By Jennifer Lubell
Photo by Tim Franco

Lincoln Shi (MBA’06) built his business by using two major trends to predict a third. With globalization increasing and China growing as an influential world power, he rightly predicted that more Chinese students would be studying abroad in coming years.

Education abroad is a luxury expenditure, as Shi, who worked to save for his own Georgetown McDonough education, understands. But with wealth increasing among Chinese families, it’s nevertheless an attainable one, he explains. From this epiphany, a company was born in 2002. Working with a co-founder in a tiny Beijing apartment, Shi grew the Tiandao Education Group from scratch, expanding it to a team of 1,300 people over 15 years.

“We have not accepted any investments from venture capital firms, strategic investors, or government,” he says. Investors usually want to see a quick return — but in the education business, quality is key and may take more time to develop, he adds. “We want to have a strategic view of the company’s long-term development and to control the quality of the service.”

Today, with 20 service centers and six subsidiary brands in 13 cities, Tiandao is the largest education consulting firm in China with a focus on getting students into the top 50 American colleges and top 100 graduate schools. Shi had noticed that other firms with a similar focus had either shut down or were operating on a small scale. As a former investment banker, he decided to leverage his skills in marketing companies to investors to build his enterprise.

Tiandao ended up borrowing from a services model and wealth management system used by private banks and management consultants in China to redesign the model in education consulting.

“We are pioneers in this industry,” he asserts. Many of Tiandao’s good practices have become industry models and standards; one example is the “one team concept,” which involves both consultants and clients. A student applying to engineering school may work with a consultant with an engineering background, an American consultant to help with English and polishing essays, and a consultant with good relationship-management skills to handle a student’s parents. 

Headquartered in Beijing, the company and its six varied units assist young people during the pre-college and postgraduation phases of their lives.

Through the school applications unit, students apply to some of the world’s best universities. The test prep unit readies students for the SAT and graduate-level entrance exams, and the “real art” unit helps students prepare for art school. For grade-school-age children, there’s a program to improve learning abilities. Tiandao also offers an online education program and a “new reach” unit that helps students fine-tune leadership, teamwork, and presentation skills through extracurricular activities and internships.

Employees embrace their role as growth coaches. “We emphasize the teamwork, the collective intelligence of consultants,” Shi says.

A list of success stories follows Tiandao. The organization has helped 250-plus applicants get offers from Ivy League schools in 2017 alone — plus an impressive 79 offers from Georgetown University.

Next steps are to strengthen Tiandao’s businesses in career development coaching, job placement for Chinese students who study abroad, and online teaching — not to mention stretching to other parts of the world.

“Internationally, we are evaluating the Vietnam market,” Shi says. The global mission continues to grow.