By Jenny Hoff, Photo courtesy of Gina Hoff
Gina Guercio Hoff was a young girl when she and her family boarded a boat from her native country of Italy to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City. There were no cultural programs to help her adapt or ESL classes in her new school. She was forced to teach herself a new language, learn a new culture and harness her own unique talents to not only survive, but thrive in her new country. She now runs Gina’s Italian Villa at ginahoff.com, where she offers language and culture classes and virtual cooking events for groups. Instead of trying to fit in, she stood out and utilized her differences to forge her own path. Hoff shares the five lessons she learned as a young immigrant that helped her create her dream life.
You’re stronger than you think.
If you don’t have to deal with adversity, you never get to witness your own strength. When I first arrived in America, my school held me back a grade because I didn’t know the language. Nothing spurs a kid on more than being stuck with younger students! I taught myself English and then doubled up my course load so I could skip a grade and join my peers. My parents didn’t speak English, so I had to argue on my behalf at the PTA meeting. That taught me at an early age how much I am really capable of when motivated to do something difficult.
Learn to hustle.
When you don’t understand a culture or language, you learn quickly how to fake it ’til you make you make it. After all, my parents didn’t speak a word of English and managed to open restaurants in Queens and Staten Island. With us kids as interpreters. Those hustling skills came in handy when I got divorced, was studying for a master’s in education and needed to earn money to support my children.
I placed an ad in the paper, offering personal chef services. When I got calls, I dug through old family recipes to use, and they were a hit! I went on to do cooking classes on television, in villas in Tuscany and at Williams-Sonoma. When the pandemic hit, I had to quickly figure out how to take my offering virtual, while still offering a fun and unique experience. I now teach multiple Italian language and culture classes and have done many virtual cooking events for companies and private parties.
Create your own opportunities.
When I first went to college, I followed my older brother’s example and studied broadcasting engineering. But when I applied for jobs, the employers actually laughed in my face. Telling me I would just distract the men. So, I decided to pursue teaching foreign languages at a university. Something I knew no one could tell me I couldn’t do. A few years later, I started a small travel company, hoping to earn a little bit of supplemental income to help with bills. It turned into a successful business, with many customers coming on dozens of trips with me. Sometimes financial distress can lead to incredible opportunities, if you create them.
Capitalize on your differences.
As both Italian and American, I can bridge the cultures to bring unique experiences to my customers. When I bring groups to Italy or teach them online, I can tell stories in a way that captures their attention. Share legends that only locals would know and create unique experiences that no strictly American tour company could do. For instance, I became friends with a woman in Orvieto who had Etruscan caves under her home. Just for my tours, she would host dinners in the caves, with candles flickering and multiple courses as I shared the stories of the Etruscans with my customers. Instead of trying to mold my business to be like competitors, I used my differences to create something valuable and new.
Focus on what you have, not what you lack.
Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. If you focus on what you need in order to do something, you’ll never do it! I am glad no one ever asked, “Do you want to learn English? Do you want to create a new career so you can support your children?” I was just forced to do these things and I did. We already have so many skills, so much knowledge and life experience to add value to the world. So, don’t hold back. Do it!
You can check out Gina’s classes, virtual events and upcoming book at ginahoff.com.