CEI Stories

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July 06, 2023

House of Languages

Dolgormaa Hersom has spent years serving Maine communities as a talented and passionate interpreter, but she consistently dreamed of something more. In 2011, she set out to make her vision of an immigrant led interpretive service for Maine businesses a reality. Since then, Dolgormaa’s House of Languages has grown into one of the premier interpretive services in Maine, with a diverse and talented staff. She acts as the President and CEO, as well as the owner, and also spends time doing interpreting work. 

Photos by Sean Alonzo Harris and Theron Powell

Here is House of Language’s story in Dolgormaa’s words:  

The Life of a Linguist: Dolgormaa’s Backstory  

I came to Maine from Mongolia to study political science at University of Maine at Farmington. After college, I worked for a couple of organizations, nonprofit organizations. My work involved improving language access to people with limited English skills, helping refugees, immigrants to access services in Maine. I have been in this language access field for a long time. For about 25 years, but I’ve always wanted to have my own business. About 10 years ago, I had this opportunity and I decided to take a chance. 

I was always curious about having my own business and I was always interested in languages. My parents actually are both linguists, but after high school, they didn’t want me to study a foreign language. They were worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a job 

Instead, I studied philosophy, but it all circled back and my love for languages, I think in a way, manifested in wanting to do something with languages and to try to have it as a business. 

About 10 years ago, a project that I was managing that was located in Portland, Maine to interpret the training was coming to an end. It was a perfect time; I could have looked for another job or I decided I could explore the possibility of starting a business. 

The Foundations of the House: How CEI and Dolgormaa’s relationship came to be  

I first became aware of CEI when I used to work for a local refugee resettlement agency. I remember CEI was helping someone I know to start a restaurant and it was wonderful to see everything starting from creating a logo, finding them in space, providing business counseling.  

I was admiring the work that they were doing, and I became aware, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be nice one day for me to have a business and to have this kind of support. 

The first type of service help I was able to get from CEI was for matching grants. They were offering people with low to moderate income opportunities to match savings. My husband and I used that opportunity. We saved some money and with CEI’s help we paid for some of his college classes, and we got help with down payment for our first home. 

That was 20 years ago. And then 10 years ago, when I wanted to start the business, I contacted CEI for help with business counseling. It would be fair to say that I didn’t know anything about starting a business. I got help along the way with all the details of how to register my business, how to get an EIN number, what kind of entity I may need to forum. I got help getting connected to a law firm. I was connected to an accountant with whom I still work and all help along the way, with the advice, with setting up accounting, with finding a space. 

I continued working with CEI over the years because at different stages of my business, we had different needs. I’ve always contacted them for advice or for referrals. 

I think just knowing that there is service that can help you a place where you can get free advice on  concrete topics. That was for me very important, not just general business planning, but concrete topics which were relevant to my business. I think it gives a big peace of mind. 

To Create Connection and Community: What does House of Languages Do Today 

We offer services currently in 30 languages. Most of our interpreters and translators are refugees and immigrants. Everybody has had a very interesting life and what brought their journey to Maine is amazing. That’s the best part of my job, meeting our interpreters and translators. Getting to know them. And also people that we help, whether they need to access a certain service or of other purposes, wherever they need interpreting or translating for, it’s fascinating. 

We’ve had over the years about 400 customers. Currently we have about 200 customers. Many of them work with women and children. A little bit of everything. On a day-to-day basis, you can see our interpreters working in different places, in different offices, all over Maine, and also doing remote interpreting from home, maybe via video or a phone. There is never a day, which is the same. I also do interpreting myself and I love that part of my job. 

We’ve done very interesting interpreting and translation projects for businesses, and I find it to be very interesting to be able to help another business.  

Sometimes it could be a job training, some places that have employees with limited English skills hire us orientations, for trainings, it could be in a grocery store standing next to a person who is bagging groceries, helping them to understand the job responsibilities. It could be a team of roofers that came from Spanish speaking countries, helping them to understand their contracts. It could be a seafood processing place, also helping people to understand their jobs.  

I believe for businesses, I think it is a useful resource and at the end, I think it could be even cost effective to provide some services in the beginning involving interpreters, whether it’s a job training or explaining the benefits. 

95% of our customers are local. We are a local business. We buy local and provide services really for people who are in Maine. 

The Power of a Word: How Does Dolgormaa Feel About Her Work 

I was afraid to start my business because I wasn’t sure if we could do it financially for our family. It also seemed very risky, but once I took the leap of faith, I thought it was very rewarding.  

I love my job and I think I love every aspect of it. Usually, when I come to the office in the morning, I make coffee. One time I told my friend a story that, sometimes when I’m standing and making coffee, I think to myself, “What a waste of time I could be working right now.” Because I can’t wait to get to my work. We are very busy, and we have many projects, and every project is different, and I think it is enjoyable in its own way. 

I’m very excited because we were just notified by the small business administration that House of Languages was selected as the best minority business for 2022 in Maine. We will be getting the award in May. It feels special for me because it’s a landmark. This is my 10th year in the business, so I’m really happy. 

I think I’ve come a long way. Sometimes I stop and think about it. I had no money. I didn’t know how to start the business. It was a shared desk and a shared workspace, but today we have a good, solid, small business and I hope it continues growing. 

If you want to start a business, you need to love what you’re trying to do. If you love something and you’re truly passionate about it, it can happen. It may not be easy, but it can happen. I think you should take a leap of faith. 

Learn more about House of Languages: 

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