Sharlene Vichness had only been retired two months before she started to feel restless.
“I just hated the lack of structure,” she said.
After long careers in teaching French and Spanish, staffing services and legal publishing, Vichness needed to find something else to do with her time.
“I’d go places and get into Spanish-language conversations with people because when they couldn’t think of the English word or how to pronounce something, they would lapse back into Spanish,” Vichness said.
She soon realized it was an enormous need that wasn’t being met.
“Voice, tonality, culture and language can all be career impediments that affect the bottom line of business by both employees and employers,” Vichness said. “It’s about empowering those not able to be trained in English — they need to be trained in their native language.”
So, at age 60, Vichness invested $4,000 in a computer and founded Language Directions in 2005. She still serves as its president.
“I started the company in my daughter’s bedroom, and now we’re in a Mack-Cali building (in Roseland),” she said.
Language Directions is a full-service training company specializing in customized short- and long-term instructional language and cultural awareness programs for the multicultural workforce.
“We are aspirin for whatever language headache a company may be experiencing,” Vichness said. “We can help anyone from an executive who wants to polish his English language pronunciation to health care professionals who need to quickly learn Spanish for patients and their families.”
The company offers several programs in which to remove language barriers and improve communications: English as a Second Language courses; accent reduction coaching; multilingual safety and supervisory training courses, such as ServSafe Certified Food Protection or Occupational Safety and Health Administration training; essential Spanish courses for managers and supervisors in any industry; cultural competency workshops; transcultural telephone and email etiquette; American business writing for foreign executives; and more.
“All of our training is on-site in the client’s space, although we do also offer training online and limited classes in our office for more sensitive professionals,” Vichness said.
The results speak for themselves. Language Directions’ clients have reported improved productivity, quality, teamwork and customer service; reductions in liability and workplace accidents; and major confidence boosts among both employers and employees.
Vichness said the company continues to develop and find talent for specific client requests.
Biz in brief
Company: Language Directions
Executive: Sharlene Vichness, founder
Employees: Seven, plus independently contracted instructors.
One more thing: Vichness is currently developing a new course to champion women initiatives. “Women can undermine themselves with their choice of tonality or words without even realizing it,” Vichness said. “Things like vocal fry and upspeak — women of all ages are not aware that if you sound tentative, they can give a first impression that they are not in command.”
“Many of the courses that we’re offering now were certainly not in the original scope of what I thought we’d be offering when I started the company,” she said.
A lot has changed for Language Directions over the past 10 years: It has become a family company, with Vichness’ daughter and daughter-in-law operating home offices in Annandale, Virginia, and Shrewsbury, Massachusetts; it has been certified as a woman-owned business and an eligible training provider for the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development; and, most importantly, it won the 2013 “Garden State Entrepreneur Excellence Award” for businesses under $1 million in revenue.
“New Jersey is a jigsaw puzzle of languages and cultures — a true mosaic,” Vichness said. “Businesses sometimes just don’t understand how to support the diverse workforce they’ve hired.”
To further her cause, Vichness also joined the board of trustees at Ramapo College — a school with many foreign-born students who may need support.
“We’ve even worked with the government to train recruits deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq on the languages and cultures,” she said.
For example, when the Air Force asked Language Directions to find instructors from Afghanistan, Vichness reached out to the International Refugee Committee.
“We met people who had to remove their children from their home country in order to avoid the Taliban,” she said.
Having been introduced via the committee, Vichness hired a young man who had been an engineer and accountant in Afghanistan — but was currently working at Walmart — to teach the course.
“My mission has always been to empower people from other cultures and languages to be full participants [in business] at the level they desire to be,” Vichness said.
“Language Directions provides a chance to make a difference every day — we have the opportunity to change lives.”
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