Mothers of Invention

She Gives the Gift of Language

Maile Molin, the 2014 Toyota Mothers of Invention honoree at WITW Texas, redefined innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to devise a creative approach to bring English-language education to a worthy group: her co-workers.

Update: Maile Molin appeared at Women in the World Texas in San Antonio on October 22, 2014. Watch her panel here.

Maile Molin had her “eureka moment,” as she calls it, while working in Guero’s Taco Bar, a taqueria in South Austin.

She was watching her fellow coworkers, many of whom were immigrants, struggle as they balanced two jobs, cared for their families and took English classes. They were working long hours and getting home late. She admired them for their hard work, but she also believed there had to be an easier way.

“I had this unique perspective of seeing what it was like for immigrants to struggle with English in the workplace,” says Molin, who, at the time, was pursuing a master’s degree and also had several years of experience teaching English as a Second Language. “I also had the teacher perspective of how to teach English and how not to teach English.”

She tried what she hoped would be an easier way just a few days later, when she began teaching English classes for employees of the taqueria at the restaurant itself — an idea that would eventually grow into an organization called English @ Work. The organization teaches classes to non-English speakers that are specific to an employee’s workplace and job.

More than ten years since Molin’s eureka moment, English @ Work has taught hundreds of students in businesses across Central Texas. Molin’s creation recently joined the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas — Molin is its deputy director — and she says she is looking to expand classes into Houston.

“It’s thrilling — I am so, so proud,” Molin says. “When I did that first class, the only thing that motivated me was I wanted to help my friends and colleagues solve a problem that they had, and I knew I was uniquely qualified.”

Molin, who is being featured at the Women in the World Texas forum in San Antonio on Wednesday as the Toyota Mother of Invention, says she is also hoping to find ways to increase confidence for the students who go through the classes. She says a lack of self-confidence is one of the major reasons a student drops out of English classes. But she says students also have strong motivators to keep up with the classes.

“There are two things that motivate them the most: one thing is to be able to get a better job and the other thing is to be able to support their children better in their education,” she says. “I’ve never met a student who wanted her kids to have the same life she had.”

Araceli “Chely” Santos, who works at Tacodeli in Austin and has taken classes through English @ Work, says many of the reasons she is learning English have to do with her children.

“I can help my children with their homework and sometimes we text in English at my job,” Santos says. “I want to be a professional. And in my personal life I want to be an example for my children so they can feel proud of me.”

Santos says she has learned a lot from the program, and has grown. She now feels uncomfortable, for example, attending meetings in English.

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Molin stresses English @ Work is successful not only because it is convenient for its students, but also because it is practical. She says many English textbooks might linger or focus on phrases that are not useful to her students — such as phrases about how to get around at the airport.

“Those were not realities for my students,” Molin says. “The English they’re learning has to be the English that they are going to use.”

Ahead of the Women in the World forum in San Antonio, Molin says she would want other young women to have self-confidence and faith in themselves. She would tell any young person who is considering following a dream like she did to go for it, she says, and have faith.

“Look for the place where there’s a strong need in your community, and that need overlaps with talents that you have,” Molin says. “Ignore everything else. Ignore the voice in your head that’s telling you that the idea is crazy. Ignore your parents telling you that you should really think about business school.”