By Robert S. Johnson, Managing Editor, Puget Sound Business Journal
Tina Tran Neville was 3 weeks old when her family moved to the United States from Vietnam. They settled in Oklahoma, and Tran Neville was the first person in her family to go to college when she attended Tulsa University. She followed that by going to Yale University for graduate school and joined the U.S. foreign service, where she served in Vietnam, Iraq and Pakistan. In 2010, Tran Neville launched Transcend Academy, which helps students prepare for and gain admission to U.S. universities, and in January she launched Lana Learn, which teaches English to people in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
Who is Lana Learn for? It could be for anybody, even children who are learning English. What we do is pair native English-speaking teachers with students, so they could be elementary school kids, they could be middle school kids, they could also be professionals who are learning English. As more and more countries are requiring English as part of their public school curriculum, our market for online English learners are growing pretty rapidly
How do you build your network of teachers? We have a diverse array of teachers. My background is in teaching, but it wasn't my first career, it was my second. So I know that good teachers come from all walks of life. They could be travelers who really want to help students learn English, they could be teachers who are retired and doing this in their second phase of life and they could be teachers who want to do this on nights and weekends.
What is something from your professional life that has stuck with you through the years? When I left the foreign service and I started Transcend Academy there was one student who was an Iraqi refugee. She lived in Falls Church, Virginia, and she came during her senior year of high school. She did not know how to think about going to college in the United States. For me, that was personally rewarding to work with her to think through how she could do her standardized tests, how she could write her essay about her incredible experience and journey and how she could connect with universities. She ended up going to American University in Washington, D.C., I'll always remember that student for her story and for how I was able to see it full circle after having served in Iraq myself.
What lessons did you take from launching Transcend Academy into the creation of Lana Learn? When I launched my first company I was so idealistic. I thought I could start with all my fancy degrees and experience in the foreign service and it would be easy. It wasn't. It was really hard. It was day in, day out work. It was hard to figure out my profit and loss sheets. I hired people, but I hired too quickly. It was four years to get to profitability, which meant not quitting every day for four years, and that was very difficult. With this company, I'm taking all of those experiences and growing Lana Learn because I know it takes hard work every day and seeing the goal at the end of this journey ... but it's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be every day hard work, but it is going to happen. So that persistence to build Transcend Academy, now in its ninth year, to now being able to build Lana Learn gives me the confidence to do this.
How did your time with the State Department prepare you to be a CEO? Every day you are interacting with people from different cultures, who may or may not speak the same language, who may or may not eat the same food. So that skill of diplomacy, of being able to work with people from different backgrounds and different perspectives but coming together and trying to find some commonality and working toward moving the needle on something that we both care about is fascinating, and I take that with me to Lana Learn every day.
What is the proudest moment of your professional life? Honestly, being named 40 Under 40 by the Puget Sound Business Journal. Seattle is now my home, and I've been looking for a home for a while. In the foreign service, our family moved from Mexico to Honduras to D.C. to Thailand over eight years. For someone who's so family and community driven, I've been yearning for a home as an adult. This last year my husband and I moved back to Seattle and we have consciously made Seattle our home, so to be named 40 Under 40 in this community is amazing. That's the first reason. The second reason is to be able to represent a community here in Seattle as a woman, as an entrepreneur, as an immigrant is something that I'm very proud of because it means if I can represent that community other people in this community feel like they can, too.
What has been the most difficult moment of your professional life? When I was in Iraq, inside the Green Zone at the height of the Iraq war. It was a great professional time because I was seeing the highest levels of foreign policy at a critical time. But it was incredibly difficult because every day I was experiencing incoming mortars. You can imagine as a young professional that embarking on something that I cared about, but in a very dangerous place, it was very hard for me.
How has being an immigrant shaped you? My family came to America as refugees and my parents came to America with $5 through the port of San Francisco. With that initial $5 they grew a family, they sent us to college, I went to graduate school and they taught me to always appreciate the opportunities that we have. That kind of spirit and those values is what shapes me. So, every day I think about all of the wonderful opportunities that I have here in the U.S.
Why is your company called Lana Learn? My husband's first tour in the foreign service was in the Kingdom of Lana in Northern Thailand. We have two little boys, and we always said if we have a girl, we'll name her Lana. Lana is a labor of love in the sense that my husband and I get to work on it together, so as we birth this company and this child, we named her Lana.
Where do you want to be at 50? I want to continue working on Lana. Right now we've built our videoconferencing platform, we've built our matching portal and we're in our focus countries of China, Vietnam and Thailand. When I'm 50 I hope to be still working on Lana and scaling it to other countries globally and perhaps other languages than English. I started Lana because I really care about education, I really care about technology and I want to make a global impact. I don't see that changing or my values changing that way when I'm 50.
How much do you want to be earning then? Enough to by a house in Seattle. We're in startup phase right now, so things are a little frugal, but I'd like to be able to comfortably buy a house in Seattle.
How will you pay it forward? Just helping my community in any way, whether it's through business, whether it's through education, whether it's through technology. That is why I got into education to begin with.