Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in language education but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Dara Fulton, Founder of Applied ESL, located in New York, NY, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Applied ESL is an online English tutoring service with a creative approach where I help adult learners build their confidence while practicing and improving their English-speaking skills. I tutor students one-to-one focusing on English communication, American formal and informal speech, listening, and pronunciation skills. I work with beginner to intermediate-level students. I also offer coaching calls for anyone who is interested in becoming an ESL teacher or new teachers who need help in classroom management, lesson planning, or motivation. Sometimes, we don't always get support from other teachers. I'd like to offer my support and create a community of ESL teachers that can encourage and motivate each other. Part of my coaching service is job readiness training and resume preparation.
What sets me apart from other ESL companies is I focus on life skills. All of my books, worksheets, and video lessons focus on how to communicate effectively in things we do in our daily lives, such as going to the doctor to buying food at a supermarket. My services are student/client-centered, where lessons and calls are centered on the needs and interests of the student and client. I am most proud to have gained an audience of students, teachers, and people who aren't in the ESL profession that enjoy my content on social media.
Tell us about yourself
I love helping people. Helping people truly makes me happy and gives me purpose in life. Sharing knowledge is something I am passionate about because I like seeing people learn new things. It's like opening a gift and waiting to be surprised! I was a writing tutor in college; ironically, most of the students I tutored were immigrants. English was their second language. At the time, I was helping them with essays and research papers, but I didn't know that would be the start of my career. I graduated college in 2005. As any new grad, I needed a job and applied for an ESL teaching position with AmeriCorps. I was assigned to work in Chinatown, NY, to teach an advanced English class. It was my first time in Chinatown, and I was the only African-American teacher in the program. Despite its ups and downs, I learned a lot from my students, Chinese culture, and some Cantonese. I love Chinese food! During my time in AmeriCorps, I started another advanced-level class and a conversation class. The conversation class focused on discussing current events and topics that affect our daily lives. It was a chance for students to express themselves and practice their English freely. I was also a coordinator for a short time while conducting teacher trainings for new teachers. It was a great experience. I transitioned into working for a non-profit organization where I taught beginner and intermediate-level English classes and worked as a job developer. I conducted job readiness workshops helping people, including students, find work. I really enjoyed wearing different hats, as well as teaching in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. I worked there for six years.
After being laid off, having two hip surgeries, and having major breakups, I became depressed. I felt broken. Through my faith in God, my family, and a dear friend who encouraged me to write down my feelings, I began a blog called Dara's Creative Corner. Later, I started another one focusing on ESL called Motivation ESL. At that time, I began creating videos on my YouTube channel talking about the first day of ESL class, lesson planning, and vlogs about finding another ESL position. It was the first time I allowed myself to be myself and share my journey with the world. Over time, I found work at several language schools where each experience was unique. I've always enjoyed working with students from around the world but didn't like the bureaucracies, favoritism, and prejudices I faced as, once again, the only African-American teacher. It was at the language schools I found my voice and turned prejudicial commentary into lessons, discussions, and even presentations. This allowed students to gain perspective about their own prejudices and a willingness to accept people as they are.
After unjust layoffs and eventually quitting, I decided to start my own ESL tutoring business. I wanted to create something where I could be myself and help adult learners to feel comfortable in the learning process. I didn't want to only focus on textbooks and out-of-date curriculums. Instead, focus on real-life situations and how to communicate effectively in everyday life. I launched my business, Applied ESL, LLC, in February 2019. Later that year, I published my first ESL book, the Applied ESL Life Skills student workbook. To date, I have a second YouTube channel called Applied ESL, and I'm active on social media, especially Instagram. There, I post daily lessons and motivational videos. I published two more ESL books, the Applied ESL Life Skills student workbook 2, and just this May published Signs Resource Book.
What motivates me every day is my vision for Applied ESL. I want to put the ESL profession on the map. I want it to receive the respect that it deserves. I am inspired by the people from my Applied ESL Instagram, who I call, the Applied ESL family. Their constant encouragement, support, and love keep me going. I enjoyed taking pictures of signs and the process of writing the Signs Resource Book. I recently asked my family to send me signs from their countries, and I share them on my page. It's become so popular that I've decided to write another Signs Resource book. As a thank you, every person who sends me sign pictures will receive a free copy of the Signs Resource Book 2, an international version of the first Signs book. This is a way to learn different street signs, store signs, instructions, and COVID-19 signs while learning about our different cities and countries. To me, Applied ESL is not just a business but a lifestyle. I incorporate different parts of my life's experiences into my business. This allows me to incorporate real-life examples while helping people learn English and become the best version of themselves.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
My biggest accomplishment as a business owner is becoming a Minority-Women Business Enterprise (MWBE) certified business in 2021. This certification allows me to be a vendor and contract with government agencies and businesses in New York City. This will allow me to help more ESL adult learners, sell my products to prospective businesses, and collaborate with agencies that work within immigrant communities. I am very proud to represent my hometown, New York City, while doing what I love.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
One of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner is being a solo business owner. Although I chose to work alone, it is challenging to do the behind-the-scenes tasks while marketing the business online and offline. I create all my materials, record videos, take photos, and do Instagram live videos, all while teaching classes and coaching. It's a lot to juggle alone. Another challenge is the process can be a lonely one. Sometimes, you don't always get the support you need. One of the things I advocate for is peer-to-peer support within the ESL profession. However, when you are solo, that can be hard to find. I take comfort in knowing that every step I take in my business makes me one step closer to reaching my goals. I always joke with my students that I will be 100 years old still saying, "try your best," because I truly believe that when you try your best, you do your best. This is my motto.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
The top 3 tips I would give to someone looking to start, run, and grow a business today are to be patient, learn, and enjoy the process. If there's anything I am learning in this entrepreneurship journey is the importance of being patient and true to yourself. It's important to go with the flow and not rush the process; instead, enjoy it. However, it is important to be your authentic self because that will keep you going when you don't see progress, when you have doubts, and when you make mistakes. It is okay. Enjoy the mistakes. We must learn from our mistakes; they help us grow. These are the elements that help us to learn about business but, most importantly, to learn about ourselves. Entrepreneurship is a journey, and it's one that must take its own course. Allow the journey to unfold, and wait for the surprises that await you.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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