When Michael Rizzolo, a hearing individual, first stepped onto the Rochester Institute of Technology campus as an undergraduate student in 1974, his world opened up.
“For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by kids who were deaf-in my dorm, my classes, everywhere,” he says.
Intrigued by American Sign Language, Rizzolo, a social work major, immersed himself in deaf culture by enrolling in sign language classes and using his new communication skills as a residence hall adviser.
What began as a passion 31 years ago has evolved into a successful business and career. A onetime manager of interpreting services for RIT, Rizzolo since 1993 has operated an interpreter referral agency.
The company, which uses Interpretek as its service mark, has two formal names: Communication Services Inc., which it was founded as, and Jomiza Corp.
In Rochester, the company employs 75 people, including 63 full- and part-time interpreters and 12 customer service representatives. In Omaha, Neb., it employs 20 full- and part-time interpreters; in Orlando, Fla., it employs three full-time interpreters.
In addition, Interpretek works as needed with roughly 400 contract interpreters all over the country.
With gross revenue of $7.1 million in 2008-up from $4.5 million in 2007, due largely to increasing demand for interpreting services via remote technology-Interpretek staffers provided more than 98,000 hours of interpreting last year to 329 customers. The clients range in size from large universities to one-person physician offices.
On April 23, Interpretek is to be honored in Albany as one of 40 companies statewide selected as Best Companies to Work for in New York 2009, a program of the New York State Society for Human Resource Management.
“Business is good and growing,” says Rizzolo, 52. “Our whole company is solely focused on providing equal communications access for individuals who are deaf and hard-of-hearing.”
Rizzolo’s interest in helping others started early. As the oldest of seven children-and the son of a general surgeon and an emergency room nurse-Rizzolo gravitated toward social service endeavors.
After graduating from Bishop Kearney High School in 1974, he enrolled at RIT and earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, with a minor in psychology, in 1978. Having completed RIT’s 10-week basic interpreter training program during the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Rizzolo knew upon graduation that he wanted to immerse himself further in deaf culture.
From 1978 to 1990, he served as a manager of interpreting services for RIT, with supervisory responsibilities for roughly 30 interpreters. During that period he married his wife, Kathleen, an interpreter at RIT. In 1986, he earned a master’s degree in human resource administration from RIT.
A new path
In 1990, Rizzolo was ready for new challenges. He worked as an advancement officer for RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf for several months, then joined national motivational speaker Tony Robbins’ organization as a distributor. In that role, Rizzolo taught communications courses and offered sales, business training and personal development courses as well.
“I loved the work, helping people face challenges in their lives and get through obstacles,” he says.
Working with customers ranging from J.C. Penney Co. Inc. to Fisher-Price, Rizzolo focused on developing his sales skills.
After three years of working with Robbins, Rizzolo was ready to test his own entrepreneurial spirit and launch an independent interpreter referral agency, even though there already were six similar organizations in Rochester.
Rizzolo partnered with former RIT interpreter Chris Felo, and in 1993 the pair founded Communication Services. Felo is Interpretek’s comptroller.
“We started the company on a credit card and a prayer,” Rizzolo recalls. “Chris did the scheduling and I knocked on doors-and it was a struggle for a while.”
But the two persevered, committed to providing the right interpreter for each assignment. With Rochester’s status as home to the largest per capita population of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States, interpreters always have been in demand, whether in classrooms, corporate meetings or hospital emergency departments. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, specifically addresses the need for auxiliary communication aides, including interpreting services.
Today, the firm’s interpreters work in area colleges, including RIT, Nazareth College, SUNY College at Brockport and Monroe Community College. Other settings include engineering firms, manufacturing plants, courtrooms, houses of worship and physicians’ offices.
In addition, Interpretek offers video relay service, which involves interpreting a phone call between a hearing consumer and a deaf or hard-of-hearing individual, as well as video remote interpreting, which involves an interpreter providing services via video technology from a remote location to two parties in the same location.
“Being an interpreter is fascinating work, ranging from facilitating communications within a courtroom to holding someone’s hand during minor surgery,” Rizzolo says. “It’s good, wholesome work with content that constantly changes.”
Fully certified, full-time interpreters can earn annual salaries of roughly $60,000, Rizzolo says. To prevent repetitive motion injuries, a full-time workload consists of 25 to 35 hours a week. Interpretek offers its staff members discounts on gym memberships to help “preserve and maintain their physical health,” Rizzolo notes.
“We’re very picky about folks we hire,” he says. “In addition to possessing appropriate technical skills, we also look for positive attitudes and a team approach. … Our goal is to provide excellent service, every time.”
In support of professional development, Interpretek is a member of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Inc. and serves as a site for certification examinations. Also, the company, located on Highpower Road in Henrietta, adjacent to the RIT campus, is authorized to grant continuing education units to interpreters with appropriate independent study projects.
Meredith De Leon has known Rizzolo since 2003. The Seattle native-who earned a bachelor’s degree in ASL interpreting from Western Oregon University in 1999-says she moved to Rochester to immerse herself in deaf culture.
While working as a full-time interpreter for RIT, she started working as a part-time interpreter for Interpretek in 2003. She switched over to full-time work with the company in 2005 and was appointed center manager of operations in 2006. That same year she earned a master’s degree from RIT in executive leadership and service management.
“Michael is an incredible individual, with tons of energy, optimism and charisma,” De Leon says. “He’s goofy, adaptable and, above all, committed to and generous with his employees. If he has two pennies to rub together, he’ll give one of them away.”
De Leon was particularly appreciative of Rizzolo’s management skills when she gave birth to her first child this past year.
“Michael has been extremely supportive and flexible with my work schedule,” she says. “I couldn’t ask for a better boss.”
Tim Wahl, a self-employed cabinetmaker and former Livonia town supervisor, also lauds Rizzolo’s personality. The two have been good friends since the early 1980s, when Rizzolo helped his friend convert a church built in 1873 into the Wahl family home.
“Rizz is a real straight shooter and a very caring individual,” Wahl says. “He’s as hard-working as they come and always puts his employees’ welfare above his own.
“He’s one of the finest men I’ve ever known.”
Close friends and colleagues call him Rizz, a nickname also given to his father. His brothers and sons are all nicknamed Rizz too.
Mary Beth Mothersell, a deaf woman who works for Sprint Corp. as the relay program manager for New York, met Rizzolo at RIT. They remain close friends.
“Many years ago, when I was a student at NTID/RIT, I had one class left before I could graduate,” she says. “We were having trouble finding a sign language interpreter for the class. Michael knew that I needed that class, and even though he was not really responsible for interpreting at that time, he accepted the assignment and interpreted that class for me. I have always appreciated that.
“Michael is pretty terrific. He has a unique combination of people skills and business skills. I feel fortunate to know him, both personally and professionally,” she says. “Michael is a motivator, a leader, a team player. … I would say that failure is not an option (for him).”
Rizzolo and his wife, Kathleen, live in Avon, Livingston County. Their three sons keep them busy.
John, 25, is a 2006 graduate of Quinnipiac University, who digitally logs plays for the National Basketball Association. Mike, 22, plans to graduate from Syracuse University this May and has accepted an offer of employment with Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. Zachary, 14, is an eighth-grader at Avon Central School and an avid athlete like his older brothers.
Outside of work, Rizzolo has enjoyed attending his sons’ basketball and baseball games with Kathleen, as well as gardening and shooting hoops with the boys in the driveway. A runner who clocks roughly three miles every couple of days, Rizzolo formerly served on Bishop Kearney’s board of trustees.
These days, he loves nothing more than laughing uncontrollably while watching goofy movies with his family and friends. His favorites include “Blazing Saddles,” vintage Pink Panther flicks and “Caddyshack.”
Fun aside, Rizzolo’s guiding principle is to grow his company and expand communication services for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
“Despite the ADA, deaf people are still experiencing discrimination,” he says. “We still hear horror stories of deaf people being strapped to gurneys in emergency rooms, unable to use their hands to communicate.
“Interpreters are needed today more than ever. It’s very satisfying to know that we’re doing something that can make a difference.”
Debbie Waltzer is a Rochester-based freelance writer.
Title: CEO and president, Interpretek
Education: B.A., social work, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1978; master’s degree in human resource management, RIT, 1986
Residence: Avon, Livingston County
Family: Wife Kathleen; sons John, 25, Mike, 22, and Zachary, 14
Hobbies: Running, gardening, shooting hoops, watching slapstick movies
Quote: “Deaf culture grew on me quickly. I fell in love with it from minute one.”
03/20/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal