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Vu Van

ELSA Speak

What were your early years like?
I grew up in a small town in central Vietnam. We didn’t have any big companies to work for, so many people started their own thing. Both my parents were entrepreneurial: My dad’s first enterprise became the biggest bottled water company in our region. My mom started the first bridal shop and then the first supermarket in our area. I remember, at around 7 years old, helping women pick out their wedding dresses and decorating the couples’ “just married” cars. My siblings and I would scan barcodes at the supermarket and put products on the shelves. Now there are many little supermarkets in our town, but ours was the first one — and it had a line around the block for weeks after it first opened.

How did seeing your parents’ entrepreneurial spirit influence you?
From a young age, I knew it was OK to take risks. Our parents didn’t praise us for our grades in school as much as for our passion and our efforts. They encouraged us to look for something new that nobody had ever done before. I think I learned that regardless of how successful you are, it’s important — and fun — to try to make a difference. My dream back then was to be a U.N. ambassador, because I wanted to explore the world and be the voice for a lot of people.

What led you to Strategy&?
I got my bachelor’s degree in international business and economics at the Foreign Trade University in Saigon. After graduation, I started working in the management training program for Maersk, a Danish shipping company, largely because of the opportunities to travel. In fact, after a few years, I moved to Copenhagen to be the CEO’s chief of staff. I learned so much in that role, and I absolutely loved that company. But eventually, I realized it wasn’t my passion to be in the shipping industry forever. The problem was that I didn’t know what I did want to do, so I decided to go to business school and take a couple of years to reflect.

Getting my MBA at Stanford really opened up a new world for me. I saw how much a good education can transform lives, and education became my passion. I ended up getting my master’s degree in education at the same time as my MBA. But I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I graduated. So I was thrilled to accept an offer from Strategy&. Consulting seemed like a great place to start exploring my options. I wanted to understand more about the whole economic ecosystem and how big companies work.

Any lasting lessons from your consulting career?
Consulting trained me to have a clear analytical mind-set. I learned how to build my own analysis, but also how to look at other people’s analysis and connect the dots. I learned the importance of asking the right questions to collect meaningful data. Each survey question should lead to actionable insights. That lesson has proven particularly valuable as we’ve done product development at ELSA Speak. My ability to figure out if others’ analysis is accurate has been critical in my role as a CEO. I also learned a great deal about leadership, which is important now as I manage a number of other people.

How did you build your own company, ELSA Speak?
After a few years at Strategy&, I knew I wanted to do something on my own and make a real impact. So I started brainstorming. At the time, I was fascinated by AI [artificial intelligence] and speech recognition. You might laugh, but I used to spend a lot of time every night before going to sleep just talking to Siri for fun. I started to wonder if I could do something more meaningful with technology like Siri and maybe help teach people English.

Why did you decide to focus on language proficiency?
Learning to communicate in English was one of my biggest personal challenges. At Stanford, I struggled to have my voice heard because I didn’t speak English fluently or confidently. A friend from Russia said he often felt like a little kid trying to speak — even though he had his Ph.D. He understood English, but he had a hard time speaking it.

Once I recognized the problem, I started exploring solutions. A speech therapist was absurdly expensive. YouTube and Netflix only offered one-way learning. And that didn’t work because after 8 years old, our ears cannot detect the difference in someone else’s pronunciation and our own pronunciation, especially for the styles that don’t exist in your own language. What you need is a speech therapist sitting there pinpointing to you, “Hey, you made this error or that error. This is what you did wrong and here’s how to do it right, with a muscle exercise like opening your mouth wider.” But what if we could build individual AI speech therapists that everybody in the world could access? That could help open up so many opportunities and make such a big impact. I thought that if more people could speak confidently in various languages, they could unleash their full potential and speak up. That’s how ELSA was born.

So how did your idea become reality?
Once I had the idea, I spent almost six months searching for a technical cofounder, who I ended up meeting at a conference in Germany about two years ago. In the meantime, I started building a pilot with one of my friends. Then, in 2016, we competed at South by Southwest, and we won the startup competition. That helped us quickly gain a lot of exposure. In fact, within the first 24 hours after they announced our win, we had more than 30,000 users on our app — which caused every single one of our servers to crash. That was stressful. But we got through it and, since then, we’ve closed two rounds of funding. Now we have a few million users around the world. That’s really rewarding.

What have you learned during the past two years?
It gets harder before it gets easier. The moment we got the money in, we had a lot of pressure to deliver in a very short time, and I was extremely busy. I thought, once we get our second round of funding, it’ll get easier. But nope, I’m just as busy. I travel a lot. Nearly 12 hours after my wedding, which is in a few weeks, I’ll be traveling again for almost a full month.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I really try to empower people and let my team run the show, with the knowledge that I’m there for them when they need me. Especially because we work remotely — I’m in San Francisco and my cofounder is in Portugal — I believe it’s very important to make my vision clear and try to get everyone excited about it. That’s my main job. Then I try to let the people on my team figure out their own priorities to help us achieve our big goals.

What advice would you offer to aspiring founders?
The founder’s journey can be long and lonely. This a job where you need to ask questions. Every single day, I’m doing a hundred different things that I’ve never done before. So my advice would be: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Line up as much support as possible. Lean on the colleagues and friends you trust in your communities and networks. People are so valuable.

This interview was conducted and edited by Jen Swetzoff, founder of CLOSEUP, a creative content studio in Brooklyn. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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