The 20-year-old Toronto-based, Dartmouth-educated founder of Teach the Need only started his virtual tutoring program 4 years ago, but has already passed 50,000 registered students.
After just 4 years, Teach the Need, the tutoring program that started in the basement of Sunny and his friend’s local library has gained an international presence. The organization now boasts more than 50,000 students, a 300K+ social media following, 2 physical locations, an IOS/Android app, and more than 1 million tutoring hours provided. We sit down with Sunny Cui to interview him
Read on to learn about his story, the lessons he’s learned, and how Teach the Need is using technology to expand it’s reach.
What inspired you to start Teach the Need?
Its hard to pinpoint the exact date when I thought it was a good idea. I treally first started with a group of friends. We were tutoring some kids to get our volunteer hours (in Canada, they have a mandatory 40 hour volnteer commitment you got to fulfill) and my friends decided it was a way to get it filled. But anyways, we started and we sort of realized just how many students needed a palce to get educated without a cost. A lot of our students would drive something crazy like an hour or even take the bus to go to the library just to get that 30 minutes of tutoring. For a lot of kids we met it was really important to them, but I realized we could do it a lot more fficiently. Things like making the tutoring online, making it better oganized logistically, and just expanding that ability to reach a large group of students. I think that’s where teach the need started, and once we started especially during the pandemic, it popped off right away. I was actually surprised by how fast it grew
How did you get it off the ground, and what allowed you to increase it to the size it is now?
Well our first model was focused solely on tutoring. So basically what we did was that we had it so students would sign up on a website, and connect via zoom. We also ran concurrent tutoring sesions at the same time. At first we only started with a handful of students, maybe less than a dozen. Hell, I even remember our first student (not including my little brother). After that it just sort of got bigger, the word got out. It became a community thing, kids from my school would tell other kids, then we’d tell kids from other schools, it was really nice. If anything those starting years were the greatest, since now with so many students I can’t get to meet all of them. But back then, I knew all my students by a first name basis, and there were like 300.
What about now? You said you have over 50,000 kids, how do you manage to do that?
Well we got to the point where the amount of new students outgrew the number of tutors we could add, so we started getting more creative. We made tutorial videos and set up office hours instead and that was met with decently positive feedback. Then we made a mobile app where students could use and that helped a lot. Basically just a lot of revamping, taking advantage of seminars and all that, in addition to just providing more services. Nowadays students aren’t interested in just having a singular website, they want a whole ecosystem and community. We have social media platforms that connect people from around the world, we got different divisons for different regions, and now we don’t just do tutoring. Things like mental health education, workshops of entering the workforce, just anything that people really need
Teach the Need mission statement is to reduce education inequality across everywhere. Why did you focus on low-income students and what are some challenges you’ve faced with regards to that?
Yeah, I definitely think even though we brand ourseles as a tutoring program, our main focus is on just improving opportunity, particulraly for lower-income students. And students can be anywhere as old as seniors, a lot of our students are older adults in addition to school aged children. When my family first immigrated to Canada we lived in this part of Toronto called Jane and Finch, and it wasn’t a great area. We didn’t have a lot of money either, so in my eyes it was like, crap school is really the way how I’m gonna make it. It worked out for me of course, but I think I got lucky and just meeting some role models in the right time. I could’ve easily gotten put in jail or something, like every week I would be shoplifting, getting into fights, it was a tough neighborhood and the culture just wasn’t the place for a young person to grow. In my eyes if I had just an ecosystem to point me in the right direction I would’ve made a lot less mistakes. That’s sort of teach the need, just trying to build a complete system, so much social services are fragmented, having something integrated and also easily accesible is so important and the reason we do it
Where do you plan on taking this? Is this your future career, and what are the long-term goals for TTN?
Yeah definitely, that’s a great question. First of all, we’re really looking to create physical locations. Right now we have 2 phsyical locations, one in Nigeria and another in Toronto. The one in Nigeria is being built, but it’s gonna double as a call center as well as mental health counselling center. We really want to expand, but real estate is expensive and we get most of our funding from either government or sponsorships. It can be tough, keeping things free is challenging but everyone from the executive board to the outreach volunteers, this service really ought to be free. So we’ll see. We might set up a location in Pittsburgh or Singapore, but it’s still up in the air. At the moment since both of our current physical centers are less than 2 years old we definitely want to wait and see how it progresses a little more before we extrapolate our business model elsewhere. But the journey is definitely exciting.
What is one lesson you’ve learned through building your philanthropy startup? Do you consider it a startup?
Oh yeah I definitely would say it’s a startup. I mean it really function basically the same as a company, except instead of focusing on profits or anything we really focus on growth. I meman that’s basically a start up right? Screw the money lets just grow as big as possible. Obviously we are focusing on having a long term solution, and we certainly don’t lose money. But we do get funding, just different sources. Most startups get money from incubators and all that, we get it from either governments or businesses looking to advertise or promote, but fundamentally all the people on the team are pretty young, and growth is really what we’re focused on right now. The greatest challenge has been to never give up. We have a new milestone every month, and it can be really stressful. A lot of things will take years to solve, and you just gotta keep on hammering away at it. Be really creative. That’s all really.