A kid from Rwanda walks into an American earth science classroom – the first classroom he’s been in for six years – with minimal English-speaking skills. For some, it might be the beginning of a joke, but for Baraka Kasongo, it’s a distressing moment from his not-too-distant past.
Kasongo and his family – refugees fleeing genocide in Rwanda and the Congo – lived in five different countries over a period of seven years before arriving in the United States in 2001. He remembers his time in his first class in this country. He couldn’t speak, read or write English.
“I would literally just have fun doing the tests,” he said. But, if he had the opportunity to do so, he said he would love to “redo” his entire high school experience, adding, “now that I am able to communicate in English.”
Finding a way to help others deal with those same struggles to be understood in daily life – struggles experienced by many immigrants and refugees in the United States – has become Kasongo’s calling and led to his founding of Volatia Language Network, a Roanoke, Virginia, based company that offers interpretation and translation services.
Kasongo only has to look to his personal experiences to see the beginnings of what would become Volatia. During the family’s first year in the U.S., his mother was pregnant and not a single person in the hospital could help translate during her delivery.
“No interpreter was provided to her during the entire ordeal,” he said. Experiencing these and many other communication difficulties is what motivated Kasongo to come up with the idea of Volatia. In fact, in 2003 while still in high school, he began volunteering his services as a translator. He helped out in schools, social service departments, hospitals, and even at the local fire department, where he still works to this day.
After graduating from high school, he tried college for a few years, but realized he was ill prepared for the rigors of higher education. He stepped away from his studies and devoted his time to developing Volatia, but would return about a decade later to earn a bachelor’s degree in management and leadership from Bluefield College in 2016.
“The more a person endures challenges, two things are going to happen,” said Kasongo. “It’s either, we are going to rise above it and grow from that, or it’s going to impact us in a negative way and we quit. For me and my experience, all of the challenges that I lived through, they really helped me to become stronger and grow to who I’ve become.”
Today, Volatia is a company that offers on-site, over-the-phone and video remote interpretation services, along with translation services in more than 280 languages. The company employs more than 3,000 interpreters and translators in more than 37 states as it seeks to provide “language interpretation and translation services in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.”
“The ability to communicate with others is a privilege and a fundamental human right,” said Kasongo. “It is the basis to our freedom of speech. Language barriers, however, limit access to services and cause disparities. Sometimes it’s a matter of life or death, other times it’s a matter of assimilation, but in all cases one’s ability to communicate is key to living a full and productive life. Our vision with Volatia is to bridge language gaps in every community of the United States by making language solutions available to everyone, everywhere, anytime.”
Volatia’s clients stretch from the healthcare industries to government, businesses, the legal community, and schools.
“As of now, as long as you have a device with internet and a camera, we can put an interpreter on the screen just like that,” said Kasongo.
In addition to his work with Volatia and the Roanoke Fire Department, Kasongo is a real estate investor, the owner of a vending machine company, a volunteer for the Roanoke Diversity Advisory Council, and a member of the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce Global Business Owners Steering Committee and the United Way’s Big Brothers One-to-One Mentor Program. For his efforts with Volatia, he was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017 by the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council. That same year, he was named an Inspiring Leader for WFXR News’ “Virginia at Work” program. He also received the 2016 Small Business People’s Choice Award from the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce. And while the public acknowledgment is nice, Kasongo says that something else entirely motivates him.
“The idea that I could help other people rather than myself really drives me,” he said.