In Latin America, enterprising female language teachers are using Skype to tap into the global marketplace—and the students up north love it
Author Mara Gay Illustration Harry Campbell
At 10 years old, the internet company that lets users video chat for free has found its most devoted following among homesick families and friends living abroad. But now, Skype is also lending a huge hand to independent entrepreneurs across the so-called Global South, in developing countries where wages are low and job opportunities are scarce—doubly so for women.
In places like Guatemala and Mexico, enterprising women are using the technology not just to bypass job markets plagued by chauvinism, but also to launch small businesses in which they teach Spanish language skills to students in the United States and Europe.
Olga Pacajá, a 34-year-old Spanish teacher from Antigua, Guatemala, who has been using Skype to connect with students in the United States, is one such example. “In Guatemala there are a lot of workers, many of whom are women. There are many female teachers, and they are being exploited,” says Pacajá. “The pay is terrible and there’s often no pay in the summers at all. For me, Skype has opened up a whole other world.”
Pacajá, who charges about $12 an hour and teaches roughly 50 hours a week, says she quickly found the Skype lessons to be more profitable and more fun than teaching in person at a local school in Guatemala, a country where the minimum wage is $9 a day. “This has become my primary source of income, and I do very, very well,” she says.
Ray Blakney, an American who launched Skype-based Live Lingua about four years ago with his Mexican-born wife, Laura Ramirez Blakney, pays his teachers in Mexico about $7.50 an hour—a huge sum in a country where many workers earn as little as $5 a day, and women often far less. At that wage, Blakney says he’s had no trouble recruiting teachers from across South America and elsewhere. He says the vast majority of his teachers are ambitious women who want to work but need to be able to work from home.
“A lot of them have young children,” Blakney says. “We give these mothers an option to be at home with their kids and keep working at the same time.” And for native English speakers looking to learn a second language on a tight budget, the lessons are an attractive option. On Skype, English speakers can take private Spanish, Mandarin or French classes for about $10 to $15 an hour—a fraction of the cost of a private language lesson in the United States, which can run students as much as $100 an hour.
“For 10 or 11 bucks an hour, it’s like a freebie,” says Michael Chernoff, a retired fundraiser who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and takes lessons through Live Lingua. “Over the years, my Spanish has gotten pretty good. I keep telling them, I would happily pay much more.” Gene Grossman, the chair of the economics department at Princeton University, feels the success of entrepreneurs like Pacajá shows that globalization has a bright side.
“Global sourcing has just become possible where it wasn’t before,” he says. “For the average Guatemalan or Mexican woman, this is a real win.” In addition to being drawn by affordable rates, Spanish language students in America are also attracted to the idea of immersing themselves, albeit virtually, in a Spanish-speaking country. “I know it’s not as good as being able to be in the country, necessarily, but it’s the next best thing,” says Jeff Squires, who along with his 10-year-old son, Ethan, takes a Spanish lesson via Skype once a week.
“We don’t just do a lesson, we really get to know each other,” Squires says of his Spanish teacher, who lives in Mexico. “We talk about our kids and about current events, not just here but also in Mexico.”
Gordon McCord, the director of economic policy at the Center on Globalization and Sustainable Development at Columbia University, sees Skype as the ultimate equalizer for women in the Global South, who are successfully marketing their skills in wealthier countries at a fair price. “Skype has completely changed the game for these women,” says McCord. “They can be independent and start their own businesses with very little startup cost.
“In most developing countries women suffer from inequality and one of the great ways of solving this problem is having women command a wage,” McCord continues. “And any phenomenon that helps women more than men is sure to be great for society. Often things change for the better when women work.”
For her part, Pacajá is hoping to start a Guatemala-based language company that will teach Spanish over Skype and offer benefits unheard of for most workers in the country. “I want to own my own company and provide good jobs with health insurance, something we need very much in Guatemala, particularly for women,” she says. “And now it feels very possible.”
MARA GAY is a NYC-based journalist. She writes for the Wall Street Journal, where, fortunately, Spanish is not required.