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April 2007
Enabling a Communication Connection
By Lisa Hoffmann

     Remember high school Spanish class? All that verb conjugation business was enough to make you want to cut class and head for the local burger place. And when el maestro called on you to speak Spanish in front of all your classmates, well, that was often just plain excruciating.

     Myelita Melton, owner and president of SpeakEasy Communications based in Mooresville, feels your pain. In fact, she was a high school language teacher for over 10 years and remembers the looks of dread she saw on students’ faces when she called on them. She still sees those looks, only now they appear on adults’ faces. Lucky for her students, she’s found a way to make those looks of dread and feelings of terror melt away. Melton and her staff make learning on-the-job Spanish simple, and even fun, for folks all across the greater Charlotte region and around the nation. No conjugation required.

 

A Model Business Model

     The music of foreign languages hooked Melton from the very first time she heard them in a sixth grade cultural enrichment program. She was the first student to take two foreign languages simultaneously at her Burke County high school and attended the prestigious Instituto de Filológica Hispánica in Saltillo, Mexico, at the tender age of 17.

    “I absolutely fell in love with Mexico, its people and its beautiful language—and I’d return there at the drop of a sombrero,” Melton quips.

     After studying as an undergraduate, Melton began her career as a high school foreign language teacher. In 1989 she was awarded a Rockefeller Scholarship for foreign language instructors. For her research project she decided to travel to Italy to research and produce a documentary film about the Italian and French immigrants who settled the Burke County town now known as Valdese. Much later, this led her to a job with NBC’s Spanish news division and a stint with PBS affiliate WTVI. She was laid off from both jobs, one within a year of the other.

     Falling back on her education roots, she began calling local community colleges to inquire whether they needed a traveling night school instructor. Many said “yes.”

It was the familiar looks of dread and terror Melton saw on her adult students’ faces that got the wheels turning in her head. “Many of these people were absolutely terrified of taking a Spanish class but were doing it because they had to,” she explains. “I immediately began thinking critically about communication strategies and the essential elements of the Spanish language. It was very important to teach people Spanish they could really use every day. Clearly, the available curriculums and materials were not working.”

     Melton’s business plan slowly developed as she began going on-site to teach construction workers, medical professionals and journalists how to communicate with Spanish speakers. The key difference in her approach was that she structured each class around industry-specific needs. She interviewed students to find out exactly which common words and phrases they needed to know to communicate with their Spanish-speaking customers, patients, employees and business colleagues.

     “I realized then that it’s about communication, not conjugation,” Melton says. “These folks didn’t need to become fluent in Spanish, they just needed a toolbox of common words and phrases specific to their particular industry.”

     The SpeakEasy Spanish method began working right away but it would be three years before Melton incorporated her business. After watching a family-owned cable television advertising company collapse, Melton knew she had to be meticulous in the planning and execution of her new business model.

     “I wanted to make absolutely sure that the methodology was perfect, that the system worked and that the research I’d done on the growth of the Hispanic population in this area was valid,” Melton explains. “I wanted a good, solid base for the business.” She incorporated SpeakEasy Communications in the summer of 2001.

 

The Plan in Action

     According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Hispanic population in North Carolina has grown 394 percent since 1990. The bureau reports that 9.1 percent of Mecklenburg County residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin and that Hispanic buying power in North Carolina increased 255 percent between 1990 and 2001. Business people are taking notice, looking for ways to tap into this profitable market. A basic understanding of Spanish is the necessary first step.

     SpeakEasy Communications now has such notable businesses as Coca-Cola, Presbyterian Hospital, Duke Energy, Food Lion, Bank of America and the Charlotte Apartment Association as clients.

     “Myelita helped us address the needs of our sales force for communicating with current and potential Hispanic customers, mostly small business owners,” says Laura Sawyer, learning manager for Coca-Cola Bottling Consolidation here in Charlotte. “She was really able to customize her program for our unique situation here at Coca-Cola.”

     That customization process, along with offering a smattering of instruction on cultural considerations her clients can employ when working with Hispanic customers, colleagues and employees, has been the key to SpeakEasy Communication’s success here and across America. So has a flexible responsiveness to the marketplace.

     When the economy tanked in the aftermath of 9-11 and companies slashed their training budgets, Melton turned her attention to producing a line of CDs she could market outside the Charlotte region. She put an enormous amount of time and energy into producing the audio programs, not knowing whether they’d sell or not, although she had an inkling they would be very successful when she discovered a competitor’s book paired with her CD on Amazon.com.

     The proverbial silver lining of the cloud that covered the American economy appeared for Melton when she discovered a nationwide market for her goods and services. “I made the mistake early on of not marketing SpeakEasy Spanish training programs in the southwest and metro areas with high Hispanic populations because I assumed the need was being met by other companies. I was wrong. And, I should have published my book series and started marketing it years before I did.”

     Melton started getting requests to schedule classes from across the country, enabling her to develop a network of contractors she can send to fulfill instructional needs west of the Mississippi. She seeks out experienced teachers, many with corporate experience, to teach SpeakEasy Spanish courses. She provides these independent contractors with basic training in the form of printed materials and offers them guidance and support, but she’s careful not to micromanage them. “I don’t want to tell good teachers how to teach. I let them use their own expertise and provide whatever support they may need or request to allow them to do their jobs.”

     Today, Melton has two full-time and six part-time employees and calls on 24 independent contractors who provide instructional services in over 20 states. Her books and CDs are offered on Amazon.com, Audiofy.com, Audible.com, and in a growing number of bookstore chains. Additionally, several national associations also distribute her publications. SpeakEasy Communications has seen a 25 percent growth every year since 2001.

      Over time, Melton has become an in-demand keynote speaker for a variety of professional organizations, something she finds immensely rewarding. Her quick wit and friendly smile no doubt help build an instant connection with her audience and hold people’s attention.

     “Success isn’t about luck,” Melton claims. “It requires dedication, vision and a lot of hard work. I’m very grateful for what we’ve achieved.”

 

Looking Forward

     Despite all the hard work and travel Melton’s job requires, she finds it truly invigorating. She thoroughly enjoys the research it takes to develop new programs: finding out what people do on the job, touring clients’ facilities and tailoring programs to suit their needs. She also loves working with what she calls “visionary business leaders” in Charlotte and around the country, those who see how important it is to keep pace with the ever-changing American demographic.

     “Businesses that attempt even a little Spanish with Hispanic customers reap tremendous rewards,” she says. “The attempt to communicate in Spanish sends a clear message that the consumer is highly valued.”

     “We’re very appreciative of the work Myelita does and her flexibility of providing training here in our workplace,” says Martha Gallagher, human resources assistant for The Charlotte Observer. “Our company realizes that acquiring those language skills helps us deal with the growing Hispanic population in this area.”

     Businesses everywhere are scrambling to keep up with technology and SpeakEasy Communications is no different. Partnering with a Georgia firm, Melton is in the process of launching an online training course for apartment managers later this year. If that is well received she’ll expand the e-learning model. She is also expanding her line of CDs and working on video-on-demand. Improving the courses she offers is an ongoing process. And she’s toying with the idea of franchising the SpeakEasy Spanish model.

     Melton was more than pleased when a representative from the American Bar Association called to request a copy of her recently released “Survival Spanish for Legal Professionals.” Given the overall demand for her “Survival Spanish” materials, Melton created “Survival Spanish for All Americans.” The accompanying CD is hot off the presses at this writing and has Melton squirming like a schoolgirl in her seat. “These products are like my children. It’s great to see them take off and grow.”

     Past clients and students often call to make update suggestions, such as adding a new term or phrase, for her educational materials. The best calls, though, are the ones she gets from clients to tell her how helpful her course has proven to be.

      “Not only do people overcome the fear and anxiety they experienced in high school Spanish classes and move to successfully speaking Spanish on the job, but these skills help people all the time,” Melton shares. “I’ve heard from a social worker who helped a mother enroll her child in a Head Start program and a construction company representative who told me how much safer his construction sites are due to our efforts. That’s the true reward, one that I focus on each and every day. It’s what keeps us all going.”

     Still, all that hard work makes keeping Melton’s life in balance a challenge. She starts each day by thinking about how someone, somewhere, is able to communicate with another human being because of SpeakEasy Spanish. Positive thoughts really energize her, she explains. And she focuses on enjoying downtime, when it comes. Melton has learned not to panic about occasional business lulls. “Now, I enjoy the brief downtime. It may be the last I get for many months,” she says with a laugh.
      Although Melton is quick to praise supportive friends and family, it is clear that the driving force behind SpeakEasy Communication’s success is Melton’s passion. “You could call it my manifest destiny,” she says. “It is what I was meant to do.”

Lisa Hoffmann is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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