Elena Lawler started her career as an English professor in her native Kazakhstan. After immigrating here from the former Soviet Union, she became an entrepreneur, launching Northwest Interpreters Inc. in 1991.
Twenty-three years later, her Vancouver company is trying to live up to its global roots by rebranding itself to expand beyond the Pacific Northwest.
The corporation is now conducting business as "NWI Global," though its legal name remains unchanged.
"We felt like we were really limited by our name," said Vic Marcus, Lawler's son and the company's vice president of business development. "When someone from New York would look at our name, they would think ... that we're only doing interpreting, and only in the Pacific Northwest."
The 12-person company contracts with nearly 1,500 interpreters and translators, who speak and write more than 200 languages. Interpretation involves real-time spoken communication — often in schools, hospitals, courtrooms and conference rooms — while translation involves written documents. In most cases, contractors specialize in one or the other. A few individuals do both, Marcus said.
NWI Global experienced its first growth spurt in 2003, when it landed a contract to provide all in-person interpretation services for the Central Washington region of the state Department of Social and Health Services. Between 2003 and 2009, the company's sales doubled every year. In 2010, sales dropped as the state's budget shrunk during the recession.
So the company looked to other sources of income. In recent years, it has found success by actually narrowing its scope of services offered.
"A lot of the companies in our industry, they're basically like mom-and-pop shops that are very local," Marcus said.
Until recently, NWI Global used to accept any job, too — translating an immigrant's birth certificate, for example.
Today, the company focuses its translation efforts on business communications, including helping companies translate websites or training materials.
"We're focusing a lot on the e-learning and training market," Marcus said. "A lot of multi-national companies with diverse workforces need to train employees who speak other languages, not only in the U.S. but also overseas."
And NWI Global is ramping up its interpreting services in American Sign Language. That's an area where Marcus said he sees big growth potential, especially in higher education. Any public or private university that accepts federal funding is required, by the Americans with Disabilities Act, to provide interpretation services for deaf students.
Elena Lawler remains the company's president and CEO. The family presence in addition to Victor Marcus includes Lawler's daughter, Karina Marcus, who is vice president of enterprise solutions. In its Vancouver office, NWI Global has recruitment staff that add translators and interpreters to its database. Staff members also vet them to make sure they are qualified. Translators and interpreters can be certified by a variety of state and national entities.
NWI Global has other staff who oversee the complex scheduling of its contractors, using a custom-developed software program. The company now has clients from Alaska to Florida, according to Marcus.
"We're trying to offer a consistent service, regardless of geographic location," he said.
IBISWorld, a market research firm, reported this year that NWI Global is one of 52,596 language services businesses in the U.S.
According to another market research firm, Common Sense Advisory, language services amount to a $34.8 billion industry. And many experts predict that globalization bodes well for the future of the business.
In 2012, about 63,600 people were employed as interpreters and translators, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Earlier this year, the agency projected that employment figure would grow by 46 percent by 2022 — more than four times the 11 percent average projected growth rate for all occupations.
"Employment growth will be driven by increasing globalization and by large increases in the number of non-English-speaking people in the United States," the agency wrote in its Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2014-2015.
Marcus said he notices the effects of globalization just by walking down the streets of Vancouver. When his family moved here, in the early 1990s, he said he heard mostly English, Spanish and Russian.
"Recently, I hear a lot more Burmese, a lot more Somali," he said.
He attributed the influx to ongoing civil unrest in Myanmar, also called Burma, and in Somalia. It's perhaps similar to the estimated 11,000 Russians and Ukrainians who settled in Clark County during the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even as NWI Global gears up for expansion, Marcus said the corporation is committed to remaining in Vancouver.
"Perhaps," he added, "creating more jobs here within our office."