In Good Company

In Good Company: For Chinese high-flier Zhang Yao, robotics for kids isn't just about coding

Get-up-and-go tech entrepreneur Zhang Yao embodies the best of China and Silicon Valley

Spend some time with Ms Zhang Yao and it's not difficult to figure out why China has emerged as the second-hottest destination for venture capital, sucking up no less than US$31 billion (S$42 billion) last year.

The founder-CEO of the Santa Clara-based start-up RoboTerra Inc, an educational robotics company targeting eight- to 18-year-olds, is one energy rush and a high-flying one at that. As I recently observed in Dalian, China, it is not uncommon for the 33-year-old, now into her second entrepreneurial venture after a brilliant academic career, to get off a plane after a 12-hour flight to walk straight to the microphone at a conference.

That done, she can cram the rest of the day with meetings, appointments and, of course, e-mail, before winding up with a glass in her hands at an evening reception and thereafter, a conference call with California.

For nearly five years - and that's been taken care of in the past six months - she hadn't been on a date. Not that this petite Chinese woman, named by the World Economic Forum last year as a Young Global Leader, lacked for suitors. But there simply was no time, she says. Such is the start-up life.

Last week, RoboTerra successfully closed its latest round of capital-raising, with mainland- headquartered ZZ Capital as the lead, backed by NYSE-listed New Oriental Education & Technology Group Inc. Once the paperwork is complete, RoboTerra, now valued at more than US$50 million, will become a Chinese company and the US operations will be turned into a subsidiary.

"We got a better valuation going with a Chinese company than in Silicon Valley, so we decided to bring them in as lead investors," she says. "It is good to know that we've been able to do this despite China's tightened regulations for its companies to invest overseas."

Ms Zhang Yao, 33, the founder-CEO of Santa Clara-based start-up RoboTerra, says her vision is to teach kids logic and computational thinking - rather than learn to place a comma in the perfect spot. She believes it is more useful if they learn how in
Ms Zhang Yao, 33, the founder-CEO of Santa Clara-based start-up RoboTerra, says her vision is to teach kids logic and computational thinking - rather than learn to place a comma in the perfect spot. She believes it is more useful if they learn how information is organised and designed in an interface. PHOTO: ROBOTERRA

  • Fast facts

  • ZHANG YAO

    She is founder and chief executive officer of RoboTerra Inc.

    This is her second start-up, having earlier set up Minds Abroad, an educational venture serving American and European college and graduate students and professionals through high-impact study-abroad programmes in China, India and other cultural locations.

    Its partner programme, Impact Abroad, a "Best 10 US Global Citizenship Diplomacy Organisation" recognised by the US State Department in 2010, allows international volunteers to engage in social service work in China and India.

    Aged 33, she was born in Shanxi, China, to an air force officer and entrepreneur-wife.

    She received her undergraduate degree in Beijing at the Central University of Finance and Economics. She holds a master's in education economics from Columbia University Teachers College, where she has completed dissertation requirements for a PhD.

    She was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2016, one of 25 Women in Robotics by RoboHub (2015); and Innovation Ambassador, by Unctad.

  • ROBOTERRA

    It was recognised as a Star Company at the 2014 World Learning Technology Summit and a Top 30 Innovations Company at the Silicon Valley Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum.

    Based in Santa Clara, California, RoboTerra provides a cloud-based learning solution connecting educational robots built by students and respective course modules, which brings rewarding and fun learning experiences to students.

    The Silicon Valley firm was launched in 2014, and now boasts 70 employees and offices in California and Beijing.

You'd think the Linfen, Shanxi-born Zhang should be portrayed as a poster child for China's era of entrepreneurship until you listen to her history and realise that she is drawing from a well that runs quite deep.

Her great-grandfather was a landlord and businessman who traded all the way up the Silk Route to Afghanistan. His son Wen Zhengang was in the final class of the Huangpu Military Academy, the Chinese version of West Point, during the Kuomintang period.

Her own mother - Mr Wen's daughter - began life as a singer in a region that had one of the oldest versions of traditional Chinese opera. She then moved from stage to printing factory floor and in 1981, an initial business venture in publishing before travelling to remote Hainan seven years later, when the island was named a special economic zone.

Leaving her four-year-old daughter in her husband's care, the plucky woman teamed up with Japanese investors to make building material that would be used, among other things, to build the surface of the tarmac and aprons at Haikou Airport, in Hainan's capital.

At the time she moved there, Hainan had hen roosts on apartment terraces and pig pens in the yards. Today, some of China's top tycoons trace their fortunes back to Hainan's opening three decades ago.

But, in his own way, Ms Zhang's father, who held down a regular job with the PLA Air Force, appears to have been a risk-taker as well. How else to explain that despite China's one-child policy, he indulged his wife's fondness for children by giving her four - two more girls and a boy!

Granted, Shanxi was perhaps not as strict as other provinces in enforcing the policy. Nevertheless, the other children were prudently hidden away with grandparents and brought back into the family through the adoption route when they came of school age.

Today, one of the Zhang sisters is in New York, finishing a master's in mathematics and the other is a veterinarian in Shanxi's largest animal hospital. The youngest sibling, a male, is a surgeon and cardiologist.

"I was the only one who was not spoilt," jokes Ms Zhang. "The others were raised by my grandparents. From my father, I got an almost military-like discipline while Mom gave me her sense of spirit and ability to work long hours."

Named after the Chinese emperor Yao who unified tribes in the Yellow River delta and made Linfen his headquarters, Ms Zhang moved to Beijing at the age of 18. Always a top student - in secondary school exams, she was placed eighth in a cohort of 300,000 from Shanxi - she says her initial interest was in studying architecture at Tsinghua University.

She finally picked applied economics as her subject, but there was a problem: she was a maths freak and the college did not have a mathematics club. Fortunately, she says, the college president was a cooperative soul, and helped her set up one. In no time, her club had won first prize in the competition held by the International Mathematics Union in 2005 and Columbia University in the US gave her a place to study the interface between economics and education.

It was there that she got bitten by the entrepreneurship bug. Minds Abroad, a company centred on a student-relationship management software product, was started with two Columbia friends in 2008. With thousands of students around the world moving overseas to study, they sensed an opportunity to provide better management, and facilities such as insurance.

"That was my first start-up experience," she says. "At age 25 I had learnt a lot - from running a company to handling government relations."

She ran it full-time until 2011, when she returned to grad school to finish her PhD dissertation. During those three years, she frequently travelled to the Minds Abroad office in Raleigh, North Carolina, and to India, where the company had put down its global customer relations team in Kolkata and software developers based in Bangalore. Minds Abroad, now run by one of the co-founders, had broken even at the point of her departure, and she remains a shareholder.

Turning down an opportunity to do an MBA at Stanford University, Ms Zhang says she was certain that her passion was to keep working on products. In the summer of 2013, with the dissertation behind her and now employed by Mid Atlantic Fund, a Pennsylvania-based early stage venture capital fund, she was in California when she observed how children interacted with robots.

This led to serendipity: if robotics could be accessible to all students, it would not only have a big future but also impact on life in general. The ecosystem, even in US schools, was not ready to teach robotics to children, even as parents were keen that their children stay up to date with technology. Besides, there was, as yet, no leading market player on the products side.

Potential co-founders were identified and nailed down. Stanford graduate Sui Shaolong had gone from Tesla to Apple when Ms Zhang brought him in. Another Stanford alumnus Chen Bai, now her chief technology officer, was lured away from GoogleX. RoboTerra was launched that winter, partly with a quarter- million-dollar pile she had made from Minds Abroad.

Soon, the media, and investors, sat up and took notice of this audacious Chinese start-up in the Valley. In September the following year, Tsinghua Investments of China came in as an angel investor with a half-a-million-dollar investment. Three rounds of devolution have seen her stakes diluted from the initial 45 per cent, but she remains a substantial shareholder.

There is always the question whether a 10-year-old should be taught to code, or whether he ought to be out in the yard, playing with his peers and adjusting to them.

Ms Zhang says her vision is to teach kids logic and computational thinking - rather than learn to place a comma in the perfect spot. She believes it is more useful if they learn how information is organised and designed in an interface.

"In the end you make a product that's your own. You set a goal and figure out the tools needed to achieve that. RoboTerra is not as much about a product as a process - coding, group work, competition and business planning."

As for the ethical dimension, RoboTerra is working on improving data security, especially as the user base grows. And with sensors linked to cameras being an essential part of robotics, there is also the issue of privacy and security to be considered carefully, she says.

Demand for RoboTerra's robotic kit is coming from around the world, including Europe and Africa. China, of course, stays the biggest market. Perhaps because of her air force officer-father, sky and space have always held a special meaning for her.

"I am just so positive that as a civilisation we will become interplanetary and interstellar - and robotics is going to be key in this. It may sound sci-fi, but that is the direction we are heading. I want my life to be part of something greater than myself and that is partly why I chose to work in education."

She acknowledges that her entrepreneurial journey has had its rocky moments. The challenges have been ceaseless, there have been bad hiring decisions that needed to be corrected and, needless to add, the work-life balance has been minimal.

After five years of not dating, she says, there is a man in her life. Shy to have the name revealed, she nevertheless offers useful clues: He works in artificial intelligence and big data, heads a unicorn, was born in Romania, has a PhD from Berkeley, teaches at Stanford and is the creator of the Spark programming language.

Now, how about that for another high-flier!

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 27, 2017, with the headline 'For Chinese high-flier, robotics for kids isn't just about coding'. Print Edition | Subscribe