People are fickle. Building your business is all about networking and making partnerships. More often than not, something that looks promising may not pan out. In my first year post-launch, I met up with many individuals and organizations to discuss collaborating. In these meetings, they were very enthusiastic about working together and make follow-up plans to move forward. When I followed up, I often did not receive a response and never heard from them again. The lesson here is that you never know what’s going on with people or inside an organization, so it’s best to keep forging ahead and move onto the next.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Marenco.
The daughter of a Croatian immigrant, Laura Marenco is the founder of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, Golden Beacon USA, whose mission is to help immigrants and refugees to the United States integrate into American society and thrive socially, economically, and civically. A TESOL-certified ESL teacher in her spare time, Laura holds a B.A. in Sociology from the University of Texas, an M.S. in Adult Education from Johns Hopkins University, and a Graduate Certificate in Leadership Coaching from George Mason University. Her volunteer experiences as a Career Coach and Case Manager with Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement services helped inform her work on Golden Beacon USA. Before starting her own company, Laura worked as a Training Specialist and Career Coach for the federal government.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I’m a second-generation immigrant born and raised in Farmington Hills, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. My father came to the U.S. from the former Yugoslavia when he was about 8 years old. My childhood was idyllic: I lived in the same house for the first 18 years of my life; everyone knew almost everyone in town; my mom stayed home to raise me and my three older siblings and my dad was a doctor; I attended Catholic school from Kindergarten through 12th grade and went to church every Sunday where I was also a member of the handbell choir for 6 years; and I participated in many extracurricular activities, including piano and dance lessons — ballet, tap, jazz, and pointe. In addition, we were a road trip family who loved U.S. history. Each summer we picked an area of the country to visit and checked out historical sites such as former presidents’ homes and libraries on what was known in our family as the ‘Dead Presidents Tour.’ These memorable trips ignited my passion for travel and my desire to see more of the world, but I didn’t travel outside of the U.S. until I graduated from college (save for Canada). In 2004, my father received a job offer in Houston, Texas, which required me to start all over in unfamiliar surroundings and find new friends. The knowledge and experiences I gained from this move were integral to the founding of Golden Beacon USA.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Golden Beacon USA wants to make the U.S. a more welcoming place for immigrants and refugees, no matter where they settle in the country. Our one-stop shop of products and services is meant to ease newcomers’ anxieties about moving to an entirely different country with an entirely different culture by putting all of the information they need right at their fingertips. The anxieties that plague immigrants contribute to their failure to thrive economically, socially, and politically in their new country and increase their risk for mental health problems. Our e-learning videos serve as an introduction to the country as well as to the newcomer’s U.S. destination community and its resources. Our services, including the Orientation & Resources workshops, career coaching, and ESL tutoring, expand and enhance those of local and national organizations who also serve the immigrant and refugee community. By providing their audiences with the services and information they need, these organizations don’t have to commit their staff’s time to developing them, thereby focusing on other issues at hand. Finally, I want Golden Beacon USA to be one more antidote towards all of the hateful rhetoric directed at immigrants that has been pervasive in this country for the past four years. The experience of owning a business that can positively impact people’s lives has provided me with the fulfillment I have been seeking since I graduated from college.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
At the age of 8, my father, along with his parents and two younger brothers, immigrated to the United States in order to escape a communist Yugoslavia. The entire trip was arduous: they left in my grandfather’s fishing boat in the middle of the night and an intense storm almost toppled their boat until some fishermen rescued them off the Italian coast. My father and his family spent a few years in a refugee camp in Italy before immigrating to America.
Listening to my father’s stories growing up always fascinated me because living in another country and culture is something I have never experienced myself, though it has long been a dream of mine. When I was in college, I took an Introduction to Sociology class and decided to declare it as my major. My father’s stories caused me to seek out demography and immigration-related courses in my degree program. My plans post-college were to teach English as a Second Language in Spain to satisfy my dream of living in another country and experiencing what my father did when he came to this country. Though life took me in a different direction and I didn’t go to Spain, my interest in the immigrant experience continuously presented itself in my post-college life. In 2012, as part of an internship requirement for my graduate degree program, I had to create and teach a class for adult students. I contacted Catholic Charities and offered to teach either an ESL or a citizenship class. When I met with them, they instead suggested a community resources course because many of their clients ask about how certain processes work, such as enrolling their children in school, and where to find specific services in their communities, such as obtaining insurance. After turning this idea into a business plan and leaving my job in 2014 to start Golden Beacon USA, I continued my work with the immigrant population by volunteering as a Career Coach and Case Manager at a local Catholic Charities’ Migration & Refugee Services.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
In 2014, I was working as a Supervisory Training Specialist and Career Counselor at a federal agency, jobs that aligned with my interest in adult education. I had just finished graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, during which I developed the idea for Golden Beacon USA. Making it into a business someday was always the plan because it combined two of my lifelong interests: making a difference in people’s lives and being my own boss. However, I had recently been promoted to a supervisory position and convinced myself that I needed to stay in it for at least a year before taking the leap. Looking back on it, I used that time constraint as an excuse, mostly out of fear. But then my father, the inspiration for Golden Beacon USA, died that July from cancer. This loss, combined with my ever-growing itch to start my own business, started to impact my feelings toward my day job. On the plane ride back home after the funeral, I turned to my now husband and said “Why am I waiting to start this? If I don’t do it now, I know that I’m never going to do it.” Now that I had an idea of what I wanted my future to look like, I felt impatient. When I returned to work, I put in my notice and left my job that October. I knew it was the right time because I had saved enough money from years of working to support myself and finance the business; I had finished graduate school; my partner was supportive of the change; and up until that point, I had years of work experience to fall back on if this didn’t work out and I needed to find a job. More importantly, I had the educational and work experience in the industries my business would focus on, giving me the credentials and legitimacy to start and run the business.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
My initial plan was to create the website myself using Wix or another platform. However, the features I had planned for my website required advanced skills that I did not have, so I decided it would be best to hire a web development company to do it. I researched companies, narrowed down my options, and then met with each company in-person to find the perfect collaborator. One of those companies referred me to my current website developer, Amananet, whose services best fit my needs. I also joined my local Small Business Development Center, which is a nationwide program funded by the Small Business Administration. They provide free tools and resources to start, manage, and grow small businesses. Their staff, made up of legal, marketing, and financial experts, helped me get started with the basics such as determining my business structure, obtaining an Employer Identification Number (EIN), registering my company with the city, and fine-tuning my business plan.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Last spring, a streaming company based in France reached out to me about licensing my e-learning videos to schools there so students could learn English and American culture. I had no idea where to start, so I sought out a lawyer to draft the licensing contract. It was an interesting lesson in the legal sense because I learned the nitty-gritty details that these types of contracts require. For example, the lawyer instructed me to find out the specific French territories in which my videos would be used, length of use, and type of lease agreement: one-time or lease with the option to convert it to a permanent agreement. That experience of being discovered by a company on the other side of the world was a pleasant surprise.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
One of the services we offer to companies across the country with immigrant employees is our Orientation and Resources Workshops. The purpose of these workshops is to connect employees with their newly adopted area, thereby easing their anxiety about living in a new place and equipping them with the resources and knowledge to help them thrive in their new community and country overall. This service includes an initial meeting with the company, usually a representative from the Human Resources department, to learn more about the target audience and the objectives and goals the company wants their employees to achieve by the end of the workshop. I use the information from that initial discussion to create and deliver a custom seminar, either on-site or online, built on achieving those objectives.
In June 2019, I reached out to a local construction company about offering an on-site workshop for their workers who may be new to the area or the country. As I was explaining who I was and the purpose of my call, the HR representative became angry and defensive. She interpreted my inquiry about helping her newcomer clients as an investigation into whether or not her employees were here legally. I explained to her that their legal status was not of interest to me; rather, if they were new to the area, I wanted to meet with her to discuss developing a seminar on resources in their community or whatever topic she felt fit their needs. She finally relented and asked me to e-mail her with more information. Though I don’t consider reaching out to this company to be a mistake, the entire call was a dizzying experience that taught me an important lesson: to word my requests carefully, especially since immigration is such a politicized issue in this country. Up until that point, I hadn’t contacted many private sector businesses about Golden Beacon USA’s products and services. I had mostly been working with nonprofits and resettlement agencies who were in the same business of helping immigrants and refugees as me. Moving forward, I realized that I needed to be cognizant that not everyone or every place is going to be so open to my services and to manage my expectations.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
In addition to my friends, family, and husband, I really found a great team who were very much in my corner throughout every phase of this business. When Golden Beacon USA was just an idea in my head back in 2012, one of my former work supervisors, an immigrant himself, was one of my biggest cheerleaders in getting the idea off of the ground. He and his wife had started their own nonprofit, so he knew the ins and outs of running a business. In addition to providing feedback on my ideas, he introduced me to colleagues with whom I could collaborate and suggested that I teach a class at his nonprofit to get some experience. In the very early days of my company, it was my website developer who, to this day, always tells me, “I want you to succeed.” He’s constantly giving me new ideas to try out and guidance that he’s learned from his years of owning a business. Before launching my business in 2019, I had the help of a former banker through the Small Business Development Center to fine-tune my business plan. Before his help, I had spent months and months creating my projected income and cash flow statements completely wrong. When the French company contacted me about licensing my videos, he also helped me consider all sides of a business decision and its long-term effects. Finally, the social media specialist at the SBDC was essential in helping me expand my offerings. He suggested that I make videos where I interview experts on the essential topics immigrants need to know, such as banking, insurance, and buying a home. Altogether, these mentors provided me with valuable insights into how to make my business successful.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
An immigrant from Afghanistan came to me to work on his English skills. His English was already very good; it was easy to converse with him and understand what he was saying. However, he wanted to improve his composition skills which, he mentioned, sometimes plagued him at work. After testing his skills with a placement test, I designed a customized 11-week ESL course that provided him with the foundation to improve his writing skills. We met once a week to cover everything from sentence structure and grammar to American slang and colloquialisms to the four modes of composition. If there was a section with which he struggled, I created another lesson around that topic and we spent extra time on it. From his pre-test to his mid-term exam to his final exam that required written essays, I saw how much his writing skills had improved. With very few errors, he conjugated verbs and used modifiers correctly, and could identify the meaning of slang words and colloquialisms. In his essays, he provided both sides of an argument in a clear and organized way. At the end of our lessons, he told me that he felt more confident with his writing which would serve him especially well in the new job for which he had recently been hired.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Right now, as we are transitioning to another administration, it’s even more important to make this country more welcoming to immigrants and help them on their journeys. The past four years have sullied the reputation of America as a safe haven for immigrants and it’s going to take a long time to get that reputation back. However, the main obstacles facing us now are the deep political divisions present in our country, which affects Americans’ attitudes towards ‘welcoming the stranger.’ To overcome this hurdle, we need to address its root cause: fear of ‘the other’ and their ‘taking things’ from us. This can be accomplished in the following 3 ways:
- More cities declaring themselves sanctuary cities for immigrants; or states or the federal government incentivizing non-sanctuary cities to become sanctuaries;
- Local communities setting aside some of their budget money (or more if they already are doing so) to help newcomers in their area with social, health, legal, and ESL resources;
- Integrating social justice and international issues in an age-appropriate way into the curriculum of K-12 schools so even very young children can start to understand and empathize with what is happening in the world today. It’s important to teach children, even at a very young age, that life in America is very different from life in other countries around the world. Our country would not be in such disarray if more people took British Somali poet Warsan Shire’s quote “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark” to heart.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Your path to success is going to be very different from what you imagined. I quit my job in 2014, expecting to build the website (solo), create the videos (solo), and launch Golden Beacon USA (solo) by October 2015. In the end, I had to hire a website developer and an animation company because those tasks turned out to be much harder than I thought. It took me until January 2019 to finally make the website live.
- Don’t beat a dead horse. If a service, product, partnership, or even a client isn’t working out, let it go and move on. Sometimes it can be difficult to know whether or not something will ultimately work if given more time. But if several attempts and iterations don’t bring success, it is probably never going to work. I intended to charge a fee for my videos but after realizing how much free content is available online, I decided to include them as part of our webinar service that we will be launching soon.
- People are fickle. Building your business is all about networking and making partnerships. More often than not, something that looks promising may not pan out. In my first year post-launch, I met up with many individuals and organizations to discuss collaborating. In these meetings, they were very enthusiastic about working together and make follow-up plans to move forward. When I followed up, I often did not receive a response and never heard from them again. The lesson here is that you never know what’s going on with people or inside an organization, so it’s best to keep forging ahead and move onto the next.
- Patience is a virtue. While your path to success will be a windy one, it will also be a LONG one. As I mentioned before, I thought Golden Beacon USA was going to be launched in October 2015 because I was going to do all the tasks myself. By the time it went live in January 2019, I had hired employees and an animation company to create the videos and a lawyer to write the website’s legal policies. Little fires pop up all the time that need to be extinguished, so expect the process of getting your business off the ground to take much longer than you expect. And don’t give up too soon.
- Remember that the ultimate decisions lie with you. Every business owner needs mentors and as much guidance as he or she can get. However, you created your business; it is your baby, so you know what is best for it. Consider others’ opinions, but ultimately, you must listen to your own. In 2017, my website developer suggested that I quickly create a few short videos in order to get some content out there on my website. However, I wanted my videos to be professional-looking and to make a good first impression, so I went ahead with hiring the animation company instead of making them myself. The 2 years it took to finish the videos was worth it in the end because of the video quality that was produced.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
You were here. You used the air, food, and water, and took up space…don’t you want something to show for it? It’s important to replace what you’ve taken, maybe not physically but by making a positive impact on your environment or correcting a social ill.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Oprah because she’s Oprah and she’s an amazing businesswoman and marketing specialist. I’d love to pick her brain on how she turns everything into must-haves.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can like and follow @goldenbeaconusa on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest. I also post a weekly blog on our website, www.goldenbeaconusa.com, and at goldenbeaconusa.medium.com. And feel free to add me as a friend or send me a message on my personal Facebook and LinkedIn pages!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!