The values you bring to your work were shaped long ago. Well before you applied for your first job or set yourself up in business.
And if you’re like the ‘amazing and driven’ person below, you’re probably taking your values for granted. Don’t!
As Mebrak’s story shows, your values help you to stand out from the crowd.
“She does inspire. She wins over champions.”
Pete Dommett, Sussex Police.
“Mebrak is amazing, driven and passionate. ”
Millie Kerr, West Sussex County Council.
“I think a lot of Mebrak is in Vandu. She’s been there and she wants people to succeed.”
Barbara Harris, Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust.
Mebrak Ghebreweldi set up Vandu Language Services fifteen years ago.
Over that time it’s built a network of 1,500 highly trained linguists. Together they have more than a hundred languages and offer a range of services – translating, interpreting, bilingual advocacy and cross cultural training.
Numbers and skills are impressive. More powerful are the values behind Mebrak’s enterprise.
When you explore Mebrak’s story, you understand why she wants everyone, without exception, to be heard and respected.
You understand why her colleagues and clients describe her as ‘passionate’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘driven’. Praise that surprises Mebrak herself. “Am I driven? I don’t see myself like that!”
This is the story about the values that Mebrak brings to her business.
Her commitment to justice, community and open communication. Shaped by Eritrea’s struggle for independence.
(And as you read Mebrak’s story, think about your values. Where they come from. Why they’re important. How you apply them to your work.)
Mebrak grew up in a farming family in Eritrea. She had six brothers and two sisters.
“If you grow up with six boys, four older than you, two younger, you just have to survive really! I went to school with them. I did everything they did.”
“My brothers always used to say, ‘Oh yes, you are a fighter’. I was probably much stronger than them. I needed to make sure that I was equal to them.”
“So I think I was determined to be an equal, from day one. And that is what I still do, to this day.”
A sense of justice. Becoming a barefoot doctor.
“As I grew up, anything that I thought was unequal or unjust, was kind of forbidden. So when Eritrea was colonised by Ethiopia, I thought, ‘This is unfair’”.
In 1962, Ethiopia had annexed Eritrea and turned it into a province. The country’s struggle for independence had begun.
It was the backdrop to Mebrak’s childhood. Then the call came from the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front to stand up and defend their country. At the time, Mebrak was a teenager, finishing her 8th grade, the equivalent to GCSEs.
“And that was it. The EPLF was a really, really creative organisation. What they did was engage with everyone – women, men, older people, younger people. And because they had this really good engagement technique, we just left school and we were all gone. From every part of the country, we just joined up.”
“So I started as a barefoot doctor. It wasn’t a formal qualification, but we could give out tablets and dress wounds. Then I became a radio operator, in a tank. I was with the artillery division for many, many years, communicating in Morse code. And I went to the military HQ as a radio operator and communication officer. And that’s how I learned how important communication is.”
A passion for communication. “It’s next to life itself”.
It’s in this context – relaying vital messages in a warzone – that Mebrak realised the importance of open dialogue.
“It’s rather the consequence of the breakdown of communication that taught me a big lesson in life. You see the military is a different game. If communication breaks down, some way along the line, the cost is life.”
“The EPLF’s leadership realised that very early on. So they made sure that communications between the leadership and each division was flowing up and down without any interruption. And I think that is why they won the war.”
Mebrak spent 14 years with the EPLF.
“When I started as a barefoot doctor, I was very, very young. Probably 16 or 17. I was there until Eritrea achieved independence, in 1991. So I left as a teenager and came back as a mature adult.”
Mebrak then came to London as an international student and did a degree in Business and Computing. She later completed an MA in Business Management as well as a two year course in psychology at the Open University. Then in 1999 she set up her own interpreting and translation business.
As a linguist, she knows how valuable it is to be able to communicate and understand the systems of the country in which you live.
“I might be exaggerating, but for me, communication is next to breathing, next to life itself. You eat. You drink. You breathe. What do you want after that? You need to communicate. You need to do things with people. If you don’t communicate, you won’t be able to do that. So communication is a pathway to enjoy life. A pathway to make your life easy. It’s a pathway to develop yourself and others.”
Dedication to the community.
Over the past fifteen years, Mebrak and her team have devoted much time and effort to find and train community interpreters. For them, translating, interpreting and bilingual advocacy is not just a business. They see it as a long-term investment in the social and economic fabric of Sussex. As Mebrak puts it, a “pathway to enjoy life, develop yourself and others”.
This ethos impresses Duncan Campbell, an advocate who works with young people. He was one of the speakers at Vandu’s 15th anniversary event:
“We have the same view. We both see people as untapped resources. And good communication, good interpreting, where that is needed, can open that out. It helps people to become very, very useful members of society. In a way, Mebrak mirrors that herself, having come from a different country, a totally different culture. She has brought something to our society that I hope most people will value.”
Mebrak takes this approach for granted. She’s never known anything else:
“Right from the beginning I’ve had an interest in working for the community. I came from a country where community is really important, supporting each other is really important.”
“I just felt that this is my place in this community – to prevent the breakdown of communication.”
“And, when that communication is meaningful and happy, when that communication is educational, I think that is when you can say, ‘I live a full life’.”
Do your values get the attention they deserve?
When Mebrak tells her story, her passion for justice and community is clear. It’s what her clients and colleagues value about her work. It’s why they describe her as ‘inspirational’ and hold Vandu in great respect.
But because she lives and breathes these values, she can’t see them for what they’re worth. It’s only when she told her story at Vandu’s 15th anniversary celebrations that she saw the impact they had on her clients and colleagues.
What are the values that underpin your work?
If, like Mebrak, you’re not sure, ask your colleagues and clients. Find out what they value about your approach.
Is it about quality? Doing the best you can?
Is it about collaboration? Actively involving other people?
Is it about legacy? Giving something back to the wider community?
Or is it something completely different?
There’ll be a story about how you’ve shaped each of your values. Tell it. Like Mebrak, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the feedback you get from the people who matter – to you personally and to your work.
If you’d like more information on how Vandu Language Services can help your organisation, visit www.vlslanguages.com.