Whether 14-year-old Michelle Lu was attending school in China or the U.S., her peers always asked her questions about the other country.
“Do you know how to say this? What’s my name in Chinese?” asked 14-year-old Lu, repeating questions friends in her freshman class at the Agnes Irwin School would ask her. “They think the writing is beautiful. They want to see historical monuments like the Great Wall.”
Her father’s job caused the first-generation American to move between the two countries several times, spending four years of her childhood in China.
“My parents would speak to me in English and my grandparents would speak Chinese to me, so I was forced to learn both languages,” she said. “It is like a whole new world.”
Her experience combined with a desire to be a businesswoman -- “I thought wearing a suit automatically makes you important” – planted a seed in the ambitious girl’s head.
“I’d like to bridge the gap and connect the dots to the two worlds,” said Michelle Lu of Villanova.
So the budding entrepreneur developed her idea for an exchange program into a full-fledged business during a 30-week program with the Philadelphia (YEA!) Young Entrepreneurs Academy.
“IChina is a two-part business,” Lu described. “During the school year, the company offers an after-school program, which is focused on learning about the Chinese language and culture. And during the summer, it provides an exchange program for Chinese and American students.”
The business already has two Chinese students committed to the 16-day trip and several tentative agreements from Philly-area teenagers interested in going abroad, she said.
“The beauty of her program is that a high school student is designing it so that [the participants] will be more engaged,” said Ellen Fisher, executive director of Philadelphia YEA! “She has a sense what other high school students are interested in.”
The People to People International program established in 1956 shares many similarities with IChina, but Lu distinquishes her program with an educational element.
"The goal is for them to bettter understand the language by becoming immersed in the culture," she said.
A fee of $3,875 covers ground transport in the host country, room and board, language classes, tickets to museums and other cultural attractions, and the salary for a chaperone-slash-teacher. Airfare is not included and the exchange is only open to high schoolers, although Lu might consider rising 8th graders in the future.
“The classroom portion will serve as a feeder for the exchange program,” the whiz kid explained.
During the 12-week program, which costs $300, students will take a 60-minute class that covers the Chinese language and culture.
“When they learn to read, they might read a famous poem and they’d celebrate Chinese holidays,” she said.
Her business plan, along with the two confirmed sales, impressed judges at an investor panel in March so much they selected Lu to compete in the Northeast YEA! Saunders Scholar Competition in Rochester, N.Y. Friday.
“Her presentation skills are impeccable,” Fisher said. “She has a grasp not only on business, but on networking. …She’s flexible and that is a really good attribute of an entrepreneur.”
If IChina is one of the two businesses selected from among the 22 presented, Lu will compete against the western and southern regional competitions’ winners for a chance at a $50,000 college scholarship and an audition for the reality show Shark Tank at America’s Small Business Summit in Washington June 11.
Lu is excited about the possibility for a win, but says she isn’t in it for the money.
“My goal is to bring awareness to the world,” she said. “I’d really like to make a difference and leave my mark.”
When IChina’s first exchange students arrive this summer, the 14-year-old entrepreneur’s mark will be made.