Elizabeth Schwartz, a 64-year-old native New Yorker, has always had a fascination with languages. She majored in French in college, she has traveled to four continents, and she is proficient in Spanish. She also earned a master’s degree in speech language pathology.
After working with children with disabilities for 20 years, and then after getting laid off from her full-time job supervising recent graduates in speech language pathology, Schwartz started her own business at 61. Through Better Speech Now, she helps immigrants achieve their professional goals in the U.S. by teaching them how to speak with a clearer American English accent.
“I was thinking about starting accent reduction for quite a while…it was almost the same time as getting laid off,” says Schwartz.
She explains that she set up the business with her friend, Sonu Sanghoee, in 2011. Together, they connected with the non-profit Queens Economic Development Corporation (QEDC).
“We won the start up competition in 2012, and they supported us every step of the way,” says Schwartz about the organization.
She explains it wasn’t an easy process since neither of them had ever started their own business before. They had to decide on a business structure, for one.
“We made like 12 drafts of the business plan, and we used the $10,000 we won to market ourselves and pay for a business coach,” says Schwartz. “It’s not like being a lawyer or a doctor — not everybody knows they can improve their accent. That’s how our business was born. We’ve been having a lot of fun.”
What also helped, she says, is the support of family and the community.
“My son is in the tech world, so he helped us with our website and Facebook page,” says Schwartz. “My partner’s cousin has an MBA, so he helped us…and we designed fliers and held an open house in the community.”
She says what she loves most about her work is that she is very passionate about what she does.
“I’m helping people with a significant problem,” says Schwartz. “People come here, and their accent is a real stumbling block for them. Day-to-day tasks can be very challenging — like talking on the phone.”
Schwartz says she also enjoys helping people with interviewing skills.
“We, as native [English] speakers don’t realize how difficult it can be to go someplace where our language is not understood,” she says. “I feel I am helping people with that…and it’s very gratifying.”
One of her favorite success stories is of an attorney from Hong Kong. She says before taking accent reduction classes, he used to shake from nerves in the courtroom whenever he had to argue before a judge.
“I really worked with him and built his confidence,” says Schwartz, adding that the average length of the program is an hour per week, for 12 weeks. “The guy from Hong Kong only had six weeks — that was the shortest, but I’ve had people who needed more.”
Schwartz usually works out of the Art House Astoria, which is in an area of diverse ethnic backgrounds in Queens, but she also has international clients with whom she works via Skype and e-mail.
Besides going to the gym almost every morning, Schwartz says her other favorite activity outside work is traveling to Washington, DC, whenever she can, to visit her 2-year-old grandson.
“He’s the light of my life,” she says. “I adore him.”
What is one piece of life advice she will advise him one day?
“Do what you are passionate about. Define what your passion is about, and that should be your life’s work,” says Schwartz. “When you’re my age, you want to look back and feel like you made a difference. In this economy, a lot of young people just grab whatever job they can get, and sometimes you have to do that, but you shouldn’t have to do that for a lifetime. Figure out what you love, and go for it.”