Wunderkind: Girl from Hong Kong leads startup – at 14 years of age

She could improvise early on, no matter how many people she met. At the age of ten Hillary Yip presented her business idea at a startup conference in her home country Hong Kong, a video of which is on Youtube. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” she said with a firm voice in the crowded hall. She pressed the remote control, unsuccessfully, her presentation did not appear. Hillary looked helpless, mumbled “okay” – and said cheekily: “Then I’ll have to do it without.” Applause, shouting. The audience had her on their side right away.

Hillary is now 14 years old and presents her business card as a greeting: “Founder & CEO” is written on it. Of course she has a childlike face, and slight traces of acne reveal her age. A pink button with the inscription “Girl Power” is attached to her backpack.

“I had two investor meetings”

Hillary hasn’t gone to a regular school since she was bullied. She gets private lessons in one of the many Hong Kong learning centres where we meet. There, too, Hillary’s entrepreneurship is an issue, all by itself. “What did you do yesterday?” she asks her English and history teacher. “I had two investor meetings,” Hillary replies and flashes her braces. “I’m meeting the investors again this afternoon.”

Currently, she is looking for sponsors for her app, with which she wants to teach languages to children all over the world. The concept is simple: users chat with their peers and learn each other’s language. Eight to fourteen-year-olds from Thailand, Vietnam and Hong Kong chat in groups in English about accidents they have had. Small Taiwanese and Chinese teach Canadians and Englishmen Chinese. Children from New Zealand, China and Switzerland exchange ideas about playing the piano.

The idea for the startup came to Hillary when she spent a month in Taiwan learning Mandarin. “I learned extremely efficiently,” she says. Since then, she has wanted to make it easy for all children to learn a language without having to fly abroad. There is a first version of the app, called MinorMynas, which Hillary says has been downloaded 60,000 times by children from nearly 60 countries. Hillary’s parents, a police commissioner and a housewife, in whose name the company is registered, paid the programming costs of around CHF 10,000.

When she talks about the app, she’s all CEO. “I want to stress that this is just a prototype,” she says in perfect English tech slang. “Our features aren’t perfect, and our UXUI isn’t perfect either.” UXUI stands for “user experience, user interface”, which means how user-friendly the app is. In fact, the few ratings in the App Store are bad. “Unfinished”, “doesn’t work”, users write. The CEO still has a lot of work to do.

Mother’s hiding the exact IQ.

Her mother realized early on that Hillary was different from her peers. Her parents read to her from an early age, at the age of four she read herself. Today she always has her Kindle with her and supposedly reads about seven books every week. Not youth literature, but classics like “On liberty” by John Stuart Mill, “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo and “A brief history of time” by Stephen Hawking. Her IQ is more than 130 points, which makes her highly gifted. Her mother did not tell her the exact value so that she and her brother, who is also highly gifted, would not compare.

At lunch with mother and brother, Hillary looks like a normal 14-year-old for the first time that day. She grimaces, squints, opens her mouth while her brother photographs her. Hillary does not have many friends. She met her two best friends at a literature competition for children. “We’re pretty much alike,” she says. The three often discuss politics and religion. Sometimes, when things get to the point, one of the three intervenes. Then she says: “You two are 13 and 14. Can you talk about normal things?”

A few hours later Hillary is sitting on a bar stool in the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre. She moderates a discussion round at a startup fair. About 400 spectators are there, behind the stage a display says “All or nothing”. The theme: Young people starting their own businesses. “People don’t take you seriously, they think you’re just a student,” says one of the panel participants. Hillary nods. Her parents sit in the front row, her mother photographs with her mobile phone, her father films with the SLR camera.

“We don’t force them to do anything”

Are Hillary’s parents burdened with excessive expectations? The mother rejects that. “I’m not putting any pressure on her.” Hillary is happy and she herself. “We don’t force her to do anything. Hillary agrees. Her parents would fully support her, but would not make any decisions for her. “It’s me who stays on it. My parents regularly ask me if this is really what I want”.

Nevertheless, her mother also suspects that Hillary’s dual role as a teenager and CEO is not easy. “She keeps the inner pressure she certainly feels to herself.” Last year alone, Hillary had around 40 appearances and interviews, including for the BBC. Also this year the inquiries reach until October.

How great the interest in the girl is, shows up after the discussion round at the Startup fair. When Hillary leaves the stage, she is surrounded by a dozen people: journalists, organizers, mentors. “You’re the youngest CEO I’ve ever seen,” says a trade fair organizer who wants to invite her to Shanghai. “Well done,” says one of her teachers and gives her a “high five. For a Chinese television station, Hillary introduces herself in four languages.

Then the riot is over. The presenter, who has just been in demand, takes a sweet from her mother’s pocket and nestles against her father’s shoulder. “Half of my questions were not on the list,” she says. It is boring to ask only prepared questions.

The next one is already talking on stage when the Yips break open. Hillary stands with her parents on the escalator, still, her pink smartphone in her hand. Is she exhausted after a long day? She nods. Her father carries her backpack. The “Girl Power” button is dangling in front of her nose.

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Christina Cherry
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