Technology isn’t just changing how we learn – it’s changing what we need to learn. In episode 04 of the Glowing Up Asian podcast, our guest Ian Chiu shares his perspective on how advances in technology have transformed the way we learn and what we need to learn. The impact is far reaching – on both the children growing up today and the adults navigating a changing workforce where roles are quickly being augmented or automated by AI.
Ian starts by sharing his glow up origin story. After a short stint on the East Coast where Ian was born, his immigrant parents eventually put down roots in Houston, TX. Throughout his childhood, education was always a focus, but his parents gave him the freedom to find his own path. Ian’s career took many twists and turns in different careers and industries across the globe. Eventually, his journey led him back to education – not as a learner, but as an investor in the technologies innovating how we learn and what we learn.
In this episode, we discuss the future of education —with nearly instant access to information at our fingertips, knowledge accumulation has become less important. Instead, it is more valuable for children to develop their ability to think critically, learn how to learn, be adaptable, persistent, and creative. We also explore the current global trends in education technology, where infrastructure (or the lack thereof) can be the biggest barrier to learning. The common thread across all regions are parents – who all have a strong desire to invest in their children and see them do well.
Glowing Up Asian is a podcast series produced by LingoAce that breaks down the stereotypes and expectations about what it means to thrive as an Asian in America. Each episode welcomes a new guest to reflect on what it was like growing up Asian, how that’s changed for the next generation, and what that means for parents today. Together, we’ll explore their ‘glow up’ origin story and the role that education and culture played in their lives, while also exploring the issues that matter to the broader Asian American community.
Glowing Up Asian podcast show notes
Episode 04 | Interview with Ian Chiu of Owl Ventures
Meet Ian Chiu, Managing Director of Owl Ventures. Ian is the managing director of Owl Ventures, the world’s leading venture capital firm focused on education technology companies. For more than 20 years, Ian has been an entrepreneur, advisor, and investor in education technology companies around world. Full disclosure: LingoAce which produces the Glowing Up Asian podcast is one of those companies. (0:35)
What was your glow up origin story? After a short stint on the East Coast where Ian was born, his immigrant parents eventually put down roots in Houston, TX. He had a good experience growing up in his hometown, largely because it was a diverse community where he had “the ability to interact with folks of different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and different social-economic backgrounds.” Education was a focus throughout Ian’s childhood. As he describes it, “from the very get-go, education was definitely a big part of growing up. It wasn’t anything that was overemphasized or underemphasized. It was just part of what we did and what [my parents] focused on.” Academics had opened so many opportunities for Ian’s parents and they wanted the same for their children. His father came to the United States for his Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Oklahoma University, while his mother’s nursing degree and experience made it possible for her to immigrate. (1:12)
A Business Insider profile story highlighted that you wrote a book with your brothers about how to get college scholarships. What led you to do that? Being in a large middle-class family, college felt like a “big reach” financially. To help his parents offset the cost of college, he and his brothers applied for many scholarships and were successful in winning nearly $90,000 collectively, as highlighted in Business Insider. This initiative to ease the financial burden on his family was very much inspired by their mother. In addition to being a nurse, she often had a side job selling goods like facial cream or encyclopedias. The brothers later wrote about their experience and shared their advice for navigating the college scholarship application process in a book titled, Caution: Watch for Scholarships Ahead. (03:45)
What led you to become an investor in education technology companies? Ian’s career path was not a straight line. He describes the years after graduating from Standford University as a period of career exploration: he was an entrepreneur, worked at a startup, and tried his hand at consulting, media, and investment banking. He even did a short stint with the NBA (National Basketball Association), which he found fascinating as a sports fan. Every experience represented an interest or passion – which eventually came full circle when he landed in investing. He focused first on technology and was later drawn to education – where he saw an opportunity to help not only learners but also interesting companies that would have an impact on the next generation. “That really captured my interest and was something that I wanted to spend more and more time on,” explains Ian. Ian’s takeaway from his personal career journey is that when we think about our own children and how we’re influencing and raising them, it’s important to always try different things and not get pigeonholed on one career path. Experimenting is key to discovering what excites you. (5:41)
As an investor, did you just happen to gravitate towards education technology companies? Or did you start to see a trend and opportunity to support companies building solutions for students, teachers, and schools? For many years, education investing was more of a philanthropic endeavor. It was not viewed as a major market opportunity and there were not many startups trying to disrupt the space. After noticing a few interesting companies in the sector around 2008, Ian started to meet and spend time with these founders – which he really enjoyed. Over time, he became more intentional about seeking education companies and this coincided with the time that the edtech category as a whole also started to pick up momentum. “When I was just starting out in edtech investing, the whole sector only had a few hundred million dollars of annual invested dollars in the category. Today, it’s measured in five-ten-twenty billion dollars annually invested into edtech depending on which years you’re looking at.” As Ian describes it, the sector has become much more vibrant now, especially as more entrepreneurs enter the space globally. (8:18)
Can you share more about Owl Ventures and the work that you do there? Owl Ventures is the largest venture capital firm in the world that’s focused on education technology. They currently manage a little over $2 billion across all their funds, investing in companies at every stage of their journey from seed to growth. Ian describes Owl Ventures as being “purpose built” to partner and help entrepreneurs that are building transformative education companies around the world for all learners: preK-12, higher education, and professional development. They are also investing in a new category where education intersects with other industries called “edtech+” which covers topics such as financial literacy or telemedicine. As a firm, they care deeply about their portfolio’s learners and learning outcomes, not just their bottom-line business results. That’s why Owl Ventures publishes an annual outcomes report to show the impact of their investments. (10:23)
AI technology is changing how we learn and what we need to learn. What advice would you give to parents trying to navigate this today? Children today have nearly instant access to knowledge and information at their fingertips. By comparison, the biggest repository of information for children during the 80s could be found in two places: public libraries and encyclopedias. As Ian describes, it’s no longer necessary to memorize every single fact. What’s more important is how you understand, digest, and internalize those facts and make a judgement call. Just as important is knowing how to find the information you need, when you need it. Ian uses a spelling bee to make this point. When children participate in a spelling bee today, there’s not a lot of value in knowing how to spell some esoteric word. But what is valuable is the learning experience: having discipline, being able to set goals, and being dedicated to doing something over a long period of time. Those are skills that do translate and transcend time.
Owl Ventures invests in companies around the world. Is there a difference in the types of education technology trends you see in different regions? Infrastructure, or the lack thereof, is the biggest difference right now. In some regions around the world – and this includes some communities in the U.S. – where the infrastructure is not as developed, access to information is limited. The good news is that there has been a lot of government investment since the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum estimates that young Africans are expected to make up 42% of the world’s youth. When you juxtapose this investment in infrastructure with the demographic shifts happening around the world, there is an opportunity to level the playing field through leapfrogging, like what happened with mobile payments and other sectors. This means that the adoption of education technology will likely be different in terms of how long it takes and the sequence it follows. “Our view is that, you know, there is room for hybrid opportunities. There is certainly room for online. There is certainly room for in-person,” says Ian. Much like shopping has shifted from being exclusively in-person to being predominately done online. You just buy whatever is most convenient and works for you.
Infrastructure aside, any regional trends in what people are learning or wanting to learn? “There’re probably more similarities than differences when it comes to education. I think for children, all parents have a strong desire to invest in their children and see their children do well.” In the end, it comes down to the constraints of certain communities and how we can best serve the students and learners given where they are. For example, we had a couple of companies in India delivering learning materials on SD cards so that students could access them. Ultimately, people will find a way. We are constantly seeking ways for governments, companies, capital, and communities to work together to support the next generation of learners—which includes both children and adults. Not only are we experiencing constant change right now in how we learn, but there is also a constant need to acquire new skills. This is very much a global trend, not just one that’s unique to a particular region.
Since it is fairly easy to learn any subject and accumulate knowledge today, what skillsets should parents help cultivate in their children? According to the World Economic Forum, the average half-life of a skill about five years. This means skills become half as valuable as it was before every five years. Put another way, the skills that our children need to learn are constantly changing and will continue to change once they enter the workforce. What we’ve seen throughout recent history is that technology is augmenting some jobs and completely automating others. “So just understanding and thinking about the duration of skills is really, really important to thinking about: what do I need to learn.” Consider the impact of AI in the last year. A year ago, there was no such job as a prompt engineer. But today, there are thousands of job posts for this role. At a base level, everyone should aspire to have a grasp of things like literacy, numeracy, and scientific understanding. Beyond that, it’s important to develop our ability to think critically, learn how to learn, be adaptable, persistent, and creative – especially given the pace of change today. In fact, the World Economic Forum is a great resource for anyone with young children – or even for adults – on the 21st century skills and the skills that are going to be necessary for jobs in the future. Ian concludes by saying “learning how to learn and being adaptable is going to be increasingly important, more so than 40 years ago” because the velocity of change is faster now than ever before. As the father of young children himself, it’s hard to imagine what jobs will be in 20 years, let alone 30 or 40 years. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to prepare them to be able to flourish and navigate a world that we can’t even fully imagine today.
Bringing it back to Glowing Up Asian, how intentional were your parents about teaching you about your heritage when you were growing up? Ian shares, “I don’t know if it was intentional or just what they did. Back then [they] were just trying to navigate life in a new country.” He describes how many of the things they did, intentional or not, were to help his siblings have a connection with his heritage. This included traveling, the foods they ate at home and cultural celebrations they practiced. He also shared that having his grandparents live with their family for half a year as being a bridge to his heritage as well. As a parent now himself, Ian has enjoyed seeing how the next generation has continued to build a connection to their heritage for their children. He shares some of the interesting work of his friends: Melissa Miao wrote a book called, Bobo Loves Dumplings. Elenor Mak launched Jilly Bing dolls. Lulu Chang started the Bitty Bao book series which is now available on Amazon. Grace Lin, a childhood friend of his wife, wrote the book series, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.
What is your hope for the next generation as the world keeps changing how we learn and what we learn? My hope for the next generation is that we continue to connect and collaborate to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges. “I believe it starts with education,” says Ian. This includes education itself, different access to education and the differences in education quality and learning abilities in different communities in both the U.S. and abroad. Ultimately, he hopes that we become more conscientious in our use of technology. Despite the dissonance that it can cause, it can also be a powerful way to share and transfer knowledge thereby becoming a pathway for our children to discover their passions in their life. “My hope is [that] we go forward in the next 10, 20, 30 years, that technology is used in many ways for all the positive aspects that we talk about and that we’re able to really be intentional about managing some of the downsides of overuse and information silos.”
Ian is the managing director of Owl Ventures. For over 20 years, Ian has been an investor, entrepreneur, and advisor to education and technology companies. He also serves on the boards of LingoAce, Thrive Global, Class, and Degreed, among others, and works closely with MasterClass. Previously, Ian led the education sector at Warburg Pincus and was a technology investor at Silver Lake Partners. Earlier in his career, Ian was a consultant at Bain & Company and helped launch BigMachines, a SaaS company that was acquired by Oracle. He received his M.B.A. from the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he was an Arjay Millar Scholar and Arbuckle Leadership Fellow. He also earned his master's degree and bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University. Ian also serves on the Advisory Board for SEO, a non-profit that provides educational, career, and mentoring programs for young people from underrepresented communities. He is a member of the Advisory Council for Gladeo, a digital social enterprise dedicated to providing career guidance to underserved youth of diverse backgrounds. Ian was also the lead author of Caution: Watch for Scholarships Ahead, a practical guide for students to navigate the complex scholarship application process, which was endorsed by Stanford University’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. Follow Ian: LinkedIn