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Want to Transform the World by Practicing Anthropology? Hire Yourself.

applied anthropology empowerment transformation Mar 25, 2022

Author/Presenter:  Jackie Ambrow, MA, CHt, Transformation Roadtrip LLC  (Masters in Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia)

Paper Presented at the 82nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology || Career Transitions and Learning (Business TIG) on Wed, March 23, 2022, 1:30-3:15 Local time (Salt Lake City, UT, US)

Abstract:   What happens when, instead of looking for employment, anthropologists look for challenges just waiting to be solved? Opportunities abound where need and passion meet. I went from graduate student-divorced mother to anthropologist-entrepreneur, two-decade owner of a language services company, to certified hypnotherapist, now creating courses, collaborations and solutions for sustainable success, health and happiness for individuals, businesses and organizations. I will discuss how you can leverage your talents and expertise, take risks, collaborate, and deliver solutions while making your living. You really can hire yourself, transform the world right where you are and have fun doing it. 


(Parody of the theme song for the 1962-1971 U.S. television show, "The Beverly Hillbillies":)

Lemme tell ya a story ‘bout a gal named Jackie
Poor grad student couldn’t keep her wallet happy
Then one day she was belly-aching to a friend
And he said y’all speak Spanish so tain’t your sorry end!
He said call on the courts and see if they believe
LEP* people oughta get some real reprieve  
Interpreting in court’s the place ya oughta be, 
So she walked right in and talked with Clerk Sherry
Municipal Court Clerk, that is,
Head of Missouri’s State Clerks Association too.
Now she coulda just interpreted there all by herself
But when not interpreting she’d a sat on a shelf
So she screwed up her courage and said to Clerk Sherry
How about a languages service, Clerk Sherry?
Just what languages do you need???

* "LEP people" refers to people with Limited English Proficiency.

Yes, I actually sang that song as my introduction when I presented my paper and received enthusiastic applause for doing so. 

My song parody from The Beverly Hillbillies pretty much sums up the story of how I started up the language services company that became Culture Guides, Inc. back in 1996.  I was an anthropology graduate student with a four-year-old daughter to raise by myself after I divorced her father when she was six months old. At that time working as a masters-level practitioner, I would have needed to move every 2-3 years and work project by project, which wasn’t going to give my young daughter the stability I felt she needed. 

Honestly, I had no idea at the time that I was founding a company that would provide services in 40 languages, income for 125 interpreters and translators, jobs for 6 office workers, and a quarter of a million dollars in sales at its peak. I was living in a small Section 8 apartment near campus receiving Food Stamps and no child support, and I was working as a graduate teaching assistant and massage therapist in my own part-time private practice. Just getting my thesis written was going to be a challenge. A lack of money wasn’t helping. 

What I did have was 1) my strong intention to make a difference in the world, 2) very real needs to support my daughter and be home for her as much as possible, and 3) a willingness to do the four things I’m going to talk about with you today:

  1. Find a Challenge or Problem
  2. Leverage Your Talents and Expertise
  3. Take Risks
  4. Collaborate and Deliver Solutions

1. Find a Challenge or Problem that Real People Face. 

In my case I did not have to go looking very far for a problem to solve.  When one of my best friends suggested I ask the courts if they needed an interpreter, it was a simple call to make and find out who to ask.  All I had to do was overcome my resistance to putting myself out there as a potential interpreter.  

When the municipal court clerk said, yes, they do need interpreters, the next question I asked was: Has anyone organized interpreting services for you?  When she answered no, there was no central place to call to find interpreters, then I asked if she’d like to see an organization that could provide them. She said yes and then said she was in charge of the State Municipal Court Clerks Association and on my request sent out my simple survey to all 400 municipal clerks in the state of Missouri, asking what languages and how often they needed them. 

The next thing I knew was I was calling all my friends and colleagues who were bilingual enough to interpret, hiring them, taking requests for and scheduling interpreters, and improving our services, systems and training as we grew.  We grew by word of mouth: the municipal court told the state courts, and the state courts told the hospitals, and the hospitals told each other, and pretty soon the State of Missouri asked us to be among the first to receive statewide contracts for all state agencies for both interpreting and document translation. 

In your case you may find that a challenge or problem that you can solve will sneak up on you, unwittingly fall into your lap, or you may have to take time to notice what you feel passionate about improving in the world.  

Whenever possible, look for where need and passion meet.  That is where you'll find your genius.  That is your most fertile ground for discovering where you can serve and quite often where you can also create revenue. 

When you get really creative, you can find ways to generate revenue without charging the people who need the help, like I did. The vast majority of our Limited English Proficient clients received our services for free because our customers, that is, the organizations that interfaced with refugees and immigrants paid us. We often worked pro bono as well. When we did charge individual clients, we aimed to be fair in pricing for all stakeholders: the client, the interpreter or translators, and my company so we could all stay in business. 

If you haven’t come up with a good problem to solve in a systematic way that can generate revenue, I suggest doing this:  Take a few minutes every day to get quiet and creative.  For you that might be sitting in meditation, journaling, walking alone in nature, drawing or painting, or engaging in any activity that turns off the logical-rational side of the brain and lets the intuitive part out to play and explore.  Right before you engage in this activity, set an intention for yourself such as: 

  • “I am curious about what might be possible for me.” 
  • “I am open to prospering ideas.” 
  • “I am on my way to discovering how to apply my gifts and talents.” 

Then just let the thought go and turn your attention to your chosen activity. 

When you do this, that is, set an intention and then relax the mind, on a regular basis, you’ll begin to notice internal nudges and inner promptings that will “bubble up” inside you, often when you’re least expecting them.  You’ll become more open to seeing possibilities where before you saw only obstacles and dead ends.  In time, you will find yourself noticing a world of possible ways you can apply yourself—and hire yourself!

2.  Leverage Your Talents and Expertise to Provide a Systematic Solution.

When I first received this suggestion from my friend to call the courts and ask them if they needed an interpreter, what I haven’t said is that I started out my university education in medical school, right out of high school, at a six-year accelerated Bachelors/Medical Degree program. I spent three years in the program until a disease I didn’t know I had until I was 30 and pregnant with my daughter. It caused an organic depression, and along with some “Me Too” issues, I just didn’t quite make the grades to stay in. Yet I had all the medical sciences medical students get plus three years of clinicals.  Without intending to do so, I had learned more medical terminology to start with than most interpreters. I also became an EMT and worked in an ER and on an ambulance for awhile. 

During the years after I was “separated” from the medical school, I stayed in school for bachelors degrees in psychology and then Spanish, just to stave off repayment on my hefty student loans from medical school.  I also spent several years working my way through school as temporary office staff in a large variety of industries.  I can tell you now that I’m very grateful my mom insisted that I take typing in summer school, although I resented the idea that I could end up being just a secretary.  That one skill opened all those doors for me.  

Although I didn’t know it at the time, all those office jobs, along with my mother’s expertise as a high level executive assistant, gave me a great foundation for creating the systems and supervising the personnel that would make Culture Guides a success.  In one of my office jobs I worked as a legal secretary, and in high school I had Latin, so I had legal terminology. As both an undergrad and a graduate student in Spanish, I studied abroad twice in Mexico, so that gave me experience abroad and fluency. 

Staying in school so long also meant that I had opportunities to learn about computer science and acquire a working knowledge of relational databases, web and graphic design and other IT skills. As a result, my company was among the first to move from a paper-based office to computer-based, and we produced some of the best document translations in the industry that were target-audience-ready for publication. 

Without even trying and without knowing what would open up for me, my patchwork career and post-secondary education all came together when I founded my language services company.  We served every setting as interpreters and translators everywhere LEP individuals were found:  medical, mental health, legal, social services, law enforcement, business, manufacturing, insurance, retail, government and more. I personally interpreted for hundreds of hours in mental health and medical settings alone. 

The point of my story is to help open your eyes and the eyes of those around you to the talents and expertise you each already possess.  The fields in which you worked long ago may prove relevant today.  

One suggestion I’ll make is that you put aside your resume or curriculum vitae and create a list of all the talents and skillsets you have that don’t necessarily relate to the recent items on your resume. When you take a wider inventory of your talents and skills, you can look for patterns and clues as to how they might fit together in new ways, perhaps systematically solving a problem in the world for which you can also be compensated. If you still have bills to pay, then finding an efficient, enjoyable and meaningful way to pay them is a win for everyone. 

In my language services company, nobody ever paid me for being an anthropologist. However, as the President and Supervising Anthropologist, I advocated for stakeholders on every side to create a level playing field for LEP individuals and the organizations that served and interfaced with them. I had the freedom to do and say what I felt was ethical and to hold other people accountable when they treated either LEP clients or my staff in unfair or unethical ways. That freedom was priceless and earned me a reputation for transparency and fairness and my company a reputation for being the “Cadillac” of interpreting services, as one grateful hospital nurse put it, because we made her job so much easier.  

That was how I hired myself to do a job for which no one else was willing to pay me.  

And that suited me just fine. 

3.  Take Risks and Adapt to Changing Circumstances.

Back in 2003, my company’s sales revenue plummeted by 65% in one summer, just as I was buying my first house.  It was two years after 9/11 and the US had shut down nearly all immigration.  By then, a lot of our refugees and immigrants could get by with the English they had learned.  Meanwhile, many of our customers, even hospitals and some state agencies, were cutting back on the use of paid interpreters and turning once again to amateur help, even children.  This situation was especially true for our two “bread and butter” languages, Spanish and Bosnian.  I cut expenses as fast as I could, moved the office into my home, laying off of our staff and leaving just one assistant to come to my house to work every day for the next year.  

Still, cutting those expenses couldn’t happen fast enough, and my intuition said it was time to rethink everything.  When the first banks began to fail in 2007-2008, I took a risk and went back to school. 

By 2009 I had earned my diploma in hypnotherapy from Hypnosis Motivation Institute, the first nationally accredited college of hypnotherapy in the US.  Seeing clients was encouraged from the beginning, so I began building a practice. 

In 2010 my daughter and I sold the house to avoid foreclosure and used the proceeds to buy an RV to live in and we hoped to travel in one day.  It took five years. 

My hypnotherapy practice continued to grow while I continued to operate my company.  However, by 2013 one hospital, our favorite customer of 17 years, had changed the staff that handled our contract and demanded concessions.  Around the same time, I was diagnosed with diabetes and began to feel uneasy at serving in settings where I’d continue to be exposed medically to resistant pathogens and physically to potentially violent situations.  I had been operating 24/7 since 1996, answering all emergency calls to either dispatch an interpreter or go myself. 

I wasn’t getting any younger, and it was time to re-boot. 

It was still too soon after the Great Recession to find a buyer for my company, so I closed down Culture Guides and moved to taking Spanish requests by appointment only, and all of my customers were happy to still have me for a while longer. 

By 2015, we finally had our truck to pull our RV, and we left Missouri to winter in Florida. I made the switch entirely to remote hypnotherapy sessions then and now fuse my understanding of language and culture, neuroscience, and more with the mind/body connection and subconscious behavior modification. 

Today in addition to my hypnotherapy practice, I create and deliver live trainings, online courses and consulting for a wide range of people and organizations.

In addition, I create my own research and application projects.  Currently I’m examining how to move marketing away from using “pain points” to grab attention, which is, in my view, harmful to self-esteem and mental well-being, to Positive Marketing, which adds to well-being while encouraging buying and voting choices using win-win-win metrics as opposed to zero sum or win-lose metrics and harmful competition. I have the freedom to collaborate with others and do not have to rely on third-party funding sources. Revenue from my other services supports my research and application work. 

4.  Collaborate and Deliver Solutions While Making Your Living.

So what if you don’t have all the skillsets you need to solve the problem you’ve found? 

You gather around you the people and resources whose skills, expertise and strengths can complement yours and together you solve the problem. 

I could not have built my company without the help of a lot of people who had talents and expertise that I didn’t have or didn’t have time to use.  They were as passionate about our mission as I was, and they contributed to delivering solutions, often above and beyond what I asked of them. 

Today there are new ways of conceiving of collaboration and cooperation in what Robert A. Needham, JD, PhD calls Sharing Capitalism™. Currently I have the privilege of working with him while he coaches a group of us women in a Collaborative Sharing Agreement.

I’d love to tell you more about how you can consider working with others who share your passion to solve problems through cooperatives, collaboratives and Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) in this new and changing economy. 

Some resources I can recommend for learning more about collaborative approaches are:

Remember that you can create new solutions—and create new ways to get paid for them—by asking two important questions.  These two questions that have never failed to yield good answers for me eventually, so I ask them all the time: 

  1. What’s missing, the presence of which would make all the difference?

  2. How can I?


I hope my story has inspired you to think far beyond what you’ve believed might be possible for you and for those whom you can influence to do good in the world. 

We’ve covered these four ideas for how you can find your entrepreneurial spirit as you serve the greater good:

  1. Find a Challenge or Problem that Real People Face.
  2. Leverage Your Talents and Expertise to Provide a Systematic Solution.
  3. Take Risks and Adapt to Changing Circumstances.
  4. Collaborate and Deliver Solutions While Making Your Living.

Remember these four keys to hiring yourself, and you’ll be able to transform the world right where you are and have fun doing it. 

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