Building Students Up By Breaking Down Language Barriers

Heejae Lim, Founder of TalkingPoints

Heejae Lim, founder of TalkingPoints, a Fast Forward alum, embodies what it means to be a global citizen. Born in Seoul, Korea, Heejae and her family immigrated to the UK when she was eight years old for her dad’s work.

At age eight Heejae was introduced to a whole new world — different culture, customs and of course, language. Changing schools at that age can be traumatizing even when it’s within the same school district, so imagine the challenge of starting 3rd grade in a new country where you don’t understand what anyone is saying. Heejae recalls struggling to understand the difference between the words “tree” and “forest” in English and distinctly remembers her parents trying to explain it to her in Korean. Despite initial challenges with the language barrier, she found familiarity in the Korean immigrant community in Richmond, the London suburb where her family lived. She made friends with others like herself through the Korean school she attended on Saturdays, and after enrolling in an English speaking boarding school when she was 13, Heejae was introduced to a network of culturally open-minded students who hailed from all over the world.

Heejae and her younger sister

Unknowingly, her Korean heritage and new experiences as an immigrant began to shape ideas for her future startup. Education has always been a key pillar to success in Korea, and while Heejae was in school it was more important than ever. Korea’s economy was in a slump and the cultivation of human capital was important for economic development. Korea has progressed to where it is today in large part due to education, which is strongly supported in the home by parental involvement. Because they spoke English, Heejae’s parents were able to stay engaged in her education even when they were in the UK. When Heejae’s sister was off at high school back in Korea, her mom received regular text updates from the school to keep her up to date. These two parental engagement experiences were hugely influential in the concept of TalkingPoints.

Support from the Korean community helped Heejae, but for other immigrants it was a barrier to assimilation. These students struggled to learn the language and adjust to cultural differences in the UK. Culture shock can be an overwhelming force, but by turning this challenge into a growth opportunity, Heejae gained a new sense of confidence and aspirations for international adventure.

Her next big move? America. Growing up she viewed America as the world leader. Naturally she wanted to see what life here was all about. But as we know, the path to immigration is rocky. For Heejae, her key to entry was grad school.

Heejae quickly felt comfortable among the liberal, open-minded students at Stanford Business School, but she admitted coming to America was an eye-opening in terms of her own cultural identity. In England she has been “the Korean girl,” and now in the US she was “the British girl.” Eventually she embraced her label as a global citizen.

An experiential learning class found her immersed in local schools, interviewing parents about engagement with their students. This experience emphasized the importance of parent involvement — a challenge in underserved communities. She’d seen this first hand watching her Korean friends struggle with school in the UK. Now here she was in one of the most prestigious graduate programs in the US, while many of her immigrant friends were on less promising trajectories. The fact that Heejae’s parents were well-educated was a significant advantage to her upbringing. Because Heejae’s parents spoke English, they were active participants in their children’s education, whereas other immigrant parents were shut out due to language and education barriers.

It wasn’t until a weekend hackathon in Oakland that all of this culminated in an “ah-ha” moment. When asked to create a product to increase parent engagement in education, Heejae pitched her idea for a multilingual texting platform to connect teachers with families for meaningful engagement. She won the special parental engagement challenge.

This was more than a school project through. Heejae took out $5,000 from her student loans and bootstrapped her product, now called TalkingPoints. She launched her pilot product in 2014, and since graduating from Fast Forward’s 2015 accelerator program, she’s helped 5,000 families exchange over 100,000 messages.

TalkingPoints is needed now more than ever. The immigrant population in the US is steadily on the rise. By 2030, 40% of students nationwide will not speak English at home. Eliminating language barriers and their associated power dynamics is critical to position these students for success. Thanks to Heejae’s personal experience, TalkingPoints will help schools, teachers, and parents engage without the communication and cultural barriers that currently exist. This empowers parents to become partners in their children’s education, by meeting them where they are.

Would she have started TalkingPoints without personally experiencing this problem? Probably not, Heejae says. Her lived experiences are part of what powers her to dedicate her life to this mission.

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