Five Questions With Valencia Hochberg, Founder of Zoom Across Borders
Tell us about your venture and what inspired you to start it.
Before entering high school, I set a goal for myself: I wanted to be fluent in Spanish by my graduation. At the time, this goal did not seem out of reach. But 3 years later, with only one more year of high school, I was nowhere near fluent. It wasn’t for lack of trying—I had studied Spanish in school for 6 years, complementing my education with Spanish TV shows and playlists of Spanish music. I think what was missing was conversations about everyday topics with people my own age.
I always heard, growing up, that the only way to achieve second-language fluency was to move to a new country and fully immerse yourself in the language and culture. As a junior in high school quarantined with my family during COVID, moving to a primarily Spanish-speaking country was not in the cards. But as Zoom became a verb, I realized that there was an opportunity to foster community and communication from the safety of our homes.
For a couple of years before I launched Zoom Across Borders, I had been thinking about trying to start some sort of communication program that would help students like me improve their speaking ability in a second or third language. With the free time that I had during COVID, I finally acted on the idea.
Zoom Across Borders is a program that pairs students learning another language with students who speak that language fluently (and vice versa) for weekly video communication. Students break up conversations into two sections—15 minutes speaking in English and 15 minutes speaking in Spanish—so that both partners get the opportunity to practice and improve their second language. It is casual and free of cost and judgment. I launched Zoom Across Borders in September 2020.
What has your Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs experience been like so far, and what are you most taking away from it? Are there other ways you’re plugging into Duke’s innovation and entrepreneurship community?
In October 2020, I sat in bed scrolling through queues of Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship videos, opportunities, and courses, running to tell my mom about each exciting story I had heard or class I planned to take. Duke I&E was the thing that truly separated Duke from the other colleges I was considering and one of the reasons I decided to apply early decision the following month. I dreamed of joining the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program.
Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs allowed me to join a cohort of six other incredible student-entrepreneurs at different stages of life and stages of business. My biggest takeaways from the program so far have come from the many Duke and Melissa & Doug alumni who have spoken during our weekly meetings. It has been so helpful to learn not only about their ventures but about how they balanced schoolwork with founding a business. It is easy and exciting to celebrate my peers as they succeed. But I’ve also experienced the incredible support system for M&D Entrepreneurs when they don’t succeed.
While I have not officially declared my major, I am committed to completing the undergraduate Innovation & Entrepreneurship certificate. I am currently enrolled in two I&E courses– Customer Empathy & Brand Experience Design, taught by Brad Brinegar, and Product Management, taught by Steven McClelland, Amy Peters, and Isaac Park. Taking these courses in tandem with the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program has given me a special lens through which to absorb classwork, lessons, and materials.
In Customer Empathy & Brand Experience Design, I am learning how to build and maintain a brand through case studies, hands-on experiments, quantitative and qualitative data collection, and a deep understanding of what out-of-the-box successful marketing looks like. After each class, I look back through my handwritten notes (no technology allowed!) and dig deep into ways to truly differentiate Zoom Across Borders’s concept and brand.
In Product Management, I am tasked with evangelizing and criticizing new web-based products and then forming strategies to improve financial gain, marketing success, and overall usability. In completing product assessments for various startups based here in the Research Triangle, I experiment with the products through the lens of a small business owner, learning how each product could improve the clarity of my website, data collection, business model, and more.
What’s a significant hurdle you’ve faced with your venture, how did you address it, and what was the outcome?
When I first launched Zoom Across Borders, my target customer was students interested in learning beyond the classroom. I was successful—I found participants through social media marketing, school clubs, and word of mouth. I used to stare at the sign-up spreadsheet, watching as each new participant registered. It was all exciting until I realized that I needed to confirm every participant’s identity to ensure that all of the users have a safe and productive experience. This realization motivated me to change my target customer from individual students to foreign language teachers who were interested in incorporating a language exchange into their curriculum. Working with schoolteachers and administrators allowed me to easily verify the identities of all participants while also giving me invaluable insights into what educators feel is lacking from advanced foreign language courses.
What are the next steps for your venture?
I am really excited to expand the Zoom Across Borders curriculum to be able to pair students learning languages other than English and Spanish. My next step for Zoom Across Borders is to introduce French as a language option and work with schools in primarily French-speaking countries to help their students practice English or Spanish. Mandarin could be next. Only speaking English and Spanish, it made sense to launch with those two languages initially, but I think that there is so much room for growth and expansion.
What motivates you in your work? What’s your ultimate vision for your venture?
What motivates me most is my peers’ excitement when I tell them about my venture, their interest in participating in the Zoom Across Borders launch at Duke, and how many of them wished that they had a program like this in high school. As a student entrepreneur, I am so grateful for the mentorship and advice that I’ve received from professors, fellow entrepreneurs, and Duke administrators.
I would like to see a change in how languages are taught. Of course vocabulary, verb conjugations, reading, and writing are super important. But I’d like Zoom Across Borders to become a go-to for foreign language teachers and for it to become the model of how students learn to communicate. In so many European countries, students participate in exchange programs, and this could be the beginning of such a thing. I hope that American students will become so comfortable chatting with their partners and fascinated by their cultures, and vice-versa, that they’ll be inspired to venture abroad, live with host families, and fully immerse themselves.