When he was 16, George Fernandez was forced to translate a devastating medical diagnosis to his mother, who didn’t speak English. “The doctor came in and told me she had cancer. I had to explain to her what this was and what was going to happen to her. I didn’t even know what cancer was,” he says. Thirty years later, inspired by this event, Fernandez founded Latino Connection, a marketing and strategic consulting communications firm that helps employers and Spanish-speaking workers overcome language barriers. “We bridge the gap between hearing and understanding,” Fernandez explains. Now, after only one year in business, Latino Connection has a team of 13 employees, more than 115 clients, and is on track to bring in between $300,000 and $400,000 in revenue.
Fernandez credits this success to the growing number of companies interested in hiring bilingual employees. Companies rarely provide their Spanish-speaking workers with important human resources information in the worker’s native tongue, he says. An immigrant may speak some English yet not fully understand an explanation of healthcare benefits or on-the-job training sessions. Latino Connection can provide a translation.
Immigrants bring economic development, and if we create a more socially integrated atmosphere there is no way we won’t see something in return.
Fernandez has always been passionate about language. When he was 8 years old, his family left their native Dominican Republic with the goal of starting over in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “I was dropped into a fourth-grade ESL class and I absolutely loved it,” he says. “I didn’t know a word of English but I picked it up quickly, mostly because at the same time I was writing letters to immigration [agencies] and translating documents for my mother. That process forced me to grow up very quickly.”
Fernandez went on to have a stellar and busy high school career. As founder of his school’s diversity club, he created initiatives and programs to foster a welcoming environment for all students. “The goal was to get students to learn about each other’s cultures through music, food, and dance,” he says. He was also an officer on the student council. Eventually he received a full scholarship to a local college, only to turn it down to help pay his mother’s medical bills.
Fernandez entered the workforce as a marketing professional. He climbed the ranks at Intercontinental Hotels Group and Blue Cross Blue Shield. In many cases, he became a de facto consultant to executives about how best to reach the Latino market. He realized a niche market wasn’t being fulfilled, and decided to start his own company, one that would benefit other immigrants. Today he proudly sits on the board of five nonprofit organizations, many of them related to health and human services. It’s his way of giving back to the community that has served him and his family.
Fernandez says Congress should reform the immigration process to make it friendlier and faster. “We need to educate Americans so everyone knows that we aren’t protecting ourselves when we shun talented, hard-working people from joining the communities of this country,” he says. “Immigrants bring economic development, and if we create a more socially integrated atmosphere there is no way we won’t see something in return.”
In 2011, after a 13-year immigration process, Fernandez finally became a U.S. citizen. “I’ve earned my place to become a citizen, but it wasn’t easy. I had to prove myself over and over again. The day I got my green card was the happiest day of my life; I finally belonged here. But I’m never going to stop trying to prove myself,” he says. “Because that’s the American way.”