Terena Bell and In Every Language
The fact that her grandfather didn’t know how to read or write, or that she was the first person in her father’s family to graduate from high school, didn’t stop Terena Bell from pursuing her social entrepreneurship ambition. Born and raised in Kentucky, Bell is the founder and CEO of the innovative B-Corporation, “In Every Language”, which offers translation services meant to make a difference. In Every Language provides clients with professional translators from disadvantaged backgrounds, advocates for refugees’ rights to medical and educational translation, and even offers free community services. The business was not born from a single “aha” moment, but ratherthrough Bell’s experience as a volunteer translator for refugees. Here, Bell reflects on intuition, commitment, and confronting the stereotypes of what it means to be a for-profit endeavor.
Who was there to help as you got the idea and began turning it into a feasible business model?[laughs] Define help. My mother has taught me a great deal. I just started. I didn’t have a business plan whenever we opened up. I still don’t have one. I just wake up everyday and do whatever it looks like needs to be done. You come up with ideas and you draw them down, and you do have long-term goals and short-term goals. But we just do what needs to be done.
The vast majority of people I’ve tried to get help through, through conventional means — it’s pretty much been me telling them what I knew already, and them going, “Oh that sounds neat.” As far as the social entrepreneur end of it, and particularly with our industry, there really wasn’t anywhere to go for help, which is another reason why I’m really glad to hear you guys are doing your program because that means that now folks will have somewhere to go.
What was the reaction within the business community as you set up your business with a strong social component at its core?
Within the industry most people thought and still think I’m crazy. Most people that do what we do tend to work with larger corporations, not helping people on the community level. There were a lot of doubts within the industry as to whether or not we could make money, be financially stable.
And because we are registered as a for-profit, we ran up against a lot of resistance within the local community. A lot of people thought that we were trying to capitalize or take advantage of refugees, which is not the case at all – we were trying to give them work. There was a lot of hostility. We received threatening calls from a non-profit in town saying we were taking food out of refugee’s mouths, and it was like, “Y’all are completely missing the point.” We’re doing this to help them. We’re doing this so that they can have services in their languages. We’re doing this to create jobs for them. We’re not doing this to hurt anybody. But because we were filed as a for-profit, they just didn’t get it. Now we’ve been around long enough, and actions speak louder than words, so we’ve gotten a chance to prove who we are and that the work that we’re doing is good and geared toward helping people. Now we’re actually respected in the community more than some of the non-profits. We had looked into re-filing as a not-for-profit, but then I found B Corp. So now we’re using B Corp as a way to say, “Look we’re not your standard for-profit.”
What led you to B Corp?
I read an article in Fast Company about Whole Foods and what they were and weren’t doing and it introduced the B Corp movement to me.
How do you pick the translators?
We look for people that come from historically economically depressed backgrounds. I think that no matter where anybody comes from, they can achieve. And I think the only thing that keeps you from achieving is you. However when you’ve got a goal in mind and you’ve got a place that you want to get, some people have to walk further to get there. Some people are born there already, maybe they come from an affluent household that is not a racial minority and it’s in a city where there are lots of white collar jobs. But some people have to work harder, walk further to get there. We try to find professional translators who have further to go and we help them catch up.
Who do you like to work with?
Fun people. People who have passports! Even if you’ve never been anywhere, if you don’t have a passport you’re not planning on going anywhere, so you’re not for us because we are pro international. People who believe in something. People that want to do more and are motivated. I let people do their thing. I really prefer it whenever my employees can come up with their own ideas and act on them because it allows them to think for themselves and it allows me to go on and do other things.
What advice would you give to an aspiring social entrepreneur as they get started?
Don’t let anybody stop you. If you’ve got the idea and the willpower and the time, go on and do it. Don’t worry about the funding, don’t worry about the plan. If you want to go out and get capital funding, if you want to write up a business plan, if that’s how you work, go for it. But don’t let anybody tell you what you have to do. Take everybody’s advice, even my advice, with a grain of salt, and just do it.
How would you define leadership?
I’ve been through so many leadership programs. And I don’t really think that leadership is something you define; I think it’s something you do. I think it’s innate. You’re either a leader or you’re not. It’s like asking to define the color red. It’s a concept and you just know it when you see it.
What do you think your strengths as a leader are?
I do decide things quickly. That can be a strength and disadvantage. I like to think that I listen to other people. There have been decisions that I’ve made – for instance, drafting a company policy and then sending it out to all my employees, and I had an employee come up to me and say, “Hey is this open for debate?” And it’s like, “Well, that’s the decision that I’ve made but if you disagree with it, well I’m happy to listen to why.” And I sat down with my staff and we talked about that decision and after about a half hour I changed the policy. You’ve got to admit when you’re wrong and you’ve got to listen to other people. Because there is a difference between leading people and just going somewhere alone.
In what ways are you trying to build the business now?
We’re trying to up sales, and I know that’s something that probably most companies would say, but for us sales have never really been a focus before. And I know that sounds really dumb, because it’s like, “Well how did you start and stay in business for five years if sales were never really a focus?” But they weren’t. We were always so focused on trying to get the infrastructure out there, and getting the right people in place, the translators and interpreters, and customer service, and serving the people who came to us. We did not go out and aggressively market for sales. But what I’ve found is the more that I sell the more people I can help. We’ve spent a lot of time on innovation and how to do things differently than other companies. But this is the first time that I’m trying to take what we do and turn it outward to up revenue.