ELSA Speak: Seven years of helping women find their voices
This week marks ELSA’s 7th birthday. It’s a big milestone to reach for a startup, and everyone at ELSA is proud of what we’ve achieved since our founder Vu Van started the company back in 2016.
But the real story of ELSA begins almost seven years before that, when Vu arrived in the U.S. to study for an MBA and Masters in Education at Stanford University.
Life as an English learner in America
Born and raised in Vietnam, ELSA founder Vu Van was an avid student of English. After years of study and practice, she grew in confidence during a period working for Danish logistics company Maersk in Vietnam and Denmark.
But when she arrived in the US in 2009, everything changed. Vu thought that she was fluent in English, but she struggled with effective pronunciation.
“I realized that, when I spoke, people didn’t understand me.” Van told the Nikkei Asian Review. She frequently had to repeat what she said, making her “kind of embarrassed”. Eventually, Vu lost confidence in her English completely.
Finding confidence again with an AI solution
Statistically, women and girls are less likely to speak up and contribute. It’s true across the board, from elementary classrooms, to university seminars, to workplace meetings. And that’s without the added pressure of doing so in a second language.
So, Vu is far from the only woman who’s found herself losing confidence when it comes to speaking in the classroom.
Vu’s experience is shared by many language learners in Asia. Although they understand English well, they often find speaking much harder.
Vu had identified a widespread problem – and she had thought of a solution:
“What if we could build individual AI speaking coaches that everybody in the world could access?”
Vu set out to create a tutor-like experience, helping women worldwide find their voice in English. She wanted it to be similar to that of a live speaking coach, but without the exorbitant fees, which can run to $150 to $200 per hour. That way, it would be accessible for English learners all over the world.
Vu believed that, if more people could speak confidently in English, it would unlock their full potential. And so, ELSA Speak was born.
Those who wanted to improve their speaking skills and feel more confident using English in everyday life would soon be able to do so.
Here are some of their stories.
How ELSA is helping women find their voice
Seven years on, ELSA has over 34 million users in 195 countries, helping women all over the world to speak up and find their voices.
Bella, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher from Indonesia, wants to build her confidence in speaking English.
“We should practice real spoken English,” she says. “That’s why I study English with the Elsa app and join the Elsa community – I want to gain my personal confidence and ability to speak by immersing myself in this community.”
Bella wants to be able to pass this on to her students. “I want my students to have the experience of speaking with other people around the world, and have the confidence to do it.”
Another ELSA user, Trans Thong Tu, struggled with her confidence when speaking English. She is from Vietnam, and one of her life goals is to visit England. She’s been practicing her spoken English since 2016, recording herself to try and overcome her anxiety.
Discovering the ELSA app was a gamechanger for her, helping her to practice more and believe in herself. When it comes to her English learning journey, Tu quotes Emma Watson:
“There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. It’s not the absence of fear, it’s overcoming it. Sometimes you’ve got to blast through and have faith.”
ELSA has helped her to build her faith in her own speaking ability. “I believe I can speak English as a second language,” she affirms.
Sinchana, another ELSA user, also struggled with anxiety when it came to speaking in English. “I was afraid of talking,” she explains, and found it “difficult to frame a sentence.”
But learning English was essential for Sinchana to be able to study at her dream college – and ELSA proved to be key. “ELSA Speak made my confidence level better,” Sinchana says, helping to boost her linguistic knowledge and speaking skills.
From a shy student to a CEO
These are just three anecdotes about the way that ELSA is changing lives. Vu has come a long way from that shy student, struggling to make herself understood in Stanford tutorials. Now, she’s running an award-winning edtech company with approximately 250 employees across Vietnam, Portugal and the US.
Vu is adamant that ELSA Speak doesn’t just improve the pronunciation of non-native English speakers – it can improve their lives as well.
“We believe,” says Vu, “that when people speak good English, their quality of life goes up, and there’s just a lot more opportunity open to them.”
Vu and the rest of our team are all working towards the same goal at ELSA: that when English learners speak, their voices will be heard and understood, regardless of their background or nationality, helping them to make the most of the opportunities presented to them.
Find your voice with ELSA
Visit our website to learn more about ELSA, or download the app to practice your English speaking skills.
Helping women find their voice at work: Read up on how to be more confident speaking English in business with ELSA here.
You can also try out our new speech analyzer for free!