At university, Jessica Brown discovered her aptitude for reading and speaking Japanese in a chance 30-minute lesson. In the months that followed, she discovered that what she learned in those 30 minutes helped her connect with a surprising number of people. Not only that, she felt like she found her calling… helping people bridge the gap between Japanese and English.
While she was working at the Japanese consulate in Edinburgh, she started a Japanese conversation group locally. This led her to create a Facebook group, and demand from members all over the world led to the creation of her first online conversation club. Now, at NIHONGO Connection, Jessica helps Japanese language-lovers and native speakers improve their fluency – and has helped other people worldwide make powerful connections in their on and offline communities.
Today, Jessica joins the podcast to talk about how she turned her hobby into a thriving online business, how she’s achieved personal and financial freedom through the membership model, and the power of truly feeling heard and understood.
- How a chance 30-minute Japanese lesson gave Jessica the confidence to speak and learn in another language.
- Why Jessica felt out of energy as she tried to help everyone all the time – and how this naturally led her to embrace the membership model.
- The powerful and unique ripple effect of Jessica’s membership site.
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- “None of us are using our mother tongue, but we are able to connect across that universe and use this one language that we will have a passion for to communicate with each other.” – Jessica Brown
TranscriptRead The Transcript
Shelli Varela: Jessica Brown, welcome to the It’s a TRIBE Thing Podcast. How are you?
Jessica Brown: I’m good. Thank you. How are you doing?
Shelli Varela: I’m amazing and I’m super stoked to have you here because your story reminded me of an experience I had recently with respect to connection. So, I’m really excited to share with our amazing audience who you are and what you’re doing. Now, you have a Japanese language site called NIHONGO Connection.
Jessica Brown: Yes.
Shelli Varela: I’m wondering if you can share with our listeners like how did you get to be this person who has this website and had this amazing experience. Who were you before that that brought you to this point?
Jessica Brown: It was pure accident. Pure accident, actually. I started off running a Japanese conversation group in Edinburgh where I live in Scotland and so many people started to come along to that group, that we started up a Facebook group and then people from around the world started contacting that Facebook group to ask how they could get involved. And I just asked them, “Well, are you coming to Edinburgh because that’s where we are?” And they said, “Well, no. Can you do an online version for us?” And it kind of started from there then I thought, “Well, how does that work?” and I started to figure out a way to do some conversation clubs online. I was working full time for the Japanese consulate in Edinburgh and I was doing an online conversation club before I went to work. I would rush home at lunchtime to do another one and then I would do one in the evening after work, because there were people from around the world who wanted a part of it.
Shelli Varela: That’s incredible. So, how did you get entrenched and interested in the Japanese culture to begin with like where were the very beginning roots of that for you?
Jessica Brown: Okay. So, at university, I was training to be a primary school teacher and my first summer after my first year at university, I actually went to Camp America. I was in Pennsylvania and I met so many people from around the world. There was a Czech girl and a Polish girl, and they said to me, “You should be a teacher of English as a foreign language and come to Europe.” And I thought, “Okay. That’s an option. I’m trying to be a teacher anyway. I wonder if I can do that straight after university before I go into teaching primary schools in the UK.” So, as soon as I got back to university after the summer holiday, I went to look for a course and my university had a weekend intensive just two days, just for a little certificate. It wasn’t one to qualify me to do it, but it would give me an idea. So, I went along to that course and the very first lesson we filled in some forms saying what our background was in languages and how we felt about language learning and I had had a very bad background with French. I have really found myself to be stupid in French. I now realize it was because of the teachers that I had that gave me really bad feedback, to be honest. So, I went into that lesson thinking, “Okay, I’m going to inspire people to speak English. They’re not going to have the experience that I had learning French.”
So, the first lesson, the instructor said to us, “Do you know how to teach somebody English if they don’t understand English, but you’re teaching them in English?” And we all looked at each other and said, “Well, no, actually. How does that work?” And she said, “Well, I’m going to teach all of you a language that none of you know, I’ve checked your forms, for 30 minutes only using that language. So, she taught us Japanese for 30 minutes, only speaking to us in Japanese. And at the end of those 30 minutes, I could introduce myself and I could count up to 99 because people count to 10. In Japanese, you can count to 99. It’s very irregular. And I walked away from that lesson thinking, “That is incredible. That’s how language should be taught. I can speak this language.” Okay. It’s just an introduction but I felt like I could do more. It gave me so much confidence to do more. If I could do languages, I wasn’t this failure that I had believed I was, this belief that I had from my school experience.
So, I thought, “That’s it. I’m going to teach English. I’m going to be this kind of English teacher and I’m going to inspire people but I also had to finish my degree.” So, I was like, “I’m going to concentrate on finishing my primary school teaching, then I’ll go abroad and I’ll teach English.” Japanese then kind of wasn’t part of the equation. You know, it was like, “Oh, that was fun. I enjoyed that but I don’t have time for that.” However, the universe had other ideas.
Shelli Varela: Always does.
Jessica Brown: Yep. So, I was working as a senior student which meant looking after freshers in my halls of residence at university. And the next-door neighbor was a small Asian lady and one day she came knocking on my door. She had a problem with her key and so I introduced myself to her and asked her where she was from and she said she was from Japan. So, of course, I remembered what I’d learned and I did myself introduction in Japanese to her. [Speaking in Japanese] And she was absolutely beside herself. She was so happy. She was thrilled. She was cuddling me. She was so excited. I never had such an experience and never had such a reaction from somebody, when I’d spoken their language to them, because it hadn’t really happened before, apart from French, which as I say I’d had a bad experience with. And she took me and she introduced me to all her Japanese friends that were at my university and she was so excited and she lived next door so she was constantly coming around and teaching me more words. And I was, “Thank you very much but I’m trying to study to be an English teacher,” and so I would help her instead. I was going to be an English teacher so I used her to practice on.
Then something else happened. I needed to get another job. I had several jobs at university as we do. And somebody offered me a job in a Chinese restaurant, which I accepted. Okay. This works from my schedule and I started working there and there was one girl who didn’t really speak to anybody else. One day I kind of said to her, “Are you okay? Are you not friends with the other girls?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t understand what they’re saying. They’re speaking Chinese. I’m from Japan.” So, of course, I started my self-introduction. [Speaking Japanese] Again, same reaction as to Molly, my next-door neighbor, so excited. “Oh, my goodness, you speak Japanese. That’s amazing.” And she then would spend our time working together, teaching me more Japanese. So, again, I was learning without trying to learn this language.
Finally, the breaking point, I would say breaking point, was when I was in the library of the university. One of the girls from my high school arrived through the door, and I hadn’t seen her for years. She wasn’t at that university. She was just a visiting presenter. And I saw her, “Oh, hey, Emma, what you’re doing here?” And she said, “Well, I’m here to do a presentation. Are you free at lunchtime? You want to come along?” and I said, “Yeah,” ashamed I’m not working for once. So, she said, “Oh, it’s teaching English abroad.” And I was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s what I want to do.” And she said, “Oh, you have to come then.” So, I went along. I watched her presentation and my mouth just fell open. It was all about teaching English in Japan.
Shelli Varela: Of course, it was.
Jessica Brown: And I just thought, “Okay, I give up. This is it. I’m going to Japan.” So, yeah.
Shelli Varela: Wow. Okay. So, let’s start unpacking this. This is amazing. So, this resulted in you having a membership site. So, tell me about the transition between all of these amazing, juicy experiences. The universe is clearly saying to you, “Please help the communication between English and Japanese. Please help facilitate that.” What was the original like call for you where you’re like, you know what, this is the way that I’m going to do it is through a membership site?
Jessica Brown: It was really that I just ran out of my own energy. I was just trying to help everyone all the time and I had set up so many different things. And I started to look to the online business world to try and figure out how can I run this and make money so that I can pay someone to help me? Because I can’t do this on my own. I was trying to help everyone that contacted me and I just didn’t have the bandwidth for that.
Shelli Varela: Right. It’s so interesting. So, for all of those people listening like just paying attention to where are your interest, where are your gifts, what are the signs, and then following your bliss and your joy because what I’m hearing from you is it’s never usually just about the thing you do. It’s like what is the experience for the people who get to be entrenched in the community or surrounding what you do? And what I’m hearing from you is like, it’s so much bigger than just being able to bridge the communication between English and Japanese. You’re literally removing barriers between people, between energy which is also between possibility like what now becomes possible especially to your point with regard to their reaction, their over-the-top reaction to something as simple as being seen, being understood, having the ability to actually take the time to make just a little bit of effort, so that somebody feels included and feels like they’re able to communicate with you, respond with you, connect with you, maybe build with you. What does that feel like?
Jessica Brown: Oh, it’s just amazing. I mean, the community that I have now is it’s incredible. There’s people from all over the world. The thing that blew me away was that everyone, a lot of them have multiple languages. A lot of my members are Europeans who have many languages under their belt usually, anyway, but we all communicate together in Japanese. None of us are using our mother tongue but we are able to connect across that universe and use this one language that we will have a passion for to communicate with each other.
Shelli Varela: What’s the best piece of feedback or communication that you’ve gotten as a result of this community existing and this membership site existing from your people?
Jessica Brown: It’s usually that someone thinks they’re on their own in their community and then they realize that there’s somebody that lives a couple of hours off the road. I’ve got two girls in Sweden who thought they felt like they were the only one in that area who could speak Japanese at their level that they could have a proper conversation with and they met through my membership. And they were so excited and they were organizing, “Which weekend we’re going to meet with each other? It’s going to be amazing to have this little Japanese language meetup.”
Shelli Varela: Well, it’s funny. It’s like Stu says, “People come for the content, but they stay for the community,” and that is something we all just really crave is a sense of belonging surrounding something that we have in common. And again, like it’s not always just the purpose of the membership site. That’s why people come together but what does that provide for people? And for anybody out there who’s thinking of maybe starting a membership site, I just loved your story so much because not only were you open to the signs that you were giving and what were you were being pulled in which direction in terms of like what lights you up and what brings you joy and what you enjoy in your experiences, but also that like I always say not all gifts come wrapped in a bow. So, the very thing that you experienced when you were younger when you’re trying to learn French and when you felt stupid or you felt like, “I can’t get this,” because the teacher’s style made it hard for you to learn, it resulted in you feeling a certain way about yourself. I love though that you took that and said, “I’m going to do it not that way. I’m going to find a way for those people to feel smart, to feel included, to feel successful,” and then the ripple effect of that going forward is now what becomes possible, not only in terms of community, but also like being able to use the Japanese language like what an amazing gift that you’re able to give your people.
Jessica Brown: I just love watching them light up. The ones that are in-person in Edinburgh and the ones that are online, their faces, they realize that they’ve got the words. They thought they didn’t have the words. They thought they didn’t have what it took to speak to people but it’s like they suddenly say, “It just came out of my mouth. I didn’t even know I knew that word.”
Shelli Varela: Beautiful. So, as a business owner, what has having a membership site, a successful membership site that is building momentum both in terms of community but also in terms of your business, what has having a business that now sustains the thing you love, how has that impacted your life?
Jessica Brown: It’s crazy. I’m being paid to practice my hobby is how it feels and I get to meet people through my hobby and they’re also starting groups. So, some of them have said they’ve been inspired to start their own groups in their local area, which is amazing to me that I’ve had this much of an impression on them, and that they want to do the same. So, I’m really excited about how many little communities are popping up all over the world now to have people speak Japanese.
Shelli Varela: So, great. It’s just possibility explosions all over the place. What has this made possible for you? Because here’s what I’m always fascinated by with people who start membership sites especially in an area that they love. Not only do you have the benefit of the recurring revenue so you can continue to do the thing you love, but also because you get to do the thing you love, it’s like your general stress level in life as a whole, what does that meant for you, your friends, your family because you get to show up as a different person having the privilege and the honor to do the thing you love and to get paid for it month after month?
Jessica Brown: Oh, it just means that I quit my full-time job, I can now go and see family. My family all live eight hours away so I get to travel to see them. I get to go abroad when I want. I don’t have to put in that permission slip for a holiday. It just allows me to just relax.
Shelli Varela: So interesting. The membership sites are never just about the membership, but the business of having a membership is also not just about a business. It’s about freedom and connection and getting to build your life by design instead of default.
Jessica Brown: Yeah.
Shelli Varela: Fantastic. I recently was sitting on a park bench having some blueberries and watermelon and this elderly East Indian man came and sat beside me and he was having some pineapple and it was sort of – I was inspired to tell you the story only because it was human beings are wired for connection. So, I didn’t speak his language and he didn’t speak mine but there we are two strangers on the bench and we’re smiling at each other and we’re sharing like fruit and it’s like I would have loved in that instance, the ability to speak to him in his language and experience that same sort of connection that you’re describing. So, I love what you’re doing. I love how you’re doing it. I love how you’re creating connection between people in a time that is so desperately needed. So, I just wanted to acknowledge you for that.
Jessica Brown: Thank you.
Shelli Varela: If people are looking for you online, where is the best place for them to find you?
Jessica Brown: So, they can just put NIHONGO Connection into Google.
Shelli Varela: Okay, and how do you spell that?
Jessica Brown: It’s N-I-H-O-N-G-O Connection.
Shelli Varela: Beautiful. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your membership and journey story. I look forward to chatting with you soon.
Jessica Brown: Yeah. Looking forward to meeting you again. Cheers.
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