June 14, 2018 | Announcements

Building Students Up By Breaking Down Language Barriers

Heejae Lim, founder of TalkingPoints (FFWD 2015) 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. Years later, Heejae moved across the globe to the US. Her experiences navigating language barriers as an immigrant led her to build TalkingPoints, a multilingual communication app to engage parents in the learning process.

Seeing The Forest For The Trees

Heejae’s move to the UK introduced her to a whole new world – different culture, customs, and of course, a different language. Imagine the challenge of starting third grade in a new country where you don’t understand what anyone is saying. Heejae recalls experiencing language barriers when she struggled to understand the difference between the words “tree” and “forest” in English. She distinctly remembers her parents trying to explain it to her in Korean.

Despite language barrier challenges, Heejae 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. Around age 13, Heejae enrolled in an English speaking boarding school and found a network of culturally open-minded students from all over the world.

breaking down language barriers

Parental Engagement and Language Barriers

Unknowingly, Heejae’s Korean heritage and new experiences as an immigrant planted seeds for her future startup. Education was historically 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 critical for economic development.

Education is strongly supported by parental involvement at home, which can be a challenge when the parent and teacher speak different languages. Because Heejae’s parents spoke English, they were able to stay engaged in her education while living in the UK. They were also able to stay engaged 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. Students whose parents didn’t speak English 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, Heejae viewed America as the world leader. Naturally she wanted to see what life in the US 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. She admitted, however, that coming to America was eye-opening in terms of her own cultural identity. In England she was “the Korean girl.” Now in the US, she was “the British girl.” Eventually, Heejae 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 that she’d witnessed 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. For immigrant parents who did not speak English, though, the common experience was being shut out due to language barriers.

The Ah-Ha Moment

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.

breaking down language barriers

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. Since graduating from Fast Forward’s 2015 Accelerator, TalkingPoints has had massive impact. In 2017 alone, 120,000 families exchange over 2 Million 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 positioning 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.

Fast Forward is proud to celebrate #ImmigrantHeritageMonth and we invite you to join us #CelebrateImmigrants all month long!