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Breaking Language Barriers By Building a Community

Potencia co-founders share insight into the development of their non-profit organization & words of wisdom for social entrepreneurs.

An English-language learning service for refugees and immigrants in the Medford/Somerville area, Potencia was first developed as an Innovation Sprint during the M.S. in Innovation & Management program and has grown into an early-stage venture making an impact on real people across the local community. Potencia’s co-founders, Amanda Wang and Jun Hyung Yoon, recently visited Tufts Gordon Institute to share some insight into the development of their non-profit organization & the bright future in store for both their students and their team.

Amanda Wang and Jun Hyung Yoon
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Getting to Know Potencia

First of all, what is Potencia?

Amanda: We specifically want to leverage the power of the community to provide an accessible, affordable, and effective English service for refugees and immigrants.

How frequently does Potencia offer English-language learning classes?

Jun: We have about 20 – 21 classes throughout the week.

Amanda: It's about four to five classes each day, and each class contains one tutor with one or two learners.

What countries do your current learners come from?

Amanda: Over 90% of our learners are from Brazil, so they are Portuguese speakers. Others are from El Salvador, Argentina, and China.

How is the curriculum developed?

Amanda: At the beginning, we used an old curriculum from one of our partners, the Refugee Immigration Ministry. Just based on that curriculum and many other ESL resources, we’ve developed our first curriculum prototype that we're adapting to use in our class. We collect feedback from the learners and the tutors, so we keep developing the curriculum.

Jun: We will be focusing more on setting the foundation for new ideas to spring up. We want to encourage tutors to be the leaders of their classes, and at the same time, they can share with other tutors. I want them to feel more accountable and also feel more rewarded with their own initiative in running the class, rather than relying on us.

How is the students’ growth measured?

Jun: Initially, we did not know how to measure learners’ improvements. Because they come from a very basic level, we might see how much change has happened. Now after talking with advisors, we have started to look into international measurement standards for English proficiency levels. We want to see how we can apply this kind of measurement into our own context, which is more survival-oriented.

How does Potencia find tutors?

Amanda: We use flyers around campus, which turned out to be a great way to attract students. Also, one of our advisors, Professor James Intriligator, helped us post a message in the Tufts 2021 Facebook group. Students were looking for some interesting things to spend time with, so we got more interest. We also talked to our friends and people we know in the community to see if they would be interested in teaching immigrants and refugees.

Jun: The tutors are volunteers at this point. We are always aware that there should be some incentives because they are investing their precious time. We want to continue to develop ways to recognize their commitments. If they complete five classes, they get a t-shirt and they get their profile posted on our website and social media. Starting from next year, we're also thinking to reward them with gift cards they can use to buy textbooks. Our next plan would be talking to some businesses that are interested in giving gift cards or other in-kind donations so that we can reward our tutors.

Do tutors need to know how to speak the learners’ native language?

Amanda: Since we encourage [the learners] to think in English, the tutors don't have to know a second language, which also expands our pool of tutors. They don't really need another language to facilitate the teaching process because they use body language, show pictures, and draw stuff with our curriculum.

How do the logistics of scheduling class work?

Amanda: It all depends on the learners’ availability. It's a weekly schedule with different time slots. If a new learner comes to our service and says they want to take the class, we will tell them the slots that we have available tutors. If they can't come to any of those, we would help by telling the tutor to come on that day instead. We are also developing a mobile app, so it will be a more automatic process.

Jun: Facilitating scheduling would be the primary focus of the initial development of our mobile app. We do want to expand to different functions where our learners can review and practice materials at home and for our tutors to keep track of their teaching progress.

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Behind the Scenes into the Business & Brains of Potencia

How did you come up with the idea of English-language services?

Jun: During an interview with Mary Truong, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office for Refugees & Immigrants, we found that there are 17,000 people on the waitlist for the state-run English program. At this point, there's no estimated time of how long it takes [to get off the waitlist], but it could take two years. So, I thought this was a great starting point.

Does Potencia have any competitors?

Amanda: We do have competitors, like English learning mobile apps like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. There are also other English service providers for refugees and immigrants like English at Large, the YMCA, and the International Institute of New England. They all have ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, but we don't think of our ‘competitors’ as people we need to compete with. We'd rather seek out partnerships with [them] to cause a bigger impact for our community because we share the same goal and mission. We just want to help refugees and immigrants. 

Jun: A collaboration for a common cause. [The organizations we’ve talked to] have shown interest that they want a strategic partnership in the future, which means that when we grow to a scalable number, we can catalyze bigger impact.

What are some goals that you have for Potencia in the future?

Jun: I see two main goals. One is to make language services accessible to refugees and immigrants that enter into a new country. Secondly, through Potencia, we want to encourage more social entrepreneurs to take initiative to solve causes that they're really passionate about. We want to provide this as a good model for inspiration.

How do you envision expanding Potencia’s reach?

Jun: We want to expand across Massachusetts within the next two years, the east coast by the next three years, and nationally by the next five years.

Amanda: We're still in Medford and Somerville, so we might expand to downtown [Boston] because more resources will be concentrated.

Jun: That itself will be a huge project because Boston is a huge place for potential customers.

Amanda: Lowell and Worcester [also] have a lot of immigrants and refugees. Both of their local governments pay high attention to this issue and are very supportive.

Jun: I'm actually currently working at the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants. Although we are at an early stage now, in the future, I believe there is a lot of room for collaboration.

Would you consider teaching languages other than English?

Jun: Yes! Because we are customer-driven, we are more of serving the people rather than focusing on what our service or product is. If there is a different need in different countries with different languages, then this service will be tailored for customers.

Did the M.S. in Innovation & Management program prepare you for success with Potencia?

Amanda: Everything I learned from the MSIM program is so helpful. Everything we learned from class, like marketing and finance, we're still using every day. Now we apply the principles to our daily operations. The whole community here, the people have really good hearts and they give you their support. They don't care too much about themselves, but they care about you. As Kevin [Oye, Executive Director of Tufts Gordon Institute & Director of the MSIM program] said, ‘high brain, low ego’ really helps us a lot in thinking about problems and putting ourselves into the customers’ shoes.

Jun: The greatest gift from the [Innovation] Sprint is the team. I think if everyone in the cohort was given individual projects, then this synergy would not have happened. Innovation Sprints gave us a space where we can learn from each other, complement each other, make something together. I think that the possibility that the Sprint has given for people to unleash their potential, that's the critical achievement of the Sprint project.

Amanda & Jun pitching their idea

How was participating in Tufts Entrepreneurship Center’s Ideas Competition earlier this semester?

Jun: The result was better than we expected! After the pitch and the Q&A sessions, we got a lot of points to think about what we had missed. I think the result was a reward for a lot of the manual work we’ve been doing.

Amanda: Because we're a part of MSIM, we have the mindset to participate in different competitions, to test out our ideas, to hear feedback from the judges, and to get some coaching. Whenever there is a competition that we can fit in, we try to apply. We think competition is a good way for us to advocate our service to the people around us. Even if we don't get an award from the competition, [other] people who participate will still be able to hear our idea and they might get interested. That's how we started thinking about the Ideas Competition. It turned out to be great, which is a plus. [The funding] will help us with mobile app development because we have to pay the developer.

Team Potentia

What’s your favorite part of your work?

Amanda: For me, it's the marketing part of Potencia because marketing for this sector is different from for-profit business marketing. Before starting Potencia, I already had an interest in marketing. I design flyers, posters, and social media posts. I send emails and use MailChimp and HubSpot to do all of the automation. I think that's really fun because I can do whatever I want to achieve the goal of attracting people, making people have greater awareness of what we are doing, and conveying the message of our mission to tutors and the people in the community. It's very rewarding because I can see people reacting to my emails or social media posts and showing their interest in this business.

Jun: My favorite part is seeing and feeling the positive changes that are happening for our learners and our tutors. I still vividly remember most of our learners when they first entered into 574 Boston Avenue; they could not even look into our eyes. They just seemed lost on how to approach this issue. Through the learning process, they are now very confident that they can even make sentences to deliver their expressions. All these changes we see definitely are inspirational. We recently asked our tutors to reflect on what they learned and felt through Potencia. One of our tutors said that they've seen the world differently through Potencia. Some [tutors] have decided to pursue careers as educators with the lessons learned through the Potencia experience. When I see the positive influences that this can bring, I feel like this is a great thing.

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Words of Wisdom for Social Entrepreneurs

Amanda: Believe in what you're doing. If you want to do something for society because you believe there's the need, then you should just keep doing things that can contribute to your goal. Social impact is sometimes a bit harder than doing a for-profit [project] because people will always ask you, “How do you make money? How can you be self-sustainable?” If you put those noises aside and just focus on what you really want to do, you will figure out a way to make this real and self-sustainable. If you really believe in this, you can do it. It's not about talent or the money you have in your pocket. It's just your persistence.

Jun: When it comes to social enterprise, focusing on the problem is most important. It all starts from there. The solution will depend on how the problem is approached. Going deeply into problem identification and analysis would be critical for the future of a social business. Secondly, I think coming up with a great question is as important as getting to the right answer. When you try to approach this issue, things constantly change. Keep testing. Keep meeting with people, talking with potential customers. These are very important processes to actually find the right path.

Amanda: Don't be afraid to fail. Just be fearless. In entrepreneurship, or even in life in general, the more you fail, the more you learn. As a social entrepreneur, you have one failure every day and that's very common. But every day, you will learn so much. So now I'm really used to failures, but I no longer feel stressed about that. It's normal and it's actually good for your self-development.

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If you're interested in getting involved, tutoring, or taking classes, visit the Potencia website for more information.