#27 Charlotte Zhao: The Life-Long Learner

published on 13 April 2021

Keep on learning. In order to stay relevant in today’s world, you have to constantly reinvent yourself.

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We love our visionaries because of their captivating and provoking stories. A visionary is extraordinary because of his/her unparalleled level of energy and enthusiasm. Charlotte filled the room with joy and electric energy from the first second, making it impossible for us not to smile. Her positivity and drive were contagious and made us realize that inner fire is the most crucial trait anyone can possess. What a force of nature Charlotte is!

Charlotte is the CEO and founder of Avid. Together with her incredible team, they aim to revolutionize the audio-first learning world by enabling anyone to create audio educational courses. Charlotte grew up in China but always had a clear goal in mind: becoming a global citizen. Her unparalleled drive for discovery and ambition drove her to every angle of the world. She’s studied and worked in the United States, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. She is a self-taught software developer and is an expert on how people learn. Get ready for an educational journey! 

But that is only one part of the story.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Introduce yourself — tell us a little bit about your journey?

Audio learning has changed my life. I grew up in China with people all similar to myself, and no one spoke a word of English. At age 12, my mum decided to put me in a 2-week English class to prepare me for middle school. It was my first time trying to grasp a foreign language, and I was far behind my peers, or rather seniors, since they turned out to be a year ahead. I had to start entirely from scratch, and in the beginning, I couldn’t understand anything. Out of desperation, my method was to listen to cassette tapes on repeat, and in two weeks, I had finished a year's worth of materials and turned out to be top of the class. This life-changing experience allowed me to discover the magic of audio-learning, which now plays an essential role in my life.

What did you always dream of when you were a kid?

My dream was simply to become a global citizen and see the world with my own eyes. I grew up in a place that is drastically different from anything you could imagine. At the time, my family’s monthly income was barely $300, and buying a flight ticket was certainly not something we could afford. I had never traveled in my life; the first time I was on a plane was when I received a scholarship to study in the US- and it was a one-way ticket.

How was your experience studying in China?

It was brutal. Most days start as early as 07:30 am, and if you are ambitious, you are expected to stay at school until 09:00 pm. Your life revolves around schooling, and you are considered a machine. There is no time for anything else. Additionally, as an individual, you are defined by your grades; your final exams determine how your life will be forever. The pressure was insane, and I’ve always felt that this way of learning was not the right one.

You went from not knowing a word of English to studying in the United States. How did it happen?

My magical cassette tapes (laughs). 

Jokes aside, mastering the language is just a drop in the ocean. What moves the needle is being able to captivate the admission officers by telling a story. It is all about storytelling. 

Crafting my story for the admission officers was my first entrepreneurial experience, as it felt like pitching to investors. 

At the time, it was unheard of that Chinese students could study abroad if they were not from wealthy families, unless you were pursuing a phd. During my second year of high school, I read about a girl who got into Harvard as a full-ride student. Her story opened my eyes. It made me realize that with the right preparation, motivation, and ambition it was indeed possible to cross the ocean. 

How was it to finally move abroad?

Life felt simpler once I moved. University was a walk in the park for me on the academic side, but I was always busy juggling study & work. China’s high-pressure schooling system formed me well. Once you have been through that crazy system, a lot of things would feel easy in comparison! Even today, I feel like my years in China are helping me to overcome some of my difficulties as a founder. 

Education seems to be your passion in life. Where is your take on the topic?

I feel the word education is tainted. We shouldn’t be talking about education, but rather about learning. At its core, learning is something most people love and do during their entire life, while, on the other hand, education often refers to big institutions people only attend in their early years.  We should promote lifelong learning and enable people to broaden their horizons. That is my goal! 

You taught yourself to code. Why is that?

I knew I wanted to build a startup and have read stories of aspiring founders who felt they couldn’t make any progress because they didn’t have the right technical cofounder. So I decided to solve the problem by becoming the CTO for my own startup, if it’s called for. 

Keep on learning. In order to stay relevant in today’s world, you have to constantly reinvent yourself.

What is your superpower?

Making friends, building a network and asking the right questions.

Why Antler, and how was your experience there?

I loved my time at Antler. The program helped me get in touch with investors and build a truly global network.  

I always tell aspiring founders without VC connections to join an incubator program. But it’s important to understand what you are signing up for. Incubators are like speed dating. You can find the love of your life, but more often than not, you don’t. You should be aware that there is always a bit of luck involved.

Another thing to keep in mind is that a co-founder relationship requires a lot of work, probably more than an actual marriage! 

Captivating an audience is nothing new for Charlotte
Captivating an audience is nothing new for Charlotte

What is Avid’s mission? 

Our mission is to promote audio-learning. The rise of podcasts has already familiarized most people with the format. However, a podcast is not created for an optimal learning experience.

We know that audio-first learning is incredibly effective. So, our vision is to develop an audio-first content format to facilitate the best possible learning experience. Simply put, we want to create the most engaging asynchronous learning platform in the world.

Avid's website
Avid's website

If you could change one thing in your journey, something you now regret, what would it be? 

I believe everything happens for a reason. We’re all doing our best with the information we have. I’ve made many mistakes, but that is just part of the journey, and I’ve learned many lessons from those errors.

One thing I would have done differently would be focusing more on myself. Last year, I had a co-founder breakup, and although it was amicable it still drained me emotionally. I was aware that I needed a break, but I just kept on working. I dragged this burden until I was burnt out. This was a mistake. 

I’ve now realized that you cannot fix the car while driving. Fortunately, my friends and family helped me through it and I’m extremely grateful for that.

The big lesson here is to value rest. You cannot be efficient without being properly rested, both physically and emotionally. 

Was this the time you felt the most vulnerable? 

Absolutely. I am an optimist and tend to have confidence, but this was when I got my first ever panic attack. It felt so incredibly negative. I wasn’t myself anymore. Optimists often believe they can handle anything, but that is how we fall into a hole. It’s important to recognise your own energy and understand when to take time off. 

How do you rest?

I like to journal, spend time alone, do yoga with friends, hike with my husband, and focus on creativity. I would advise everyone to find activities that give them energy and incorporate these into their daily routines. 

Charlotte spending quality time painting.
Charlotte spending quality time painting.

What would you do if you’d only have 30 days to live?

Our mind is amusing, because if I had six months, my answer would be to continue doing what I do now - building AVID. If I only had thirty days, I would fly my whole family to Bali and spend time in nature together.

Do you have an inspiring figure?

Lu Xun. He was a famous author in China, and he fully embraced his life choices. He was trained to become a medical doctor in Japan and had a bright and prosperous future ahead. One day he had an epiphany and he said: “what is the point of fixing people’s bodies if their mind is corrupt?”. He decided to leave medicine and dedicate the rest of his life to writing. I love his story, and it inspired me to think differently about my journey. 

One book? 

Rest by Alex Pang

If you were to start a company today, what is your one-billion Idea?

Audio-first learning of course ;) 

I believe entrepreneurship should not be about building billion-dollar companies. If this is your only goal and you reach it, you will feel f*cking miserable. Instead, it would be best if you tried to find an answer to a problem you are genuinely interested in solving. 

Our Main Takeaways

  • The mastery of storytelling opens doors. With Charlotte, it opened doors at the US admission office and at Antler.
  • Keep on learning. In order to stay relevant in today’s world, you have to constantly reinvent yourself.
  • Recognize the value of rest. Understand your limits and take time off when needed. Otherwise, you will dig yourself into a deeper and deeper hole. 

Inspiring story Charlotte, thank you very much.

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