photo of laura sicolaThis is the second of our profiles of some of the consultants MTM LinguaSoft works with in providing cultural competence training. Our last profile looked at Carol Cunningham, whose career in cultural training came as a result of international consulting work for Johnson & Johnson. This time we look at Laura Sicola, who came to the field from teaching and linguistics.

Laura Sicola has found her niche. She works with businesses and organizations to help them “meet the needs of rapidly diversifying work and school environments.” She has coached businesspeople in the finer points of business English, trained managers to deal with multicultural workforces, and conducted professional development for teachers on how to deal with English-language learners in their mainstream classrooms.

Falling into a Career in Culture

On the face of it, Sicola would seem an unlikely candidate for this field. She describes herself as “just your average Jersey girl.” She did study Spanish in high school, and, as an undergraduate at American University she majored in international studies with a minor in Japanese, but more with an eye to opportunities in international business than from any expectation of a career in language and culture. Nevertheless, these studies, and a junior year abroad in Japan, were to come in handy.

Working for a Japanese corporation after graduation was enough to convince her that the corporate path was not for her. After much soul searching, she moved to Los Angeles and earned a multiple subject teaching credential as a bilingual (English-Spanish) elementary school teacher. Gradually English as a second language (ESL) became her focus, and then she went to Japan to teach English at a high school.

Knowing by now that she wanted a career involving education and language, she came to Philadelphia to get her doctorate in education and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Her original plan was “be a tenure track faculty professor at a teacher certification program,” but unexpected developments led her to a different track. While she was studying she also taught ESL in the (non-degree) English Language Programs at Penn.

Every eight weeks I had a couple of dozen people coming through, and sometimes they were business people, and sometimes they were government employees, and sometimes they were the wives of some graduate student or international professor. It was just quite a range of people and so I ended up seeing these constant multicultural groups and learning about their needs and seeing their challenges and doing a lot of private one-on-one instruction as well, and between that and then my research, which was about cognitive processing in second-language development, it helped me to put all the pieces together.

She was still planning on the academic path, however, until “two serendipitous encounters” around graduation.” One was a discussion with a vice president of government programs for IBM who was very interested in her and asked her to make a presentation to his team. Another was an encounter with an HR executive from JP Morgan Chase from whom she learned that Chase was looking for someone to work with their international employees on English skills. Many of the employees were technically fluent in English, but had trouble communicating in English because of a lack of what Sicola called “softer skills” – pronunciation and accent, and “diplomacy.” Other universities had been solicited for proposals, but Laura decided to present a proposal of her own – and won the contract.

The Culture Business Is Good

Sicola now offers a variety of high-level services in intercultural and language training.  But don’t come to her for basic tutoring or language instruction.

We are not tutors and we do not do basic ESL or English as a second language per se. If you’re coming to us as opposed to Berlitz or a community college or something along those lines, you are guaranteed to get an instructor who has a minimum of a master’s degree in teaching English as a second language and extensive experience.

For example, in teaching business English, Sicola says that one of the biggest issues she works on is pronunciation. In all cases, Sicola focuses on the finer points of language, helping their clients “break through the linguistic glass ceiling.”

She also creates a customized curriculum for each individual client’s needs, which may include more than the client originally requested. For instance, training in Business English often ends up involving, formally or informally, some coaching of managers in dealing with employees from different cultures.

So for Laura Sicola, “accidentally” starting her business was “a complete blessing.” She loves the fact that no two clients are the same, so there are always new challenges. She loves the “collaboration and camaraderie” with the many other companies, like MTM LinguaSoft, that provide ancillary services. Luckily for her, with the challenges of multiculturalism becoming ever more pervasive and ever more recognized, Sicola’s niche seems likely to be secure for a long, long time.