings and so forth. However, if the students need tailor-made courses on topics such as biotech, real estate, e-commerce or music apps, we can also accommodate them.

How about courses on China’s cultural, social or even political backgrounds? Are they popular?

This is actually a very important aspect of our programme and why we have been working with Week in China to provide more macro, social and historical understanding to our students.

We are the experts in linguistics and designing the curriculum and content on financial markets knowledge. However, we also work with external experts to give our students something that’s not exactly in the market.

China’s political landscape is actually one of our signature courses, thanks to WiC’s speakers. You have helped us with content in areas like Chinese history, the development of the reform era and the key themes in current affairs. We have also designed modules that focus on China’s different historical stages such as Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy and Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Finance Mandarin is co-hosting a webinar with WiC on China’s Five-Year Plans on November 24. We are also co-hosting a webinar with Dr Wei Yen on cross-cultural management and leadership styles.

We believe people come to Finance Mandarin because they are ‘long’ China on the business side. They want to understand China better, not just the linguistics because a translator can help with that, but also by really connecting with their Chinese stakeholders. In doing that, understanding things like Chinese history or the government’s mentality is also very important too.

What are some of the most popular topics requested by your clients at the moment?

In recent months we have had students express interest in biotech, particularly vaccine development in China. ESG (environment, social and governance) is another big topic. We have people who are interested in areas like impact investment and green finance. Apart from providing one-on-one courses, we also held two events on ESG recently, attracting more than 300 attendees.

The China-US relationship, Ant Group’s IPO and the government’s new policy on the ‘dual circulation’ economy are also hot topics right now.

A lot of students know that subjects such as China’s Five-Year Plans are important. But they don’t know much about why they are significant or what the key features are. So besides teaching the language, we bring in related resources to help them better understand the issues and backgrounds. That’s why we often recommend articles published by WiC, which can improve their understanding.

How are you applying technology to your teaching programmes?

We have invested a lot in technology in the last two or three years. When we first started out we had some students who relocated from Hong Kong to other countries who wanted to keep learning. We also started to attract students from Singapore, New York and London. So we had to provide remote learning via simple technology. Since we stepped up the digital learning programmes in 2018, Finance Mandarin has created 18,000 hours of online content, covering over 336 case studies in IPOs and M&A deals. This diverse material can be used by our corporate clients for their internal group training.

We have about 100 tech learning features embedded in our platform. We describe it as an ‘assets and liabilities’ approach to vocabulary. Just as commercial businesses have profit and loss, linguistics learning has a P&L too. Vocabulary mastered becomes an asset. For example, today you’ve learned the word 投資 which means ‘investment’, and that word becomes your asset. However, the next day you forget it and you need to look it up in our dictionary again, that will become your liability.

On our backend we can see how many words our students have learned (or forgotten) from the flash cards and favourites lists. Vocabulary then becomes a more tangible thing and our AI can help us and the student keep better track and measure progress. It can also show the kind of topics that are being studied most, as well as testing pronunciation via voice recognition technology or testing reading comprehension too.

We cover all four domains of language acquisition but our main emphasis is on speaking and listening as they are more practical for students wanting to communicate better with Chinese clients and colleagues.

Has the recent backlash against China in parts of the Western world had a negative impact on enthusiasm for learning Chinese?

We did see some expats leaving Hong Kong recently but the total number of students has been going up steadily. In our early years, we may have had 10 to 20 students at each corporate client, but now it can be 100 to 300 within a single company. Over the past 10 years we have also seen more competitors come into our space, which means the cake is getting bigger, or else we wouldn’t see so many new service providers.

Finance Mandarin’s client base is expanding not only because of growing interest but because of the quality of our programme and how it makes learning language easier. Originally, it was limited to Hong Kong but now through technology we can expand to other financial hubs where we don’t necessarily have a physical presence. We have students learning remotely from New York, London, Singapore and more recently India and Pakistan. One commonality of our clients is that they are all ‘long’ China in a business sense.

Has the pandemic had an impact on teaching quality, given you have to rely more on e-learning?

Finance Mandarin started out as a high-end training consultancy, so personalised service was our key focus and sweet spot. However, in developing e-learning, we have made sure that the quality of our programme is maintained. We ask our students if they see any discrepancies or gaps in remote learning. But the general answer is no – and some even prefer it as it’s more flexible and time-efficient.

Our investment in technology has also paid off as it allows us to maintain all the content and soundtracks online. It makes the business more scalable and we hope to make pricing more affordable and the programmes more standardised. This should help us to attract younger students, as well as more students from less developed markets.

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