From the runways of New York to the pathways of cultural communication
Mina Schoenheit strongly believes in enhancing the respectful quality of communication across cultures. As a cultural consultant and founder of her own clothing boutique, she has extensive personal experience in providing customized coaching and counseling and consulting services.
She has more than 25 years of experience as a business entrepreneur. In her consulting work, she seeks to strengthen existing collaboration between immigrants and the host country in an effort to advance communication across cultures in the United States. Her work focuses on improving communication for immigrants with acculturative stress, particularly immigrants who are former refugees from war-torn countries;
In addition to her consulting work, Mina runs a clothing boutique in the Beaverton area. In her own words, she talks about her personal and business experience have strengthened her cultural awareness and expertise.
I was 22 years old when I started my business. Growing up, I understood the value of making a difference in other people’s lives.
That is why for me, Fashion Update was never merely about money or a love for fashion. The business is a vehicle for me to touch people’s lives, to embrace and support women’s growth. Ultimately, my work serves to empower women through protecting or projecting one’s inner beauty.
I’ve always wanted to serve women 40 and up. I felt that was where the need was at the time. I did all my buying in New York. I had the right "blue print" when I opened my store: The nearest specialty boutique within five to 10 miles away, I was immediately embraced by an audience captivated by the service, quality and styles and a great deal of related special services offered.
Oregon has become more diverse only in the past 10 years. Initially, the concept of the personalized business demographically appealed to the more affluent, white market. That was the community I was going into: dual income or single, upper-income level households.
Fashion Update (then called Pizazz) was the "Mecca" of community clothing boutiques: where a woman could choose how to veil or unveil in an intimate and private "space" all her own whether suiting to climb the glass ceiling or attending her first grand baby's Christening.
My goal is to inspire women to take their fashion choices more consciously. I went into this business because I want to take each woman to the next level, by empowering them to embrace their inner and outer beauty.
The women I served throughout the years guided me: they were my mentors.
Embracing an identity
My family voluntarily emigrated to the United States from Iran when I was school-age. My parents wanted all of us to be together. My older brothers have been going to school here, and had wanted to live in America.
My father was an attorney in Iran. Coming here in his 50s, he found his family dispersed. It was nearly impossible for him to continue a career in law. His experience is not uncommon. Oftentimes when adult men embark on an "oceanic" journey crossing East to West.
For some, uprooting and transplanting in "foreign" soil may not always mean "sprawling" roots. My father had to literally reinvent himself.
Once he realized the family he came to keep together wasn’t a possibility – everybody is in a different state, everything had changed. He got ill, and he wanted to go back to Iran, to die and be buried. I believe that he died of a broken heart.
I was a teenager when I went back to Iran for my father’s burial. I had been living in America for several years. I didn’t know the language, the appropriate culture etiquette. I didn’t fit in. I didn’t know the customs and ways. Everything that I did seemed "culturally inappropriate." There was this perception that I was a "traitor" because I was deemed "Westoxized."
I found myself standing “center” in response to the duality of two identities, American and Iranian.
That experience impacted me to make an important decision in my life. My Western identity developed so strong that I truly needed to step into that.
Blazing her own trail
I lived in a very happy home, and loved my family and home life. Dating boys was not a priority for me. My store replaced the typical young woman’s fun social time. I really believed that in many ways, I had the choice of doing the typical or the atypical. So I chose to do the atypical, and I loved it.
I had a balance of male and female role models. For me, the socialization that one needs in order to individuate from the family came through having a business, community service and organization memberships.
When I was in high school, I was voted as the “Most Fun to be Around.” I was courageous and willing to take risks. I was eager to explore outside the box - when I started my own business.I felt confident because I had the support of family, friends and colleagues.
My people skills were something I could apply. I appreciated the psychology in the world of fashion. I enjoyed working with women, nurturing roles and bonds that one can have with other females as mentor, sister, mother, friend, can be rich and long lasting.
Back to roots
Looking back, in my 20's I was in a difficult "place", evolving, and a bit naïve. I had been living in the US since I was 8 years old, and the only politics I identified with were the balancing act of core family values while adapting and embracing the ways of my newfound home.
During the Iran hostage crisis, one of my employees told me that our customers have began asking questions. How long have I been in this country? How about my family? Are they here? Do they still have ties in Iran?
Apparently, some members of the community had talked about picketing my store. My employee assured me that she told them that I’ve been in this country since I was a child, and that my entire family is here, that we are upstanding citizens.
That was the first rude awakening I’ve ever had. I was horrified. I did not know how to make sense of it, but it was always in the back of my mind. Like any other trauma that you don’t know what to do with, it lies dormant. Then of course, as you go on in life and other experiences impact it, you begin to have more questions. What’s really happening here? How do I deal with it?
I had an incident with an employee soon after. My Mom had come to visit from Spokane. Just like any other Mom, she was always concerned for my well-being. I had been robbed a couple of times. Her way of trying to protect me is by praying for me, in the store. This employee happened to walk into my private office and saw my mother praying. Later, one of my other staff told me that particular employee had made fun of my Mom.
I found her remarks very hurtful. What’s bad can be good. I excused it to lack of life experience, but the experience stayed with me.
Then, 9/11 came. This time, my non-immigrant customers were reaching out to me for answers. I had none, because I was searching myself. I was so removed from my cultural perspective, and suddenly, I was at the forefront being called on to educate people about Iran, the Middle East, Arabs, the Muslim religion.
Growing up, we were never forced to embrace any religion or culture. We were simply taught and allowed to choose our paths by our own experiences.
I soon found out that many people didn’t know the difference between Iran and Iraq. A lot of people don’t know the difference between Iranians and Arabs. Just like any other religion, there are different sects and different ways of celebrating the Muslim faith.
The women I have served supported me. They invited me to speak at events to share my knowledge and give me recognition. I believe that each one of these events brought me closer to my passion and my calling. I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn and share what I know.
I had some of my most beautiful experiences when I was invited to speak to high school students about business ownership. I’ve done quite a bit of public speaking, and I love the feedback from the women and girls I encountered.
I was a member of the Beaverton Rotary Club when I was asked to speak to a group of young students at a camp about business ownership. Looking out into the room, I saw the Euro-white kids on one side, and the ethnic kids completely divided. I couldn’t help but pick up on it and wonder why and how the divide happened. I introduced myself, told them a little about business ownership, how I decided to start a business and what it takes to be a business owner. At the end, I told them that I was an immigrant, that English was my second language.
I was astounded by the pride I observed among the minority kids, upon hearing my story. It was evident that I was able to connect with their reality. All of a sudden, they sat up and looked at me as if to say: “She is what I could be.”
I could see the room melding into one. I felt that the kids saw me as a person that can comfortably go between two cultures. That experience left a piece with me.
What I’ve observed is that a lot of younger minority women are struggling to find their individuality. Some court label consciousness as a successful sign of crossover appeal to overcome stereotypes and cultural prohibitions. I think it’s important for each woman to find her voice, to be who she is and not to be dictated by anything externally. It's important not to be seduced by advertising to conform to superficial stereotypes of how you are “supposed” to look, sound, and act.