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NewsVGM Talks Overcoming Obstacles to Language Learning at TAI’s Catalysts Live

Imagine for a moment: You’re starting from scratch in a new country where you don’t know the language. How do you build a new career? How do you engage with your new community?

This was the scenario posed by Sara Laures, chief people officer, and Cassi Price, vice president of corporate projects, as they presented at the Technology Association of Iowa’s (TAI) Catalysts Live event July 18.

The Catalysts Series is “a collection of conversations with technology leaders who inspire change, forge new paths, and ignite technology innovation in the state of Iowa.” For VGM, that has always meant bringing people together and ensuring everyone is heard—you can’t do that where language barriers exist. Sara and Cassi took the opportunity to discuss the recently launched VGM Language Learning Program, the importance of eliminating language barriers in the workplace, and how other companies can get started.

Based on a True Story

For many across Iowa and the rest of the country—including our very own employee owners—the scenario Sara and Cassi described isn’t hypothetical. It’s their reality. In VGM Fulfillment for instance, over a third of our employee owners are Spanish-first speakers, and of those, 33% report to someone who does not speak Spanish fluently.

Mariellys Gutierrez, regional manager of VGM Fulfillment’s southern facilities in Phoenix and Nashville, discussed this reality In VGM’s 2022 Stories of Opportunity report. Originally from Venezuela, Mariellys was working as a packer in the Nashville facility before it was acquired by VGM in 2017. She tackled learning a new language with the help of a family member, all while she was trying to create her future at VGM.  

“We knew it shouldn’t be so hard for anyone to get the language education they’re looking for,” Cassi said. “Mariellys is proof of the positive impact eliminating language barriers can have for our employee owners and our company. And we want every employee owner to have an equal opportunity to create their future. That’s why we created the VGM Language Learning Program.”

Creating Opportunities

As Sara and Cassi noted during the presentation, eliminating language barriers holds several opportunities—even more than they realized when developing VGM’s program. The most obvious is that it supports personal and professional growth and development for employees. But language education can also improve safety, especially in warehouse settings like VGM Fulfillment, as a misunderstanding could unintentionally result in an injury, sometimes serious.

Another less obvious, but equally important opportunity, is that eliminating language barriers helps create a sense of belonging for individuals, both at work and within their community.

“We accomplish so much more when we come together,” Sara said. “Eliminating language barriers ensures everyone’s voice is heard. It helps people engage at work and in the community. And we want every employee owner to feel that sense of belonging and know that they make a difference every day.”

Creating a Future

The VGM Language Learning Program currently has 37 employee owners working toward mastering either English or Spanish. They dedicate four hours each week, in small groups and during work hours, over the next six months with the aim of becoming as fluent as possible. And the goal is to have another 100+ employees go through the program over the next two years, but we plan to keep the program going indefinitely.

It's no small investment. But as Sara, Cassi, and the rest of the team at VGM see it—it’s one worth making.

“Our employee owners are VGM,” Sara said. “Investing in them is one of the easiest decisions we can make. And we are always adding new ways to support their growth and development goals, so they can create their future.”

To learn more about VGM and the power of employee ownership, visit the Careers page and find where you belong at VGM.  

The VGM Language Learning Program was funded in part by a State of Iowa Language Learners Job Training Program grant.