Van Dinh Hong Vu, since her earlier days, has embraced her family’s firm beliefs that education could transform people’s lives and shape their future. That one belief made her perform as the top student at the Foreign Trade University of Ho Chi Minh city, a fluent speaker of three languages, and a familiar face at the United Nations Conference (Australia), the International Economics Students Forum (Germany), etc. It also shaped her determination to improve education, which in turn initialized her present-day brand.
Vu had spent considerable time “exploring” her quest for true passion before courageously leaving behind her dream jobs at world-renowned corporations, and setting foot on a rocky road. After three years working in Denmark, she left Maersk – an integrated logistics company with offices spanning across 136 countries with a total headcount of 89,000, despite being the first Asian to work as an assistant to the General Manager, among other career advancement.
It came to her senses that working hard to advance on the career ladder did not define the happiness and experience she was truly seeking. “At that time, I had no idea about my passion, but I knew, if I stayed at Maersk, I would become too comfortable with myself, and sooner or later, gave up on seeking my true passion”, Vu said.
Vu moved to the United States with an MBA scholarship in Business Management at Stanford Business School. Some questions kept lingering in her mind, “what is truly important to me”, “how to find the courage to follow my passion”… In her words, ”To me, the opportunity to study at Stanford have changed me and brought me a dream to carry home a part of this extraordinary educational system”. Therefore, she decided to pursue a Master’s in Education at Stanford Graduate School of Education, to deep dive into educational ideas, and philosophy, as well as gain insights from her professors and educators.
That very education-led passion pushed Vu to leave her position as Senior Project Management Officer at Booz & Company – one out of the Top Four US-based leading consulting firms, to found her own company, an AI-based learning solution which is known to the world as ELSA Speak. In fact, this established idea had been there since Vu took her first step on the US soil, feeling shocked at failing to get her ideas across with her English accent. Her flawed pronunciation caused some people struggle. This sabotaged her confidence, both in class and at job interviews. Fortunately, she received much help from an American friend who corrected any error in her pronunciation for 6 months in a row. “Thankfully, my English improved and then I could speak English naturally the way I speak Vietnamese. I hope everyone can have a friend like mine. Then technology can bring experiences comparable to having an expert”.
Vu observed how voice recognition was adopted in multiple fields, particularly in global language teaching. “If I could do it, this would create a phenomenon to the global English learners’ community, and this is why I started studying this technology and then developed ELSA”.
A journey with ELSA, to Vu – an educator, was indeed a journey of “finding a needle in the haystack”. Challenge presented in every step, from finding partners to achieving tech experts’ cooperation and consultation. Talents in the field of artificial intelligence and voice recognition are unimaginably rare, and only “giants” like Microsoft, Google, Apple can afford them. It took her countless visits to convince her professor – a leading export in voice recognition, who had turned down offers from many Tech Giants – to join her in a life-changing journey. Vu recalled, “He said I was so desperate and needed help”.
Additionally, the Tech Giants had spent a better part of a decade on R&D in voice recognition, thus, “It was not advisable to start from zero and waste time only to improve existing products, especially if the team was lacking human resources and financial support. Therefore, testing out new ways to build an innovative product within a short period, roughly 3 years, was what we decided to do.”, said Vu.
In the beginning, Vu took advantage of existing technologies such as Google API to develop ELSA. However, Google’s voice recognition is considerably tolerant of mistakes. It can understand and perform the command correctly even though that command is incorrectly uttered. It provides convenience in daily lives but presents a barrier to language learning. Vu states that the only function ELSA made use of was recognizing mispronounced words, or something that “sounds foreign”. ELSA team decided to develop an entirely new algorithm, and a vast database, creating an exclusive technology that could recognize errors and offer corrections to the syllable level.
“I could not count how much difficulty or how many updates and changes we made. It let me down sometimes, but giving up was not an option. Our team never failed to believe that our product would soon be widely adopted,” Vu shares.
ELSA’s Co-founder and CEO said with affirmation, “Investors around the world, especially here in Silicon Valley, hold a proverbial big bag of money and are always in search of great ideas and wonderful teams. What challenges you is not how to approach the fund, but rather how to prove that your ideas and products are worthy of it.” Since the beginning, ELSA attracted many investors with its unique tech-based product – providing solution to over 1.5 billion English learners, and its dedicated team.
Gradient Ventures, Google’s AI-focused venture fund, led a $7 million Series A round for Elsa. “ELSA provides language learning in a fun, accessible way to a quickly expanding population of users that get to see the difference in their personal and business lives. We are impressed with their technology and team, especially their growth in recent years. We are excited to see their next success stories.”, said Zachary Bratun-Glennon, Partner at Gradient Ventures.
Additionally, Monk’s Hill and SOSV, ELSA’s venture fund in the former series, continued to fund this series as a recognition of ELSA’s technology and team, as well as its potential to be a “Tech Unicorn”. To date, ELSA has successfully secured USD12 million through funding rounds held in Silicon Valley and Asia.
ELSA is virtually the only pronunciation-focused application. With advancing technologies and expanding users’ data, ELSA’s voice recognition and error detection technologies will be further perfected. Van Dinh Hong Vu boasted ELSA’s explosive growth in 2018 with a 350% year-over-year increase in the number of learners. The new capital flows will appeal to AI engineers and computer scientists; and help ELSA explore additional markets such as Japan, Indonesia, and India. By the end of 2019, ELSA had introduced new features to foster community-based learning and built more advanced AI capabilities. This helps learners review and practice various speaking aspects, such as rhythm and intonation, consolidating their overall speaking performance.
Van Dinh Hong Vu and ELSA were recognized by Forbes as one of the 4 companies utilizing Artificial Intelligence to change the world, and was ranked in the Top 5 AI Apps, along with Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Google Allo. These accomplishments launched Vu to the list of Ten Outstanding Vietnamese Young Faces of 2018.
Source: Tien Phong Online