Katerina Manoff learned first hand how foreign language students struggled with spoken English, even while excelling with reading, writing and grammar. The Ukrainian students she was working with needed a forum to practice their spoken English, and so her company ENGin was born. ENGin pairs Ukrainian students with English speaking peers for free online conversation practice and cross-cultural connection. Today Stamford, Connecticut-based Manoff takes pride in the fact that she and her team are helping a whole generation of Ukrainian youth improve their English and intercultural skills, that will set them up for academic and professional success.
Manoff’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
ENGin was born out of my experience mentoring a talented Ukrainian student who struggled with spoken English. One student who inspired ENGin was Olena. She had excellent grades – including in her English classes. But her teachers – like those in most Ukrainian schools – had focused on memorizing grammar and vocabulary, providing few opportunities to practice speaking. For a young person in Ukraine, English fluency is key to economic opportunity – knowledge, connections, a great education, a rewarding career. But while Ukrainian students can learn to read and write English, there are no free, widely accessible opportunities to learn to speak. I created ENGin to help Olena and thousands of others like her.
How do you define success?
I define success for ENGin on two levels: individual and nationwide. Currently, we succeed by helping individual students. After participating in our program, students expand their vocabulary, learn to apply their grammar knowledge in conversation, speak more fluidly, accurately express more complex concepts, and make fewer mistakes. They improve their overall communication skills and cultural competence by learning to work with a peer from a different and often unfamiliar culture. They become more confident and gain a more global perspective. In the longer term, these skills empower them to access better academic and professional opportunities.
When we repeat this individual experience at scale, helping 50,000-100,000 students, we will effect change on a nationwide scale, establishing English fluency as the new normal for Ukrainian youth. On a personal level, I define success as finding a career path that checks five boxes:
(1) Allows you to leave the world better than you found it
(2) Offers constant opportunities to grow and learn
(3) Matches your talents and interests
(4) Offers flexibility to balance work and personal life
(5) Pays a stable salary
Tell us about your biggest success to date
My greatest success has been making ENGin a reality – starting from the ground up, with no funds, no team, and no experience, and growing into a thriving program serving thousands of people.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
Due to cost constraints, we have a very young team of mostly part-time employees. This places a huge amount of responsibility on me, from high-level tasks like strategy, partnerships, and hiring, to the smallest operational responsibilities like fixing database errors and helping resolve issues that come up between students and volunteers. I am trying to address this challenge by delegating as much as possible, investing time into training my team, and prioritizing aggressively!
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
I launched ENGin while 8 months pregnant with my second child. I am still learning how to be an involved mother while pursuing a rewarding, challenging career. My marriage, friendships, health, and extended family are other priorities that I want to fit into my life – and am still figuring out how!
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
The foundation of any successful venture is demand. Make sure you are filling a gap in the market and providing a service or product that people truly want and that no one else is offering. I see so many entrepreneurs start businesses because they’re interested in or passionate about a certain area, and then struggling to make it work because the market is oversaturated and the demand just isn’t there.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
My husband is my one unwavering source of support. He believes in me no matter what, and that makes all the difference when things are tough. My team at ENGin is also amazing and so supportive, and when I feel like giving up, I am motivated to keep working and keep going for them.
Who is your most important role model?
I really admire John Wood, the founder of Room to Read and author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. He has been such an inspiration to me as I worked in traditional full-time office jobs and dreamed of starting my own nonprofit. John has lived my dream – founding a nonprofit and growing it to reach millions of people, getting a huge base of supporters to make is work a reality, and sharing his ideas even further through his work as an author and speaker.