William Zhou is the CEO and co-founder of Chalk.com, an education software company. At 24, this young entrepreneur is already on a steady path to make sure that education is approached in the best way possible.
Color Magazine: I read that you decided to create Chalk.com after seeing your high school teachers struggling to get lesson plans together. How does Chalk.com make things easier for teachers?
William Zhou: Chalk.com is the personal assistant for every teacher. We help teachers with mundane tasks like lesson planning, assessment, and attendance and surface actionable insights about the classroom.
CM: You have a lot of experience as a software engineer. What is it about software engineering that gets you excited?
Zhou: Solving problems to make and shape the world into a better place.
CM: Can you walk me through what an average day is like for you? What’s the most rewarding part of what you do?
Zhou: There is no typical day, and it never gets boring. Part of being in a startup means that you’ll have to wear many hats. Some days, I am working with our engineering team on product direction. Other days, I am meeting teachers and pitching to administrators. More recently, I started hopping back and forth between Canada and the US. Every day is different and that’s part of why I am an entrepreneur.
CM: Where do you see Chalk.com going in the next few years? How do you see it growing?
Zhou: This is the mission I laid out for Chalk.com—to support professionals in bringing personalization to education. We see Chalk.com as that personal assistant for every teacher in the world. Education is a very personal and human endeavour. When you couple great teachers with enabling technologies using methodologies like blended learning, we finally have the tools and methods to achieve personalization at scale. When we do this, we’re not only bringing quality education to all, but also helping give everyone an equal opportunity to participate in the future.
CM: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? What else are you passionate about?
Zhou: I used to be a portrait photographer and be very in tune with the art world. Since founding the startup, I poured all of my energy into it. I even sold off my camera equipment to fund my own living in the beginning. As I have a little breathing room now, I’m starting to get back to appreciating art in all different forms. You can often find me at a gallery or music hall.
CM: What’s one thing that you wish you knew when you first started Chalk.com? Does the reality of what you’re doing correlate to what you expected. In what way?
Zhou: As an Entrepreneur, you always wish you had done what you are doing yesterday. I can count many situations where I wish I had the knowledge, but it’s all part of the learning process. Fundraising, hiring, and marketing are all challenges, especially to first time entrepreneurs. However, many others have gone through what you’re going through. Entrepreneurs are told to avoid making the same mistake. However, the reality is that you don’t know what you don’t know. One way to avoid this is through peer networks.
CM: How does it feel to be such an influential person of color and CEO of your own company? What’s your favorite part of it all?
Zhou: I never saw it differently just became I’m a person of color. After all, why should it matter? Being CEO of your own company comes with pros and cons. Being your own destiny means you have all the power but also all the responsibility. The challenges can sometimes seem insurmountable, but the gratification that comes after achieving milestones are pure joy. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
CM: What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?
Zhou: I’ll skip the “just do it” and “don’t be afraid” comments. Startups are hard. Resilience matters. You will go through highs feeling like you’re top of the world and lows feeling like you’re alone by yourself. It is an emotional rollercoaster that can last years. It’s only worth it if you find something you truly care about—something you’re passionate about and can contribute to. Otherwise, you may just end up crashing in this emotional rollercoaster. With that, I wish you the best of luck in your venture!
CM: What’s one thing that a lot of people may not know about you?
Zhou: Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. In grade 10, I founded a design agency called Design Vetica. The agency grew to over 50 clients ranging from local businesses to US companies to international enterprises. It would eventually serve major causes like Amnesty International and Red Cross as well as the University of British Columbia and for profit businesses like dotCMS. Itching to build something, my business partner and I pivoted to build Draftboard, a web application that allowed designers and clients to upload, annotate and approve graphical mockups. Draftboard brought in revenue since day one and was used in departments within AOL and Adobe. However, I never got the chance to scale this company and sold it to a UK company as I entered the University of Waterloo.