Claudia Mirza, 44, is the co-founder of Akorbi, which has evolved from a Dallas translation company into a global provider of multilingual business services in over 170 languages. Annual revenue this year is projected to be $55 million. Mirza stands out because her story encapsulates nearly every part of the immigrant experience. Raised in the housing projects of Colombia during violent times, Mirza watched her father leave at age 4 for the United States. She dreamt of crossing the border to join him. She is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, the wife of an Indian immigrant, an employer of immigrants from multiple nations, and a success story who wants to help other women become entrepreneurs in their home countries.
–As told to Colleen DeBaise and Sue Williams. Edited for length and clarity.
My father came here because he was looking to improve his life, to get a job. I came here because my family was separated. It took me a while to get used to this country.
There is a lot of hardship for children of immigrants. I remember dreaming about how I was going to meet my father again, the hero. My heart was broken. I remember dreaming about making a hole under the ground, trying to go under the fence. I was going to cross the border to come and see my father.
Pretty much my mother and I were in absolute poverty [in Medellin, Colombia] when my father left. It took a lot of creativity for my mother and I to really make it. We just had a bag with clothes. I remember going from house to house with our bag, asking people to let us live in their homes.
When I had almost graduated from high school, my father contacted me and said, “I would like for you to come to the United States.” I said, “Well, I need to finish high school, but I would like for you to take my mother.” My mother joined my father in the United States after 13 years of being apart, and they were able to reunite.
After I graduated from technical college [in rural Colombia], I had the opportunity to work as a safety and environmental supervisor at this huge gas pipeline. I made a lot of money, believe it or not. Then, in 1996, I was able to come to the United States. My father was a United States citizen and filed for my green card. I was around 20.
When you leave your country, you leave your culture, your language, your family, all the things that are important to you, your belongings. I had two bags because I came on the plane. Whenever you are immigrating because of poverty or violence, you feel like you are not welcome in that country, and you feel defeated. I felt defeated. [But] it worked out.
[Related: Listen to our podcast about a women helping families in Central America]
It has taken me a lifetime to achieve dreams, but I like to finish things. There is something that I would like to finish. I left Colombia very poor and being no one. I would like to go back to Colombia and help women and little girls that have a dream to succeed. I want to empower them to be self-sufficient and believe in themselves and launch their businesses so they help generations.
The more I travel the world, the more I realize how special the United States is. This country is founded by kindness and giving. People are selflessly mentoring you. If you are willing to work hard in this country, they don’t care about your last name, whether you are from high class or low class, or what religion you come from. This is what makes the United States thriving. I don’t care whether you are Republican or Democrat, whether you are Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. None of these politicians can be accused of not loving this country.
All that said, I want to be sure people don’t have to immigrate. No one should be deprived of the right of being in the place they were born. I want to educate myself, to understand what really builds or makes peace. How do you make a peaceful country? How can you empower people who want to set up a business?
I remembered flying to meet my father after 18 years. My father was waiting for me with a stuffed animal. My mother was crying. I cried so much. It was just very emotional.
Immigrating is one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, I’m telling you. If it is a choice, that’s fine. But no one should have to leave their country due to poverty and violence.
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Claudia: I had two horses, thoroughbreds, and I volunteered at a horse racing seminar in how to take care of these animals. The organizers of the event said, “Claudia, our interpreter is missing. He didn't show up today and we were told that you are very smart, and you can take care of this training.” And I said, “Well, let's see what we can do.”
Text: Claudia Mirza – Founder & CEO – Akorbi, Plano, Texas
Claudia: Akorbi is a group of six companies operating in language, technology and healthcare. Basically, you have 911. You have an emergency. “I have a Vietnamese-speaking person here. Transfer me to somebody that can help me have this conversation.” We are able to take care of those conversations.
Text: Claudia was born in Medellin, Colombia. Her father was a cattleman.
Claudia: My father wanted me to ride so as a child, he introduced me to horses. I enjoyed the freedom and energy, and how wonderful it feels to ride a horse.
Text: Claudia was just 4 when her father immigrated to the United States, leaving her and her mother penniless.
Claudia: There is a lot of hardship for children of immigrants. I remember trying to figure out how I was going to meet my father again. “Maybe the best way that I can go is by crossing the border?”
Text: Claudia was a good student and she won a scholarship to a private high school.
Claudia: My father contacted me. He had filed for my green card and said, “I would like for you to come to the United States.” I said, “Well, I need to finish school, but I would like for you to take my mother.” So my mother joined my father.
Text: Claudia stayed on to study business and agricultural management at a small technical college.
Text: In 1997, at almost 21, Claudia decided to join her parents in Texas.
Claudia: The reunion, it was after 18 years of being apart. It was just very emotional. We cried and cried and cried. It was just a very happy moment.
Text: Claudia took intensive English classes.
Text: She worked at a racetrack with her father at night.
Text: And she worked full time as an analyst at Genuity, an internet service company.
Claudia: It was pretty much figuring out where we could improve, or where we could save money. That was a fun job.
Text: In 2001 Claudia met Azam Mirza, an electrical engineer.
Text: They married in 2002.
Claudia: Genuity went bankrupt. In 2002 I told Azam, “I don’t like the concept of being helpless.” I felt that I needed to have more control over my life.
Text: While trying to figure out what to do next, Claudia was asked to translate at the horse racing seminar.
Claudia: I had experience in my agricultural management from Colombia, so I knew a lot of technical terminology, I knew the industry. And I started correcting a lot of mistakes in Spanish for this training. They referred me to my first paying customer.
Text: One translation referral led to another, and Claudia set up Akorbi in 2003.
Claudia: From the beginning, I realized that in order to grow the business, I needed to sell. Sell, sell, sell, sell.
Text: Helped by Azam, Claudia worked 18-hour days to build the company.
Text: By 2005, they were winning large contracts.
Claudia: We place translators and interpreters at corporations. We also place project managers to manage translation projects that are very high, large scale. The telecommunication that happens, the phone routing, finding the right interpreter and being able to have that connection in any language, in seconds.
SOT: If you don’t know who you are talking to, always be kind to everybody. And we are always going to treat people with respect.
Text: Clients include the IRS, healthcare and technology companies, diplomatic missions and golf tournaments.
SOT: It’s not supposed to be a burden. It’s supposed to be something that’s helping you be more efficient.
Claudia: You are looking for people that have had formal education in the language, where you have to provide them training in some area of specialization.
Text: Akorbi offers services in nearly 200 languages.
Text: They have offices in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Senegal and Cape Verde, Africa.
Claudia: I love doing this.
SOT: It’s amazing for us. The first quarter is pretty much over, now we are going to the second quarter.
Text: Akorbi is on track to make annual revenue of $55 million.
Claudia: I will continue running Akorbi. But I'm ready for my next career move. I left Colombia very poor and being no one. I feel that I would like to go back to Colombia and give back to the people in my same situation. I would like to help people, women, little girls that have a dream to succeed.