2020’s Coolest Place to Work: Hands Up Communications

By Dave DeWitte

A more diverse workplace than Hands Up Communications, named “Coolest of the Cool” in the CBJ’s 2020 Coolest Places to Work competition, would be hard to find in the Corridor.

Hands Up is a “one-stop shop” for language translation, interpretation and transcription services, serving clients such as medical clinics, law enforcement agencies, schools and businesses. About 75 different independent contractors work with Hands Up, providing fluency in different languages or backup when staff interpreters are busy.

The public face of Hands Up Communications is its staff of about two dozen interpreters and schedulers, who are collectively fluent in dozens of languages and American Sign Language.

Most of the language interpreters are first- or second-generation immigrants who were drawn to opportunities at Hands Up as a way to use their language skills to help others.

“It feels like family,” says Yunlong Wang, a Chinese interpreter who was among the company’s first to achieve certification as a health care interpreter. He said Hands Up’s interpreters enjoy learning about each other’s cultures, primarily through office conversations and quarterly potluck dinners where everyone brings a homemade dish authentic to their culture – or two or three.

Office favorites include spicy Nepali dumplings and an African specialty called fufu. The potlucks are such an intercultural feast that Hands Up sometimes invites clients to share in the bounty.

For many of the staff, the interpreting work is its own reward, placing them into interesting conversations everyday and often giving them a chance to help an individual with communication barriers through a difficult situation. While many of the interpreting sessions are scheduled in advance, it’s something different almost every day, with plenty of opportunities to meet new people and expand connections.

During a recent visit to Hands Up’s offices, most of the staff had temporarily left to help a fellow staffer forced to vacate her apartment when the landlord claimed an urgent need to repair damage from the Aug. 10 derecho. Hands Up helped her find temporary quarters until more permanent arrangements could be made.

The company is led by Sue Tyrrell, co-founder and current owner, who began her career as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter in a Christian ministry for the deaf. She applied the principles she learned there to business, and describes Hands Up Communications as “built on love for people and barrier-free collaborative communication.”

In building the business, Ms. Tyrrell has sought out employees motivated by faith and a desire to serve others. She’s found that they will work harder and help solve difficult challenges, “but it really starts with building a connection.”

“We support each other; we have each other’s backs and we listen to each other,” she said. “But it really does start with that sense of connection and belonging. Once you feel connected and accepted and part of a community, you get back five times what you put in, so it becomes a win-win for those people, the company and the clients.

Ms. Tyrrell ignores some of the boundaries other CEOs establish in their roles, subscribing to the philosophy of author Brené Brown that “because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

She and her husband share their home with Hands Up staff members who are in transitional situations, sometimes stretching capacity to the limit. She actively encourages conversation at work, and finds that discussions that begin as personal conversations often lead to business insight and solutions.

“Some people strive to expand diversity in their companies,” Ms. Tyrrell said. “I have the privilege to live in diversity in our company and I absolutely love it – learning about the people, their culture and their language.”

That Hands Up can find interpreters for dozens of languages in Cedar Rapids, an overwhelmingly white community with European roots, may seem surprising at first. Ms. Tyrrell says that diversity is growing, however, and word of job openings at Hands Up spread by word of mouth.

“I would never have realized how much diversity is in our own state of Iowa,” she said. “People who had jobs in other places started hearing about Hands Up and, culture after culture, interpreters started coming to our front door. Some moved here as refugees and developed the skill of interpreting in another state, and moved here.”

Today, Hands Up has about two dozen direct employees – a number that is down from 28 before the COVID-19 pandemic but expected to rise. It also employs about 75 contract translators, enabling it to offer translation in about 200 languages, including ASL, and has a network of other translation companies that can take requests when it doesn’t have a translator available.

An evolving business model

Hands Up Communications began in 2009 as an ASL interpreting service, and Ms. Tyrrell expanded its scope in 2015 to offer foreign language interpreting and translation work.

The business hit some rough patches along the way, including a merger that didn’t work out, and a company that began rebuilding the day after everyone was laid off. Ms. Tyrrell credits Scott Swenson of the Kirkwood Small Business Development Center and Dupaco Community Credit Union with helping Hands Up to “reboot” with a solid business plan in 2018.

Since then, the company has been growing in a highly competitive industry. In 2020, Hands Up started a Community Services division that operates Barnett House, a group living facility it manages for the deaf. Aware of the challenges deaf Iowans have in accessing services, Hands Up realized things would go more smoothly if they lived with others who also used sign language. Four residents, including one who is also blind, currently live in Barnett House.

The newest service provided by Hands Up is an on-the-fly medical translation service. Individuals with limited English who need to consult with a medical clinic can pick up an interpreter “on the way through the call,” enabling them to overcome the language barrier to services.

Hands Up had been providing video remote interpreting services before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but demand has escalated rapidly since then, as more Americans rely on telemedicine services rather than going into a clinic to be examined. In most cases, Hands Up works as a backup interpreter for companies that specialize in telemedicine interpreting.

Demand for services initially plunged after the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring. Employment dropped from about two dozen to five, but has since gradually risen to 21 employees, with plans to add two more before the end of the year.

Accepting the award at the Sept. 1 Coolest Places to Work Awards ceremony, Ms. Tyrrell shared a lesson she has learned from every one of Hands On’s employees and her husband. Despite the uncertainties of a recession, COVID-19 and the recent derecho, she expressed confidence in the future of the business.

“If our company is founded on love and faith, our foundation is strong and sure, and that’s important,” she said.   CBJ