IWONA STEPIEN travelled to London from Poland in 1996 with £100 and the hope she would improve her English. One summer abroad stretched into 18 years.
“I loved London so I kept extending my stay,” said Stepien, who studied linguistics and is fluent in Russian and German. “I could feel the differences between cultures, hear the different languages. You don’t get that in Poland.”
For a year she worked as a waitress and did translations in market research. “I realised how much these companies require language to function,” she said.
In 2003 she founded Language Connect, which provides translation services and cultural marketing strategies to blue-chip companies. The business, based in Bermondsey, southeast London, had sales of £5.3m last year. Profits exceeded £800,000.
Those numbers helped to earn Language Connect a place in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league table of Britain’s fastest-growing private businesses.
“I’m still surprised I managed to build a successful business,” said Stepien. “I didn’t have any connections or much capital.”
With only £500in her coffers, she fired off emails and called potential clients offering to translate documents, shunning brochures and business cards to save money. “Today people delete unsolicited emails but back then it worked quite well.”
Language Connect now has offices in New York, Munich, Melbourne and Istanbul, with 80 staff, 80% of whom are women.
Stepien’s team recently completed a £1m project for the American publisher Marvel Comics, translating 30m words into 12 languages. Other clients include market research giant TNS Global and retailers Karen Millen and Ted Baker.
“We provide a 24-hour service to help companies go global,” said Stepien, 40. “It’s not just translating languages, it’s about interpreting cultures.”
She was born and raised in Lublin, southeast of Warsaw. Her father was a policeman and her mother a telecoms manager.
They lived in a tower block overlooking the site of Majdanek, the Nazi concentration camp, which now includes a museum.
“The shops were empty, even of basics like meat and flour. I remember queuing for hours just to get toilet tissue,” said Stepien. “At school we had a special lottery for pupils to win a voucher for a pair of proper winter shoes — it was impossible to buy them.”
In 1992, aged 18, Stepien won a scholarship to study English linguistics at Lublin’s Catholic University but dropped out.
“I was getting bored. I wanted to practise my English rather than learn more dry theory.”
She left for London, where she had a string of jobs. “I wasn’t very good at waitressing; I got sacked a few times.”
Her decision to start Language Connect was a shock for her parents. “There is no tradition of running your own business in my family. Communism did not encourage it,” she said. “They were very worried.”
Stepien now wants to launch a sister company, Linguist Connect, offering graduates a chance to translate for businesses.
She lives in Forest Hill with her husband Ben Taylor, 34, who owns 50% of the business. He co-founded Language Connect with 20% and took over while she had their two boys, now 3 and 5.
Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is: “If you care for your customers and work hard, you have a good chance of succeeding. Take the plunge.”