With more than 300,000 Chinese international students coming to the United States each year to pursue a college degree, it’s no surprise that the application process is becoming more and more rigorous for these students. Competition is constantly on the rise and as a result, many of these students turn toward outside resources to aide them throughout this process. Chinese education consulting agencies are one of the main sources for this guidance, however they often only act as a middleman to connect mentors with eager students without any consideration for fostering relationships. They overcharge students who will do anything to get accepted to their dream schools and they also underpay the mentors who actually put in the time and effort to help them.
Gulu, a startup co-founded by two Northwestern juniors Ann Yu and Danqi Liao, aims to solve this problem by providing a platform that helps students in China (mentees) find the perfect mentors to help them navigate and excel through the college application process. Gulu provides a direct channel of communication between mentors and mentees and eliminates the need for education consulting agencies. The Garage sat down with both co-founders to learn more about Gulu and their goals for the future.
Left: Ann Yu, Right: Danqi Liao
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What sparked the motivation for your startup?
Ann: “Our startup targets Chinese international students to help them gain access to resources throughout the college application process. My co-founder and I are both Chinese international students and we went through college applications with the help of Chinese education consulting agencies. We paid them a lot of money and they advised us through the college application process. But both of our experiences kind of sucked. We hated that agencies were in between the mentees and mentors. We really wanted to create something that would kick them out of the picture because all they provide is marketing and PR. Although they recruit the mentors, their process for assigning them to the students is inefficient and rushed. And they take at least half of what the student pays them. It’s pretty unfair.”
What is the problem you’re working on and what is your solution?
Ann: “I think the problem is that the industry of Chinese educational consulting agencies as a whole is very high-profit, but it does a poor job of pairing mentors and mentees because they work like a business or a big a corporation. They don’t care about relationships; all they care about are numbers and money. The other side and the bad thing for mentors is that they get paid less hourly while they do most of the work. I personally worked for three major college application consultant agencies in China. I got paid a lot, like $30/hour, but that’s still not even half of what students pay the consulting agencies to help them even though I was the one doing all of the work. And the students who sign up for the services don’t have a chance or opportunity to look through all the available mentors. They just get assigned one from the agency. We want to provide freedom, autonomy and transparency when making that decision. Our plan is to design a mobile app and create a community that is interested in or currently studying abroad. So for example, if you’re a student in China, you would go on our app and sign up as a mentee and you can browse through all the students who are studying a particular university like Northwestern or UChicago. You can be like “Oh, I’m interested in your experience! Can you help me write my essay?” And you would directly pay the mentor. In this way the mentees can pay less while the mentors receive all the money.”
How did you choose the name Gulu? What was the process like?
Ann: “We started with Guru, because it implies you’re the master of something and we like to think that everyone can master a subject and be someone’s mentor. But then we realized a software company already had the name Guru. So we decided maybe we should use something that doesn’t mean anything but still sounds like Guru. So we just changed the R to an L and created Gulu.”
Who’s on the team right now?
Ann: “I’m a junior studying philosophy and computer science and my co-founder Danqi, is a junior studying computer science. We currently have two teams, a software development team and a marketing team. There are two computer science majors who are on the software development team. Zilun will be working full-time and Jennifer will be working part-time. On the marketing team we have Kate who will be working full-time and she is currently a junior at UPenn, studying Econ, Philosophy and Political Science (PPE). Our last two members are both high school students, one will be going to Claremont McKenna College and the other will be attending Wesleyan and they will be working remotely. I actually met them through college application consulting services and I mentored both of them during their college application process and and we’ve kept in touch ever since.”
What has been your biggest failure so far and what have you learned from it?
Ann: “I don’t know, I feel like we haven’t succeeded in anything yet to be honest. So far, failure is a normal state of life. We are currently trying to write the app but everyone is really busy. We have a five hour working session every week where we just sit there and learn iOS coding but it’s a huge time commitment for our members who are taking computer science classes. So that’s the biggest struggle. Hopefully we will get it done before summer so we will have a prototype to work with.”
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Ann: “I think when someone is creating and leading a team, one thing you need to think about is the quality of the team. I feel like a lot of student groups on campus are facing the same issue. Many of them are really big, but no one is actually doing anything. I feel like the key for a team is that the size of the team doesn’t matter. What’s important is how dedicated the members are, how interested they are in the mission of the company, and how well they work with each other. Teamwork and the social fit are also really important because you have to see your team members 24/7 so you need to get along with them.”
When did you first feel the entrepreneurial spirit?
Ann: “ If I could define ‘thinking entrepreneurially,’ I would define it as thinking critically and independently, which is something that my parents have always encouraged me to do. I feel like the culture of my family is pretty free and open. My parents always encourage me to think of every decision I make and what I want to do and this has really helped me become a more autonomous person growing up. So I guess the spirit has always been there.”
How has The Garage helped you with your startup?
Ann: “We are relatively new here, and I really appreciate how we have a space to work in, instead of sitting in one person’s apartment or living room. Also, the weekly family dinners with the various speakers are very cool. It’s very interesting to see how people come up with different ideas. I remember the first week of Family Dinner with Noah Mishkin; he was an architect and he spent like seven years in school. And it’s really cool because when you think of entrepreneurs, they’re not necessarily coming from a similar background, like computer science. You could be doing anything when you decide to create something and start a project. Also the dinner with Oliver Leopold was very cool as well.”
Where do you see your startup going in the future?
Ann: “I hope to actually bring people some benefit and convenience. I’m not expecting to go big like a unicorn or anything. When I was a freshman thinking about startups, I felt like a startup was a failure if it didn’t become a unicorn. For a lot of startups, there’s no need for them to become a unicorn because their market is very niche. Not every startup needs to become a unicorn, but if your startup can semi-successfully solve a problem and it fits a part of the user’s need, then I think that that’s a good startup and a good goal to hit. I wish that my effort can change people’s lives, even if it’s just a little bit.”
This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting the startup teams admitted to Wildfire, The Garage’s Summer Pre-Accelerator Program. For more information about Wildfire, click here.