Social entrepreneur Michael Alden trains refugees to be professional interpreters

Michael Alden
Michael Alden

Michael Alden, the vice president and general manager of social enterprise for Ascentria Care Alliance, discusses the mission of Language Bank, an organization that trains refugees to become professional interpreters.

Tell us about Language Bank:

I’m growing a social enterprise, Language Bank, that trains and employs refugees and other new Americans as professional language interpreters. As the number and percentage of people in the U.S. with limited English proficiency climbs, there’s a real business need for our service. We welcome, promote, and integrate refugees as members of our professional interpreter team.

Language Bank helps an underserved group of people access healthcare systems and the judiciary system. We empower [English language learners] to navigate a world where communication access is a real barrier to their self-sufficiency.

Who hires Language Bank?

Our clients are hospitals, courts, schools, for-profit businesses, and other types of organizations. We serve eight of the 10 largest hospitals in the state of New Hampshire and we work with several hospitals in Massachusetts as well.

Our customers value the fact that, unlike competitors, we train and employ our team; they see consistency and professionalism in our service, and have told us that they value our unique cultural expertise. We help businesses grow by reaching new clients, students, residents, and patients, as well as serving their existing clients and customers better.

On changing careers:

I was working in midtown Manhattan in corporate restructuring, traveling across the country to abandoned corporate office parks on engagements to restructure companies that were in financial distress. I wanted to pursue something that had a social mission to it—that was really fulfilling.

[It’s fulfilling] to see the impact that we’re making. We have over 200 interpreters, a third of whom are refugees from Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe.

Did you have an “a-ha” moment when your realized social entrepreneurship was your calling?

When I was at UMass Isenberg (‘04), I volunteered on a mini study abroad program in Ghana, West Africa. We brought computers and taught Microsoft Office and [other] entrepreneurial skills [to the community]. I still remain in contact with one of the people I met on the trip.

For me, it was a cumulative building of interactions that called to me over time—not a single moment that compelled me to look for other ways that I could apply the skills I learned at UMass and elsewhere in my career.

 Define social entrepreneurship:

A social entrepreneurship [venture] is a business that seeks to achieve a social mission through a market-based strategy. And for [Language Bank], our social mission is empowering limited-English proficient people through communication access. The market-based strategy is fee for service language interpretation and translation.

Who in the social entrepreneurship space do you admire? Follow?

I recently completed a social innovation program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where I met inspiring social entrepreneurs from around the world.

Davis Smith founded a Salt Lake City-based company called Cotopaxi, an outdoor gear and active lifestyle brand with a social mission at its core. The brand creates innovative products and experiences that fund sustainable poverty alleviation.

Dirk Van Velzen, another one of my colleagues in the social entrepreneurship space, founded Seattle-based The Prison Scholars Fund. Dirk was incarcerated as a teen, and the Prison Scholars Fund opens access to postsecondary education opportunities for incarcerated students with support and mentoring, and helps them reintegrate back into society with transition support that includes job readiness and placement.

Luma Mufleh, another colleague, was a top 10 CNN hero of the year.  She founded Atlanta-based Fugees Family, Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to working with child survivors of war. The organization empowers refugees to integrate successfully into their new country by providing them with the support and structure they need to realize their vast potential.

Classy, [a fundraising platform for “social good” organizations], is connected with for-profit companies that have corporate social responsibility divisions as well as leading nonprofits and major philanthropic foundations. Language Bank is honored to be recognized as a finalist for The 2017 Classy Awards.

What keeps you going?

I’ve got two young kids. I look in their eyes and I see the future of the world. I feel a responsibility to not only provide for them, but also to make the world a better place.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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