A first-generation Somali American and the oldest of eight children who grew up in a crowded household in Northern Virginia, Mohamed Hussein, 32, has honed his skills as an interpreter and entrepreneur since childhood. He and his siblings responded in English to their parents’ Somali, and he was always busy making pocket money. In his early 20s, he taught English and facilitated occasional livestock deals in Saudi Arabia, after which in 2013 he founded PGLS (Piedmont Global Language Solutions), in Arlington, Virginia. The company, which recorded nearly $32.5 million in 2021 revenue, has 57 employees and provides translation, interpreting and related services for speakers of more than 200 languages in 18 countries; it is a $60.5 billion industry. And to think that he almost became a doctor. –As told to Ben Sherry
I’ve always had that entrepreneurial mindset. I was the kid who sold candy from his closet and flipped cars before I could drive. I graduated from high school two years early, and started college before I was 16. I planned to go to medical school, but decided to go to Yemen after my freshman year to study Arabic for a year. I ended up spending about five years in Saudi Arabia, studying Arabic, along with religion and philosophy, at a university there. It was there that I became aware of language services as an industry – and a path for me.
I needed a job, so I started teaching English on the side. The elite schools in Saudi Arabia spent a lot of money on English teachers. Eventually I started a private tutoring business and started traveling around the country teaching English. That’s when I really started making money – about $30 an hour.
When I started making contacts in the language industry, I started getting offers to work on all kinds of projects, such as book and website translations. I also worked with some large cattle importers in Saudi Arabia to help me broker deals for sacrificial sheep and goats between the importers and the travel agents representing American Muslims on the pilgrimage to Mecca.
When I returned to the United States in 2013, I was certain that I did not want to become a doctor. I had just gotten married and was finally finishing my degree, also running an e-commerce platform company, flipping real estate, consulting and day trading. But I continued to translate on the side. A friend told me about some contract work translating and interpreting Somali and Arabic, and that’s how I originally founded the company – as an LLC for this side game.
It wasn’t until two years later that I thought, “There’s something here. Let me double down and see what happens.” That’s when the business really started to scale. I wound down from most of my other commitments so I could focus entirely on growing PGLS. I had hired contractors to handle translation work in languages I was unfamiliar with, and now I was able to hire my first actual employee.
Refocusing my efforts paid off immediately: In 2015, we jumped from making $34,000 to half a million dollars. It made sense to first focus on winning government contracts because of our location, and we had steady growth from 2016 to 2020. The pandemic was definitely a challenge, but we also won some big federal contracts and bought a local language training company, which resulted in ii 2021 is by far our best year ever.
Our mission is to help organizations thrive in a global, multilingual environment, so we work on everything from marketing materials to training manuals and website copy, but we also help government agencies translate foreign documents and provide linguists. Knowing who to assign to a specific project is key, because they need to understand the context. If we work for a healthcare system, the translator must understand both the terminology and the language. Finding that blend of language mastery and subject knowledge is what makes our people so impressive.
I still keep busy with sidemas, but mostly as a minority shareholder. At the same time, I try to expand my own language skills. I’m fluent in English, Arabic, and Somali, but I’d like to have at least five languages in my back pocket, so I’m working on improving high school Spanish and learning American Sign Language, which I think will be a big focus for us going forward. I know from experience that being able to speak directly with a client can go a long way in strengthening relationships.
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From the September 2022 issue of Inc. Magazine