In an effort to "Americanize" his mainly Chinese workforce, Thomas Chen, founder of Crystal Window Door Systems, offers English lessons at work and promotes "English-only Friday's."
The Inner City 100
A decade ago, when Thomas Chen launched crystal Window & Door Systems Ltd. (#86), in Flushing, N.Y., virtually all his customers were Chinese American. Today only about 5% of Chen's clientele hail from either Taiwan (Chen's place of birth) or the mainland. But three-quarters of his 200 staffers are Chinese Americans, many of whom were lured by the company's aggressive advertising in Chinese-language publications and on cable stations.
Although Chen wants his employees to enjoy the ease and collegiality that a common tongue promotes, he doesn't want them to ignore English altogether. "Thomas's personal strategy is, 'Look, you're American -- you have to Americanize," says Bob Nyman, Crystal's executive consultant for business development and marketing. Chen, who has studied English since he arrived here, in 1982, is still not confident of his ability to field idiomatic curve balls (the reason Nyman sometimes acts as his voice). Spurred by his own struggles with the language, Chen offers free English classes to his employees. The classes -- conducted Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings by bilingual staff members -- use workbooks, tapes, and personal instruction to cover everything from conversational English to the esoteric vocabulary of glass-cutting and vinyl-extrusion techniques.
The classes are improving workers' English skills, particularly in reading. "But there's still a self-consciousness about speaking it," says Nyman. So Chen created "English-only Fridays," when all the workers (including Crystal's growing population of Hispanic employees) practice what they've learned in class. "It makes them comfortable because if everybody else is doing it, they're not going to look foolish," says Nyman.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan