In 1986, Elby Pagano founded Interpreters and Translators, Inc. (iTi) and turned it from a one-woman show into a multi-million dollar company, all while also raising a family. In April 2016, iTi celebrated 30 years in business, however its story started long before its birth in 1986. To understand iTi’s existence, one has to first travel back in time to Puerto Rico to meet young Elby. She spent her childhood in the melting pot of cultures that is the island, which allowed her to learn both English and Spanish at an early age. Fresh out of high school, she worked for the Puerto Rico Department of Finance full-time while taking night classes at the University of Puerto Rico. She never really considered living in the mainland United States until she visited her aunt in Manchester, Connecticut, and fell in love with the area.
In 1971, Elby moved in with her aunt and started taking classes at Hartford Community College. A year later, she transferred to the University of Hartford, where she studied Sociology. In her early 20’s, she began working as a clerk for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. One day, a judge found out that Elby spoke Spanish and brought her into court to interpret for a case. Elby didn’t know the legal terminology, so she didn’t feel comfortable with her work quality. As a result, she did not enjoy her initial interpreting experience and vowed to never do it again.
A few years later, the Connecticut Judicial Department was in dire need of interpreters and, after much convincing, recruited Elby as a freelance interpreter. After extensive training, she was able to walk into the courtroom knowing she was prepared for anything. Now that she knew the relevant terminology, Elby realized how much she enjoyed interpreting and that she wanted to do it for the rest of her life. She was eventually hired as a full-time interpreter, and it wasn’t long until she was appointed Chief Court Interpreter where she hired, trained and managed a team of over 50 interpreters to cover assignments throughout the State of Connecticut.
Shortly after starting to work for the Judicial Department, Elby attended a program at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada. The course was taught by prominent Federal Court Interpreters and gave her the tools necessary to train new interpreters for the court system. In her constant pursuit of quality services and knowledge, Elby attended many Saturday legal translation and interpreting programs at John Jay University. On her own dime, she also participated in an intensive three-week course at Montclair State College on court interpreting, which taught ethics and used role-playing as a learning tool.
After managing the Interpreter Services Division for the State for over 13 years, Elby realized that there had to be a more widespread need for language services outside of the court and legal systems, so she conducted a market analysis. She then created a company that would address this need and resigned from her Chief Court Interpreter position in 1986. Initially run out of the basement of the family’s home, her office equipment consisted of a computer, a landline telephone, a cell phone, an answering machine, and a month-at-a-view calendar for scheduling. For decades, the industry lacked national standards, so Elby based her company protocol on what she learned in the court system. iTi’s first clients were naturally from the legal sector, since that was Elby’s area of expertise and much of her business came from people she knew and their referrals. In 1990, Francesco, Elby’s oldest, became extremely interested in the business at a very young age and began helping her with transcription projects, invoicing, paying suppliers using QuickBooks and scheduling interpreting assignments.
As the business grew, the basement and its sparse equipment were no longer adequate for the workload Elby and young Francesco were dealing with. Around 1991, the family built a two-car garage with an office above it that would become the new iTi headquarters. As the client base grew from legal into the education, social service, and medical sectors, Elby began using part of her husband’s law office to meet clients and interpreters in a more professional setting. There weren’t any iTi signs on the building, but Elby had a small office to conduct her face-to-face business.
Once the office over the garage was set up, Elby hired two employees aside from Francesco, who was now old enough to answer the phones. The first two official employees helped Elby with accounting and scheduling interpreters, while she managed the business and continued to do a great deal of interpreting herself. Once Francesco got his driver’s license, he started delivering transcripts and translations to customers around the state in order to provide quicker turnaround times. The rest of the products, however, were delivered through fax or by snail mailing paper documents and floppy disks. iTi’s first website went live in 1996. To date, iTi has owned the same domain name for over 25 years. By the late 1990’s, email was also being used to receive and deliver documents, but its use was not prevalent until the internet became widely available across the country.
From its inception, iTi found most of its clients and suppliers through grassroots efforts. iTi’s employees would routinely cold-call potential clients and suppliers and strike up conversations with bilingual strangers in places like supermarkets, restaurants and gas stations. Their commitment to quality from the very beginning also landed them a great deal of business through word-of-mouth referrals.
Even with three computers, a fax machine, and an answering machine, the iTi office above the garage got crowded rather quickly. Francesco would often have to move the transcription equipment from one machine to the other while working on a project because another employee needed to computer he was on. It didn’t help that only one of the computers was equipped with QuickBooks and the machines were not networked. To remedy this, Francesco enrolled at a local college and attained an Associates Degree in Computer Sciences in 1999. He ended up enlisting one of his professors to help network the office computers.
In 1997, Francesco left the family business to work for Cigna, and then Verizon Wireless. He was right in the middle of the wireless technology industry during the transition from analog to digital. This gave him a unique perspective on the effect technology can have on the success of a business, which would later benefit iTi. By 2001, Elby felt the need to further professionalize the business, so she bought a 3-story building on Main Street in Manchester, Connecticut. At the beginning, iTi only took up two of the first-floor offices, but as the company experienced steady growth, more staff was hired and iTi slowly took over the whole building.
As the business grew, Elby had less time to interpret, so she had to transition into the management side of the business and leave her interpreting duties behind. By that point, though, Elby had built a comprehensive interpreter training program, which has become an integral part of iTi’s Quality Management System. In 2003, Elby attended an Association of Language Companies (ALC) conference in Washington D.C. and her eyes were opened to the scope of the translation industry beyond iTi. It was such a breath of fresh air to be alongside other language company owners that she brought Francesco along the following year to Pasadena, California. There, they were exposed to all sorts of vendors selling software specifically designed for the translation industry. This event marked a pivotal point in Francesco’s understanding of his mother’s company. He was blown away by everything he learned and was finally able to see the “big picture” of where iTi belonged and the tremendous opportunity that was staring him in the face.
In 2006, Francesco came back into the company as an Interpreter Coordinator, and later a Translation Project Manager. He brought with him a wealth of customer service, sales and marketing experience that would help iTi grow to the next level. Still reeling from the ALC Conference in Pasadena, Elby and Francesco realized that having the same people scheduling interpreters and managing translation projects was not effective. As a result, two separate and distinct departments were formed. That same year, they began developing strategies to grow iTi into the future.
Since Elby didn’t come from a sales background, the first couple of decades of iTi were steered by her passion for interpreting. The company grew organically as time solidified its reputation and customer base. Even though iTi was off to a slow start compared to other companies, it was always focused on building a solid foundation of quality models and loyal clients, which helped the company grow steadily year over year. In 2010, iTi hired Jim Love as its Chief Operating Officer in order to facilitate the transition between two generations, from Elby to Francesco. Since then, the staff has consistently grown and the Translations Department has tripled its revenue and become a great contributor to iTi’s suite of solutions. According to Inc.com*, 60% of family businesses fail once the second generation takes over, but iTi continues to be stronger and more innovative than ever. This is due to a long and well-planned transition of leadership, as well as the family’s commitment to Elby’s original mission and core values.