After flunking an English course, Felipe Dib convinced his parents to enroll him at a public high school in New Zealand. Years later, Felipe launched Você Aprende Agora (You Learn Now), a social enterprise that offers free online English and leadership courses. After noticing the increased demand of Spanish and Chinese speakers attempting to learn English, Dib also launched Tú Aprendes Ahora and You Speak Now, with the same philosophy. The course has taught more than 30 million classes for students in 181 countries worldwide.
As CEO and founder of Você Aprende Agora, Felipe was elected the most inspiring young leaders in Brazil by Revista Veja, invited by the UN and WEF to collaborate on the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals and nominated as a Global Youth Ambassador.
Global Americans had the opportunity to learn about Felipe’s inspiring personal story, the challenges of creating and raising a social enterprise from scratch, and the future of Você Aprende Agora in Brazil and countries beyond.
Hi Felipe. Thanks for talking with us. What motivated you to start Você Aprende Agora?
I had a very bad car accident in 2011, and I fractured almost every bone in my body. That marked a moment where I decided to thank God for being alive and do something good.
As soon as I got released from the hospital after a month of surgeries I started recording video classes from my parents’ bed. I couldn’t move from my hip down, so I called a friend, who was producing classes, and I said “Man, I’d like to record some video classes to share online for free with every person on Earth who wants to learn English.” I mentioned the slight detail that he would have to come to my parents’ place, because I couldn’t move. He immediately agreed. He started to come to my parents’ house, and I would wear a shirt and we would record from my chest up. That was the start of Você Aprende Agora; on that bed we recorded about 350 video classes.
Months later I started to move and I went from a wheel chair to a cane to starting to walk again, and then we extended the work of Você Aprende Agora to Tú Aprendes Ahora, which is designed for Spanish speakers. People who were learning from our Portuguese to English classes were asking us to produce content for native Spanish speakers as well. So we launched tuaprendesahora.com and some years later we launched youspeaknow.com, made for Chinese speakers who want to learn English. All three websites follow the same methodology, the same philosophy, and the same structure: three minute long classes for free plus VIP options for students who want to learn faster.
Felipe, that’s an impressive story, turning out an awful episode into an opportunity to do social good. Your personal motivation and drive is impressive so congratulations on that!
Setting up and funding social enterprises is never easy. How have you been able to keep the company alive for so many years and how do you see it growing? Where do you see Você Aprende Agora going and where do you see the sister companies—Tú Aprendes Ahora and You Speak Now—going into the future?
When I started Você Aprende Agora, I didn’t think of it as an enterprise. It wasn’t until some years later, when the money had run out, that I had to find a way to make it sustainable.
Before the accident I just wanted to be a millionaire. That was my dream. That was my drive. And then I found myself on a bed without being able to move my body, and I realized the power of money is limited.
So I started the company with no business model, no sustainability, just YouTube videos. I remember that some months later, after receiving an award called Inspiring Youth, I was presenting Você Aprende Agora to the final evaluators. One of the evaluators, Alberto Sicupira, the CEO of a group that owns Heinz ketchup, Budweiser, and Burger King in Brazil, told me: “Felipe, very nice project, but the day you run out of money, the project dies.” At the time I tried to convince him that Facebook and Google don’t charge the users, but months later I had this reality check knocking on my door. We either had to find a way to be sustainable or we would die.
We decided to launch a new strategy and we became a “freemium” model as a business. How do we keep the company alive? We offer students VIP options.
The “freemium” model though, turned out to be a huge challenge. You have no idea. If you’ve used Spotify and these sorts of platforms, the rate of premium users is super low. So what we must do is have a lot of people learning English and leadership skills with us, and then demonstrate the value of being a VIP user. A huge majority prefer not to, because they have the video classes for free, but we encourage them to acquire a VIP membership to enhance their learning process.
So, how many students do you have now?
We have around 200,000 registered students.
And I’m assuming they are mainly from Brazil?
Yes, mainly from Brazil. The top countries for Você Aprende Agora are Brazil, the United States, Portugal, Ireland and Japan. For Tu Aprendes Ahora our students predominantly come from Mexico, Colombia, Dominican Republic, United States and Chile.
Taking a closer look at your website and course structure we noticed that you take a very hands-on approach to teaching students English and leadership skills. For example you send out the classes through WhatsApp every day. How have you been able to manage running a company and also teaching?
By having a helping team, working very hard seven days a week, and loving what you do. Those are the three things you need.
Right now we have a team that supports our VIP students, who take care of their learning process. You went on our website and contacted me through my WhatsApp number. Any potential student that wishes to talk to me can do it through WhatsApp. I ask them about their preferences and membership choices, and if they are a VIP student I handle them personally. As for newly registered members I try to convince them of the value of becoming VIP users or I channel them to another member of our team.
The second thing I mentioned is working very hard, and the third thing is loving what you do. That gives you the possibility of working hard, of being consistent and building something with top content and consistency.
Following up on this question and the teaching structure, have you formed any partnerships with companies, schools or universities that want to use the program or that help you develop curricula or help you reach a greater audience?
That is exactly what we want to achieve. Two weeks ago I had a meeting with the president of a very big university here in Brazil. That is one way I believe we can be profitable and increase impact. As of now, we are focused on being profitable and sustainable. We’ve already made an impact, and we continue to do so every day, so our main concern is ensuring sustainability: how can we be sustainable over time? How can we keep growth without running out of money?
Another approach, which is also really valuable, is working with public schools. We’ve approached mayors and governors to implement our course targeting public school students. This is amazing because we fuse profitability with impact serving the base of the pyramid.
Speaking of impact, we know you also collaborated in the creation of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals. How important is the role of learning English to a country’s development? And specifically, why should Brazilians learn English?
For those of us who already speak English, it’s easy to see value in the language. We have travelled and we have lived in different parts of the world. But for the people who don’t know the value yet because they haven’t seen the world as we have—as English speakers—we want to provide new opportunities.
Speaking English unlocks opportunities that are hard to see when we’re unaware of them. That is why we try to do everything in our hands to transmit these new opportunities. How do we do it? Dignifying all our content, everything we do through all our platforms. Our students earn points, our students earn badges, grow in ranking, and we are always encouraging them to reach the next medal, to reach the next level. If they miss classes for three straight days we send them personalized emails, we show them we miss them, we let them know the number of classes they’ve missed and so on. And we also highlight the positive; if they excel for three lessons in a row we give them a medal, and we send them emails congratulating our students and encourage them to keep studying.
Going back to the goals set at the United Nations level, how is Você Aprende Agora helping meet these goals? How have these development goals influenced the impact you are trying to create from this program?
We touch some of them. One goal in particular is gender equality, when women are studying, preparing themselves and having better access to learning opportunities and growing faster.
We also touch the goal of education for everyone. Nowadays it is easier for any person on earth to have Internet access, and that is another opportunity for us, for these persons accessing Internet connectivity to learn English and soft skills through us.
And of course we promote collaboration by having a common language, by reaching out to a broader audience through English. So for me these are the goals we connect to: gender equality, education for everyone and collaboration.
One last question. In 2012, Veja Magazine named you one of Brazil’s Young Inspirations (Premio Jovens Inspiradores do Brazil); you’ve been nominated as a Global Youth Ambassador; and now us at Global Americans, we have the privilege of nominating you as one of the New Generation of Public Intellectuals. How does it feel to be recognized for this work from the public policy field?
It is an incredible opportunity and it feels nice. Right now we have so much information, events, institutions, but when I see outstanding people bringing attention to important issues, as is the case of this list, of course I jump at the opportunity to be involved. And this of course increases your sense of responsibility and your dedication, so I’m extremely happy to be in touch with people doing good from their respective fields through the Global Americans award.
Thank you for this conversation Felipe, and congratulations for all you’ve achieved, keep up the good work!
Thank you so much.
Absolutely! Bom dia!
This interview has been edited for content and length.