Regular readers of Week in China may recall some of Olivia Halsall’s articles over the past few years. Many of them focused on China’s private tutoring industry and her own experiences of working in that once high-growth industry in Shanghai.
Of course, much changed last year when the sector was hit by a regulatory review that destroyed the valuations of the listed edtech firms. By then Olivia had already decided to try her own thing, still principally targeting Chinese students but from a new base in the UK.
In this diary she recounts some of the ups and downs of growing her new company OLEA over the past 12 months. She addresses the impact of the regulatory crackdown in China (and how she feels it aligns with OLEA’s approach to education rather than conflicting with it); talks about the impact of the Covid lockdown in Shanghai; and explains why some of the most positive feedback she got from customers related to figuring out how to incorporate Alipay and WeChat Pay into her company’s payment system.
I’ve been itching to launch my own business since I was a teenager, but it took me a decade to settle on something. After years of tutoring to prop up my writing activities financially, followed by a Masters at Cambridge (during which I authored the WiC column “Olivia’s Cambridge Diary’”) and a stint in Dubai tutoring UHNW families, I found a niche offering 21st century, skills-based ‘mentorships’ to teenagers, largely from China.
However, starting an education business with next to no students seemed to overstep the boundaries of bravery into outright stupidity. All I had were a few WeChat contacts from my time studying in Beijing and working in Shanghai, as well as a robust reputation for supporting Chinese students during my time at Cambridge.
But I also had conviction and confidence that, over time, I could raise my new firm OLEA above the saturated market in private education to produce something new and of value.
Attaining a level of English fluency is, according to the majority of mainland Chinese parents, a necessity for their kids. Parents will go to extraordinary lengths to help their child get an edge on their peers, with a survey of 4,000 parents concluding that 92% enrol their children into extracurricular activities. My first article for WiC, for instance, compared the educational marathons embarked upon by a pair of Shanghai-based toddlers from two different economic backgrounds.
Then came Beijing’s ‘double reduction’ policy last year, which sought to squash neijuan 内卷 or “involution” – the extreme sense of competition in the education sector. For many firms (think New Oriental) this was a disaster. But for me it meant that private tutoring could finally, and thankfully, start to shift its focus.
The Western equivalent of the “rat race”, neijuan is comprised of the characters ‘nei’ 内 “inside” and ‘juan’ 卷 “rolling” to illustrate something spiralling in on itself. My best friend from China – whom I met at Cambridge – calls it “useless competition”.
Being a UK-registered company, OLEA could, in theory, provide rigorous English language programmes online for students night and day, bringing their fluency to near-native levels. But this would be a grim undertaking; students would probably be miserable and I’d be exhausted. OLEA would only have fuelled ‘involution’ yet further.
Beijing’s ‘double reduction’ policy has been a blessing, inspiring me to create OLEA with more of a tangping 躺平 or “lying flat” spirit.
Tangping was coined as a phrase by disillusioned young professionals, exhausted by working for a quality of life they deem unattainable. With a swelling population of elderly people in China, someone has to pay for it. And yet, remove the political elements of tangping and you have a meaning closer to “prioritising peace and tranquillity of the body and soul”.
So, yes, OLEA classes are delivered in English, and yes, there is a strong focus on written and oral expression, communication skills, and academic enrichment. But the real focus is on helping to develop well-rounded individuals who are confident, curious and compassionate. OLEA’s mentoring style intersects the boundaries of an elder sibling and an academic tutor. Excessive competition and its minions of anxiety, fear and stress have no place at OLEA.
Summer saw me deliver over a hundred hours of one-to-one mentorship. Initially, I couldn’t escape the desired focus on English. Parents were expecting long vocabulary lists and essay tutorials. Instead, they saw their children produce colourful mind maps in answer of questions like “What colour is happiness?”. It wasn’t for everyone, but for people who saw the value in my curriculum, and who were open-minded about a novel style of education, they were excited.
September was relatively quiet as my summer students settled back into the academic year and became overwhelmed with talk of exams and assessments.
That is, until my Shanghai-based mentor and the father of one of my students called me to ask whether I could design a residential programme for his daughter and her friend, who attend the same boarding school.
“I want my daughter to gain academic enrichment like nothing else. Take the girls to museums, to the countryside, to famous landmarks. Engage them with your Cambridge peers and read inspirational books with them.”
The first OLEA Residential was born. The initial course was in Whitstable for three days, then in Cambridge for a fortnight, and then in Mayfair for another three-day session. I got to know both girls well, which meant tailoring academic mentoring to suit their learning styles, personal interests and even personality types. Looking back, I am unsure how I was able to continue mentoring my China-based students from 6am until 1pm on weekends while the delivering OLEA Residential programmes.
The average day would start with small-group mentorship, including reading comprehension, vocabulary games or creative writing exercises. Then we might go for a walk in a natural setting before coming back for lunch at home, which was usually a quaint AirBnB.
In the afternoon, students would take OLEA Masterclasses which are designed and delivered by Oxbridge alumni. In the evening, we might socialise over board games, make pizzas or play scrabble. The idea: an academic home away from home.
I had agreed to run an OLEA Residential for a month over Christmas, before collapsing with exhaustion mid-January, which prompted my move back to Cambridge where I could revive my social life and meet with other young entrepreneurs.
I was also struggling with shipments of my OLEA Box to China. I would package worksheets in coloured envelopes, make creative writing exercises from brilliant works of literature, and design word games for my students. But they sometimes didn’t see the point.
One Mum said she couldn’t be bothered to chase the whereabouts of OLEA’s Box in the local logistics system as she felt that [working on] handwriting was a waste of time.
Henry Ford once said: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.”
But I chose to abort OLEA’s Box and my hybrid learning model for my Chinese students as it was too challenging. I’m not Henry Ford (yet).
Payments were another challenge as parents were having to ask friends with foreign bank accounts to pay their invoices for them. Alternatively, they would have to engage in the tedious process of going to the bank (in person) with their ID to make a transfer.
One mother called me to explain that I had to do something about this. Her tone mobilised me into action and after some research, I found a software company to help. My Chinese clients now pay their invoices directly through WeChat and Alipay. The new convenience was welcomed with more ‘rose’, ‘love heart’ and ‘hug’ emojis than I’ve ever received in my life.
My regular mentoring sessions were ticking over nicely, with a surge in referrals after Chinese New Year. Nearly 90% of my students come through word-of-mouth.
But then chaos hit. What was initially announced as a few days of lockdown turned into months of fearful shutdown. A 12 year-old student told me, fighting back tears, that an elderly neighbour had died as she couldn’t access medication. The same student told me he was increasingly anxious that he wouldn’t be able to get food either. Their building had set up a WeChat group to help distribute resources but not everyone had been playing ball. Pets were left to die as their owners were taken to communal Covid camps, with one Covid-worker even beating a left-behind Corgi to death.
Horrified, I resolved to help in whatever way I could. I ran a storytelling workshop for Chinese kids to take their minds off the lockdown, which was a lot of fun. However, a small minority were critical saying it wasn’t “serious” enough, with one Chinese friend telling me that offering it free was also a mistake” as parents would consider free education to be low in quality.
What a year it’s been. OLEA is thriving and the summer has seen an influx of mentorship requests. With a handful of Mentors on my books, I’ve been able to diversify the curriculum to offer physics, psychology and much in between. I am hoping to branch out from working exclusively with Chinese students as I look to spend more time in Europe and the Americas over the next year. Oh and I have a few little projects underway, so watch this space!
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