How This First-Generation Somali American Turned His Talent For Languages Into A Must-Have Business Service
As a first-generation Somali American and the eldest of eight children who grew up in a crowded home in Northern Virginia, 32-year-old Mohamed Hussein has honed his skills as a performer and entrepreneur since childhood. He and his siblings would respond in English to his parents’ Somali, and he was always on the run for pocket money. In his early twenties, he taught English and facilitated occasional livestock transactions in Saudi Arabia, after which, in 2013, he founded PGLS (Piedmont Global Language Solutions), in Arlington, Virginia. The company, which recorded nearly $32.5 million in revenue in 2021, has 57 employees and provides translation, interpretation and related services to those who speak more than 200 languages in 18 countries; it’s a $60.5 billion industry. And to think that he almost became a doctor. –As said to Ben Sherry
I’ve always had this entrepreneurial spirit. I was the kid who sold candy out of his locker and flipped cars before I knew how to drive. I graduated from high school two years early and started college before I was 16. I had planned to go to medical school, but decided to go to Yemen after my freshman year to study Arabic for a year. I ended up spending about five years in Saudi Arabia, studying Arabic, as well as religion and philosophy, at a university there. This is where I became aware of language services as an industry – and a path for me.
I needed a job, so I started teaching English on the side. Elite schools in Saudi Arabia spent a lot of money on English teachers. Eventually I started a tutoring business and started traveling around the country teaching English. That’s when I really started making money – around $30 an hour.
Once I started making contacts in the language industry, I started getting offers to work on all kinds of projects, like translating books and websites. I have also worked with some large livestock importers in Saudi Arabia to help broker deals for sacrificial sheep and goats between importers and travel agencies representing American Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca.
When I came back to the United States in 2013, I was sure I didn’t want to be a doctor. I had just gotten married and was finally finishing school, and I was also running an e-commerce platform company, flipping real estate, consulting, and day trading. But I continued to translate on the side. A friend told me about a contract job translating and interpreting in Somali and Arabic, and that’s how I started the business originally – as an LLC for this side gig.
It wasn’t until two years later that I thought, “There’s something here. Let me double down and see what happens.” That’s when the business really started to pick up steam. I got rid of most of my other commitments so I could fully focus on growing PGLS. I had hired sub-contractors to handle translation jobs in languages I didn’t know, and now I was able to hire my first real employee.
Refocusing my efforts paid off immediately: in 2015, we went from $34,000 to half a million dollars. It made sense to initially focus on securing government contracts due to our location, and we saw steady growth from 2016 to 2020. The pandemic was certainly a challenge, but we also won big federal contracts and acquired a local language training business, which resulted in 2021 being our best year by far.
Our mission is to help organizations thrive in a multilingual global environment. So we work on everything from marketing materials to training manuals and website copy, but we also help government agencies translate foreign documents and provide linguists. Knowing who to assign to a specific project is critical as they need to understand the context. If we work for a healthcare company, the translator must understand the terminology as well as the language. Finding that mix of language fluency and subject matter knowledge is what makes our people so impressive.
I continue to do odd jobs, but mostly as a minority shareholder. At the same time, I try to expand my own language knowledge. I am fluent in English, Arabic, and Somali, but would like to have at least five languages in my back pocket, so I am working on improving my Spanish in high school and learning American Sign Language, which, I think, will be a major focus for us in the future. I know from experience that being able to speak directly with a client can go a long way in strengthening relationships.
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Excerpt from the September 2022 issue of Inc. Magazine