VGM Group – 2023 Catalysts Honoree

VGM Language Learning Program: Overcoming Obstacles to Create Impact

Eliminating language barriers can massively transform the workplace — something VGM Group recently found out. 

At the 2023 Catalysts Live event on July 18th, Cassi Price and Sara Laures took the stage to discuss the impact of the VGM Language Learning Program and the difference it’s making in the lives of its employee-owners.

Mariellys grew up in Venezuela, where she loved spending time with her family and friends. It’s also where she started her career. But, she had to leave it all behind due to political unrest and war in the country. Thankfully, she found safety and a new home in the United States.

In 2017, Mariellys applied to and was hired at VGM Group — a 100% employee-owned organization that houses ten companies focused on helping simplify the complexities of doing business. She worked in one of the fulfillment distribution centers, where she picked, packed and shipped medical equipment for patients in need all across the nation.

“Our leadership instantly saw something in her,” said Sara Laures, chief people officer at VGM Group. “They saw she had a knack for problem-solving, and she was good at bringing people together. We also had a lot of Spanish-first speakers in our warehouse environment, so Mariellys was able to connect with those people.”

Because of this, she was encouraged to apply for a supervisor position within a new department. Mariellys was excited for the opportunity, and she was up for the challenge. But if she wanted to build a successful career at the organization and continue growing, she’d need to increase her English fluency.

“Can you imagine starting from scratch in a new country where you don’t know the language?” Cassi Price, vice president of corporate projects at VGM Group, asked. “How do you build a new career? How do you engage with your community? This is the reality for many across Iowa and across our country, including our own VGM employee-owners like Mariellys.”

Price and Laures went on to explain that language barriers have become increasingly common as VGM Group continues to recruit employees of diverse backgrounds. In VGM Fulfillment, over one-third of employee-owners are Spanish-first speakers, and most of those individuals report to leaders who don’t speak Spanish fluently. This means supervisors and managers can’t fully understand one-third of the employees who report to them. 

Luckily for Mariellys, her husband’s grandfather knew English well. And he loved Venezuelan cuisine. 

“So, she had an idea,” Laures shared. “She offered a trade: English lessons for a home-cooked meal.”

Laures was happy to report this trade paid off. Today, Mariellys is a regional manager at VGM Group, overseeing operations at its Phoenix and Nashville warehouse operations.

“Because of her impact on our company, she’s been instrumental in deepening the culture around employee ownership,” Laures said. “She’s able to build connections through that language barrier.”

Price added that VGM Group is fortunate to have an employee-owner like Mariellys.

She’s proof of the positive impact eliminating language barriers can have for our employee-owners and our company.

“With that in mind, we knew that it really shouldn’t be that hard for anyone to get the language education they were looking for,” Price said.

So, VGM Group set out to build its own language learning program. As team members began researching how to do so, they found that the benefits of eliminating language barriers were far greater than they initially thought.

Beyond creating opportunities for growth and development, language education can improve safety in warehouse and production settings because misunderstandings can lead to injuries. Moreover, it provides something that all humans need: a sense of belonging.

When we eliminate language barriers, we help employees engage not only with their peers, but also in the communities where they live. We saw this firsthand with Mariellys. She helped ensure our Spanish-first speakers were heard.

Laures and Price continued that there are many opportunities for language learning programs within the workplace, but only if they’re structured properly. To ensure success at the VGM Group, they first had to understand what actual obstacles employees faced. Once that was done, they could see where other companies might have gotten it wrong in their own programs. 

One important thing to keep in mind is that people have different life situations. Some companies that VGM Group researched offered a language learning program but expected employees to take part in it outside of regular working hours. While this may seem reasonable at first, it’s not an entirely fair opportunity. 

“That simply isn’t realistic for so many of our employees,” Price said. “People may have children and very limited childcare options at home. If a program is offsite, they may not have transportation available to get there. And, if it’s online, they may not have a computer at home. They may have another job to get to. Learning a new language in particular requires regular and ongoing instruction.”

Within a language learning program, it’s crucial that learners have support along the way, too.

Language is about connecting people to other people, so isn’t it odd that we’d expect someone to go at it alone?

In addition, learning a new language is far less intimidating when people are surrounded by peers. 

With all this in mind, VGM Group came up with its VGM Language Learning Program, which launched on June 25. On July 18th, there were nearly 40 employee-owners working toward mastering English or Spanish. Participants dedicate two hours each week to small groups during working hours. Then, for the next six months, they aim to become as fluent as possible. The program partners with an online learning module but is set up in the classroom so attendees can learn in person. Because of the online platform, they can continue learning at home, too, if they wish. 

“This combo of tech-driven and on-site learning is really the best of both worlds,” Price said. 

Over the next two years, Laures and Price shared they hope to have another 100 or more employees complete the program.

They also shared four pieces of advice for companies interested in starting a similar program at their own organization:

1. Invest in your people.

Learning a new language will change someone’s life in and out of work for the better. A program that enables employees to do so is great for recruitment, as it helps illustrate an inclusive environment.

2. Don’t overcomplicate it.

You don’t have to start from scratch, Laures and Price shared. There are helpful tools and partners out there.

3. Value progress over perfection.

The goal for learners in the VGM Language Learning Program isn’t 100% fluency. The hope is that they’ll become as fluent as possible for them within six months. People learn at different rates, so manage expectations.

4. You don’t have to solve every problem.

The key is to create an environment that empowers and encourages people to succeed. Laures and Price said they’ve noticed a shocking number of employees logging into the language learning system after hours. It’s evident that employees are excited about the opportunity to learn. They just needed support and a nudge to start.

Laures ended the presentation by circling back to Mariellys, who enrolled in the VGM Language Learning Program with hopes of getting even better.

As she learns and grows, it’s so exciting to see as she brings her team along with her. She’s really a shining example of what happens when we invest in our employees.

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