Thoughts on the industry, its future, and the working environment it offers for women.
Interview by MARJOLEIN GROOT NIBBELINK
Akorbi Co-founder and CEO Claudia Mirza was instrumental in growing the company into a centerpiece of interpretation, staffing, contact center, and localization services. Today it is one of the largest women-owned companies in the industry. We spoke to Claudia about her thoughts on the industry, its future, and the working environment it offers for women.
ML: Many company leaders in the spotlight are men, and that’s one of the reasons we’re focusing on women leaders this month. Why do you think we need to make that extra effort? Do women tend to be more humble?
CM: I think we tend to be more humble, yes. For instance, I saw the other day a major release from a company. They got a bunch of funding, and there’s been a lot of movement and transactions and activity. And I told my team: We are extremely humble, and probably we are doing a disservice to ourselves. Because we are all striving for equality between women-owned businesses and male-owned businesses. What I’ve been trying to understand is the philosophical differences between male- and female-owned businesses.
So we’re humble, but there are a lot of good things happening in women-owned businesses. We just acquired a huge company called RunMyProcess, which is a low-code platform that does the integration of all these systems. We have this amazing software we acquired back in [May 2021.] But we could have served ourselves better with more PR. So I think it’s a major learning opportunity for myself to become more strategic and work more in the transactions versus just trying to run the business. I will say that women have to become wealth creators, and that’s what men are pretty good at versus us. We try to stay more focused on the operation and running the business and making sure everything is OK, but I see men more driven by transactions. They focus on the big picture, while we tend to get into the weeds of operations to keep everything running smoothly.
ML: So what you’re saying is that the ball is basically in the court of us women to promote ourselves?
CM: Yes, that and become more focused on the financial and transaction side versus the operation side compared to male business owners who are busy doing transactions.
So I will say my call to women business owners in the language business and localization industry is for us to think: What are we going to do to create wealth for our generations and our team members?
ML: And do you think that there is a bigger challenge inherent to our industry? Given that it’s global and there are some cultures where women have fewer opportunities for advancement?
CM: That’s a very good point. Women in our hemisphere don’t have as many issues being restricted. For instance, Colombia is a country that has significant opportunities for women. However, it’s unfortunate that not as many women are taking high-level leadership positions. I have traveled around the world giving conferences and speaking to women. And I think the major sentiment is that we as women have to believe in ourselves more and set ourselves free. I think much of it has to do with our own convictions, rather than the environment around us.
That’s where it comes back to the humbleness of my company versus what the industry is doing. I think it’s key for us to really highlight and do more service to ourselves.
ML: Tell us a little more about the journey that took you to this place of leadership. What was the career path you took to get where you are today? And what were some of the lessons you learned that define how you approach business today?
CM: That’s an interesting point. I have never stopped studying all my life. I wanted to become a veterinarian. But I ended up going for agricultural business management. So that gave me a lot of business management classes, as well as studying business information systems. I went to work for a telecommunications company. It was engraved in my mind that whatever I did, I needed to provide value, and I needed to make it beautiful. I needed to go above and beyond.
[As my career developed,] I went to work for an oil company in the Safety and Environment Department doing a lot of documentation safety. Then I came to the United States and went to work for a telecommunications company doing the same: handling the document management and graphic design for a huge internet infrastructure project.
Eventually, I decided that I wanted to open my own business. The business I was in closed, and I decided I wanted to take care of myself and not depend on my employer to eat. So I started looking for opportunities, and I went to the Chamber of Commerce — the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Dallas — and they said, “Why don’t you open a business?” I did just that, and they sent me my first translation job [after starting Akorbi,] which was a death certificate. I analyzed the market, I analyzed how many translation companies were around. I looked at the gaps in the market, the needs. And I decided to scale the business. I had the opportunity to keep training, and I graduated from Harvard Business School. It was a three-year program. That was quite rewarding, and I wish I would have done that sooner.
ML: This was just three years ago? How do you approach business today?
CM:Yes, it was wonderful. That goes back to my comment about always learning. I will say that even though I had two degrees in business, going to Harvard and really learning the things that drive value in an organization was amazing. And we started making significant changes in the way we operated, to start driving value.
Really, why do you own a business? What is the purpose? Other than serving the clients, what is the ultimate goal of owning a business? Those are important questions to ask. The number-one answer is that you want to improve the livelihood of people around you, because whenever you own a business, you create a community. And that can change a town or even change society. One of the things that I tell our team members is that we need to become instruments of good for society.
We have noticed that a lot of democracies are changing. But what I love about America is that in the United States, we are always about giving. When I learned that, I found it very beautiful and very powerful because it’s not really about asking. It’s about giving to other people. If you notice, a lot of telephonic companies work with each other, passing calls to each other, helping each other, and supporting each other. And with translation companies, it’s the same. There is a lot of collaboration in the language industry, compared to others.
But the main question is always: How do you stay profitable at the end of the year? So I would say running a profitable business while also giving back to society — that’s what I aspire to do.
ML: There’s been a shift recently to talk about the human side of the language industry and whether translators are being fairly compensated. What are your thoughts about that?
CM: One of the things to remember is that you can’t deplete systems. I think about my farm, for instance. I can’t put 100 horses or 100 cows on a small pasture because they are going to eat all the grass and die of starvation. The same thing applies with businesses. There is a point where you can’t stretch more savings out before you run into diminishing returns. It’s not sustainable. And one of the things that concerns me about our industry is all this crowdsourcing, sending work out when we don’t know where it will end up. We don’t know the quality of life the people handling that work are experiencing. We don’t know the working conditions they’re operating under.
So, my advice to anyone in the localization industry is to really understand how the supply chain is being managed. That’s a big topic that I think will be important to discuss. It’s important for us as an industry to think about how we can start protecting the quality of life for all of our team members around the world.
ML: How do you suggest accomplishing that — encouraging companies to not always go for the cheapest option?
CM: Well, that’s an interesting point. And that is why our industry is flexible. Because you can go to countries where you can source at lower prices. However, it’s important to source with quality and sustainability in mind. We have one example where I was asked to decrease the prices to X. And I just told my team members, “Tell them we are not going to go below that because it’s not sustainable.”
Whoever is going below that — they’re going to get in trouble, and we’ll wait until they come back. Maybe we lost the business, and they went with another player, but it’s not sustainable. So I think it is important to really think about sustainability in each country and make sure that we stay that way.
ML: Another question under discussion is what roles technology versus human translation play in the industry. What are your thoughts there?
CM: Well, I don’t think we should have gotten away from the human side of translation. The more we introduce machines, the more human touch we need to add at the end of the day with customer relations. It’s also important for the machines to be trained, and that means we’re going to require an advanced level of knowledge from our team members. The more machines and the more automation we use, the more sensitive we need to be about making sure we incorporate the human element. Whenever you let the AI or machines just run wild, they can really damage your brand.
ML: AI’m curious about what your experience has been as a leader who speaks English as a second language. How does that impact the way you engage with the rest of the world?
CM: My experience is that I always have an opportunity to learn more. I have a child who corrects me now, who says, “Mom, you don’t say it like that. You say this way, OK?”
But I don’t pity myself. I view it as an opportunity, because I am very well-rounded. I have traveled the world, and I have a beautiful context about — well, number one, appreciation for America. But I also have appreciation for what every country brings. For instance, going through Germany and looking at the beautiful trains and green energy throughout Europe. Or the innovation in Eastern Europe, the automation technology in Latin America, the kindness of people and pride of work in Africa, a continent with a lot of opportunities. The same goes for India, a country with so many people and such peace compared to other parts of the world. You really build up an appreciation, because this is an industry that lets you see so much of the globe.
ML: What are your thoughts on all the venture capital investments in the language industry over the last five years or so? And for that matter, all the mergers and acquisitions?
CM: One of the things I noticed is that there isn’t really a lot of private equity happening in women-owned businesses or minority women-owned businesses. In general, there is a huge disparity, and perhaps someone could do a good analysis of how much private equity companies are investing in women-owned businesses. And also women of color. I think it’s probably a very low number. And that’s where I go back to my point about us being so worried about operating the business that we are not thinking about the strategic matters that take business to the next level.
ML: Something most people find about the language industry is how kind and welcoming it often is. Has that been your experience?
CM: I think this is a very kind industry altogether. We’ve started seeing more aggressiveness from the very large companies, some very aggressive positions. But in the lower or mid tiers, there is a significant amount of collaboration.
That’s the kind of industry this is: a very nice group of people. You also find your interesting characters in there that we all know about. I hope the culture of our industry never changes. Part of that culture comes from us always serving, I think. But also, because there is so much business to go around, there’s not much incentive to go out and try to take business from other people.
ML: Do you think we’re heading toward a point where localization becomes a more mainstream business? Do you think there’s a proper understanding of the complexities of localization?
CM: I am very concerned that a lot of people are entering into this space who think that translation or working on a localization project is an easy thing. We are at a point where a lot of industries are merging due to all these technologies. That means we have evolved as an industry. But I’m also concerned that these new industries entering ours could really do a disservice due to the lack of knowledge that they might have. There are a lot of complexities here, and the more we grow, the more specialized we become.
ML: How do you view the future of the industry? Do you think companies will continue contracting language services, or might we reach a point where most localization will be done internally?
CM: Well, I think there is another theory, and the theory could be that we could see a lot of outsiders buying localization companies due to their increasing importance. I will forecast that more outsiders will be looking into acquiring companies in our industry. A lot of technology companies, for instance, will consider buying into the localization industry. That’s something I imagine I’ll be thinking a lot about in the future.
ML: Just to conclude, can you tell us a little about what you do to relax when you’re off work? You mentioned your farm and your black stallion earlier. What else do you enjoy doing to relax?
CM: Well, actually, I am a very private person. I spend a lot of time on my farm. I just love watching animals and how they interact in their hierarchy system, and they have really taught me a lot about humankind.
You probably remember that I was married to my business partner, and we got divorced. But we made a conscious decision that we were very good friends, and we could continue running the business together. So we are business partners, and people come to our company asking, “So what’s the gossip about them?” The reply is always, “No, the two of them get along quite well.”
So obviously family is important to me. I spend a lot of time with my children. And I certainly enjoy traveling. Entrepreneurial learning is important to me. I spend a lot of time learning about how to be a better business leader and investing time in my business networks. And I spend a significant amount of time riding horses and playing with dogs and animals. I enjoy living a very private life.