One Silicon Valley entrepreneur is devoting his life to create programs where students think outside the box and take ownership of their learning.
Bill Zhao is the founder of Harmony Plus, which provides in-person and online classes for students and executives across the United States and abroad. Professors from universities including UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Georgetown instruct students from all over the world.
Harmony Plus offers STEM research programs for young learners, as well as reading and writing classes.
Harmony Plus created the Future Entrepreneur Challenge, which pairs mentorships from tech professionals with middle and high school students who develop products to pitch to Silicon Valley investors. The top three winners receive investments in their products, with first place receiving $500.
In 2020, the program served more than 300 students, including first-generation Muslim, African-American and Latinx students.
“Entrepreneurs see a need, take action and help people and the world,” said Esther Wojcick, dean of Harmony Plus. “That’s Bill’s philosophy also. He is passionate about helping students succeed and giving them opportunities they might not have otherwise.”
East Side Union High School District students participated in the entrepreneur challenge. A team of Silver Creek High School students, including Mindy Phan and Brendon Phuong, created an app to connect students with peer tutors.
Phan said she learned about marketing and the importance of working closely with customers through the 10-week course.
“It was really interactive and unique compared to regular classes and helped me think of a startup idea,” Phan said. “It’s insightful hearing from an actual designer how to implement our ideas.”
Phuong, a low-income student, said he found the challenge engaging.
“It’s a great stepping stone, especially having that mindset and a foundation of skills,” Phuong said. “I learned never to give up.”
Massimiliano Genta, a Harmony Plus instructor, said it’s rewarding watching students pitch their prototypes to real investors. He enjoyed mentoring students on coding, digital marketing, financial projection and public speaking.
“I really respect his work ethic, commitment and ideas,” Genta said of Zhao. “To be successful, you have to outwork everyone. He’s putting his expertise and knowledge into action to provide value to the community.”
Zhao, a 48-year-old adjunct professor at Nankai University and partner of Palo Alto consulting firm Enterprise Development Group, was born in a small village in the Shanxi province of China, which he said was the second poorest province in the country. As a young child, he lived with his grandmother while his parents worked in the capital city of Taiyuan about 43 miles away.
At age seven, Zhao joined his parents in the city to start school. He comes from a family of educators, as both his parents and grandparents were teachers.
“Even though we were very poor, they gave me big dreams,” Zhao said. “My father changed his life from living in the countryside to life in the city through education.”
Zhao reached a turning point in early 2000 when he was nearly bankrupted by suppliers while working as an entrepreneur. Believing a lack of education on trade regulations was the cause, he decided to devote his life to educating others.
In 2014, Zhao, his wife Suzanna Li and their two children moved from China to Silicon Valley. He founded Harmony Plus the following year.
Zhao said students can change the future if they learn to change their mindset, behavior and performance.
“(Through Harmony Plus) we offered school districts free training on how to make students enjoy school,” he said. “I could feel their passion to help the community, including the underserved sectors, and I could feel the energy from those young kids. They have brilliant ideas.”
Zhao said Harmony Plus is working to get certified through the California State Board of Education. Certification would give Harmony Plus an endorsement to teach at middle and high schools across the state and realize Zhao’s dream of upgrading education for generations to come.
“I hope those young kids can become future leaders,” Zhao said, “and make the world a better place of harmony.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]