Chris Boehner, Executive Director, Vericant
After graduating from the College of Charleston with a degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications, Chris decided to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and move to China. During his seven years in China, Chris’s background can best be described as eclectic. He was a corporate trainer for Microsoft, then decided to cycle across Asia and Africa working as a translator (you wouldn’t believe how useful Mandarin is in Sudan). Afterward, he managed Omega’s transportation logistics during the Beijing Olympics then spent two years intensively studying Mandarin. His proudest achievement is being a founding member of Beijing’s first bluegrass band–The Redbucks. During Chris’s ever-dwindling free time, you can find him in Beijing’s historic hutongs, playing mandolin or practicing Mandarin.
Rahul- What are the key services your organization provides? How would you describe your target customer and the unmet needs you are serving?
Chris- Vericant helps schools make more informed decisions about Chinese applicants. We meet Chinese applicants in country to record a face-to-face interview, proctor a writing sample and conduct a Spoken English Evaluation (SEE) for each applicant. The verified interview, writing sample and SEE score are served to our member schools via an Online Portal. Our clients range from boarding schools and undergraduate institutions to graduate programs in the US and Canada.
Our target customers are institutions enrolling Chinese applicants that prefer to have a more complete evaluation of the applicant's abilities.
Rahul- How did the business idea originate? What was the turning point that made you take the plunge?
Chris- Several years ago, I tried to be an education consultant in Beijing. As I met with families, many assumed my job was to write the entire application for the applicant, including teacher recommendations, personal statements and adjusting transcripts. After refusing to polish (how parents refer to falsification) their applications, I visited the US and spoke to schools about this issue.
Schools were aware of inconsistencies of application materials coming from China, but short of visiting each applicant in China, they didn't have a solution. With this information, I returned to Beijing and assembled a team to explore the situation in more detail. We boiled down the problem to the fundamental differences between the US and Chinese education systems. Put quite simply, falsification was no fault of the applicants or the schools they are applying to. Teacher recommendations don't exist in China, Chinese standardized testing means class grades are not academic indicators and Chinese schools do not teach creative essay writing.
After testing different solutions, we determined there was no substitute for meeting each applicant. We created a face-to-face video interview experience plus a proctored writing sample to assess off-the-cuff ability. Our member schools rely on our video interviews and our SEE score to see exactly how a student thinks and acts while interacting with a native English speaker. By meeting in person, we can verify identification and through conversation and our interviewers are able to elicit an incredible amount of information about English proficiency and the applicant's soft skills.
Rahul- What were couple of key hurdles in building the organization? How did you overcome them?
Chris- 1) Getting our first client.
This was a very new concept when we began pitching it to schools three years ago. My task was to find admission officers willing to take a risk to solve a big problem. To do this, I visited over 50 schools over 35 days and racked up a good 3000 miles on my Prius rental. When I returned the car, Hertz looked at the odometer and said "Woah!".
2) Staying focused
When visiting schools, nearly every person had a idea, suggestion or another problem we could help with. There were so many good ideas, it was tough to remain focused on our core service while we were figuring out if it would work. Thanks to excellent advisors and mentors, "Focus, focus, focus!" is still a mantra in our office.
3) Cross-Border Alignment
Timezones are an underestimated foe in any international initiative. When your team of 12 is sometimes split across five timezones, it is a real challenge for productivity, alignment and efficiency. At our Beijing HQ, we have daily alignment meetings for China and weekly RoW (rest of world) full team calls to update on progress and any speed bumps in partnerships, marketing, IT, operations etc. While our system is not perfect, it works and is constantly improving. Another China specific problem is internet connectivity issues, but hey, that's another reason why schools prefer to use us for interviews intend of Skype.
Rahul- How do you see your organization evolving next three-five years in the context of customer and sector trends?
Chris- Our vision is to have interviews regain prominence in the admissions process. For many admission offices, interviews were likely cut because they were too resource intensive. Technology can solve this issue and allow admission officers to see beyond numbers and an application. For us this means continual innovation to make video interviewing efficient and an effective evaluation tool for both applicants and schools.
Rahul- Based on your experiences, what are two lessons you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs in the field of international education?
Chris- 1) Persistance
As an entrepreneur, the education sector is probably the most difficult sector you could choose. Institutions are slow to change, which makes the sales cycle very long. You must completely believe in your solution and keep at it. If you are looking for the glamorous Tech Crunch start-up life, good luck finding it in education. The education sector it is relationship intensive and not a quick flip. We've been at it for 3 years and are still very much in our infancy.
2) Show up
There's a great Woody Allen quote one of our first partner schools shared with me: "Eighty percent of success is showing up". We go to every conference we can, we visit our partner schools and our prospective partner schools. If I have to make a choice between driving 3 hours to a remote school or having a phone call with them, I make the drive. Always.
Like our video interviews, nothing beats a face-to-face conversation. Not only is it a ton of fun (admission conferences are ALWAYS a blast), but you will make great contacts and lifelong friends.