Long Island City, NY—The saying that nice guys finish last doesn’t always prove true. In fact, for Sarah Farzam, founder and owner of Bilingual Birdies in Manhattan, this is exactly how she started a successful business teaching children foreign languages through live music: by being nice to people; through hard work, determination and dedication; and with help from Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses at LaGuardia Community College.
A California native and former Brooklyn high school global studies teacher, Ms. Farzam was spending a lot of time with her young nieces, taking them to the park and to a mommy and me music class in the city. Though she noted the class was “cute and entertaining,” she felt it lacked a more profound educational element. And then this multi-language speaker got an idea: what if she combined music and foreign language to teach children under five not only about other languages but perhaps more importantly about cultural awareness, compassion and curiosity?
Ms. Farzam, who is half Mexican and half Iranian, whose religion is Judaism, and who speaks English, Spanish, Farsi and Hebrew, knows a bit about cross-cultural awareness. “My goal for my business is really the tolerance piece,” she said. “Instead of rejecting differences, we can teach kids to embrace them. This is the foundation of what we do at Bilingual Birdies.”
Starting out five years ago by distributing flyers in the park, cold calling and visiting educational and children’s organizations door to door, Ms. Farzam’s company, which teaches Spanish, French, Hebrew and Mandarin, is now a thriving New York City business. Ms. Farzam said, “I built this business by being nice to people and making connections one at a time.” And it’s gotten her a long way. Today, she holds large contracts with the New York Public Library to provide classes in eight locations, and with Head Start, serving 1,700 children at 40 locations in the Lower East Side in Manhattan, all these classes being offered to families free of charge. She has also seen a more than 100% increase in sales and has hired 12 employees in addition to her original eight since July of last year.
So, what helped Ms. Farzam propel her business from the earlier, leaner years to this level of success?
Through her affiliation with non-profit Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s (NFTE) program for entrepreneurs in their 20s, she learned of 10,000 Small Businesses at LaGuardia Community College, applied and was accepted into the program in July 2011. The initiative helps small businesses across the U.S. grow and create jobs through greater access to business education, financial capital, and business support services.
“I learned so much in the program,” said Ms. Farzam. For one thing, she explained, the negotiations clinic was the most important takeaway. “I had the idea that to be a good negotiator you had to be masculine and aggressive. There were no female role models,” she said. “My own hang-ups hindered me going into sales meetings. But I was so impressed and inspired by our teacher, who is a professor at Wharton School of Business and a successful business woman. I learned how to negotiate and not shortchange myself.”
She also pointed out the operations and strategy clinic, which she said taught her how to implement, evaluate and measure operational practices.
One very important aspect of the program that took her by surprise was the peer-to-peer education. “I got invaluable information from business owners whose businesses have nothing to do with early education or what I do at all,” she said. “The case studies were very helpful. And it was refreshing to hear everybody else’s drama. It was like group therapy for your business.” Noting that she learned much from the experiences her cohorts’ shared, she said, “I have a process now for dealing with problems and evaluating them.”
A “people person,” Ms. Farzam also finds it easy to network with her former classmates. Referrals and personal phone calls made on her behalf helped get Bilingual Birdies into some schools she had not had luck with before. “Sometimes, a personal connection is what it takes,” she said.
Lastly, the culminating growth plan (a 10,000 Small Businesses requirement) that encompassed everything she had learned, turned out to be the tool she used to help her win NFTE’s inaugural Steve Mariotti Venture Award. The award, which was given in honor of NFTE’s 25th anniversary, came along with a $25,000 prize to be used as venture capital for a NFTE graduate with a fully operating businesses. From a three-minute video pitch that was based on her growth plan, Ms. Farzam was selected by a panel of judges in combination with a live action vote by the 400-seat audience, which consisted of members of NFTE as well as that of the business community.
“When things like this happen, it proves you’re on the right path. It’s meant to be,” said Ms. Farzam, who is already looking ahead to the next phase of developing her business. While she plans to use some of the prize money for her company’s web site and other marketing expenses, she will apply the rest to continuing to expand her class offerings and especially to elaborate the teacher training she does for her current staff in order to market it to other educational institutions. In the future, she said she will also offer an ESL curriculum, based on the Bilingual Birdies curriculum, for educators abroad through partnerships with non-profit organizations. These are both areas she decided to delve into, thanks to guidance and advice from 10,000 Small Businesses.
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LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.