Turning Tutors into Entrepreneurs

speakshop.gif A Google search of the phrase, “learn Spanish online” returns 36,600,000 results. Changing the search to, “fair trade Spanish language instruction” reduces the number to 1,050,000. At the top of the list is Speak Shop, an online company that “makes it easy for Spanish students all over the world to benefit from one-on-one tutoring with experienced instructors who are native to and living in a Spanish-speaking country,” while at the same time “improves the lives of language tutors and students and fosters intercultural understanding and respect.”

The idea is brilliantly simple. Speak Shop uses the Internet to connect high quality native speaking language instructors (many have master’s degrees) in countries such as Guatemala and Nicaragua to students all over the world who want to learn to speak Spanish. The idea is to have immersion-level instruction without having to travel. At the same time, the tutors receive a fair wage for their work.

Employing a fair trade model to this business is an interesting alternative to some of the microfinance efforts employed elsewhere to try to improve the living conditions of workers. According to a recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, the founders of Speak Shop, Clay and Cindy Cooper, “created what is in effect a Fair Trade service company that allows teachers to set their own rates and their own hours. Speak Shop simply provides the technical framework - the Web conferencing, the online scheduling interface, and IT support - along with marketing. ‘The tutors are not our employees,’ emphasizes Cindy Cooper. ‘They work for the students.’”

Speak Shop goes a step further for folks who are interested in making a greater difference. On their website they offer several ways to help:
• Take lessons - simple and good for you too
• Go to http://del.icio.us/ search for “Speak Shop” and save it as a favorite
Sponsor a tutor’s U.S. teaching certification to make her more marketable (approximately US$140)*
Visit the tutors in Guatemala and take lessons in person at PROBIGUA
• Tell a friend
• Print and post a Speak Shop flyer

What a perfect use of the World Wide Web: creating a marketplace, giving access to global services to anyone with an Internet connection, and addressing social ills all at the same time! But don’t take my word for it that this is a fantastic idea. Speak Shop has received much media attention and many awards since its launch in January 2005, including:
• 2006 Innotech Innovation Award, Innotech Oregon
• Semi-Finalist, 2006 Global Social Venture Competition
• Best Social Return on Investment Analysis, 2005 Social and Environmental Technologies Challenge

Habla usted Espanol?

Caroline Heine

Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 20, 2007 in Economic Development | Social Entreprenuers | Technology | Permalink | Comments (2)


I've come across a number of online tutoring websites (e.g. tutor.com, homeworkhelp.com, tutoreasy.com, www.schooltrainer.com, etc.). Has anyone prepared a comparison of the various companies (pricing, quality, etc.)?

Posted by: Ron Shasta

There are plenty of online tutoring programs, but none offer the kind of credibility that would generate the kind of money to make a "free market" model worth diddly. Certainly, small tastes leading to larger doses, building on success, for one example, could incent better teaching/tutoring from anywhere, but a blind, market based scheme is essentially meaningless until or unless there is a balance in the transaction: until one side's money is no more credible than the other side's skills.

That is exactly the problem with most "market based" facile solutions: the balance has to be documented in some form that merits both sides' investment in any transaction. And a teacher certificate in a foreign setting is hardly what makes that document worthwhile. There are plenty of locally certified teachers who would be simply dreadful tutors, particularly in a foreign language. Just as there are plenty of barely literate immigrants who might be brilliant tutors to the same people who hire them to clean their house, if their boss would only sit long enough to talk.

This same principle of parity underscores the futility of lots of other well meaning suggestions on this site for philanthropic expression. To presume, for example, as some have, that there is no measurable outcome from a donation is patently ridiculous. The outcome is measured by how much, to whom, how often, and for what, just as any other transaction. Such a presumption only reflects the inability of the observer to SEE what the DONOR gets from GIVING, and what the recipient does with the GIFT.

Posted by: Joe Beckmann