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We Are All Entrepreneurs

James Romano, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
January 5, 2015

Portrait: James Romano

Portrait: James Romano
CLA alumnus James Romano
The company:
Prisma International

The mission:
Language and
communication strategy
services

At the dinner table with his Italian grandfather and family when he was a child, Jim Romano remembers that when the adults didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying, they’d switch to Italian.

“I was always asking, ‘What are you saying?’” he says.

It was an early indication of the passion for languages that would guide the rest of his life.

“I think we are all entrepreneurs,”
says Romano. “There is no
profession today that doesn’t
include an entrepreneurial
component.”

“It never occurred to me to study anything but languages,” he says. “I never could have imagined spending my precious college years on anything other than what really interested me.”

So it was that he steered a straight course through his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Columbia University, followed by a PhD at the University of Minnesota—all in Romance languages, including French, Spanish, and his homegrown Italian—with a smattering of Asian languages thrown in for good measure.

He came to Minnesota he says, because he “was totally impressed with the professors’ variety and depth and their focus on the students. In some places the students are sort of an afterthought. I found some real critical thinking here among my students. If I said, ‘Read 200 pages,’ the first thing they’d say was ‘why?’ There are more critical thinking skills involved with asking ‘why?’ than in just doing what you’re told.”

Today, Romano heads Prisma, a business that brands itself as helping companies become global-ready through language translation, managed services, and cultural consulting. It’s headquartered in Minneapolis, but its roots actually go back to Romano’s undergraduate days in New York, when he started his translation service in 1982.

“We started out as just a translation service,” he says. “The strategic mission grew. The old paradigm was, ‘You give me something in English, and I’ll slap it into some other language.’ The new paradigm is that translation is a living, ongoing activity. It has to be managed from a central location across languages. Companies are selling products all over the world. That’s where the action is, but also the difficulty. It requires that we sit down with a customer to make sure that its communication is consistent in all of its content. We need to speak the language of the customer.”

Today, that means working in nearly 190 languages and dialects, with contracts that include the federal government, where departments like Homeland Security and Justice have critical needs for professional translation services.

For all of this, he finds no better background than liberal arts.

“I find an inextricable connection between a strategic view of the world and a liberal arts education, which is all about attaining the critical thinking skills, the broad overview you need to function in the larger world,” he says. “The best strategic thinkers are those who come from broad liberal arts backgrounds. The liberal arts experience enables someone sitting in a corporate room to think about ways to communicate with far-reaching customers.”

This kind of thinking is also what leads him to a unique take on what it means to be an entrepreneur.

“I think we are all entrepreneurs,” he says. “There is no profession today that doesn’t include an entrepreneurial component. People juxtapose entrepreneurship and academia as if there’s some kind of dichotomy there. Nothing could be further from the truth. My own shift away from academia to business was when I realized there wasn’t that much of a difference. I didn’t see the wall anymore. Regardless of where you are in the landscape of our culture, we are all working for someone else; there is no such thing as working for yourself. There is an exchange of services no matter what you do.”

For Jim Romano, the people who understand this best are liberal arts graduates.

“The translator’s mentality is that of someone who is always ‘crossing over.’ It’s the liberal arts mentality: You’re never satisfied with where you are. You’re always going over the wall. It makes for a very restless mind.”

What he says:
“Translators are always thinking outside the box, trying to get into the head space of another person. That makes for an entrepreneurial mindset because you are always thinking of a way to do something other than what’s a given, to get over the wall.

“Liberal arts are the heart of what we do,” he says. “When I’m hiring, I look for breadth; that’s where the depth comes from. That’s what you get in the liberal arts.”

“I never gave my future vocation a second thought,” he says. “I figured if I followed my passion, I would create value and the bills would get paid.”