Entrepreneur Samantha Beaver, MA, is the founder and CEO of Memra Language Services, a company that uses sociolinguistic research techniques to provide insight into company culture and effectiveness of communication.
Samantha spoke with Rebecca Shields, academic advisor for Language Sciences, in February 2022.
Thank you for speaking with us today Samantha! How did your interest in linguistics start?
I initially got interested in linguistics because my family lived in Germany for a year when I was growing up. While we were there, my brother and sister and I all became fluent in German very quickly, even though we were only there for one year. But after we came back to the US, there was a big difference in terms of how much we retained of the language, even though our circumstances were similar, and we even had a lot of the same genes! There was so much variation in terms of how much German we retained into adulthood – which parts stuck and which parts fell away. That experience really made me wonder how language worked in the brain. So by the time I got to UW-Milwaukee, I already knew that I wanted to do Linguistics.
You ended up doing a BA in Linguistics at UW-Milwaukee, and then an MA in Applied English Linguistics at UW-Madison. What was your personal path to an advanced degree in linguistics?
I was fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to do undergraduate research at UW-Milwaukee. I got to work on three research projects there. I really enjoyed research, and wanted to go to graduate school right away. However, I didn’t initially get into any of the grad programs that I had applied for. This forced me to spend a year working, and I ended up teaching a year of Spanish and German at a private preschool. Since the kids were so young, it was immersion style, play learning. I had the opportunity to use my knowledge of language acquisition to design learning activities that would be effective for such young students.
Linguistics tends to be a very academic field, and a lot of students seem to feel pressure to continue on the academic path to graduate school. In what I’m doing now, I do think I use my graduate degree all the time. But, a linguistics degree even at the undergraduate level is still very valuable, and there’s a lot of work that can utilize those skills.
You founded an innovative new company, Memra Language Services, soon after graduating from UW-Madison. How was the idea for your business born?
It was at UW-Madison that I had the idea. The “applied” label in Applied English Linguistics usually means language teaching methodologies. I was doing research with Dr. Raimy, and we were doing work that was at the intersection of linguistics and the “real world.” This really got me thinking about novel ways to apply linguistics. What spheres of the real world could really benefit from linguistics? Right around this time a lot of people had started talking about the importance of “company culture.” I thought to myself, linguists learn a lot about culture by looking at language, and they’ve been doing that for decades. We can understand how people work together as a group through their language use. I got the idea to do that on a microscale at an organization.
During my last semester at UW-Madison, Dr. Macaulay gave me an opportunity to try out some of my ideas in her Linguistics 800: Research Methods & Materials class. She gave us freedom to choose what we wanted to focus our final project on, and I was able to do a test run of a training I might do, and get feedback from the other participants in the seminar. She was very encouraging – it was awesome to have that support from a faculty member and the other students in the class.
After completing my MA, I launched the business that same summer. Another female entrepreneur in Madison encouraged me to have a launch event at a festival that was happening in August. I didn’t necessarily feel completely ready, but I realized that it was a great opportunity, so I went for it! I started getting clients after that.
You and your business are featured prominently in Anna Marie Trester’s new book, Employing Linguistics: Thinking and Talking about Careers for Linguists (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022). How did that connection happen?
I met Anna Marie Trester at UW-Madison when she was on campus to give a linguistics career workshop here. This was right when I was working on my business idea in Dr. Macaulay’s class. Anna Marie wanted to follow my story, to track how my business would grow from an idea into reality. We’ve been in touch ever since! At first we would meet every other month. She would ask questions about how my business was going, and how I would use linguistics to affect outcomes. My business ended up being featured in a chapter of her book.
She featured many different linguists, not just me, of course. She wanted to have people represented at various different stages in their careers, as well as different industry types. I think her book is really useful to students interested in language or linguistics, because it’s not just a story about people who are using linguistics in industry. She focuses on how these people are thinking like linguists to make decisions. So even if you never use the content knowledge of linguistics in your day-to-day job, the transferable skills that you learned in studying linguistics affect the way that you make decisions, understand people, and approach problem-solving.
What advice do you have for students – is there anything you wish that you yourself had known early on in your journey?
I think for many students, your orientation towards career is that there’s an opportunity sitting out there, and you have to go find it. It’s a posture of searching, and you may feel like things are not in your control, because you’re basically at the mercy of what others have created. But I think what you realize once you’re out of school, and have spent a few years working, is that you are actually empowered to create your own opportunities within roles that you might have. It’s a perspective shift: you can create an opportunity to do linguistics within a role, because you have particular skills that you bring with you wherever you go. It’s a great way to take back control. Students feel powerless a lot – they often feel like they have no agency. That’s the transition to adulthood that students are navigating: learning how to exercise their agency in the world. One way to ease that transition is to just change your posture. Companies are interested in attracting a great workforce and retaining them, so they’re interested in cultivating your interests. Students should think, “I’m the prize! People want to hire me. My interests can shape my career, wherever I am.”
Anna Marie Trester, author of Employing Linguistics (2022) will be returning to UW-Madison in the coming months to offer career workshops for Linguistics majors:
Monday March 28 @ 4:00 – Linguistics career workshop for undergraduate students
Monday April 4 @ 4:00 – Linguistics career workshop for graduate students