Empowering Entrepreneurs: Interview with Elizabeth Mack
An incurable Francophile, Elizabeth is uncommonly passionate about language learning – especially the ability of languages to connect people. She holds a Diplôme Supérieur for French business and has worked in research for the Chambre de Commerce in Grenoble, France and as Marketing Coordinator for L’Oréal, Paris. In 2007 she earned an MA in 18th c. French Literature from the University of Texas and subsequently served for five years as Professor of French at Texas State University until 2012 when she left to form Freestyle Language Center. Through Freestyle Language Center she aspires to create a true language learning community with a fun stress-free model and effective methodology where using the language in relevant context is key.
What inspired you to start your business/start supporting Whole Planet Foundation?
At Freestyle Language Center, we have a Nelson Mandela-inspired mission to connect people through language, brought to life by his famous quote “speak to a man in a language he understands and it goes to his head; speak to him in his own language and it goes to his heart.” Having learned Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, during his 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela was able to break down barriers and, through his remarkable journey, make the world a better, more connected place. We simply feel inspired to give back, to do more.
While we have always found a local non-profit to support each session for the past 7 years, none has so closely aligned with our mission or personally touched my heart as Whole Planet Foundation. As a female entrepreneur, curious and eager to do more in the global community, I attended the first Whole Planet Foundation ‘Mission Moment’ where I learned that the average microcredit loan is $178. Realizing how easy it could be to have real and lasting impact made us want to start right way!
How did you progress from your origin story to where you are now?
I think the how for many entrepreneurs is having clarity on the ‘problem’ we’re attempting to solve, that problem which inspired the start of the business in the first place. And grit, lots of grit (to say nothing of the right funding opportunity and business model too).
Through the myriad challenges, I keep an eye on the fact that our language learning model is now proven successful, and we are solving what problem I set out to solve: that the traditional academic language-learning model is essentially flawed, and that most young adults coming out of schools or universities are not able to actually speak the ‘target’ language (with the exception of those who’ve studied abroad…). Knowing that our students (adult learners) who start as complete beginners do end up being able to have an extended, meaningful conversation in their ‘target’ language, as they simultaneously reflect back such beautiful gratitude for the model and community - all keeps us moving forward!
Similarly, I am endlessly inspired (and equally frustrated by…) a few facts about our national language-learning deficit and our nearly but not completely hopeless monolingual American culture. The fact that 1% of Americans speak another language that they learned in school (i.e., not accounting for native Spanish speakers, etc.) should concern us on a global level, and I wish it were not okay with not only our education system but our collective thinking. I believe this idea that ‘we don’t need to’ speak another language is both economically naive and geo-politically dangerous. Not to mention all the rest: the brainwork and neurological benefits, the numerous enhancements in travel experiences, the ability to culturally expand our horizons, and, most importantly, the possibility of making the world a smaller place through formulating deeper connections to people.
Tell us how it felt when you experienced a setback, and how you overcame it.
Which one? It seems there are continuous setbacks; it only becomes a question of how to handle each new hurdle, steeling yourself, getting creative, and keeping clear on the mission and love in it.
But I would say the biggest was a trifecta, a perfect storm of the dissolution of the initial partnership in forming Freestyle Language Center 7 years ago, while losing our rental space and taking on the financial hurdle to develop our curriculum, which I knew had to be innovative, a twist on and turn away from old school textbooks - and having no savings with no ability to get a loan (longer story!). Having left a full-time university position as a single mother to start Freestyle, a 100% bootstrapped adventure —I can say that the need for funding and other entrepreneurial support, especially for women, is real!
Luckily, with an eye on the mission, the right answers made themselves apparent, including a crowdfunding campaign we ran which raised an initial $10K for curriculum development (little did I know it would require much more over several more years…!) That funding set us - and our students - on the path to success through our proprietary curriculum and methodology.
What makes each day an opportunity to make a difference for yourself and microentrepreneurs around the globe?
My two daughters. I am grateful for the ability to set an example, trying to fight the good fight. On some level to know that it could either be us or them in need of a micro-loan, and to have the ability to help provide a microloan for any woman in the world, alone or with a family, it is such a beautiful way to make a difference. I am grateful for whatever way we can build up others, whether it is empowering women in our community or beyond.
I could not be more proud of the difference my girls are already making in the world, given young-adult lives: one whose research (on behalf of lemurs and deforestation in Madagascar!) earned university honors for its impactful outcomes, the other who is currently studying and determined to make a difference in homelessness and sustainability… while my heart if full of pride, I believe it all comes around and that parents have a responsibility to lead in that direction, upward on behalf of all.
What’s the most impactful part of a program/project/product you developed?
Online, where the world is meeting to learn! With our new exclusively online Spanish course, we have redesigned our in-person model to the ‘flipped classroom’ approach which offers not only face-to-face weekly interaction in a virtual classroom but weekly engaging online materials, through our proprietary curriculum. Our methodology uses culturally rich authentic materials (such as telenovelas), which makes it super fun, effective, and, most of all, it has the ability to reach way beyond our ‘core’ community - a win, win, win.
To put this effort in perspective, in our 7 years of existence, we have created over 40 courses in Spanish, French and Italian, yet this one online course took us 1 year in development. The effort in the development shows in its effectiveness in what can be a tricky pedagogical model (online).
The fact that this course has propelled students’ speaking skills in as short as 6 weeks, while engaging in a dynamic online community (the true part we refused to sacrifice in development: community !), we are excited for this ability to reach way beyond our current downtown Austin location. While our in-person model represents the beating heart of the Freestyle Language Center community, we now have reach. And as stated in part of our ‘Freestyle manifesto', we know we have the potential to unite way beyond the Austin community: to connect and use language as a means to broaden our reach and our cross-cultural understanding.
What’s your 5-year dream?
Our local and homegrown Austin, Texas (801 Rio Grande currently, the same building where John Mackey got his start….!) will always be the core of our community. It is where people come together to challenge their boundaries, to connect to others through language, to create cultural awareness and to grow personally and professionally by becoming bilingual / multilingual. This energy both propels us to keep intention on this as our ‘core’ while wanting to make Freestyle Language Center’s successful model more widely available (see last question :)
Within 5 years, we aspire to have a global reach with our new virtual classroom, online courses - and to be the premier language model through our Freestyle Language Center ‘Satellite’ program where we take our model, currently into Austin downtown tech businesses, beyond with our in-person approach as well.
To that end, we have got a new strategy team in place for this next growth stage to build the right teams, to prep for a round of funding, and to make it happen. It is super exciting!
What is your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to embed a cause in their business strategy?
Know that no dollar amount or strategy is too small. Start small, start where you are, just do something to give back. What is it all worth if we are not doing good things in the world beyond our own immediate mission. If Freestyle Language Center can contribute to the microcredit world, support female entrepreneurs around the world through simply making coffee and asking for donations, doing small raffles, etc., I would like to believe each person and organization can find a cause and start small. Just start.