Owner, Meerkat Academics LLC
Selected to be part of the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) Enterprising Women of Color Business Center’s Small Business Marketing Bootcamp and Marketing Counseling Client
Liyan Wan is an engineer, interior designer, and architect by trade; tutor and coach by passion. She began tutoring her cousins at the age of 14, went on to work at Penn State Learning where she tutored fellow undergraduate students, and started private tutoring with Varsity Tutors in Chicago as a graduate student.
Students and parents repeatedly told her, “You’re the best tutor we’ve had so far, and we’ve been through quite a few tutors,” and she realized she had a gift and could offer tutoring services on her own instead of working for someone else.
Liyan eventually launched Meerkat Academics LLC in 2012 in Chicago and tutored hundreds of students in the area. Her business model includes online tutoring to maximize time for her and her clients. After relocating to Hawaii in 2018, she restarted the business and has also incorporated her expertise in interior design and architecture to her menu of services. Today, she offers tutoring in a variety of subjects, along with test preparation, software training, and coaching for academic success and college applications.
“The more challenging the program, the more sought-after help is because it’s not easy to pick up on your own,” Liyan said of design software. “I work with those switching into design careers as well as architecture students who need help with design critique and intensive design software. This is where my value really comes in—being able to teach architecture outside of the classroom. I particularly love working with students one-on-one. It allows me the ability to teach to each individual’s interests and learning style, very much customizing instruction and pacing to how their brain is wired to learn. In classes and small groups—whenever there is more than one learner—someone is inevitably getting left behind.”
Liyan’s other passion is spiritual growth and mentoring young people. “This seemingly unrelated passion of spiritual growth and emotional awareness merged with tutoring quite naturally. Last year, I was working with a student on test prep and he had a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. I started teaching him breathing exercises and guided him in meditation to calm his mind,” she said. This emotional component has inspired Liyan to approach tutoring and coaching with consciousness, which is particularly important in today’s high-stress environment.
Although nearly every entrepreneur faces challenges, women of color must overcome unique struggles when starting and growing their businesses. For Liyan, her biggest hurdle was knowing her worth and not being afraid to ask for it. Although her rates have been competitive, she didn’t believe she was worth what she was charging until she gained more confidence and projected it outward. She believes this was related in part to being a woman, minority, and a bootstrapping immigrant, but these experiences have also shaped her and allowed her to find meaning in her work.
Helping to uplift others is personal for Liyan, having grown up in an immigrant family on the east coast. Originally from Hong Kong, she and her family moved to the U.S. when she was just six years old. Her parents were always busy working, and she was often left to her own devices.
“Because I didn’t receive a lot of guidance, I had to hack together systems for myself to organize, prioritize, and remember things. Now, I’m able to help students create similar systems for themselves. Growing up without the aid of digital calendars and reminders, I had so much trouble remembering the slightest things,” said Liyan, who was only recently diagnosed with ADHD as an adult. “If I had had someone to guide me, I would’ve saved a lot of time. Then again, I may not be able to help students as I do now.”
While the journey hasn’t always been easy, Liyan is proud of the confidence she had to take the leap. “The amount of courage that it took for me to say this is what I want and then putting myself out there as the face of the business—that’s not natural to me,” she said. “I’m proud of stretching beyond what I thought I was capable of, embracing the personal growth it brought, and owning the positive influence I can have on others.”
And this confidence is something she aims to pass on to the students she works with, especially girls and young women. Having worked in male-dominated industries, Liyan is all too familiar with the stereotype that portrays girls as being bad at math, and she works to dispel this myth by providing ongoing support and encouragement.
Liyan was first introduced to the MBDA Enterprising Women of Color Business Center by the Chief Financial Officer at YWCA O’ahu, who encouraged her to apply for an opening on the team as the CRM System Administrator. She has since transitioned from employee to client of the Center. She received marketing counseling and is taking part in the Small Business Marketing Bootcamp.
Liyan is focused on growing her business, particularly the emotional wellness component and incorporating it more into her current line of work. She also plans to start a YouTube channel to share some of her guided meditations, hone in on target marketing, and gain traction through word-of-mouth referrals.
To fellow women entrepreneurs and small business owners, Liyan offers the following advice: “Collaborate with people. I was once at a private school meet-and-greet for tutors and noticed a lot of competitive energy between the tutors. There was one woman there who had a more collaborative nature. We became fast friends and have helped each other stay on track with growing our businesses, collaborating on projects, and referring overflow students to each other. I’m a firm believer that all boats can rise. There’s plenty of work to do in the community. Find your niche. Know authentically what your strengths are and combine them. This also helps to erode any insecurities and competitiveness because you’re doing it with your own special flavor, so there’s nothing to be competitive about. Help each other out and really get to know your competitors as allies.”