“You will never make it here”
With his words, he targeted the essence of the American Dream. It was the first day of a new semester at Weber State University. The professor of David Utrilla’s advanced business writing course pronounced his sentence after asking a surprised Utrilla to stay after class. As Utrilla stared in disbelief, the professor lifted his hands in an I’m-just-saying gesture. “It’s the hard truth. I’d like to save you a lot of time and money, which is why I’m telling you: this country is set up for a certain type of person to make it. I’m suggesting that you go back to your own country.” Utrilla stumbled out in a daze. No doubt, he thought, he had a challenge in front of him: his English was substandard and his understanding of American culture rudimentary. Yet, wasn’t the whole idea of the American university to help students like him overcome such obstacles? Achieve that very American Dream that the professor had dashed? The incident marked Utrilla profoundly: how to respond when a figure of authority and respect tells one that his goals are worthless?
The right stuff
When Utrilla was a child, he watched his mother, Elena, negotiate her family into a housing complex in a desirable part of Lima, Peru. The place cost far more than what the family could afford, but Elena propositioned the developer: she’d sell his units on commission only, with her commissions applied as payment toward the lowliest residence in the complex. Soon, the unit was paid for, and Elena’s continued sales landed the Utrilla family in the most expensive unit in the entire development. Elena’s example convinced Utrilla that hard work, ingenuity and determination would garner him any goal he set. Prior to adulthood, he had never imagined that emigration would be part of that equation.
The last laugh
Utrilla lounges behind a barnwood desk topped with riveted stainless steel. His firm, U.S. Translation Company, occupies the third floor of the historic Keyser building in downtown Salt Lake City. Utrilla owns the entire building. He leases the second floor to a software company, while the Peruvian consulate is housed in the ground level. Utrilla serves as Honorary Peruvian Consul to Utah, in addition to his role as CEO of U.S. Translation Company. The USTC space has a pleasant and open feel, with brick walls, cement columns, exposed ductwork, and dozens of cultural artifacts Utrilla has collected from his travels around the world.
Now, twenty-two years after his collegiate brush with the inappropriate faculty member, Utrilla says he harbors no ill-will. In fact, he sits on the board of directors of Weber State’s Goddard School of Business and Economics, funds a perpetual endowment for study abroad programs there, and counts Weber State’s president among his close friends. “I would never want to cast the university in a bad light,” he says emphatically. “I owe a huge debt to all of the professors and mentors who helped and encouraged me. One bad apple does not change my respect for the university as a whole.”
Born of fire
Utrilla had never expected to leave Peru. As a business student at Lima’s San Martin de Porres University, he had dreams of making it big in his homeland. Reality intervened. Peru’s internal chaos gradually brought the realization that his odds were extremely poor. The country was wracked with an internal conflict between Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist rebel group, and the Peruvian government. Bombings, murders and disappearances filled the evening news. Explosions and machine gun chatter rocked the streets. A combination of corruption, unreliable utilities, and systems of coercion kept business owners in a perpetual struggle just to keep their doors open. “I just wanted a level playing field,” Utrilla recalls. “When I arrived in the US, I believed that I could do anything. There was no terrorism, no instability. Just a society that would reward anyone who would work for their dreams.” Utrilla’s dream, then, was the American Dream: take initiative, work hard, reap the rewards.
Utrilla contacted an old friend for help making the move to the US. He had become close to Utah native David Clark when the two of them had been missionary companions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Peru. The “Mormon” religion, as it is commonly called, pairs volunteers together for two years of missionary work. Needless to say, Clark and Utrilla had formed a close bond.
Clark jumped into action. He and his family helped Utrilla begin a political asylum visa, transfer to Weber State, and settle into Clark’s parents’ home. Aside from his struggle to master a new language, Utrilla thrived. He worked as a cook in a hotel while taking his college classes. Already, an idea was taking root.
Utah bustled with industry, yet language barriers hindered many Utah companies from conducting international commerce. By his analysis, the need for quality translation services outstripped the supply. Utrilla formulated the basic plan that would germinate into U.S. Translation Company. At the advice of his fiancée, Krista, he quit his job at the hotel (his manager, an older man who had worked for years in the service industry, told Utrilla that he was making the biggest mistake of his life, that “people like you don’t get any better job than this.” Utrilla’s response was, simply, “Goodbye.”).
The real work begins
At age 25, with all the impulsiveness and drive that youth entails, Utrilla formed U.S. Translation Company out of his basement apartment and began hustling for translation clients. The realization of the American Dream, he knew, lay just ahead. He soon bumped against reality: he knew little about starting a translation company in a foreign country. Perhaps more daunting, no company wanted to hire a young college student with no corporate and industrial translation experience. Utrilla found himself in the catch-22 of all new entrepreneurs: he needed his first project to demonstrate competency, yet he found himself unable to secure that first localization project. Where many may have given up, however, he continued making calls, tapping his networks, and talking to everyone about his goals.
After a particularly discouraging rejection, Utrilla felt doubts building. The specter of his professor’s advice echoed louder and louder in his head. You will never make it here. “It was Krista who pulled me through,” Utrilla admits, remembering the lowest point of his career. Utrilla had, by now, married her, and he credits her belief in him as the one thing that helped him persevere. “She just never stopped telling me that I could do it.”
Finally, a breakthrough
Whether by luck or, more probably, as the inevitability of Utrilla’s persistence, an opportunity appeared. Bud Norman of Jetway Systems (later JBT Aerotech, which is, as of this writing in June 2016, still a USTC client) offered him a proposition: conditional remuneration. If Jetway’s people liked Utrilla’s translation, he’d get paid and would earn more business. If Utrilla’s product proved inadequate, Jetway owed him zilch. Utrilla jumped at the chance. He assembled a team of translators with backgrounds in the aerospace industry and set to work immediately.
And…American Dream achieved!
As it happened, Jetway Systems found Utrilla’s translation to be entirely up to their quality standards for accuracy and technical precision. The floodgates opened, and work poured in. Bud Norman passed project after project to Utrilla, referred him to other project managers in the company, and allowed Utrilla to use him as a referral in obtaining work with other companies.
Rags to riches?
As of 2016, Utrilla and his company have amassed a plethora of awards and accolades: six years Best of State, Inc. Magazine Fast 500/5000, Diversity Business, various Chambers of Commerce, Small Business Administration, and numerous other recognitions adorn the shelves and walls of his office space. Active in a number of community and business associations, Utrilla mentors young people, promotes Hispanic entrepreneurs, and otherwise serves as a role model within his various community circles. Still, he never strays far from his roots. He carries the words of his detractors as a badge of honor, and reminds his protégés that, despite recessions, cultural differences, discrimination, poverty or any other obstacle, the American Dream is still alive and well.