Liz Elting – Co-Founder & Co-CEO, TransPerfect

Liz Elting co-founded TransPerfect in 1992. Today, TransPerfect is the world’s largest privately held provider of language and business solutions. Headquartered in New York City, the company has more than four thousand employees and over ninety offices in cities around the globe. Elting has earned numerous awards for her outstanding entrepreneurship and focus on developing women business leaders. They include: the Working Woman Entrepreneurial Excellence Award for Customer Service, the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the American Express-Entrepreneur Magazine Woman of the Year Award, the Distinguished Alumnae Award from NYU Stern’s Women in Business, the Alumni Medal for Excellence from Trinity College, the Women Worth Watching Award from Diversity Journal, and most recently, the Women of Power & Influence Award by the National Organization for Women.

Elting is profiled in several books, including Succeed On Your Own Terms: Lessons From Top Achievers Around the World on Developing Your Unique Potential by Herb Greenberg and Patrick Sweeney, Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs: 100 Top Executives Reveal the Management Strategies That Made Their Companies Great by Eric Yaverbaum, and Straight Talk About Starting and Growing Your Business by Sanjyot P. Dunung. She is featured regularly in the media, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, O (The Oprah Magazine), The Financial Times, Reader’s Digest, Huffington Post, and Crain’s New York Business.

With Elting’s commitment and vision, TransPerfect has been an eight-time recipient of the Inc. 5000 Award, a six-time honoree of the Deloitte Technology Fast 500, and has earned multiple Stevie Awards, including Company of the Year and Fastest Growing Tech Company of the Year in 2016. Crain’s New York Business has named TransPerfect one of the largest privately held companies and one of the largest women-owned companies for nine consecutive years. The company was a winner of the 2015 SmartCEO Corporate Culture Awards and named the Internet Marketing Association’s Best Translation Solution at the IMPACT15 Conference. TransPerfect has also been named one of the fastest-growing women-owned/led businesses in North America by Entrepreneur and the Women Presidents’ Organization.

Elting serves on the Trinity College Board of Trustees and the Trinity Women’s Leadership Council’s Founders Council and is a regular speaker at both NYU and Columbia Business Schools. Elting is also the founding ambassador of the American Heart Association’s Circle of Red and is a member of the Women Presidents’ Organization’s Zenith Group.

Elting holds an MBA in Finance and International Business from the Stern School of Business at New York University and a BA in Modern Languages and Literatures from Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

Tell me about your background.
I was raised in Westchester, NY. When I was eight, we moved to Portugal, and when I was ten, we moved to Toronto. I studied in Spain for a year during college and worked in Venezuela after college. So I grew up living, studying, and working in five different countries. I studied four languages, and that’s really what led me to do what I do. I had the privilege of being raised by really remarkable parents, both of whom have always been my biggest mentors, advocates, and role models. They both taught and reinforced certain values that I think had a profound effect on who I am today: integrity, respect, and hard work were paramount. When it came to hard work, my parents led by example, and I followed enthusiastically from an early age; I started working when I was ten, and I always had some sort of job from then on, including throughout high school and college. It became a passion, so naturally, I never stopped working, even during maternity leave.

What did your parents do?
My mom was in education her entire career. She is very smart. She was actually the valedictorian in her high school class of over seven hundred people. When she went to college, she originally wanted to be a doctor. Her father was a doctor, but she realized it was difficult for a woman back then. That is, with all the expectations placed on women, even working women, to raise children and keep a home (many of which still exist today). So she ended up having a wonderful career, but in education. She was a teacher and taught nearly every grade, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. She was also a special education administrator and a guidance counselor. She was even Teacher of the Year in Canada, and she has been an amazing influence on so many people, particularly in helping them reach their greatest potential. Even today at seventy-eight, she still works on occasion. She jumps in at the drop of a hat when someone goes on maternity leave in the education system in Toronto. So that’s my mom.

As for my dad, he climbed the corporate ladder in marketing and advertising and ended his career as president of Grey Canada (part of Grey Advertising). But the reason we moved to Portugal when I was eight was because he wanted to venture into something entrepreneurial and international, as those were two of his biggest passions. So he obtained the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, or the right to open KFC in Portugal, and we moved there. Just about the time we arrived, a revolution overthrew the previous political regime, and the transitionary period was extremely turbulent, so it was an incredibly difficult time to open an American business. He actually ended up opening an Italian restaurant instead. We moved back to the U.S. less than a year later, and then my father was eventually transferred from Grey New York to Grey Toronto, so we all packed up again and moved to Canada, where he ultimately rose to president and CEO before retiring.

Tell me about your early career.
I got started early, so from the age of ten all through high school and college, I had a number of eclectic jobs. The first was babysitting, which eventually included taking a child to school. I also delivered newspapers at six o’clock in the morning. I did a lot of telemarketing. I worked at a dry cleaners, and I was a counselor at a number of camps, where I even became a financial administrator at one particular camp. I was also an usherette for the Toronto Blue Jays for four years. While in college, I spent my nights—from ten at night to six in the morning—working as an overnight campus security guard while spending my days in class and any other time I had working in the campus kitchen. I also did administrative work at an investment management firm. And after receiving my MBA in finance and international business from NYU, I very briefly worked in the proprietary trading division of a French bank, doing equity arbitrage, before focusing on TransPerfect.

How did the concept for TransPerfect come about?
Given my family’s extensive travel and having lived in several different countries, I discovered early on that I had a passion for languages and connecting with people across the globe. I won a language award in high school, and while in college I majored in modern languages, spent a year living and studying in Spain, and then worked in Venezuela. After that, I moved to New York and took a position at what was, at the time, the largest translation company in the world. This was in 1987, just as the globalization of business was beginning. I loved working there and stayed at that company for three years, both in production and in sales, and was able to get a good understanding of the work and also of what clients were looking for. I especially loved solving clients’ problems. While I really enjoyed it, I thought it could be done better with a more holistic approach. Back then, it was enough to be a translation company, because there simply weren’t so many of them. I saw that there was a real gap between what many of our clients needed and deserved and what was available in the industry. Effective communication isn’t just about translation. You really have to understand your client, their business, the world they’re in, and the lens through which they view it. With that mentality, I began conceiving of a company that could offer the very best in terms of quality and service, much like a top-tier law firm or investment bank. Out of that idea, TransPerfect was born. I then set out to fully learn the business and the various industries it affected and began pinpointing areas that needed improvement and gaps that needed filling. Realizing that a translation company had to be more than simply a translation company, I went back to school and got my MBA from NYU, and while I was there I began developing my idea of a comprehensive and holistic language solutions company so that I could make it into a reality.

How did you come up with the name TransPerfect?
I wanted a name that really differentiated our company and highlighted what made us unique—providing the absolute best quality and service. I also tend to be a perfectionist (for better or for worse), and I knew that’s what I wanted to give our clients. So when I was brainstorming, my partner and I were thinking, “A translation company with the highest quality,” I thought about WordPerfect, which was among the most widely used word processing applications at the time, and it sort of just came out: TransPerfect. I really liked it, and it stuck because it captured our prioritization of premier quality and it didn’t limit us, and that was a crucial factor for me: I wanted to make sure the company was scalable.

How was the first year in business?
TransPerfect was a startup, with no funding whatsoever, that literally began out of a dorm room. So needless to say, the first year involved a great deal of hard work, including a whole lot of phone calls and mass mailings. My goal was to be able to move into an actual office within six months, with enough revenue to pay for an office, and we indeed hit that goal right at the end of six months. So it was tough, but the hard work paid off. After just twelve months as a company, we had brought in over $200,000 in revenue.

What were some of the challenges you initially faced?
Making sure we had the right people. This was particularly challenging before we had the infrastructure and client base because it’s really all about the talent, and I knew that if we found the right people, then we could deliver the best quality and service. I’m a big believer that the first million is, by far, the toughest, and certainly getting to that point where we had the infrastructure, as far as having both the right team and the right clients, was certainly our biggest challenge early on.

Did you have a lot of competition?
Yes. Even then, there were a lot of companies that set out to do what we did. It was a very fragmented industry, and there were about ten thousand other companies, that we knew of, when we started in the U.S. Most of them were started and run by translators, many of whom were incredibly talented linguists, but it’s very difficult to translate high-volume technical material all day long while also trying to build and run a business. I have a great deal of respect for talented translators. I spoke several languages but never felt that I was at that level, and ultimately what I wanted to do was build a company. Fortunately, that was actually a great way for us to differentiate ourselves. I focused my efforts on building the best team of linguists and translators, finding the right salespeople, and hiring the most skilled project managers, and we kept expanding.

What was your marketing strategy?
One of the toughest things about starting out is that you don’t yet have a track record and relationships with clients and potential clients. So the short answer is that we made it our mission to begin making and building upon those relationships. But to answer how we actually did it, we made hundreds of phone calls a day, sent out thousands of letters a week, set up as many meetings as we possibly could, attended trade shows, and really focused on bringing in business as quickly as possible.

Who was your first client?
A small law firm that wanted to translate an English document into Slovak. Today, we do work for many law firms, including the two hundred largest law firms in the world, but it all started with that one small firm.

What was an average workweek like for you back then?
I was working at least a 120 hours a week. I would wake up by seven in the morning and worked nonstop until bedtime, which was almost always well past midnight. I worked and I only worked. I stopped seeing my friends for a few years and missed a family Christmas celebration in Vermont one year, as we were working all night to finish a project for Goldman Sachs. Basically, I worked crazy, crazy hours from the early morning until late into the evening with many all-nighters.

Is that around the same for you today?
No, it’s much more reasonable. It wouldn’t be sustainable. Early on, I knew I needed to work crazy hours for the first few years and do what no one else was willing to do in order to create something unique in the industry. I was very aware that it was going to be tough at first because we were building a company without any outside funding, but my hope was that it would all pay off. In those first few years, our tiny team was doing everything from sales to production to accounting to IT to HR. Now we have over four thousand employees, so it’s a much different kind of workweek.

Were you profitable by the end of year one?
Yes, but I also took a salary of about $8,000. So we were profitable, but I didn’t take money out to live in a normal way. Instead, we reinvested every penny back into the business.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Incredibly fast. During the first few years, we doubled every single year. We went from about $200,000 in revenue to about $500,000 to about $1 million. One year in particular that really stands out as a major growth year was 1996-1997, during which we actually went from $1 million to $6 million in revenue.

What do you think caused that high spike in growth?
We got an amazing project from a law firm. This particular project was critical and it accounted for a large percentage of the $6 million in revenue.

Did you ever feel like giving up?
Giving up, no. It’s just not in my DNA and has never been an option for me. Being frustrated beyond belief though, yes, definitely. There have been some incredibly difficult days, between having insane hours, demanding projects, and a host of crazy things that I could have never imagined. So there has been a lot of excitement and a lot of drama, but giving up never even crossed my mind.

Did you ever feel you had to sacrifice a lot of personal time for the business?
In the early years, absolutely. Fortunately, when I first started TransPerfect, I was in the ideal situation to be working long, crazy hours. I was not married, and I didn’t have kids, so it was fairly simple and straightforward to find ways to put all of those hours in. I definitely gave up seeing my friends for those first few years, and to a large degree my family. A lot of my friends from business school would get together for drinks after work or would rent a place in the Hamptons on the weekends, so of course I missed out on those kinds of things while I focused on building TransPerfect. I was working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, so yes, there were definitely some sacrifices made in those early years, but I feel quite fortunate in that they really paid off.

Fast-forward to today. How fast is the business growing?
We did $505 million in revenue last year, and we’ve been growing steadily at about 15 percent every year.

Why did you choose not to take on outside financing?
Essentially, we didn’t need outside financing to grow and we wanted complete ownership of the company and to be in control of our work. In 1999, we actually started a second company——and we did have a few outside investors in that. However, after about five years, we decided to buy them out. Ultimately, we were able to grow organically, and it simply worked well for us to not have outside investors.

How do you organize your day?
It changes week to week, day to day, hour to hour, and really depends on what’s going on. Whether I’m in New York or I’m traveling for various reasons, including attending an internal sales conference, a production leaders meeting, or meeting with our people at one of our offices or our clients, each and every day is very different, so there isn’t one particular way that I go about organizing my day. The short answer, I suppose, is that I always have to be dynamic.

What has been your primary source for new clients?
Most of our business comes from repeat business, previous clients, and referrals. We worked very hard over the years to build relationships with our clients and to ensure that we do the best possible work for them. In the long run, all of our extra efforts continue to pay off. Many of our clients refer us to other people within their company, as well as to friends and colleagues at other companies.

How did the recession affect your business?
We still grew. Since our founding in 1992, we’ve continued to grow each and every year. I think the credit really goes to the range of services we offer as well as to our diversification of clients and industries and our global reach. We are all over the world, on six continents and in ninety cities. We have a wide diversification of receivables, meaning no one client accounts for more than a small percentage of our revenue. And we provide more services than any other company in our industry—everything from translation and interpreting, to website and software localization, to cultural consulting and remote interpreting, to staffing solutions, litigation support, testing services, and various technologies. So essentially, if a certain industry or country is hit by a recession, we have enough diversity to balance things out.

Do you think that is the key for a business to survive during a recession? To have enough diversity to balance it all out?
I think it certainly helps. There may be other ways they can survive, but for us, it has definitely helped.

How has technology affected your business?
We’ve changed drastically, along with the advancement of technology, since we started in 1992. Back then, we were sending projects by modem to clients, which could actually take as long as six or eight hours for large files. Obviously, things are vastly different today. Today’s technology has created an expectation for much faster and much more cost-efficient delivery; clients expect and need things much faster and at lower costs because of what technology can offer. We’ve worked hard to incorporate technology into our business as quickly as it evolves. The result has been that we are at the cutting-edge in our industry, as far as our technology, and we continue to develop it every day. That’s what many people at TransPerfect do. We have hundreds of employees who focus on programming and developing software for our own internal use, as well as for our clients. So technology is a big part of our business. In spite of that, actual human beings do virtually all of our translation work. Technology helps a great deal with managing projects and managing terminology, and we’ve definitely incorporated that into what we do, but at our core what we really have to offer has always been the unmatchable talent and nuance of our expert linguists.

What are some of your daily habits that have contributed to your success?
I’m incredibly goal-oriented, so one thing I’ve always done is to actually take the time to write out my goals on a regular basis, both short-term and long-term, for both myself personally and the business. It’s really remarkable how key making a habit of pinpointing, naming, and actually putting down in ink your goals can be to succeeding. There was a time when I set out to open specific numbers of offices each year, and ultimately that’s how we’ve grown to be a company with a hundred offices in ninety different cities. Another habit that I’ve made part of my daily routine is that I always walk to work when I’m in New York, unless I have a good reason why I can’t. It’s about sixty blocks, or three miles. I love it and find it to be a great stress reliever and a very helpful way to clear my mind and stay focused.

Do you believe in the Law of Attraction?
Yes, I believe in that 100 percent, as well as being grateful for what you have. I try to take the time each and every day to think about what I’m grateful for. Positive things happen to positive people. I actually have these quotes on my wall. Growing up, my dad and I used to discuss quotes that we love, from literature and fiction to great thinkers and entrepreneurs. And when I graduated from high school, he gave me a collage of our favorite quotes. It may be a bit corny, but many of those quotes were really helpful reminders to stay positive, be grateful, and to never give up. Ultimately, I really couldn’t agree more with those sentiments.

What are some quotes that you live by?
There are so many! Where do I begin? One is, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same,” which is from a poem I love by Rudyard Kipling titled “If.” Another from that same poem is, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.” Of course, “Tis better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all” is a favorite twist on the classic quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson. Another favorite—although it may be cliché, I think it holds true—is, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” One of my absolute favorites though comes from a piece of advice Polonius gave to Laertes in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man,” and finally, “Honesty is the only policy.” These last two really stand out because I truly believe in the value of honesty, integrity, and authenticity. I don’t think you can have real success without those qualities, and I think that nothing is more important than being honest with others and true to oneself.

What are some of your favorite books?
I read as much as I can, and my tastes change depending upon what I’m working on. One book that continues to stick with me is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. It really makes you reevaluate your experiences (realizing there is meaning in every moment of life, even in the low points), appreciate everything you have, and understand the importance of identifying a purpose and striving toward it with hope. Another great book is Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. I also like Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell and Hyper Sales Growth: Street-Proven Systems & Processes. How to Grow Quickly & Profitably. by Jack Daly, who I know personally and think is fabulous.

How do you define success?
Being able to see your business provide a positive change to the world is one of the greatest forms of success in my book. I also think doing what you love and helping others with that passion is another major factor for real success (I think on some level that inherently requires being true to yourself).

What is the key to success?
It may be a tired cliché, but if you can find something you can enjoy doing, you’ll never work a day in your life. I love giving people from different countries, different backgrounds, and different walks-of-life the ability to effectively communicate with one another. And all of the late nights, long hours, and hard work truly feel worth it knowing that my work can remove language as a barrier and from the list of differences between companies, organizations, and people to ultimately help connect them.

Did you always know you would be successful?
I don’t think I thought about it in those terms. I always had dreams. I always set goals, and I always knew that I was willing to work as hard as I possibly could in order to achieve them. That said, beyond hard work, I was raised to be independent and was always encouraged to believe in my ideas and my own self-worth.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My passion and drive always keeps me moving forward, as well as everything I have to be grateful for, which is really a great deal. At the end of the day, even when faced with challenges, I’m still doing what I love to do, and I consider myself incredibly fortunate.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
There are two actually, both of which my parents taught and instilled in me when I was young. The first is to never depend on anyone else for anything. And the second is simply to know that I, as a strong, working woman, can have both a family and my career, and that I don’t have to sacrifice my goals or dreams of either for the other.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Reading, which I can never get enough of. Traveling and seeing new places, especially with my two sons and husband. Giving all the time I can possibly give to the American Heart Association, which is a charity that is very near and dear to me. Spending time with my close friends, who mean the absolute world to me. And above all else, being with my family, whether it be traveling, baseball, golf, tennis, swimming, hiking, and enjoying nature together, or simply wonderful conversations over our long walks, or laughter and tears during movie nights.

What makes a great leader?
A great leader understands the value of the team that they lead. A great leader can inspire their team to do the best work they possibly can through positive reinforcement, encouragement, and, above all, through leading by example. A great leader understands that the people they are leading come from different walks of life and can appreciate the unique perspectives and solutions their team can offer to a problem and to the company.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
It was actually before I was an entrepreneur when I was just starting out on my career. Right after graduating from NYU with my MBA, I took a position doing equity arbitrage in the proprietary trading division of a French bank. I was the only woman in the office, and I was very enthusiastic about taking those first steps on my path to a high-powered career in corporate finance. Unfortunately, my hopes and expectations were immediately crushed when reality began to call—literally, in the form of the office phone. Whenever the phone rang, the guys would yell across the office, “Liz, phone!” This happened over and over and over again. All day long. It wasn’t because answering phones was part of my description. It wasn’t. Nor because I was the junior most employee. I wasn’t. It was because I was a woman. I have nothing but the utmost respect for receptionists and office managers, but clearly that was not the job I was brought on to do. I had never quit anything in my life, and the feeling that I had somehow failed began to set in. How could this happen? I had an advanced degree in finance and international business. I was smart, hard-working, and a leader, and I knew I hadn’t spent those years studying, honing my skills, and working my tail off so I could make coffee and take messages for my colleagues.

How did you overcome the challenges at hand?
I had the courage and belief in my own value to do what I knew I had to do. After just one month on the job, I gave my two weeks’ notice. With the deeply held belief that I deserved to lead, I knew that if I wasn’t going to be allowed the space to do so, I would have to create that space myself. And as you know, that very decision is what ultimately led to the creation of TransPerfect. So in short, I believed in myself, stayed true to what I knew was right, didn’t ask permission or apologize for being a strong, intelligent leader, and simply got down to work forging my own path forward.

What is your vision for the future of TransPerfect?
To keep growing, to continue expanding to other countries, and to extend our reach to every corner of the globe. To help as many businesses and organizations as possible effectively communicate with one another and to ultimately create a better, more connected world that isn’t bound by different languages and cultures but is instead empowered by them.

What do you think is the most common mistake entrepreneurs make?
The most common mistake entrepreneurs make is expecting success to be a given or to happen overnight. Setting achievable goals and continually reevaluating and setting new ones once those are met is very important when starting and building a new business. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were Apple, Amazon, Google, or even TransPerfect. New entrepreneurs will always overestimate their numbers, whether it is sales, product, or clientele. Having a realistic understanding about the needed commitment, time, and hard work and then having the fortitude to go above and beyond that is key.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I’d tell young entrepreneurs that it’s okay to dream big, but just understand that there is a process to building a business, along with a lot of time, dedication, and hard work. Set concrete goals, put them down in writing, collaborate with others, take things one step at a time, and be ready to work your tail off.

What advice would you give to women entrepreneurs?
Know that bossy and difficult are labels given to women who have the courage to lead and the gall to speak their mind. So be bossy, be difficult, and don’t let anyone ever make you feel like you should be quiet or apologize for your strength and ability to lead. Don’t ask permission, and if you aren’t given the space to be a leader, go create that space yourself.

Do you believe the American Dream is dead?
No, absolutely not. I recognize that we’re in a time in which many people rightfully feel forgotten and disillusioned and are deeply hurting. Certainly there is always work to be done, and I do believe we can be better. That said, there is so much opportunity in this country. So much innovation, brilliance, passion, and heart, and we are only getting better each and every day. I am very optimistic about the future of this country. I truly believe that this country has a special quality that undeniably makes it the greatest country on earth. And that quality is the vastly diverse and unique people that make it up and the dreams they have, their optimism, their hope, and their fight for an even better tomorrow. I believe that is the American Dream, and that is something that can never die.

This interview is an excerpt from American Dream: Interviews with Industry-Leading Professionals by Jason Navallo.