My family had a stereo that was bigger than most coffee tables. It was prominently under our picture window and the focus of a television-less living room. When I was only 7 years old, my sister, brother and I kneeled in front of that centerpiece and listened to the crackling speech of Dr. Martin Luther King..talk about his having a dream….
This was especially significant in my household. I grew up in the countryside of a small upstate New York town of approximately 20,000. As far as I knew, we were the only household that held anyone of color – other than the ‘farm hands’ down the road – who only lived there during planting or harvest season. I never thought of them ‘having a dream’ … until my parents used that teachable moment to implant into me what those dreams were..and not through the black men that worked the fields past our yard, but the babies that graced the tiny nursery – down the hall from where I quietly listened to Dr. King speak.
My parents were in their late 20s when they were told they could have no more children. Heartbroken over a stillbirth, my mother implored my father to have them become foster parents. To infants and only infants – and there were plenty, as this was pre Roe vs Wade and there were many newborns in need of temporary care – and a real need for babies of color. (What’s important to understand here is that my parents were the only foster parents in our county that would ‘accept’ babies of color).
Once my parents were vetted as fitting foster parents, my sister and I in were moved in together, to empty a bedroom that would become the nursery. They decorated and furnished the room, fully aware what infants would need. Also fully expecting sleepless nights and multiple feedings, colic and diaper rash.
What they did not expect was the bigotry and hatred that would become a part of our daily lives. My mother’s only thought was to fill their hearts with the newborns they could no longer have themselves.
At age seven I first heard my mother called a ‘n’ lover by a stranger as she pushed a baby carriage through a department store. By eight I had heard her called ‘foster Mammy’ so many times I thought it was a term of endearment by the neighbors .. and by nine a school bus driver forced my brother and I to sit at the back of the bus. “(If we wanted so bad to be ‘one of them’, we could sit where they should sit).”
All I knew is that these were my temporary baby brothers and sisters – that I helped feed and bathe, hold and play with. I felt the excitement every time the social worker laid a fresh new baby in my mother’s arms and shared the tears when months later they took them away to meet their newly adopted parents. I saw my parent’s hearts filled and broken dozens of times over the next few years, simultaneously creating a purpose and peace.
For my siblings and myself however, it created chaos. There were countless days of running off the school bus and into my parents arms..searching for the ‘why’ of the relentless harassment.
In their quiet way my parents taught us is that we were privileged to have each innocent angel share our home and that in our house we held our heads high and our hearts open. My parents taught us via the responsibility and the honor of becoming foster parents -and the lessons that came as side effects.
Looking back now as an adult I can see how this all began to chart a road into my adulthood. To becoming an Interpreter and then owning Empire Interpreting Service. My love of people, always seeing it from the perspective that everyone was, in the beginning, an innocence – placed in a mother’s arms. And the lesson taught of respecting other cultures/values and the ability to truly see that everyone deserves to ‘have a dream’… starting in the nursery.
I have always described our business operations as ‘horizontal’ – I first quipped this phrase when asked how the hierarchy of the business functioned. Lost for words, as this was not how we functioned, a picture of us all being on the same plane or as a ‘horizontal’ staff formed in my mind.
“We are a horizontal business..there is no hierarchy” was my reply. What I meant was that we all can handle the day to day – we all answer the phones, book jobs, sign on new customers and handle support for both customers and Interpreters.
This does not mean that everyone knows how to handle the accounting, however there is more than one person that can handle the books, payroll and pay bills. This also means that the administrative duties I handle as business owner can be handled by other staff when needed.
Agree or disagree, having a business where there is a reciprocity of roles has had great benefits over the years. Most recently I needed to be out of the office for over two weeks. I never once worried that payroll would go out, contracts would be signed or bookings would continue during my absence. Did this add a great deal to the staff’s responsibilities while I gone? ..of course – but things went on…and during that time…
..there was no jostling for roles of power or authority because this isn’t how we function on a normal day-to-day. Everyone did their job plus picked up the slack in my absence. There were no egos to get in the way or resistance to support each other. For us – it works.
I was once told that the mark of a good leader is that in your absence, business goes on as usual. I believe the mark of a good leader is having the ability to put the correct people in place that are willing/able to carry on in your absence. Where there is the character of staff to allow this to happen and where staff have the autonomy to work without the business owner.
Today I am so grateful for each of my staff, their character, work ethic and integrity. Each are able to continue on without me in our ‘horizontal environment’..which makes me look like such a smart leader – when in fact it’s just a matter of having a smart and willing staff to work together.
Over my recent Sunday morning coffee/newspaper routine – I read an article entitled ‘How a Project Went Wrong’.. It was stunning and difficult to comprehend. Contractors had worked in a local high school removing asbestos without following safety protocol, contaminating the environment and sending poisonous toxins into the air. I thought of the children and teachers going through their day innocently breathing in and out….
But what was even worse? – this happened repeatedly.
Shocking violations from vendors that had previously been cited for creating dangerous environments, ignoring industry protocols. Yet these same businesses were awarded additional contracts – in the same school district – Horrified as I again thought of these children breathing in killer chemicals…I dug further to find out ‘why’.. and there it was – because they were the lowest bidder.
Sixteen years ago, when my business was just an idea of ‘how to do it better’ – I had encountered far too many bilingual individuals acting as Interpreters or Translators with no formal training or certification. Along with too many agencies I worked for that had no vetting process or support those of us in the field.
So my grandiose idea of transforming the experience for those utilizing interpreting services, along with visions of creating a more supportive and professional environment for the Interpreters themselves was born. My ‘win/win’ scenario was now my business plan.
But I also found quickly that my plan came with a cost. With so many contracts dependent on only that bottom line ‘lowest bidder’.. it became our responsibility to prove that having higher standards actually lower customer costs in the long run.
To our customers it means different outcomes depending on the environment:
In medical environments: Where Dr/Patient communication is so critical – It assures medical professionals that their Interpreters are familiar with medical terminology and understand the various medical environments. This allows for quicker diagnosis/treatments and less repeat visits. Resulting in a healthier patient and healthier Dr/patient relationship.
In business: There are a world of new markets available if language and cultural barriers are removed. Having accurate translations can open a flood gate of new opportunities, beginning with websites and social media and ending in business negotiations. Only having one chance to make a first impression to the world, that first impression has to be impeccable.
In education: Thousands of deaf and hard of hearing students utilize Interpreters from elementary school to post-secondary settings. Having a highly skilled Interpreter familiar with class content offers the best chance of success for students, alleviating repeating classes due to communication breakdowns. Not to mention happier and more successful students.
and the list could go on…but the point is
..when you have highly skilled, professional Interpreters and Translators that consider cultural and linguistic nuances, coupled with an agency experienced in making the correct matches, it is a win-win…even when the ‘bottom line’ cost may (initially) seem higher. Allowing you to create a healthy environment because you have the vision to look past the lowest bidder.
It seems every time there’s a new app that can “automatically translate” one language to another someone is ready and waiting to show me how easy our jobs as Interpreters really can be. At a business event recently a young man pulled out his cell phone as soon as I explained what I did and said “Why hire a human? – this app can do anything your Interpreters can do”……
Oh Lord, not again…….
The misperception that every language has words or phrases that can be ‘automatically’ translated into another language’s words or phrases is just not true. Every interpretation needs to consider not only cultural differences, but environment, situation, even emotional states of everyone involved. Human sensitivities and respect is not something that can be written into code…
A machine cannot give an eye shift when interpreting to a college student that the professor is really emphasizing the importance of a topic – or express to a hospital patient the optimism or seriousness in the voice or word choice of their physician.
An app cannot sit in a therapy session and convey emotions that are never expressed in words – that actually need the proper linguistic choices that communicate reactions of trauma, grief or desperation.
Endless examples could be given, but the short of all is this – ‘Why hire a human?…I believe is simply because we are human and if we take the human to human out of communication, there is no true understanding.
One of my ‘littles’ favorite books is ‘Little Blue Truck’ – which I have read numerous times. And the story goes like this…
The Little Blue Truck joyfully drives through the countryside, greeting each friendly animal that he encounters along the way with a ‘beep’ and a welcome. Each animal in turn says hello to the Little Blue truck in their own special way..actually animal noises which delight the toddlers who are read to.
Enter the ‘Big Yellow Dump truck’ who tears through town announcing “Coming through! I’ve big important things to do … I haven’t time to pass the day – with every duck along the way”…thereby insinuating that the Little Blue Truck was wasting his time paying attention to every animal along his way.
In a twist of irony, the Dump truck gets stuck in a mud soaked road and ends up needing the help of the Little Blue Truck and his animal friends to get him unstuck. So the moral implied here is not probably the same take away as mine but something that struck me as I read the book yesterday, sweet baby on my lap and Christmas tree in the background.
This is – my sanity time. This is when I’m brought back to what is really important in life. As a business owner, with so much responsibility – it’s not always easy to remember. Sitting at your desk, signing contracts and paychecks, putting on your best face and putting out multiple fires…I can forget that even though I am constantly busy and have ‘important things to do’ … I need to take time to remember all of my encounters along the way.
So this holiday season, being grounded by a 10 month old and taking stock of who is important – I’d like to take the time to let each one that I encounter daily – my staff – my Interpreters – my customers – know that they are critical to who I am. To know that I care for them and work for them and appreciate that they are there for me, no less important than what I do and certainly not who I am.
Each one I pray has a safe and happy holiday season and I hope knows, that without them, I could never get ‘unstuck’ and move forward everyday.
Peace and joy to all who touch my life……
I’ve always had the conversation with new employees that we have 3 sets of customers that we need to constantly be addressing 1) The customers signing the contracts and requesting interpreting services 2) The consumers who do not use English as their first language and are utilizing our Interpreters 3) The Interpreters that work with us.
And for me, I’ll add a 4th – my employees. All of these ‘customers’ need to be treated with the same respect as the customers signing our contracts and sending in checks. All work together like cogs in a wheel – when each are supported, communication is successful in a seemingness fashion – which is the goal for all of us.
I’ve recently been mentoring a new business owner and when we had this conversation, the question inevitably came up ‘How do you address each customer’ – I think more important is each business identifying who their customers are, then addressing each one’s needs. For Empire Interpreting Service:
That is my journey – but as I said to my young entrepreneur ‘mentee’ – you will need to find and address each one of your customers as you grow your business. THEY are the cogs that push the wheel towards success.
This Fall my business reached an anniversary/milestone of 15 years! The business today is an entity I never could have imaged in 2003. The journey from then to now is something I never could have foreseen – and a journey I never could have taken alone. Forgive me while I take liberty to talk about those who stood beside me, carried me through and who continue to be my inspiration.
Six months into my business I knew I needed support. My first hire. Stacey Short, then my part time receptionist/bookkeeper. Today my CFO. Stacey has a fierce loyal heart and a work ethic rarely seen. She is deliberate and forceful – she holds my feet to the fire – and cares as much about the business’s success as I do…AND she is a true honest and caring friend. 15 years and counting – she’s still building the business with me.
Jay – my Business Manager. Who I am sure would have rather followed his own path, but supported me in mine and worked and worked and worked to bring this business into the arena of the ‘big boys’ – to become contemporary and to embrace technology. His daring and sometimes audaciousness thrust us into the future..how incredibly honored I am to work day by day with my son. 14 years later…he’s still standing by my side.
Corissa Hedrick – first came to me as an assistant to Jay and quickly proved that she had independent aspirations. She grabbed hold of an idea I had for a Spoken Language department and grew it to become 1/2 of our revenue. And took it further and further – Like Stacey and Jay – her work ethic was surpassed only by enthusiasm and ability to plan for the future. She is and always will be someone I admire and respect – and again…how lucky I was to find her…all eleven years ago.
Trevor – my second son to join my business. Did the ‘dirty’ work..for year after year after year. He was the person who manned the business the hours everyone else’s day was done. He answered the emergency phone, became friends with ER Nurses and woke Interpreters at God awful hours to ensure every job was filled – Any day, any time all while being a ‘stay at home Dad’ and raising his little boy. Giving up chunks of his personal time for EIS and again, fiercely supporting my dream. How amazing it is to work each day with him – for now over a decade.
And most recently there is Eva. My Office Manager – who like the others has this incredible ability to dive in, take pride and ownership in the business and function on such a high level. I find myself leaning on her as the others do, always knowing that her perfectionism and caring is exactly the combination we and our customers need. I cannot imagine my days without Eva. She brings life and light into the business while taking on incredible tasks and always having all our backs. She is truly a rising star..and I am blessed to work with her these last few years….
And then there are my Interpreters, who are far far too many to name – who make me incredibly proud each and every time they are out on a job, giving our communities the best there is to offer – their professionalism, talents, commitment – make me stand tall in awe and respect.
My driving force – the people I love to work with and truly love – who have been on this journey with me – made it a true honor & given me all I need to make Empire Interpreting the success it is today. Thank you to all of them, for making my dreams comes true and for achieving this amazing milestone of 15 years!