Starting a successful business while in your early 20s can be daunting, especially when you are an American and the business is in China. But Vienna native Robbie Fried seems to have pulled it off.
In 2009, after receiving a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in Asian Area Studies from Virginia Tech, Robbie Fried, then 22, moved to Guilin, China.
There, with the help of his family, he founded the Chinese Language Institute, an educational institution that offers short- and long-term intensive Mandarin training as well as accredited study and research seminars throughout China.
CLI grossed more than $160,000 in its first year, and serves about 100 students a year, said Fried, now 24. "I couldn't have done it without my brother," he said of his older sibling, Bradford, 31, who has lived in Guilin for nearly a decade.
"My husband and I kid around all the time saying, 'Who would have ever thought that two of our three sons would be living in China?" said their mother, Nancy Fried.
Bradford Fried, a graduate of Lewis & Clark College, first went to China in 2001 as part of a seven-month international studies program. He enjoyed the culture so much that he moved back in 2004 to teach English at a Chinese university. "I was so amazed at how easily I picked up on the language and culture during my short time there that I decided to live there," he said.
Not to be outdone by his big brother, Robbie--a 2004 graduate of Madison High School--attempted to learn to speak Mandarin on his own while a student at Virginia Tech.
Edd Sewell was Robbie's adviser at the university and remembers how passionately Robbie was attempting to learn Chinese. "He got very frustrated with the traditional classroom instruction and he began attempting to teach himself, with the help of tutors," Sewell said.
A visit to Bradford in 2007 got Robbie thinking about how much more easily he was mastering the language while interacting daily with natives. He became so passionate about it that he stayed two months. "I just traveled around and mingled with the people, and my language skills improved exponentially," he said.
He went back twice more and eventually became fluent. After graduating, he decided to partner with his brother and offer others the same opportunity to learn by immersion.
Today, he is managing director of the institute, which recently expanded to a 3,600-square-foot facility on the Guilin campus of Guangxi Normal University, and provides students with 13 classrooms.
But the classroom is only a small part of the experience.
Last summer, Nicholas Gacos, a junior at Virginia Tech studying broadcast journalism, participated in a three-week program. He earned six semester credits in 21 days and said he learned more in that time through real-life experience than he imagined he could.
"We crammed so much learning into those three weeks," he said. "The things we did, and saw, and ate, and the people with which we interacted; it was an unbelievable learning experience, as well as a great deal." The 21-day trip -- including airfare, lodging, food and instruction -- cost less than $4,000, Gacos said.
Gacos' experience learning through immersion is what the brothers had set out to provide through the school.
"That's exactly what I hope to accomplish with the institute," Robbie Fried said. "Institutional learning has its place, but there are so many invaluable things someone can learn about a culture only through experiencing it."
That connection makes the program even more appealing to Sewell.
"What Robbie and Bradford are doing in a sense is building a bridge between cultures," he said.
Sewell took a group of 16 Tech students to CLI last summer, teaching at the school during the trip. "One of the students that went with our group was so impressed with the learning experience that he is going back," he said. "Robbie's passion for cultural expansion is most definitely contagious."