What began as a college class project for Ludmila (Mila) Golovine later turned into a successful translation company that works in over 250 languages across 50 countries and employs close to 14,000 contracted language professionals across the globe. Her Houston-based company, MasterWord, provides translation, localization, spoken and sign language interpreting, cultural trainings, linguist assessments and other language support services. Over the years, the company expanded its reach to different industries, added more services and has a compound annual growth rate of 20 percent. All of this was started by an immigrant who says her mission is “connecting people across language and culture.”
Golovine came to the U.S. from Russia with only $304 in her pocket. It was the late ‘80s, and the “iron curtain” still loomed large. She was 19 and very determined, and enrolled at the University of Houston to study international finance.
Entrepreneurship was one of the electives that she chose as part of her program—a class that Golovine says she took merely because of convenience, even though she had no idea what the word “entrepreneurship” meant. One of the assignments for this class was to come up with an idea for a business plan.
“The classroom assignment was due the next day,” Golovine says, “and then the idea popped up in my head—what if I start a company that does translations for big multinational projects? I don’t have to start big, I can start small, and start right here in the community.” The idea stuck with her for the rest of the semester, and she decided do more research on it.
“At that time, the translation industry was a $10 billion industry, which was largely dominated by mom-and-pop companies,” she shares. “It was also rather fragmented. I got excited about the opportunity when I first started writing the business plan, and then when I started doing it as a business.” Today, it’s a $46 billion industry that is growing incredibly fast. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for interpreters and translators is supposed to increase by 18 percent by 2026,” she continues, “and there is a huge need for human translators.”
Golovine took her very first interpreting assignment by accident and on a volunteer basis. A Russian delegation came in and needed an interpreter, and the university contacted Golovine to see if she was interested in working with the group. She said yes. When people heard about her interpreting, Golovine was contacted more and more. She then started charging for her work, and that’s how MasterWord was born.
One of the takeaways from Golovine’s entrepreneurship class that really resonated with her—especially after she started her own business—was that “your relationship with the banker is more important than any other business relationship you would have.” Although she started MasterWord with no starting capital and operated on a cash basis for a while, she took that tenet to heart and later approached multiple banks for a line of credit.
“The idea popped up in my head—what if I start a company that does translations for big multinational projects? I don’t have to start big, I can start small, and start right here in the community.”
“As our business grew…we found that bigger banks were not as interested in small businesses,” Golovine says. “We were just a number in the cog, and there was also a high turnover over who was assigned to our account.”
Golovine adds, “The relationship that we currently have with East West Bank is that the bank is really our business partner who allows us to grow. The bank is somebody we report to about our challenges, successes, opportunities and we work through that together. You would never see me working with a big bank again.”
Mark Koshnick, senior vice president of commercial lending at East West Bank, says his team works hard to tailor a solution to fit each client. “We had an opportunity to sit down with Mila, to get to know her company better and to see where they have been, where they are heading and where they want to be.”
Based on the company’s needs, East West Bank provided MasterWord with an SBA 7(a) loan so they could get working capital for a software upgrade. According to Brandon Day, SBA business development team manager at East West Bank, one of the big advantages of SBA loans is that they offer lower down payments and longer loan terms compared to conventional loans, which makes them more accessible to small business owners who want to expand their businesses.
“SBA 7(a) loans are the most popular types of SBA loans because they allow for the widest variety of loan uses and have the most flexible underwriting guidelines,” explains Day.
MasterWord’s SBA loan allowed them to build their own platform of over-the-phone and video-remote interpreting services, and to enhance their internal workflow platform. The company works in different sectors, each with its own compliance and workflow requirements. The SBA loan allowed MasterWord to invest in technology so they could provide better service and stay competitive, without having to sell major interest to venture capital firms.
“We couldn’t have made it without the support of East West Bank. It doesn’t matter how well the company does—if we don’t have a partner who can help us with our cash flow needs, we cannot grow as a business. So, it’s been very instrumental and incredibly important,” Golovine emphasizes.
Later, the original CRE and SBA loans were refinanced and paid off by a new commercial real estate loan. “We’ve taken it to the point where MasterWord outgrew the SBA loan, and we were there right beside them, helping them to get where they are at now,” Koshnick says.
When MasterWord started, the oil and gas sector constituted 100 percent of their business. There was high demand in the energy sector for translation services, since a lot of oil companies were doing business internationally. But in the late ‘90s, the price of oil dropped dramatically.
“That almost put us out of business, and we almost died as a company,” Golovine remembers.
“We are not all things for all people. We are just a language and communication piece that specializes in language access services. And, as a service business operating in a niche market, we provide that specialized service to different industries where it’s needed.”
She says that the collapse prompted MasterWord to start diversifying into other industries, including health care and government. MasterWord also currently provides translation, localization and interpreting services for insurance, legal, education, business and private sectors.
Golovine adds that it’s also important for a business to specialize in specific areas, which is why she ventured into communication access solutions. MasterWord offers a full array of deaf/hard-of-hearing and deafblind services, and has been actively involved with serving the deaf community and providing American Sign Language interpreting, which they started 15 years ago.
“We are not all things for all people. We are just a language and communication piece that specializes in language access services. And, as a service business operating in a niche market, we provide that specialized service to different industries where it’s needed,” she says.
But MasterWord doesn’t just stop there. The company hires deaf employees for various roles, not just as interpreters, who are being integrated into the organization the same way as people who speak other languages.
“We accommodate them and make sure they have an interpreter when they need one for a meeting. We are very proactive. We think it’s very important to hire people based on what they can do, not based on what language they speak,” says Golovine.
Along with common spoken languages, MasterWord does a lot of work with “languages of limited diffusion” that are spoken by a relatively small number of people. The company has estimated that they’ve worked in over 400 languages in the state of Texas alone.
“While you could easily find someone who is trained as an interpreter in German or Spanish, you may not find someone who is professionally trained as an interpreter in K’iche' (a Maya language spoken in Guatemala),” Golovine says. When looking for people who can speak these rare languages, MasterWord searches among the immigrant and refugee communities and provides training courses for those who want to become an interpreter, sometimes helping people land their first job.
“They may be in this country as refugees, but they may be a doctor in their original country. This job can give them the initial ability to not only help their community, but to integrate and make a living—and it can be as a step forward to maybe later becoming a doctor, or a teacher, or an engineer,” Golovine says.
Being an immigrant and a female entrepreneur herself, Golovine says that women usually face additional challenges because quite often they simply don’t know where to start. She urges female entrepreneurs to get involved with women’s groups and organizations, such as the Women’s Business Alliance (WBA) and Women’s Chamber of Commerce, because these organizations offer great resources and provide support to small businesses, along with mentoring and networking opportunities.
“What I find is that women’s groups are incredibly receptive to helping other women,” Golovine says. “Get involved with these types of organizations.”
As for future plans, MasterWord is looking at growing in other states, while continuing to serve the local community and grow in the state of Texas, which is second only to New York in number of Fortune 500 company headquarters.
“We look forward to further providing the best possible service to each and every customer, expanding our client base and delivering excellence with every project that we take on,” Golovine adds.