Louise Sattler learned sign language in college on a whim. After two decades working as a school psychologist and using sign language to help children with developmental challenges, Louise Sattler launched Signing Families, a sign language instructional company that provides resources to help first responders, educators and families communicate with individuals with exceptional needs. Sattler speaks honestly and openly about the bumps in the road to success and why she had the courage to keep building.
Cofounder of Kiva.org, the world’s first crowdfunded microlending website and the author of Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration From Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most With the Least.
ESSICA: Courage. The strength to carry on. The willingness to make yourself vulnerable in the face of potential loss, embarrassment or hardship. The openness to challenge, and the love of meeting challenge head on. Courage is one of the building blocks of growth, and is at the core of success, and this podcast is an exploration of what courage looks like and feels like, and what it means in our lives every day. Welcome to Points of Courage. My name is Jessica Jackley and in 2005, I co-founded a non-profit, Kiva, the first online person to person lending platform. In other words, on Kiva people around the world can come to the site, look at profiles of entrepreneurs, and lend $25 or more to those individuals, and they get paid back. When we began, we started out trying to raise just over $3,000 for a handful of entrepreneurs in Uganda, and truth be told we had no idea what we were doing, and very few people believed that we could do it. I was working in a country whose language I didn’t speak, and with rules and institutions I didn’t fully understand, but I was fueled by a drive to help the entrepreneurs I had gotten to know there. Their courage inspired me, so much so that I found my own courage to start Kiva. Almost eleven years later, Kiva’s growth and impacts continue to amaze me, and still every day I am inspired by the entrepreneur’s stories on the website. And the experience of founding Kiva has propelled me forward, launching several other ventures all focused on promoting entrepreneurship. In this podcast, we are going to have real conversations with small business owners who use their own courage to build something special. I’m excited to share with you stories of entrepreneurial spirit, and acts of courage, big and small, that can inspire us all.
This podcast is brought to you by Hiscox Insurance, they specialize in customized insurance for small businesses of all size. You can learn more at Hiscox.com. Hiscox, and Courage. This week, I am excited to introduce an individual who has taken it upon herself to teach parents, educators, first responders, heck even dogs, sign language. Her business has changed the way that families and towns can take care of and communicate with people with access and functional needs, including individuals within the autistic community. The wonder woman behind all of this is Louise Mason Sattler, and today we’ll talk with her about why she does what she does, how her company went from a door to door DVD-selling business to one that has shaped the environment of entire communities and towns, and where she finds the courage to keep going. Hi Louise.
LOUISE: How are you, Jessica?
JESSICA: I am doing great, thank you so much for being with us today.
LOUISE: Thanks so much for inviting me.
JESSICA: Louise, can you tell us a little bit about American Sign Language, or ASL?
LOUISE: Well, first off people think American Sign Language is just English on your hands, and nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if you go to England, they don’t even use American Sign Language. Do you know how frustrating that is to be in the motherland, in London, and not being able to convert with deaf people? But we actually stole it from the French along with fine wine and croissants. And so the word order is—
JESSICA: That’s the trifecta, right?
LOUISE: That’s the trifecta, yes.
JESSICA: Wine, croissants, and ASL.
LOUISE: ASL, right. So sign language sort of switched over the years—and you see I’m signing now, once you get me talking about sign language, the hands just start moving.
JESSICA: I love it. I know, I have the benefit of being here with you live and—
JESSICA: Well, I did my little homework before this—it’s the fourth most common language in the US, which—that blew me away, it’s amazing.
LOUISE: And you want me to tell you the other three? I know this is a quiz.
JESSICA: Okay, go, go.
LOUISE: So—because I knew that. The first one, of course, is English. The second is se habla espanol, and the third one is Chinese. And so sign language kind of kicked German and French to the street just a little bit. Sorry.
JESSICA: Well, it’s—I mean, it’s fantastic. It’s exciting.
LOUISE: Yeah, it is. It even has, in most states, the popularity now as being accepted as a foreign language, and in schools and in colleges, which is fabulous. So I think what’s important is that—ASL used to kind of be in the closet, and now it’s everywhere, and because of the awareness is much more accepted.
JESSICA: Well, I would love to move on to understanding Signing Families’ founding story. So let’s back way up. How did you first get involved with signing and with ASL?
LOUISE: I had roommates in college, and they were learning to sign. They were education majors, and we would go out to the clubs, and they would be signing, and I’d be like, "Uh, no. You’re not going to be doing that talking with your hands, and I’m not going to know what you’re saying." So I took a sign language class, and then I took another, and then I took another, and before you knew it I was proficient and they forgot everything they learned.
JESSICA: Oh no.
LOUISE: But then fast forward, I became a school psychologist and worked in a school for the deaf, and then worked in other school settings. And we would always sit around the table, for instance children with autism, "Your child could probably benefit from learning manual communication because they are having problems producing speech, so maybe this would be a really good avenue. Would you like to take some sign language classes?" And the moms—almost always it was a mom at this meeting—she would turn and look at us in the face and say, "You just finished telling me that my child needed a one on one assistant, and I don’t have the funds to a, take a class, and b, get a babysitter for my special needs child." So I went home feeling really sad, time after time, and I said to my husband, "Let me just put like 100 words on a DVD—or a CD at the time—and just film me using our big camera back then"—you know those big cameras?
JESSICA: Right, right.
LOUISE: "And put me on tape, and then I’ll—I’ll make a few copies and I’ll give it to these parents," and we did.
JESSICA: What did that look like for you? Can you take us through the initial steps?
LOUISE: It looked pretty cheap because I had a very small budget.
JESSICA: It’s scrappy, it’s cool, it’s—you’re a lean start-up, it’s good.
LOUISE: Yeah, so what I did was I painted in our living room, with suede paint, blue, so it looked like a blue screen. And it looked very professional—
JESSICA: So you changed your living room wall to this blue so that you could do these videos?
JESSICA: Amazing. That’s commitment.
LOUISE: Well, and it looked really good so it stayed. And then we—I hired a photographer or videographer whom I knew that did, like, Bar Mitzvah videos and wedding videos, and I said, "Well can you do this?" And he charged me a really great price, because I wasn’t expecting very much. And then we just put 100 plus signs, and I explained it, and then I did them in Spanish, I did a portion in Spanish, and then I edited it, with his help, and we open captioned it.
JESSICA: Amazing. And how many did you produce in the first run and—what did you do after that? After you had your first feel--?
LOUISE: Well, the first run I think I made about 500. And so I started to sell them on eBay, and started to go to door to door and knock. "Please little bookstore, can you have my DVDs?" And then I would just cold call every single publication that I knew that had special education materials, or young children’s materials, because this particular DVD was called "Baby, Toddler, and Pre-School Sign Language with Louise Mason Sattler and Friends." And it was little kids, and it showed mom and little kids at the beginning signing, it was so cute. So then what happened was this one guy had a son who was autistic, and he said, "Listen—"
JESSICA: One of the people associated with your cold calls?
LOUISE: See, it was cold calls.
JESSICA: [UNINTEL] or something like that.
LOUISE: Yeah, and it was some publication that was supposed to disseminate videos, some video house. And he said, "Listen, I’m going to give you the name of this guy, I’m going to give you a code word, because when you use this code word he will know that it was actually me and I really did vet you." So I called this guy, and before I knew it my videos were in Barnes and Noble, Borders, FYE, and all these different chains, including Wal-Mart online.
LOUISE: Yeah, it went from, "Please sir, can you put this in your store?" To sending out thousands.
JESSICA: Unbelievable. The success story that we can hear now as we look back, it seems inevitable, but I can imagine at the time there were moments when you felt like—I mean, I think all entrepreneurs feel this. You start to doubt, you start to question and say, "Wait, am I crazy? Was there actually as large of a market here as I thought there was? Did I do the right thing?"
LOUISE: Well, I had 500 DVDs in the garage going, "Won’t someone please buy one!"
JESSICA: And a new blue wall, a new blue wall, which is great.
LOUISE: That was the least of my problems! But 500 DVDs at least, and just looking—will anyone buy from eBay, and--?
JESSICA: When did you first start to consider yourself an entrepreneur?
LOUISE: I’m an entrepreneur? I have been actually called the accidental entrepreneur.
JESSICA: So have I! In the past by—
LOUISE: Because I didn’t know I was an entrepreneur, I was a psychologist who had an idea. Luckily, people liked the idea. But what I really think is that I am never confident that I am an entrepreneur, when I look at all these great entrepreneurs, but then I look back and I go, yeah I built a business, and I did a pretty decent job.
JESSICA: Well, you’re doing the thing itself. I am obsessed with this one definition of entrepreneurship, it’s Howard Stevenson, a Harvard Business School professor, and he says, "Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled," and it’s a little stodgy sounding but—
LOUISE: I love it.
JESSICA: This definition is so romantic to me, because I just picture this person, and I think you embody this, pursuing this idea that they have, pursuing this opportunity that they see, without regard to—yes, "resources currently controlled" in air quotes here for anybody listening. But that can be, I think, anything along the way that can stand in your path. That can stand in the way of you pursuing that vision, and running after it. So it’s about the pursuit, not the possessions. Again, I think you embody this. You may be able to put seeds of doubt out there, but you have decided to sort of put those aside and ignore them and keep going anyway.
LOUISE: There were a lot of components that make a great entrepreneur. And some people are self-motivated, and they don’t seek nor need the assistance of others. I am blessed in that I have a husband who said, "Go for it," and was my motivation and said, "Honey, I think you need to go into a studio and make this," or in our case the living room, and paint the wall.
JESSICA: That’s a big deal. That’s a really big deal.
LOUISE: That is a big deal, because there are women entrepreneurs who say, "Okay, my husband is not supportive," and they still have these great ideas, they have books full of great ideas and they don’t pursue them.
JESSICA: Sure. So I would like to hone in on sort of the—the theme of this podcast, these Points of Courage, these moments of courage. Is there a singular moment that you can think of, either in the very beginning in starting the business, or through the ups and downs of growing your business, where you, to you, that word courage really defined what you had to draw on, what you had to bring to the table to get through it?
LOUISE: There are a lot of moments.
JESSICA: There’s lots of moments that sort of push us, right? As entrepreneurs, to tap into this inner strength.
LOUISE: Well, there was one time in particular where I just—I walked down, and I said, "Oh maybe this is the end." And so I decided to invest in getting a PR firm, and they did fairly well for a couple of events and they booked me, but then they booked me at a regional bookstore by a big name that we all know but I won’t say it out loud. And I was invited to go and kind of read a story in sign language, and then they were going to put me at a table, and they put me at a table in the back near the bathrooms by the book bags. So people thought I worked for this bookstore, and they kept saying, "Ma’am, can you tell me where to find--?" "Ma’am, do you know--?" Because I looked like I was the help, and I walked out of there, I didn’t sell one DVD, because no one knew where to find me after story time because I was brought down to basically the bathroom lobby. And it was like, oh, you know? Maybe this isn’t going to work. But then you pick yourself up by your bootstraps and you move it on. The courage part came with saying, "Okay, this didn’t work, maybe we don’t need that PR team, maybe we need something else." Because doing more of the same that doesn’t work doesn’t—isn’t a good business plan.
JESSICA: How have you thought about risk? It goes along with courage here, when there’s risk, when there’s something difficult to do, how have you thought about it, and identified it, and weighed the risks?
LOUISE: The risk actually, quite frankly, comes with what I did. So when you are a hearing person in a sign language world, you have the risk of it not being your first language and it not being your culture. So I created a business as a hearing person, and that, every day, still takes courage, because there’s always someone who can say, "You don’t sign well enough. You don’t do it right. This isn’t good, this isn’t good enough."
JESSICA: And you don’t really know us. You don’t really know what it’s like to experience it as a parent or as a—a person that struggles with this or anything.
LOUISE: Right. That is the biggest risk I had to take, was to sort of say, "I know sign language, I know language, I know child development, and I know what parents need," because I’ve had over 1,000 meetings with parents. So I think I’ve got that down, so—so that is what takes courage for me, is to step into a culture or a community, and I’ve been very blessed that 99% of the people have embraced, and don’t see me as trying to take someone’s job or anything. Because I’m not, I’m not addressing that.
JESSICA: Well that balance, that confidence that you bring, but balanced with the humility to know what you know and what you don’t, and to be able to ask the people you are serving when you need to ask, I think you do that very well. Okay, so tell us what happened post-9/11.
LOUISE: So 9/11, my brother was in lower Manhattan, and he had an office in lower Manhattan, and thankfully was okay. His office used to be in the World Trade Center, he had moved it shortly before 9/11 happened.
LOUISE: But during that time there was an experience of the deaf people in lower Manhattan that did not parallel the experience my brother had. He was able to get help, and was able to be guided, where to go to be returned home safely. Then there was the experience of my deaf friends in the DC area who, again, communication was off because first responders did not necessarily know how to convey more than just pointing where to go, and what to do, and what was happening. You can imagine the mayhem. So my deaf friends—some of my deaf friends, and some of my students—by then I was teaching at a community college, sign language, they were like, "You should put together another DVD, another series, to address the needs for first responders." So I went down to my local firehouse, and said, "Guys, gals, so what do you think? Should I do this?" And they said, "Yeah, what do you want on it?" So they said, "Quick, 20 minutes.” So it’s 22 minutes long, they wanted Spanish so it’s in both Spanish and English, open captioned in both languages. They wanted a little card that they could put into their uniforms that had the most pertinent words that you would need to convey immediately, before an interpreter could arrive to get even more information, for someone who is deaf. They wanted it with words, and they wanted the alphabet and some numbers. And so with that, I was like, "A card? You know how much it’s going to cost me to put a card into a DVD every time I have to put this together? That’s an expensive thing.” Well, you should always go with your audience, because that card put two kids through college, as I sold it separately.
JESSICA: Smart. Smart.
LOUISE: It was very smart. So what I did was, after it was all packaged, I sent it to every child, emergency responders, help national groups, and they have the head of emergency responders, or mental health, and health wellness, and—every state calls it something different. So I sent it to the top people in every state for children, with a handwritten letter that explained that this was not only to help the deaf community but people who were autistic, people who were in the Spanish speaking community, and I didn’t know they were all getting together in a regional conference, and one person actually brought the materials I sent and—
JESSICA: And was your ambassador and said, "Hey—"
LOUISE: Well apparently someone else said, "Oh, I just got that too,” and the orders just started to come in after that.
LOUISE: And then the requests for speaking engagements, as to the story, and why I put it together, and how people can physically help someone. The nuances of helping someone with autism during an emergency, the things people should know.
JESSICA: Well tell me about this. I find that broad worlds often open up through a very small aperture, this focus. You had such a focus in the beginning because it was that—that mom that you were sitting with.
JESSICA: And you wanted to help her and people like her. But there has been this broad, far reaching response from many different communities. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and what you think is so resonant with people?
LOUISE: Well, I think with the first responder group, they would do anything to help save lives. So if learning ten signs or learning 50 signs helps to save a life, they are willing and motivated to do that. Including your CERS teams, your Community Emergency Response Teams, those amazingly brave people who respond voluntarily. Then I think parents are very motivated to do whatever it is that their children need, and I think grandparents are hopping on board to do whatever it is, so there’s no longer that generational gap. And people just like sign language, they think it’s cool. Imagine you can sign to your child, like I did, across a soccer field where the car is parked, and not have to compete in the screaming at the end of a soccer game with 50 other moms.
JESSICA: Oh, that sounds nice. Now you’re talking right to me here. I need to prepare for the future with my boys.
LOUISE: Yep, we’ve got to roll with the times here.
JESSICA: Well, so you seem very responsive not just to—the environment, and the trends that are happening, but also these stories of interacting directly with customers, and asking them what they needed. I am very impressed with the fact that you went to the local fire station and said, "Okay, if I do this, would you use it? What would you want on it? Help me shape this thing.” How do you still do that today? And how else have you had to respond to the demands of the desires of customers, potential and existing, and just sort of the communities that you serve?
LOUISE: Welcome to the land of social media. So I have a very robust page on Facebook, and actually I was just verified. That’s the big check people, if you’re in the social—
JESSICA: Right, the blue check, the big blue—oh.
LOUISE: For businesses, it’s like a gray check. It’s like a yee-haw versus a woo! So Signing Families is on Facebook, and I do put it out there. What is it that you want to see? So last year I did 31 days of sign language, 31 different days—
JESSICA: Oh great.
LOUISE: --in a calendar year, in which I put out a sign language word, and people responded fairly well to that. I tend to do a lot of guest speaking, so people like to book me, and they have booked me through social media events.
LOUISE: So my business model has, due to social media, taken on new horizons, but very exciting, and actually not so new anymore, but every day is a different thing. So I Periscope in sign language—
JESSICA: I was going to ask about that, that’s great.
LOUISE: I Periscope, you know? And I’ve done Vine—Vine is not long enough, by the time I got my hands up it’s done, six seconds, you know? Woo, gone. But if you want to stay competitive you have to stay knowledgeable.
JESSICA: Do you think that anybody can decide to become an entrepreneur?
JESSICA: Tell me why.
LOUISE: No, I don’t think anybody can be an entrepreneur. I think there are people who, their egos won’t fit in the door, and they don’t make good entrepreneurs because they only want to talk, not listen. I think when you’re an entrepreneur you need to listen first, you need to take sound advice from good mentors.
JESSICA: I love the decisiveness and the clarity of your answer. I ask that question a lot and I haven’t heard that, but I think you are correct, I think ego is a big barrier for people.
LOUISE: And thinking you know it all. And I think that if you are going to advance in your life, no matter what stage you are at, you need to be willing to listen and to learn, versus talk and tell.
JESSICA: I mean, could—is there a mic drop function here? Are we going to--?
LOUISE: If I could take a little story here.
JESSICA: Go for it, please, please.
LOUISE: Okay. So after the terrible tornados that hit Moore, Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, and Norman, Oklahoma, I had ironically been scheduled to do a disaster preparedness sign language AFN, Access and Functional Needs workshop, at the school for the deaf in Oklahoma. It just happened that this terrible tragedy happened just a few weeks before. So I went and I gave a lot of materials to FEMA and to the Red Cross, because there were 40 deaf families that ended up in shelters, or families with autism. So I went ahead of time to sort of help out and supply them with materials and survey the area itself, and it was devastation, just—it broke my heart. And then I went to the Oklahoma School for the Deaf and a lot of those people, their families had lost their homes, some knew people who had lost their lives. And we all had a little cry fest, but at the end there was a representative from one of the Native American nations, and she came up and she gave me a necklace, and she signed to me that I have a deaf heart.
JESSICA: Oh wow.
LOUISE: And that’s when I said, yes, this is the moment that defines all of the hard work, all of the battles, or courage that I needed, this is the moment that made it all worthwhile.
JESSICA: Oh, I love that. I love that story.
LOUISE: And so I have that necklace, and I treasure it as much as any fine piece of jewelry.
JESSICA: Of course. Wow, that says so much for how well you have done understanding the people that you want to serve, in the community that you serve. That’s incredible.
LOUISE: Thank you, thank you.
JESSICA: That’s incredible. [UNINTEL] it’s so resonant, that description of knowing who you are and knowing who you’re not, and knowing what aspects you’ve—you bring, what experience you bring from your own life, and knowing what it unique to each person, that you have to just hope they can help you understand.
LOUISE: Well, their story isn’t my story, but I would like people to understand the story, and to be able to help people in those communities.
JESSICA: What advice do you have for somebody who needs a little bit of courage right now, either starting their own business, or maybe they’re just in a tough moment of their journey?
LOUISE: You have to have the courage to admit that you don’t know it all, and you could and should ask. There are resources out there, there are people who care, they may not live with you, they may not be in your posse of friends, but they’re there.
JESSICA: You can find them.
LOUISE: You can find them.
JESSICA: Very good advice. Well Louise, I can’t thank you enough for being here with us. Thank you so so much. I’m really looking forward to sharing your story with the world.
LOUISE: Jessica, this has been a lot of fun and—and thanks. Thanks for everything.
JESSICA: My favorite part about Louise was her clear passion, not just for communication but for connecting people through communication. Obviously the language of choice for her is American Sign Language, but you could tell that even outside of that she found a lot of meaning and purpose in her life trying to help people understand each other. And I think that core, that passion for communication, is what sort of infuses everything that she has done. I loved—I loved—it was a real pleasure because of that, communicating with her. I absolutely have a handful of people in my head after having heard her story and learning more about what she does, that I have to evangelize to about her work and about what she provides. That’s it for this episode of Points of Courage. I’m Jessica Jackley, thank you for listening.