HOW LATHA SUKUMAR TURNED A SMALL NON-PROFIT TRANSLATION SERVICE INTO A NATIONAL SUCCESS — GIVING PEOPLE IN NEED A VOICE
June, 18th, 2019 Expert Advice, Latest Articles, Media & News, Not-for-Profit, Profiles, Social Change, Social Change Award
Latha Sukumar was working as a lawyer when a personal experience led her down a new career path. She’s now the Executive Director of MCIS Language Services, a non-profit social enterprise offering translation, interpretation, and consulting to over 800 organizations across Canada — but it wasn’t always such a success. Latha shares how she came into her role and grew the business, with a mission of giving more people a voice.
By Karen van Kampen
As a summer law student working at the Crown’s office, Latha Sukumar witnessed a trial that would have a deep, lasting impact on her life. A man was charged with sexually assaulting an Iraqi woman at a church picnic. It was a difficult and emotional case, says Latha, with the Arabic speaking woman unable to tell her story.
“I felt totally helpless because I didn’t speak her language,” says Latha. “It became evident that these kinds of cases cannot be properly prosecuted if women don’t have a voice. That became a crusade for me.”
As Executive Director of MCIS Language Solutions — a non-profit social enterprise that specializes in translation, interpretation, and consulting — Latha works tirelessly to give people a voice by removing language barriers. In recognition of this unwavering vision, in 2018 she was presented with the RBC Social Change Award. It’s given to the leader of an organization dedicated to social change, that’s championing philanthropy and volunteerism in Canada.
Latha’s fight for social change began when she was a young girl growing up in India, listening to stories of oppression from her mother’s village. Stories of marital rape and widows working as menials in their own homes. Despite being very smart, her mother had to quit school when she reached puberty, forbidden to attend a mixed school with boys.
Along with her two sisters, she “grew up with the idea that women are subject to all these injustices and we have to stand up for the rights of women,” says Latha, adding that her mother “raised us to be women who were fearless.”
In 1987, at the age of 25, Latha immigrated to Canada with her husband and one-year-old daughter. “I had to go through a whole process of transforming myself,” she says. Latha cut her long hair, removed her nose ring, and began wearing Western skirts and pants.
A year later, Latha began a Master’s in Women’s Studies. “When I came here, I had to find my voice,” she says. “I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”
Latha continued her studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, where she learned a more evidence-based way of thinking. “If I did not go to law school, I would have a much more rosy-eyed view,” she says. “Now I’m more practical.”
In 1996, Latha was appointed Executive Director at the non-profit Multilingual Community Interpreter Services (MCIS). “It was serendipitous,” she says. “It felt like my cause had found me.” At the time, MCIS had a staff of two-and-a-half, including Latha, operating out of a small warehouse in Scarborough. They relied solely on year-to-year government funding, which was unsustainable.
“When I came here, I had to find my voice. I had the freedom, I sensed, to be able to speak my mind, but it took a while to gain the confidence to believe that I had something important to say.”
In 2004, Latha set out to grow the organization, a feat she says she completely underestimated. “I thought as a lawyer, I had all the competence to do things,” she says. “I was so wrong.” Latha discovered that being an entrepreneur entailed reading financial statements, building streamlined operations, collecting and reading data, predicting and planning.
That year, MCIS partnered with Rotman School of Management, offering students experience at a not-for-profit. In exchange, Latha says the MBA interns shared knowledge of operations, upgrading technology, standard operating procedures, and marketing. MCIS continued the summer program for the next six years. “It was incredible learning,” she says.
As your business grows, it’s important to constantly educate yourself, to stay on top of changes within your industry, and “to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you in many different ways,” says Latha. “That’s hard sometimes because you feel challenged.”
It’s also important to delegate responsibility and not “get bogged down with busy work,” she adds. “The more you grow, the more strategic you have to become. It’s important to look beyond the present and keep calibrating your company’s weaknesses, strengths and opportunities to grow to the next level.”
To stand out in the crowded space of language services, MCIS increased its training programs to ramp up capacity quickly, hired bilingual staff and ensured people had the proper security clearance. This enabled MCIS to compete for federal government contracts, and in 2015, MCIS won the contract to provide interpreter services for Syrian refugees immigrating to Canada. When the first plane landed, Latha says they were ready, deploying hundreds of Arabic speaking interpreters who also spoke English and French to work with government authorities in both Montreal and Toronto.
Today, MCIS has more than 6,000 interpreters and translators who speak more than 300 languages collectively and serve more than 800 organizations across Canada. While it hasn’t always been easy, Latha tells herself, “every day incrementally,” focusing on how she is able to make a difference in people’s lives.
Latha reflects on a woman who refused to speak for three months. Every day, an MCIS interpreter would visit the woman in a shelter, yet the woman remained silent. Then one day the woman found the courage and trust to tell her story of abuse. The case went to superior court and her husband was convicted.
“We know that we made a difference in that woman’s life,” says Latha. “Those are the stories that keep you going every day.”