Posts Tagged ‘starting your own business’

Success After 60: Language Specialist Starts Custom Skills Company

Desktop Globe“I couldn’t stand the idea being retired at 60,” says Sharlene Vichness. “I just had to do something!” Rather than take up a hobby or two, she started Language Directions, a full service on-site language skills and cultural awareness training company.

Today, nine years later, her award winning, Roseland, New Jersey-based company holds contracts with the military and government organizations, corporations, universities and hospitals nationwide.

Vichness began working as a language teacher right out of college, but later switched to legal publishing sales. During both careers, she observed a huge gap between the language abilities of native English speakers and those who learned English as a second language. “I’ve always loved languages,” says Vichness. “I saw a need that wasn’t being met and decided to meet it.”

Her first step was becoming a certified accent reduction specialist, because accents can get in the way of career advancement. Many highly skilled and valuable employees have difficulties with the pronunciation challenges American English can pose when some of its sounds do not exist in their native languages. The result is that native speakers of English have trouble understanding their foreign born peers. For instance, law firms sometimes employ very good attorneys who grew up with an accent that gets in their way in court.

Her first opportunity came through phone call from a firm looking for someone who could teach a course in Spanish for financial professionals. “When she asked me if I could do that, I said, ‘Sure!’ she laughs. ”Then I set to work and found the perfect person to do it.”

Vichness says she always says “Yes” to opportunities. “You want to train a Farsi speaker to teach fire safety?” she asks. “Give me enough lead-time and I’ll figure out a way to get it done.”

Look professional from day one

Having been in sales, Vichness knew the importance of presenting a professional image. Her next step was to have a polished, professional looking website built. “If you embrace technology, you can look professional from day one,” she says. “Technology can make one person look like a big company.” You won’t see a picture of Vichness on her website because she wanted to brand her company, not herself. “I want Language Directions to live and grow and thrive after I finally do retire,” she says. “There will still be language and cultural needs to be met after I’m no longer able to meet them.”

Vichness developed a model of working through strategic alliance companies, effectively doing work for the clients of her clients. “We now do all the language training for corporate clients of  Rutgers University Office of Continuing Professional  Education,” she says. “We also work with New Jersey Manufacturing extension program, teaching English as a second language and accent reduction training to factory floor workers companies want to elevate to supervisory positions but can’t train in English. “We developed training  methods using bilingual subject matter experts,” Vichness explains. “They teach fire safety, OSHA regulations and procedures and Microsoft Office in Spanish, so workers whose English isn’t yet good enough to learn these subjects in English can get the training they need in their native language.”

Cultural awareness is often critical

One day Vichness came across a job posting for language training on a military job site. She signed up as an interested vendor and became a military subcontractor, and now provides 30 hours of language and culture training to American advisors to Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. “Our training teaches them survival in Dari and Pashtu, the two major languages of the region, how to eat a meal, how to interact with elders and women—basically, how to stay out of trouble in a host country by not violating their cultural expectations,” Vichness says.

Language Directions also does a lot of work in hospitals. “We teach a Spanish for healthcare class for hospital personnel who work with Spanish-speaking patients and their families,” says Vichness. “They learn basic and essential communication up to the point where a medical interpreter is needed. We also run a course called Intercultural Interactions, which helps people behave in ways that don’t offend people from other cultures.” For instance, in some cultures, when the patient is a woman and is accompanied by her husband to the consultation and/or examination, the healthcare workers are expected to speak only to the husband, not to the woman. Not knowing cultural restrictions such as this can cause problems.

Vichness says she can provide native speakers in any language who possess the desired expertise. When a major food retailer needed to teach a large number of workers safe food handling processes in their native language of Haitian Creole, Language Directions supplied the teachers.

Communication, not language, is the challenge

The challenge for supervisors is not in learning the language of foreign-born workers, but in learning to communicate with them, Vichness points out. “We routinely teach food handling courses, which are mandatory in New Jersey, in Chinese, Spanish and Korean because those are the main languages spoken by workers in restaurant kitchens,” she says. “If you want to have a safe, clean meal, they need to learn what’s required in a language they understand. My rule is that everyone teaches his or her native language only.”

The expanding awareness  of the need for language and cultural awareness that Vichness has helped to expand continues to present her with a plethora of opportunities. “Every day is different,” she says. “I never know what we’re going to be asked to do, and I love it.”

“But what I love most about my own business is that I never have to listen to comments like, ‘We’ve never done it that way before’ or ‘I don’t think we should try that.’ We just move forward and do it.”

Be aware of how much energy success requires

So, would Vichness advise others to take the road less traveled after age 60 by starting a new business?

“I would absolutely encourage anybody who thinks they have something unique that the market needs to go for it,” says Vichness, whose business is grossing about $1 million a year. “If you have a good idea, it’s never too late if you are willing to put in the sweat equity.”

“A lot of people, when they get to this age, want to kick back instead of putting in what’s required, but every business needs nurturing. It’s like raising another child. If you neglect it, you’re going to pay the price.”

– December 4, 2013 By 

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