By Marcella McCarthy

In the ’80s and ’90s kids had pen pals. International students practiced their written English skills and American kids could learn about other cultures. In 2020, we have

Mojochat, a Miami-based startup and web app that connects Chinese students who want to improve their conversational English skills with American students who, for $14 an hour, will chat and tutor them, all via video conferencing. Mojochat sounds like it was developed for the COVID-19 pandemic, but the timing is just a coincidence.

The backstory

Chris Cole

Chris Cole and Kamal Bhattacharya, the founders of Mojochat, originally met playing tennis in NY while Bhattacharya was working at IBM, located in Westchester County NY. Years later, Cole, who studied Mandarin in Taipei for many years and who also has experience in education management, told  Bhattacharya that they should teach English to Chinese students. “I didn’t think it was a very good idea because there are so many language schools,” Bhattacharya said. “He actually said it was a stupid idea,” Cole added laughing. But Cole explained that there’s a difference in learning the words of a language and learning how to have a conversation, and that’s what caught  Bhattacharya’s attention.

Kamal Bhattacharya

Bhattacharya worked in IT at IBM for 16 years, taught at MIT, and also worked in innovation in Kenya. Along the way, he developed an interest in AI-assisted learning. Together, they launched Mojochat in 2017. Bhattacharya, the CEO, is based in Berlin while Cole and the majority of the team are based in Miami.

Getting Your Mojo On

Chinese and Asian cultures in general are fairly stringent when it comes to education and excelling. To meet this need, about 120 students at the University of Miami and FIU are working as English language tutors for Mojochat, while another 50 are on the waiting list. Tutors, which the company calls “mentors,” upload their availability and get matched with Chinese college students. The founders also quickly realized that an additional market is Chinese students who are already studying at American Universities. Mojochat has established contracts with universities in the US and in China, and the university with the learners covers the cost of tutoring sessions, which vary depending on the number of hours purchased.

For mentors, they get to learn about another culture all while making some money on the side. And if they want to do it at 6 am or 1 am – or anytime in between – that’s up to them. “I’m learning just as much as they are,” said Samantha Baudin, who is one of Mojochat’s original mentors and a recent graduate of FIU, sighting that one of the interesting conversations she’s had is about the varying dating practices between the American and Chinese cultures. 90% of Mojochat’s mentors are women, and most are from an immigrant background. “Miami kids have been translating their whole life,” said Cole, explaining that already knowing another language gives tutors more empathy.

The real tech in Mojochat isn’t necessarily the video technology, but rather the fact that through the recorded conversations, Bhattacharya and his team can “analyze speech in order to measure engagement and then give feedback to the students and mentors,” he said.

“No one is teaching people how to build relationships online,” said Cole. And in today’s day and age, and even more so during the pandemic, being able to communicate clearly in a video call has become utterly important. “Mojochat is helping college kids learn how to build trust and rapport online,” Cole said.

The details

Website: https://mojo.chat/

Tagline:Mojochat – Empowering Effective Global Communicators”

Growth: Revenue has increased monthly from $3K to $20K, and paid, hourly session # has increased from 100 per month in Q4 2019 to over 600 per month this year.  

Recent milestones: 

  • Closed contract with Tsinghua University – #1 university in China – to significantly increase online engagement between their students and American students to promote cultural exchange and enhance their student’s English skills.  Tsinghua has 45K students
  • Closed contract with Auburn University in Alabama, to build the conversation and understanding between their domestic and international student community.  Auburn has 4000 international students
  • Rolled out MojoCareer Mock Interviewing product to FIU’s Hospitality Management program 

Financing: $1.2 million of $2 million initial round raised. The founders have invested $300K in this round, and the lead investor in the round is John W. Irwin, the grandson of the founder of IBM.

Target market: Mojochat targets Chinese study abroad students presently in American universities and those in China seeking the same, as well as Chinese students who seek to improve their conversational English skills for work purposes and university entrance exams.

Business model: 

  • B2B: contract with US and Chinese universities to provide conversational (and interviewing) practice partners to their students for a per-hour fee.  Hourly online sessions are either One-to-One or Two-to-One
  • B2B2C: In China, we contract with private Test Prep and Business English companies to provide trained Americans mentors to help mentor proper speaking and engagement skills.  

What’s ahead: Building upon their early successes with top universities in the US and China to accelerate their global footprint.  Leverage their unique data and invest more into AI to support our mentors and learners on their journey. 

Submit Startup Spotlight ideas to Nancy Dahlberg at ndahlbergbiz@gmail.com 

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Marcella McCarthy