Revolution Has Its Price

By Ling Chai Print this article Print

In Tiananmen Square, she was a student leader who stood up to tanks. In the U.S., she became a software executive who had to deal with venture capitalists. Guess which one was the tougher opponent.

At Jenzabar, the company I founded in 1998, the concept was a rather straightforward one for universities in the United States.

PDF Download We would create a "media station" for colleges. The presidents of these institutions would be able to broadcast curriculum information and changes to students and administration, faculty would communicate directly with students, students would collaborate with other students. Life in higher education would become more effective, through better tutelage; more efficient, through better scheduling; and more substantive, through the cross-fertilization of innovative minds.

The idea is to—pardon the use of the dot-com phrase—merge the bricks of public and private institutions with the clicks of laptop and desktop computers to create an intellectual environment that challenges and stretches the intellectual capacity of the MTV generation.

The seemingly mundane combination of calendaring, admission processing, study group coordination, calling-list management and learning services that Jenzabar provides seems to have resonated at colleges from coast to coast, from Claremont College in California, to Columbia College in Chicago, to Harvard Medical School in Boston. We have managed to somehow survive the dot-com bust, reach $50 million in annual revenue and achieve profitability. Not bad.

But, as any project manager might attest, it takes almost religious fervor to get such a seemingly safe idea across even in a country that is most receptive to entrepreneurial activity.

Don't get me wrong: I feel extremely fortunate to have been granted a second life and be able to live it in this oft-critiqued but not-yet-duplicated cradle of freedom.

The key, though, is commitment. That's the real business model that succeeds; grinding every night and every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

For me, the longest hour and the longest night I ever lived was in Tiananmen Square, in 1989, when the student movement tried to demand democracy of our nation's unyielding governors. My role was to lead a hunger strike for seven days and nights. We tried to be peaceful. We tried to be rational. But the end result was tanks, bloodshed and the massacre of innocent people.

Here, at least, power in Washington can change hands without bloodshed, according to the expressed will of the people. And economic revolution, even a minor one such as that fostered by Jenzabar, occurs without bloodshed. Even in the dot-com bust, no one had to die.

But the creation of a company is no less stressful than running a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square.

There is no "longest night." Rather, each week is longer than the last. If you succeed, it only intensifies.

Never forget: Money is your master. When you are down to your last dime and you have a $250,000 payroll to meet, venture capitalists are your best friends. But make no mistake: Their job is to get the last blood out of you. Even if no artery gets cut.

But I am happy, because I am the leader of another student movement. I have been given the chance, by fate, to help the youth of America prepare for the next century.

Sure, our business folks can prove to our customers—the institutions of higher learning—that there is a big return on investing in our technology, from the ability to recruit more students to saving on admission procedures.

Yet what every customer is really doing is putting in place the servers, networks and software that will guarantee students everywhere the ability to think independently, to associate with people of like or dislike mind, to organize and to elect—every day—how to best pursue their vision of a better future for themselves and the countries in which they ultimately live.

As we found in China, even the most determined authority can't put technology back in the bottle.

Which makes its dispersion the greatest revolution any student, faculty member or administrator who cares about freedom of thought can be involved in.

Written with Tom Steinert-Threlkeld

Ling Chai was commander in chief of the Tiananmen Student Organization. She attended Beijing Normal University in China, then Princeton University and the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration in the United States. She now is president, chief operating officer and cofounder of Jenzabar, an educational software company based in Cambridge, Mass.

This article was originally published on 2003-01-20
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