Every year when March rolls around, I pull out a food-stained placemat from 2005 and spend a few minutes reminiscing about the history of Multilingual Connections.
Like many entrepreneurs, my career path wasn’t linear, and starting a business wasn’t a part of the original plan. As I noted in the American Anthropological Association’s Career Spotlight:
“The kick in the pants to start my business came from getting fired after being on the unpopular side of some office politics. A few days later, my husband and I went for dinner at a Cuban restaurant and used my food-stained placemat to map out the possible next steps in my career: return to academia? go back to user experience research? work as an adjunct? By the end of the night, I had decided to give the business a try.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, though. I had spent years working on my Ph.D. in linguistic anthropology. I had over 200 hours of videotape (yes, you read that right – Hi8 tapes, to be exact) from my fieldwork in Israel, where I spent a year exploring language ideologies among speakers of Judeo-Spanish, an obsolescing dialect of Spanish spoken by descendants of the Jews that fled Spain in the 15th century. I had left UCLA to return to Chicago, and I struggled to finish my dissertation while being off campus and working full time. But I had finally done it (and had the student loans to prove it), and I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up on the vision of myself as an academic.
Then there was the stigma of leaving academia. Despite the many opportunities for meaningful impact beyond academia, the decision to pursue careers outside is often met with raised eyebrows, judgment, or guilt for “leaving.”
Though I had left campus a few years prior, I had kept that door to academia open. I knew that committing to starting a business likely meant closing that door and sitting with my own sense of stigma for leaving. In the years since many anthropology programs have added career-focused courses, and there are multiple career resources for professional anthropologists. And as tech companies like Google and Spotify and others have actively sought out ethnographic researchers to work in user research, that stigma is less. Since dinner at that Cuban restaurant, I’ve embraced my path and found tremendous fulfillment in the running of a values-focused company full of great people doing important work.
A few months ago, I organized a panel discussion with three other career anthropologists at the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference. In our session, Leaving Academia, Staying in Anthropology: Voices and Paths of Anthropologists from the Great Beyond, we discussed the challenges and opportunities around our decisions to stay in anthropology while going beyond academia. Our stories and paths have been different, but we’ve all found professional homes for ourselves and our anthropological backgrounds.
For some, leaving – or going beyond – academia is an explicit choice, while for others, little decisions along the way take you in directions you might not have intended or even imagined. The latter is certainly my situation, and 18 years after launching Multilingual Connections, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’ll admit that I do miss doing research myself, but as luck would have it, much of the work we do as a company today supports other people’s research, both academic and corporate, through translation, transcription and bilingual moderation. So now it’s about facilitating rather than conducting the research, and there’s certainly enjoyment in that.
Looking back over 18 years, I’m grateful for the kick in the pants that led me to take the risk. I’m grateful for the challenges and struggles, the opportunities, and the connections we’ve created and strengthened across the world.
Do you have a similar story, or questions, or just want to keep the conversation going? Connect with me on LinkedIn.
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