Hillary Yip, attending a panel discussion. (Photo by David Missal)
Hong Kong-based Hillary Yip founded her own business at the age of 10. She is now 14 years old and manages her app startup while still going to school. A normal childhood is thus hardly possible.
She knows how to improvise, no matter how many people she has to speak to.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I am Hillary Yip,” she says firmly in the direction of the audience. A YouTube video shows her at one of her first events more than three years ago. With her right thumb she presses on the remote control, but the next slide will not come.
“Okay …” she says and stops shortly before continuing. “The clicker does not work. So, I guess I have to do it without it.” The audience applauds, the then 10-year-old begins her speech.
Around three years later, Hillary Yip pulled out her own business card, “Founder & CEO” is written on it. Wrapped in a blue down coat, she sits on a bright green plastic chair in a learning center in the middle of the metropolis of Hong Kong. Hillary’s shoulder-length black hair surrounds her childish face, slight acne marks reveal her age. A pink button with the words “Girl Power” is attached to her black and white striped backpack.
She no longer goes to a normal school; she has private lessons with her brother who is three years younger. “What did you do yesterday?” Hillary’s English and history teacher asks her.
“I had two investor meetings,” Hillary replies, flashing her silver braces. “I’m meeting them again this afternoon.”
Hillary is currently looking for investors for her app which aims to teach English, Chinese or other languages to children around the world. Users can chat with peers and learn the language of each other.
Hillary got the idea for her startup three years ago. In the summer of 2015, she spent a month in Taiwan learning Mandarin. “I learned extremely efficiently,” she says in retrospect. Children around the world should have the opportunity to learn new languages without having to fly overseas, she says.
There is already a first prototype, Hillary’s parents paid the programming costs of more than 100,000 Hong Kong dollars.
When she talks about her app, Hillary speaks like a real CEO. ” I’d like to stress that this is just a prototype,” she says in perfect English. “It means that our features aren’t perfect and our UXUI isn’t exemplary.” UXUI describes how the app works and looks like. It is only one of many technical terms that fit in naturally with the sentences of the 14-year-old.
When she talks about the 50,000 downloads of the app in more than 50 countries, she widely opens her eyes as she always does when talking about anything important.
Hillary was born and raised in Hong Kong. She speaks English, Cantonese and is learning Mandarin. With an IQ of more than 130 points she is gifted. Her mother did not tell her the exact value, so Hillary and her also gifted brother Alexis would not compare each other.
With Hillary’s transition from elementary school to secondary school, her mother realized that she was different: Hillary was not interested in boys and cosmetics, but in books and debating. Since being a baby, her parents have read to her. “And then suddenly she started to read by herself,” recalls Hillary’s mother. With four years. “She could read the words.” Hillary reads about seven books a week, her Kindle is always with her, in her black and white backpack with the “Girl Power” button.
While having lunch with her brother and mother, Hillary is for the first time on this day quite a 14-year-old girl. She makes faces: squinting, opening her mouth. Brother Alexis holds the iPhone and takes pictures. Hillary does not have many friends. Her two best – and only – friends she met at a reading competition for children. “My two friends and I are actually fairly similar,” Hillary says. Often the three discuss politics or religion. Sometimes, when it gets too much, one of the three intervenes: “You two are 13 and 14. Get back to normal subjects, would you?“
A few hours later Hillary sits on a white barstool in the Hong Kong Convention Center. She moderates a panel at a startup fair, over 400 people are looking towards the stage. The topic is young people who start their own businesses. “People don’t take you seriously, they think you’re just a high-school student,” says one of the panelists – Hillary nods in agreement.
Her parents are sitting in the front row, the mother has her phone in her hand, the father a SLR camera. She takes pictures, he films. “Brake it, make it” is written on a display behind the stage.
Allegations that they would project their expectations on Hillary are rejected by Hillary’s mother: “I’m not putting any pressure on her,” she says. “She’s happy, she’s been herself, she’s not being forced to do anything.” Hillary agrees; says her parents would only support her. “I’ve actively made the choice to continue. My parents do frequently ask me if this is really what I want,” she says.
Nevertheless, her mother also suspects that Hillary’s dual role of being child and CEO is not easy. “I think internally she has pressure, but she never tells us,” she says. In the past year alone, Hillary has participated in around 40 events and interviews, and this year too, invitations reach until October.
After Hillary leaves the stage, around a dozen people rush towards her: press, organizers, mentors. “You are the youngest CEO I’ve ever seen,” one trade show organizer says and invites her to Shanghai. “Well done,” one of her mentors congratulates and gives her a high five. For a Chinese television station, she presents herself in four languages.
After the excitement is over, she grabs a lemon drop from her mother’s bag and nestles her head against her father’s shoulder. “Half of the questions I asked weren’t on the list,” she says. Just asking questions is just too boring, Hillary says.
The next speaker has long been on the stage. Father, Mother and Hillary are moving towards the exit. She stands in front of her parents on the escalator down, on the way out of the exhibition center. She is silent, holding her pink iPhone with her left hand.
When asked if she is exhausted after the long day, she does not answer. She nods briefly. Her black and white backpack hangs over her father’s shoulder, the “Girl Power” button points in her direction.