The joy on a child’s face when they learn a new word is priceless. “We want kids to be excited about story time and experience other cultures,” said Alexis Ruginis, co-founder of Veoleo Press. “Language informs the way we see the world.”
The word Veoleo is a Spanish portmanteau of “I see, I read.” The sisters described the mission of their young company. “Veoleo creates Spanish content that celebrates Latin American & Caribbean cultures, fosters a positive bicultural identity, and provides opportunities for Spanish immersion.” Alexis added, “We celebrate the distinctiveness of Latin American and Caribbean geography, the diversity of its lush flora and larger-than-life fauna through original narratives and sneaky conceptual lessons for the small reader.”
Raised in Colombia, South America, co-founders and sisters Alexis and Janike Ruginis are bilingual. “Spanish language immersion at a very young age is the best way to learn,” said Janike. With a Ph.D. in Hispanic Culture and Literature from Emory University, Janike is a lecturer at an historically black college and university in Atlanta.
“Reading to our children, whatever the language, is critical to their cognitive development. “Storytelling is a powerful tool that allows children to develop literacy alongside critical thinking, imagination, problem-solving, listening, and speaking as their world takes shape,” Janike said. “We use storytelling, and arts and culture, to teach kids Spanish while also providing the cultural element that anchors the language.”
So how do their projects come together? Alexis begins with ideas, and Janike fine tunes them into beautiful stories and experiences that children love. They agree. “We brainstorm very well together.”
Building a Bilingual Enterprise When Coronavirus Shifts Corporate Gears
Veoleo was conceptualized by the sisters in early 2018. To gain community traction and connect with local resources, Janike participated in Start:ME, an Emory University Goizueta Business School program that works with community-based micro enterprises in partnership with trusted community lead nonprofit organizations.
“It was an honor to be accepted into the Start:Me program. The work they do is critical in supporting the growth of small businesses in Atlanta communities where creativity and entrepreneurship is flourishing,” Janike said. “What was fundamental about the experience at a personal level, was having the space to transition my own mindset from a creative to an entrepreneur, meaning, having the shift in mentality that we were not pursuing a project but rather a business that was filling an intellectual, creative, and artistic space within book publishing.”
“After brainstorming together, strategically planning the company’s growth and bootstrapping initial operations, we maintained control of our vision and launched our brand with production of ¿Dónde está el coqui? later that year,” Alexis said. As an attorney based in Manhattan, New York, Alexis pointed out that their mother, Alba Rocío Ruginis, is a Spanish/ELLs teacher in inner city Brooklyn, New York. Janike added, “Our family and extended network is filled with educators, artists and readers. We tie it all together beautifully as we create content.”
Prior to coronavirus and the onset of the global pandemic, “One book was produced and two were in production, with their illustrator, Eduardo Espada. We actively work on future projects and have 5-7 books developed to different degrees,” Alexis said. “Everything shifted in an instant when our country’s shelter in place orders impacted parents, businesses, and artists. We saw an opportunity to provide art to stressed parents and to pay freelance Latinx artists. It was a win-win. Eventually that project grew as other artists volunteered their work.”
The shelter-in-place orders required instant homeschooling for parents who were not used to the task. “We really understand the pedagogical aspect and the tedious nature of lesson planning,” said Alexis. “Big changes to daily schedules create stressors for kids, even the youngest ones.”
Veoleo, too, experienced corporate change in a way they could not have predicted transitioning from a traditional book publisher into a media company that produces interactive events. While remaining true to its initial goal to produce board books, the company has expanded its focus to embrace arts and culture with pay-as-you-wish ($0+) coloring sheets by Latinx artists to supplement classroom learning. “Collaborating with talented Latinx artists has been a highlight of our phase one journey. Our first set of coloring sheets was commissioned last year by a local branch of J. Crew to enhance in-store story time,” Alexis said.
Veoleo is creating numerous opportunities for Spanish immersion through online events with story time, mindfulness exercises, and more. In addition, Veoleo is focusing on community creating worksheets for all ages. “The beauty of this time has been the collaborations that have emerged such as the panels we are hosting with Entre Dos and a book project with Nathalia Gaviria,” Alexis noted. “Our company keeps growing and strengthens our commitment to work with our community for our community.”
The Benefits of Teaching a Child At Least Two Languages
The science behind the positive effects of bilingualism in infants and toddlers has long been discussed in learned communities, but research is still progressing. The Child Language Lab at Northwestern University is conducting a long-term study on how children learn to understand and speak English and Spanish, among other projects. In the United States, the Seal of Biliteracy
recognizes “Students of the 21st Century” with “an award given by a school, district, or state in recognition of students who have studied and attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation.”
Veoleo tapped into the resources of important studies and bilingual leaders during the growth cycle for their startup company. “While some studies might never produce quantitative results, the qualitative ones are encouraging as the exploration of neuroplasticity continues – especially those focusing on pre-verbal bilingualism,” Alexis said. “It is difficult for studies to produce quantitative results because bilingualism does not need equal circumstances to exist. You can have bilingual families living in poverty without access to solid education, and rich kids in the best school systems developing similar degrees of cognitive flexibility due to other mental training.”
She continued, “Of course, the effects of some known benefits of understanding two languages are immeasurable and probably unknowable. Bilingualism shapes one’s world view by providing vast perspectives and the ability to experience all the nuanced richness a culture has to offer.”