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Eduardo Vega was just one semester away from graduating with a degree in international business when he decided to switch focus completely and start tutoring students in Spanish, his native language. That was the genesis of the Culture & Language Center, the community-oriented language school he opened in late 2012 in San Diego.
Born in Houston, Texas, Vega lived in Colombia for 17 years before returning to the U.S. in 2002 to improve his English. After a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy, he moved to San Diego to start school. Today, he divides his time between the U.S. and South America.
The event that set Vega on the path to opening his own language school happened in China (Vega also speaks Mandarin) when he got the chance to teach first English, and then Spanish, at schools there. “They were paying pretty well, so I just went for it and fell in love with it,” he recalls. “I ended up working in three different schools in one city where I lived for a year, and then I moved to a different city for another six months. I worked over there with two other schools and did private lessons on the side.”
Back home in San Diego, on the advice of his then-girlfriend, now his wife, he put an ad on Craigslist. Within six months, he had 10 students and was meeting them in coffee shops to offer his own brand of language and cultural training. Nine years on, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
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Starting small in San Diego
Vega worked out of coffee shops for six to eight months before securing his first premises. “It was a very, very small office, 100 square feet,” he says. “We were able to fit just one dining table and a couple of whiteboards, and I worked there from Sunday to Sunday, just developing the method.”
The space limitations resulted in a major hallmark of the school’s classes: small sizes. There are no more than four people in each class. “It’s the ideal number for having enough interaction and focus for each student individually,” Vega enthuses. And he maintained that approach even after moving to bigger premises. Even while teaching online during the pandemic, they’ve kept the classes intimate.
Another distinguishing feature of the Cultural & Language Center is its focus on cultural immersion and community to help students acquire language they can actually use. Vega comments: “Our business model was focused on experiences. Up to February 2020, we had two to three monthly meetups. We would meet at a coffee shop one week, then at a brewery, or at a restaurant. On top of that, we would have art classes at our school. We did a dancing class. At some point, we did a cooking class.”
The school also offered immersion trips for no more than 12 people at a time. With Tijuana, Mexico just over the border, they were able to take students on day trips for cultural tours. They also did longer trips to different parts of Mexico and a 10-day trip to Vega’s home country, Colombia. “For some trips, it was grammar in the morning and sightseeing in the afternoon,” he explains. “Everything was in context, everything was conducted in Spanish. People were having fun.”
With the pandemic putting trips on pause, the school has found other ways to create a sense of community with students, including virtual events. And, with what Vega describes as a steep learning curve, they launched a podcast and YouTube channel, producing around 30 episodes in 2020.
Sharing culture through community
For the future, Vega is currently working on a private social media-learning community. “Picture Facebook with no ads, completely in Spanish, where you can take your class, where you can practice, and where you can connect with teachers and students,” he describes excitedly.
Still, he looks forward to the day when classes can meet in person again and continue their immersion trips. “Remote is not the same,” he concedes. “We would love to bring back some of that human interaction again, whenever it’s permitted and it’s safe. That was the thing that I loved the most about what I do: just having the opportunity to share my culture and share my language and interact with other people and laugh.”
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You don’t build a business without facing challenges and learning lessons, and Vega’s happy to share some of his key insights, one of which is that you don’t have to go it alone. His wife has always been in his corner. “She’s been the pillar behind the whole project,” as he puts it. “And she provided tremendous emotional and financial support early on.”
However, Vega handled most of the teaching himself for years. “I wish I’d been open to bringing people in earlier,” he says. “My mentality was that they came to me because it was me and nobody could do it better. But I’ve learned the importance of having a great team behind me.”
The school now has six teachers in different locations in North and South America, with a new one slated to join the team soon to help cover classes for the more than 100 students that come to the school each month. The recent move online has enabled the school to branch out from students in San Diego to those in other locations, like Austin, Texas. While most students find the school via word of mouth, it’s also been useful to have a strong online presence on Yelp and Google My Business.
Other tips for entrepreneurs looking to build a six-figure business include, according to Vega: “Stop hesitating. You just have to go forward and do it. Don’t be afraid of failure. Be open to change, because you never know what’s going to happen.”
And, he adds, putting in consistent effort is also key. “We’ve had really rough times, some lows and some highs,” he confesses. “But the most important thing is don’t give up. That’s the main takeaway. Consistency pays off, not just in business, but in life. And in language learning.”