His solution was CALA Academy (Cultural Awareness & Language Acquisition Academy), a school designed to provide relevant, applicable language skills to help companies and their workers enhance their communications and, ultimately, their chances for success.
Lost in translation
Growing up in New Mexico and living in Nevada, Mierzwa, Bachelor of Science in Business with a concentration in Management (BSB/M) ’09, has always had an appreciation for the Hispanic culture. “I was interested in the Spanish language, and I began to take lessons after work,” he says. As the years passed, the demographics of the construction company where he worked changed, and the language barrier became a pressing issue. “At one time, we had 2,000 employees, and it had grown to the point where 95 percent of our employees were Spanish speakers, yet 95 percent of our managers and clients were non-Spanish speakers,” he explains. “It created so many issues.” In fact, poor communication was the cause of ongoing challenges, including mistakes, safety issues and misunderstandings at the construction company.
While Mierzwa’s company offered English classes to its Spanish-speaking employees, most often they missed the mark. “They never panned out because they didn’t focus on the things [the employees] wanted to learn,” he notes. Local libraries and schools offered free English classes, too, but they weren’t tailored to the specific needs of the construction industry. “[Those classes] aren’t targeted to our employees’ jobs,” adds Mierzwa.
Class is in session
Mierzwa recognized a need for a language school with customized courses for employees and their employers. In 2006, Mierzwa opened CALA Academy with the aim of teaching language skills to enhance performance in the workplace. He started slowly, working part time on CALA Academy while continuing his role at the construction company. CALA Academy slowly grew, and in 2008, Mierzwa left his job to focus on his school full time. “I got an office and got the school set up for group classes,” he says.
Mierzwa adapts course content so it is meaningful to his individual clients. “The content has to be relevant,” he explains. “We take terms and phrases that our students use on the job and work them into our curriculum. Our students are learning things they can put into practice at work.”
Mierzwa was influenced by University of Phoenix’s model, in which classes are taught by practitioners with current industry experience. “Truth be told, University of Phoenix was one of the main inspirations for my business model,” he says. “People want something that is quick and effective. If you have the right strategy and material, you can get people to learn more quickly than [you would using] traditional methods.”
Today, CALA Academy has 200 to 300 students at any given time, most of them learning English and Spanish, with the occasional French pupil. Corporations make up a majority of his client base, although Mierzwa also works with the military and the Department of Labor’s workforce development programs. No matter who he is serving, he focuses on measurable outcomes. “With our corporate clients we have to show results, or they will quit,” he says. “They want [the classes] to relate to work.” To accomplish that, he teaches more than just language skills. “We talk about the company’s philosophy, customer service, confidence, standing up straight and looking people in the eye,” he adds. “People notice that first. It’s more than an English class—it’s a team-building class.”
Leaders have taken notice—and an active interest—and Mierzwa is finding more management-level employees signing up for classes. “More clients are realizing that it helps to work from both directions,” he says. “It’s a real morale boost for employees to see that the management group is taking the time to learn Spanish themselves.”
As Mierzwa’s client base expands, so does his vision for CALA Academy. Today the school is housed in a large facility with more classrooms and around 20 instructors depending on enrollment, but Mierzwa is taking things slowly. “We are planning on organic growth while being cautious with our money.”