The Gift of Learning: Steven Ma

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Some success stories are the results of Tiger moms, while other take a different path.  Let’s meet an immigrant kid who’s parents didn’t demand straight A’s in school, moved from school to school growing up, and was once called the “stupidest kid” by his 9th grade teacher. Steven Ma was not supposed to lead one of the fastest growing education companies in the U.S but now he finds himself a successful entrepreneur and inspirational speaker who has helped more than 40,000 U.S. students achieve their education dreams in today’s competitive, global world.

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Steven Ma

Steven Ma is the middle child born to parents who immigrated to Oakland, California from Taiwan when he was 11-years-old. His father worked in a hotel and his mother worked in a restaurant and both were too busy to track their kids’ whereabouts. At his first elementary school, Steven faced language barriers, and as is often the case of the immigrant experience, and was moved to another elementary school which was a bilingual, Cantonese immersion school.  That might have been seen as a good fit by school administrators, but there was one glaring problem, he didn’t speak Cantonese.  He was then enrolled in an ESL (English As a Second Language) program at his first junior high school and spent the next couple of years bouncing around from school to school.  Finally in the 10th grade, the family moved to the minuscule town of Lockeford, CA with a population of 430 residents. Attending the closest school twelve miles away in Lodi, Steven was struggling at the bottom of his class and was almost kicked out for a low GPA. That was when he met savior and role model:  Mrs. Allen, a Geometry instructor with a passion for teaching and encouraging words for her students.  Steven got his first “A” and more importantly his first compliment. He worked harder to impress her and not let her down.  Finally he found a way past the intimidation and an ineffective school system for immigrant students and set his sights on his future.  Newly motivated he caught up on his classes in high school, finished all his lower division math and physics at the community college and even took classes at UC Berkeley during the summer.  After graduating high school, he was accepted full time at U.C. Berkeley graduating in four years with a double major B.A. in Math and Physics.

After graduation, Steven cut his teeth at a Hedge Fund company in Los Angeles before relocating back to Oakland to pursue his dream of becoming an educator.  He taught Math at Castlemont High School, tutored many students and came to realize the system that had failed him was continuing to keep today’s youth from reaching his/her educational potential.  In 2002, Steven borrowed $2,000 and founded ThinkTank Learning in a small 80 square foot office providing test prep services.  Today, ThinkTank Learning has grown into a multi-service education firm providing academic tutoring by US college graduates in a variety of areas, standardized test prep services, as well as college consulting services.  They have 14 offices throughout the Bay Area, employing 80 full time and 200 part-time staff/counselors, and 2 offices in China (Beijing and Shenzhen) employing 70 staff/counselors.

In 2012, Assembly Speaker John A. Perez appointed Steven to the California Commission on Asian & Pacific Islander American Affairs where he currently serves as Secretary.  Prior to this appointment, Steven served as Chairman of the Education Committee of the International Leadership Foundation, which seeks to develop young leaders in the United States, Asia, and other Pacific-rim countries in the fields of public service, entrepreneurship and the international arena.  In the US, Steven has been awarded Certificates of Recognition from the California State Legislature and the Cities of Sunnyvale, Saratoga, San Jose, Cupertino.  In 2010, Steven was recognized as one of China’s Top 10 Economic Talents and given a special recognition at the 7th Annual “Greater China Economic Excellence Awards” in Beijing’s renowned Great Hall of the People.  Steven and ThinkTank Learning have also been featured in various major media outlets such as CCTV-2, The New York Times, and NBC’s Nightly News Special “Behind the Wall.”

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Accolades and achievements aside, Steven looks back on his life and recalls how one person unleashed the potential in a lost boy.  He understands firsthand how powerful inspiration can be and believes sometimes education is about inspiration versus knowledge.  He believes that one’s potential is unlimited and it sometimes takes one “key” to unlock the door and once open, the universe is unlimited.  He wants to give students a chance to broaden their horizons and believes his mission and calling in life is to better the lives of those who come in contact with him through education.

Over the past 10 years, Steven has been giving back to kids like him.  He has done pro bono work in different underserved communities teaching young people, providing free counseling and SAT Boot Camps in San Francisco, Ukiah, and other cities. Most recently, his life has come full circle where he is sponsoring a free SAT Boot Camp for all juniors at the Oakland Military Institute, in the same neighborhood he called “home” decades before.

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