Career Advice Working Women

Head to Headstart

Dannie Hongchoy is helping Hong Kong students race ahead with their English

Dannie Hongchoy, founder and executive director of Headstart Group – which provides English education services to more than 280 kindergartens, primary and secondary schools in Hong Kong and Macau – believes the way English is taught by most local institutions is not the correct one.

“There is not enough room for students to apply the language,” she says of the all-too-common approach of getting students to recite stories and grammar structures from textbooks. “This explains why a local university graduate is not able to communicate in English properly, despite learning the language since kindergarten.”

It was Hongchoy’s children who were responsible for leading her into the education business. “When my daughter was three, I wanted to find an extra-curricular activity where she could practise her English while stimulating her mind, but I was unable to find one. So I founded ‘Science Workshop’, an after-school educational institution that merged English teaching with science,” she says.

In 2006, she decided that she wanted to develop a business in a more mainstream market, so she sold Science Workshop and established Headstart Group to focus on teaching English. “Language is really important. People may have strong thinking abilities and are creative, but they also need to have communication skills to express their thoughts and to articulate their position. This is why I put in a lot of effort in teaching my children English,” she says.

At home, Hongchoy devotes her efforts into creating an English environment for her children. “I will tell them bedtime stories in English. My children love them and this gets them to love reading and love English. Other members of the family talk to my children in Cantonese, but my husband and I speak to them in English and now they are able to use English like a native speaker,” she says.

Before she became a mother, Hongchoy had already discovered her interest in building and running a business from her job running a private business for a client. When she became pregnant she took a break from work, and later, while staying at home to take care of her daughter, she took an MBA from the Open University of Hong Kong and a diploma in child psychology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

When she became pregnant with her second child, she was admitted onto a PhD programme at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to do research on organisational management. This particular education experience, however, was short lived. “I suspended my PhD studies because I decided I could contribute more to society by running a business rather than doing research paper,” she says.

It is evident that Hongchoy likes to keep herself busy. A loving mother, caring wife and an ambitious entrepreneur, she says she does not find life overwhelming, but instead feels her three distinct roles help one another grow. “When my children were young, I was a hands-on mother and I spent all of my time with them. It was them who inspired me to enter the education business. My business, in turn, helps me understand more about the challenges faced by my husband, who is a businessman. I play three roles equally well – I really enjoy being a woman,” she says.

For Hongchoy, success is living up to one’s potential. “This is what I teach my kids. Success is to live life to the fullest. I am blessed to have found my talent in education. I think I have a natural talent in influencing people, which makes me a born educator. I hope to inspire others to find their own talents,” she says.

She feels she was very lucky to grow up in a family that supported her any way they could. “Many Chinese parents are very demanding. They will question why their children did not get 90 marks when they already scored 80. My parents are nothing like that. They are so encouraging and supportive, which gives me the confidence to pursue what I want in life. This is also my approach towards raising my children and I encourage other parents to do the same,” she says.

Her target now is a particularly large one – to help develop Hong Kong’s labour force meet the demands of the 21st century. She believes that as Hong Kong has no natural resources of its own to depend on, education is most important to its development. Human capital is the most crucial factor in the city’s future and the English standard of the labour force will be the deciding factor in the city remaining competitive.

“We must separate ourselves from other cities on the mainland with our superior English standard,” she says. “English is the international language; if our labour force is not able to communicate in English on a high level, businesses will not want to come to the city. The city would lose its international appeal and economic development would suffer. I am not just talking about the business elite being excellent English users – for the city to stay competitive, the majority of the working force needs to know English.”

In recent years, though, feedback from employers and various research reports have shown that the English standard of Hong Kong is declining. Hongchoy thinks it is a worrying trend that needs to be tackled.

“We used to laugh at the Singaporeans about their Singlish, but now our labour force is not even able to form a proper sentence in English,” she says. “The introduction of mother-tongue education gives people the impression that English has become less important, which is a huge mistake. It has reduced people’s interest to learn the language and eroded the English environment of Hong Kong.”

Dannie’s directions for inspiring kids

  • Congratulate a child on all of their successes, no matter how big or small. Self-confidence comes from the support and positivity of parents.
  • Everyone is talented. Success is measured by how well a child makes use of their talent.
  • Telling stories is the best way to inspire a child’s interest in reading, which is the key to helping them build a strong foundation in languages.