Yeung Breaking Language Barriers with Non-Profit Startup
Jamie Yeung

April 20, 2017

You don't see too many student-athletes with their own companies. Between studies, training and competitions, there simply aren't enough hours in the day.

But Jamie Yeung is finding the time and she making a difference as a result.

A 19-year old sophomore on the women's swimming and diving team, Yeung was accepted into the optiMize Summer Fellowship Program, which begins in May and runs through August. Now in its fifth year, optiMize asks, "If you could change one thing, what would you change?"

For Yeung, it was food insecurity. On a website unveiling the 2017 Summer Fellows, Yeung writes:

"Through research, we found out that one of the most overlooked issues was that people who want assistance could not get assistance due to unsuccessful applications. Many of these unsuccessful applications resulted from broken English. Thus, we initiated a program called LingoMatch that pairs up multilingual student volunteers from the University of Michigan with an immigrant from nearby community centers to help with the application process. That includes coaching, guiding and teaching them all the necessary procedures to get assistance."

Yeung reflected on the journey last week at Canham Natatorium.

"Food is a problem so big that you can't tackle it all at once," she said. "An app can have a lot of stuff, but will it truly fix the problem? Maybe not. We said, 'What's one problem that leads to this?' We thought about a lot of things. In the end, we found language barrier is something that goes overlooked. We felt we could help change that."

How did Yeung get there? Majoring in economics and minoring in entrepreneurship, Yeung was introduced to optiMize through ALA/PSYCH 223: Entrepreneurial Creativity. She had an idea of putting Grab-and-Go breakfast stations -- an early-morning staple for student-athletes housed out of Yost Ice Arena -- at various spots on campus so that all students could have access to it.

She would later say, "I knew many people who had 8:30 or 9 a.m. classes that didn't eat breakfast and they would fall asleep in class. I wanted to make a change about that."

Yeung attended workshops every two weeks to build and research the idea. During one workshop, she met her future "teammates," Natalie and Z, two students with a similar vision. It only made sense for them to combine forces.

Together they created a proposal to develop an app that provided its users an easier way to find nutritious foods in Washtenaw County. It showed where grocery stores were, what kinds of foods were better than others and even had a map that weighed the cost of transportation options. They worked on it for three months.

The group designed the app's interface in January, but they had no coder to physically put it together. Two weeks before their pitch, they had nothing to show.

Around the same time, they started making trips to the Bryant Community Center. That's when LingoMatch was born.

"Almost 80 percent of the people there weren't American. They were either immigrants or refugees, people who didn't speak English," she said. "These people should be on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Some may have missing paperwork or broken English. They can't access it. And even if they do, some may not know what to do. Our goal became, 'How can we help them?'"

Jamie Yeung

Jamie Yeung

Yeung and her teammates made their pitch last month. Of the nearly 130 groups to submit proposals, many of which came from grad students, doctoral candidates, and university employees, Yeung and LingoMatch were accepted for the fellowship.

"A lot of people had better-developed ideas. Some had apps already," she said. "We started from nothing."

As part of the program, Yeung and her teammates received $5,000 for funding. While a small part goes towards the development of a website, the majority is going to training programs and transportation. Since they are a non-profit, they are currently working with optiMize and various university partners to secure trademarks and branding.

Yeung says LingoMatch is still very much in its test phases. They aren't accepting sign-ups yet, but if they were, they'd have 15-to-16 different languages covered right out of the gate.

As part of the fellowship, the team will have to attend mandatory workshops and conferences. Yeung will stay in Ann Arbor through the end of June, at which point one of her teammates will take over operations.

After that, Yeung will go back to Hong Kong for a few months to see family and train. There's also a strong possibility she'll swim at the World University Games, held in August in Taiwan.

As far as LingoMatch is concerned, the arrow is pointing up.

"I can see it expanding," she said. "We want it to be a student organization on campus. If it's successful, we can pass it on to other universities in the state of Michigan or to other states that don't offer this kind of service. At the end of the day, making and seeing an actual impact is the true goal."