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Speak Shop offers new concept in Spanish lessons

The Beaverton start-up is making strides in social entrepreneurship

By Christina Lent

The Beaverton Valley Times, Nov 29, 2007, Updated Oct 30, 2009

Clay and Cindy Cooper are pioneers in creating a new online language teaching industry.

It’s been two years since the Beaverton couple launched Speak Shop, a unique online company that offers fair trade Spanish lessons via Web camera with professional tutors in Latin America.

Their mission is two-fold: provide language teachers in developing countries with a way to launch their own mini tutoring businesses while offering people of all ages around the world with convenient, affordable access to personalized language lessons by videoconferencing with native speakers in another country.

Jaime Valdez / The Times Speak Shop co-founders Clay and Cindy Cooper videoconference with Aracely Rogel, one of the Beaverton company’s professional Spanish tutors in Guatemala.

“A big part of our mission is connecting people,” said Cindy Cooper, a 1991 Beaverton High School graduate. “Speak Shop offers a wonderful cross-cultural opportunity for both our tutors and students.

“We give people a meaningful way to learn a language while also learning about another country, its culture, social systems, its people and way of life. That’s really significant.”

Shared vision

Clay and Cindy met while attending Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz.

“That was also the place where Clay got the idea for Speak Shop,” Cindy said.

As a requirement for graduation, Clay had to learn to speak a foreign language.

“I had struggled to learn Spanish in high school,” he recalled. “I was timid about speaking in class.”

Knowing a traditional classroom setting would not work for him, Clay traveled to Guatemala for the summer in 1998 to work with a tutor.

“My tutor Pablo invited me to his home, and it was then that I realized he was living in impoverished conditions,” Clay said. “Here was a man who went to university, was very bright, worked hard and was doing all the right things, yet he was struggling day in and out.

“When I realized he was getting paid the equivalent of $1 to $2 an hour, it just didn’t seem fair.”

Like other educated people struggling in perpetual poverty due to barriers beyond their control, no matter how hard Pablo worked, circumstances made it impossible to rise above poverty, Cindy added.

“It’s a pervasive problem – people who are working hard and are good at their jobs do not have the opportunity to get ahead,” she said.

Knowing that there was a demand in the United States for qualified Spanish instructors willing to offer private lessons, Clay decided to use his Web site development background to create an online channel for tutors in one country to videoconference with a student in another country.

Although Cindy initially wondered if the market would support the videoconferencing instruction model, she embraced the idea of starting a business that would help empower others.

“With Speak Shop, the teachers can run their own mini tutoring business, and we help them by offering business training and marketing support,” Cindy said.

“By working with us, tutors are making three to four times more per hour than they usually get, plus they are able to teach year round,” Clay added.

Meanwhile, Speak Shop offers students an avenue to gain access to professional, private tutors, who can tailor their instruction.

All it takes is a computer, high-speed Internet access, a headset with microphone and an optional Web cam.

Creating a bond

With a click of the mouse, Cindy easily connected with one of Speak Shop’s seven Spanish teachers in Antigua, Guatemala.

Arecely Rogel’s smile lit up the computer screen as she began talking about her two years with the company.

“I love being able to share my language with my students,” Rogel said. “I do it with a lot of love and attention.”

This month she is working with 15 students. They live in Norway, England, Germany and the United States.

“Working with Speak Shop has changed me intellectually and economically,” Rogel said. “I’ve learned a lot about different cultures and languages.

“I was afraid to touch computers before, now I have confidence. Economically, I can help supplement my husband’s income and contribute to our family and to my children.”

Her lessons depend on the level of her students, she said. They can range from mini dialogues and easy phrases to grammar and more complex phrases to working on Spanish fluency.

With her advanced students, she holds discussions on an array of topics including politics, medicine and religion.

“It depends on the level and the desire of the student,” Rogel said. “The class is very fun, but also highly professional.”

Realizing a dream

Speak Shop tutors log about 100 hours of online instruction a month.

“When the tutors went to 60 hours a month, at that point, I realized the business was sustainable,” Clay said. “I realized people would pay for our service, stick with it and provide the tutors with a sustainable income.”

Knowing they are making a difference in other’s lives is very rewarding to the Coopers.

“Speak Shop has been like our child,” Cindy said. “We’ve come a long way from the dreams we wrote on paper.

“They are actually a reality, and now we are at the point where we can expand to other countries and teach additional languages.”

For more information about Speak Shop, visit www.SpeakShop.com.