Vietnamese founder Vu Van’s English was good enough to get her into Stanford University for an MBA and a Masters in Education, but once she was actually participating in the classroom, she found that the English skills she had just weren’t enough.
“My opinions in class were often disregarded because professors couldn’t understand what I was saying,” she said. And she’s not alone. Today, more than 1.5 billion English speakers are non-native, struggling with pronunciation, rhythm, and fluency, leading to loss of work and overall career opportunities. “Speech therapy can cost around $150 an hour and, although listening to films online is an alternative, there is no one there giving feedback.”
When a challenge turns out to be a systemic problem, a high-growth business opportunity emerges.
Vu Van set out to identify partners and talent in the field of artificial intelligence and voice recognition – specialties often dominated by tech giants – to address this growing problem. After countless visits with her professor,Xavier Aguerar, a leading expert and engineer in voice recognition, they founded ELSA (English Language Speech Assistant) a global English language speech assistant that uses artificial intelligence and voice recognition to accelerate foreign speakers’ fluency.
ELSA’s method focuses on speaking and real-life contexts, such as small talk at work, delivering a presentation, going for a job interview, or eating at a restaurant. The user learns by practice, emphasizing correct pronunciation and intonation. The app can recognize a wide range of English-speaking accents and detect pronunciation mistakes up to the phoneme level at 95% accuracy. Phoneme is the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.
After launching in San Francisco in 2015, ELSA began experiencing significant momentum and by 2020 joined the Endeavor network, reaching almost 13 million users so far from over 100 countries. The company now has offices in Vietnam, India, Portugal, Japan, and Indonesia.
“Endeavor was crucial in helping with our geographic expansion in Brazil and Vietnam and in developing my B2B sales and GTM strategy,” said Vu.
In 2021, Endeavor Catalyst was among the investors who participated in a Series B round of $15 million in new capital.
The investment came after significant milestones in 2020, when ELSA nearly doubled its customer base, increasing revenue by almost 300% and introducing multiple product enhancements.
With the increase of remote work and investment from companies looking to improve the English speaking skills of their employees especially in Asia and Latin America – ELSA formed numerous partnerships with corporations, including Globant, and educational institutions worldwide.
As a result of ELSA’s growth, Van’s efforts have allowed for the creation of more diverse and inclusive workspaces, schools, and universities, where people from different cities, regions, and accents can speak loud and clear. If our voice is key to powering the world, Elsa democratizes access to the power button.