I don’t have a twitter account, instagram, snapchat, etc.
I am a complicated person, I need a lot more time to write this!
However, I started writing a memoir almost 2 years ago, and while I have written down pretty much everything I wanted to, it’s been a challenge to finish it. I am actively, looking for a publisher to help me with this. For the time being, this is my book summary…
I am an Immigrant
Persistence, resilience, perseverance
About the Author:
Some might say that I have been lucky. I narrowly missed missile attacks near our home in Tehran, where I grew up during the Iran-Iraq War. I came to the U.S. at age 18, alone and knowing little English, to study computer science at an American university. After years of being restricted in work and travel, I was one of a “lucky” few to get a Green Card through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. Meeting a mentor while in college led to a business opportunity at a major U.S. insurance company. There, I met the love of my life and started a journey into consulting, entrepreneurship, and motherhood. Today, I am the co-founder of a start-up working on a treatment for epilepsy, Tested Minds, and I work full-time as a Principal Consultant at Tandem (formerly known as DevMynd).
“Luck Is What Happens When Preparation Meets Opportunity” - Roman Philosopher Seneca
But to be lucky, you need to take chances and be ready to make incredible sacrifices to put yourself in luck’s path. For me, this meant being barred for years from returning to my home country to see my family; studying long hours; living through the post-9/11 backlash against immigrants like me, a Muslim girl from Iran, etc.
This is a story about a character. I flourished in spite of adversity through grit, zest, optimism, and making the most of every opportunity that came my way. I hope my story will inspire you to see the opportunities around you, to say “yes” more often when you have the chance to pursue your dreams, and to never give in to despair even in the hardest of times.
Chapter 1 - Iran
This chapter sets the stage for my journey from growing up in Iran, to coming alone as a young girl to the United States and becoming a thriving entrepreneur and consultant in America.
The chapter begins with a description of my family. My maternal grandparents, Baba Joon and Maman Joon, came from well-off upper middle-class families in Iran, but lost everything after my great-grandfather died. My grandfather lost his home and had to start over, living with his wife and their four children in a one-room house with a stove in the corner. Baba Joon eventually found a job at a school and worked his way up until he could buy a beautiful house in Tehran.
I never met my paternal grandparents. They died shortly after my eldest sister was born, ten years before I was. As far as I know, my paternal grandparents often traveled. My paternal grandfather owned lands and was a successful butcher. My father could have decided to stay and follow his father, but he wanted to find his own way. He left home for Tehran to live and work on his own at the age of 16.
When my parents met and were married, they started life together on the first floor of Baba Joon’s house. Soon after, though, my parents built their own home, partly with their own hands. I am one of four children born to them, each of us five years apart.
I was the third of the four, born in 1982 during the Iran-Iraq War. The war wasn’t something on TV for me. It was all around me, raging on until I was six years old. I have early memories of seeing streaks of orange in the sky over my neighborhood, hearing the sound of explosions, and finding bomb shrapnel that had landed on my roof. At times, we thought we would be killed. There were times we hid in the basement and hugged each other goodbye, just in case one of the bombs we heard falling found their way to our street. Two of my male cousins, both soldiers, died in the war on the front-lines.
Iran was a poor country after the revolution in 1979, and the war only made things worse. Military trucks used to come through our neighborhood asking for donations of food, books, and other things that could help the soldiers. I used to save money in my piggy bank to give them.
I started life surrounded by war and danger. That was my environment, but at home was a solid foundation of love and wisdom from my parents and grandparents.
Lessons learned: Endurance. Building a support network of close family and friends to help in times of need.
Chapter 2 - School
This chapter traces my early childhood to my decision to immigrate alone to American at the age of 18.
I did well in grade school. In Iran, students have to choose a major in high-school to prepare for university. I chose mathematics and physics, which was considered “khar khoon” (nerdy), especially for a girl. I aimed high with my goal: To get into the University of Tehran, one of the most prestigious in the country. I studied hard to be a computer hardware engineer. I knew I had to compete with students who took a year off in some cases just to study enough to get accepted to such a prestigious school. Knowing that, I didn’t study hard for the national entrance exam, thinking I’d also need to take a year off to compete and just deciding to go at it with the skills I had at the time.
In the end, I failed to get in to my dream school just by a few points. I cried all night in the back yard, thinking back on all the things I could have done to pass the exam. I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
A few weeks later, an uncle I barely knew, my mother’s brother who lived in the United States, got in touch with me. He’d heard the news about my failure and offered me an opportunity: Apply to Illinois State University in the quiet-sounding town of Normal, Illinois… and if I was accepted, I’d have a place to stay, during breaks, in his home and he’d be willing to loan me money I’d need for tuition, books, and living expenses. Loan, not give, we made a mutual agreement that I will pay him back after I’d made something of myself!
It was a daunting decision. I was an 18-year-old girl who had never been that far from home and family. I had only met my Uncle Hossein a few times. I spoke almost no English. And, at the time in the late 1990’s, relations between the U.S. and Iran seemed to be as dismal as they’d been since the Revolution of 1979.
In spite of all of these setbacks, I was ready to take a chance. I went to Cyprus to apply for a US Visa, as there was no US embassy in Iran. All the students who applied that day in were rejected, including me. Refusing to accept defeat, I didn’t take the advice from the counselor to not apply for at least another year. Instead, I applied again three months later in Damascus. To my shock, in that interview, I got the Visa!
Instead of instant joy, though, I was conflicted, nervous, and undecided. I had a huge decision that I needed to make very quickly: Should I stay in my country, uncertain about where my life and career would go, or take an opportunity that could make my dreams of becoming an engineer come true?
I decided to go.
With lots of support and encouragement from my parents and family, I packed up and started my journey a week later!
Lesson learned: Failure is just the end of one possible path to achieve a goal. Stay hopeful, and be open to other possibilities. Make new opportunities, don’t just sit and wait for something to happen to you.
Chapter 3 - America
This chapter begins with my landing at Chicago’s O’Hare airport on a freezing December day in 2000. I arrived knowing that I could not return to my home country or my family for years because of the restrictions of the student visa I had. I spoke very little English. I knew no one other than my uncle and aunt. I felt older than my real age because of the things I faced that most other college students didn’t. I had to closely watch my money since I was borrowing from my uncle to pay for my education. I couldn’t even afford my own computer to do my schoolwork; I stayed at the school’s computer lab all day and into the night.
The chapter ends with the upside: I lived in a dorm of international students and met people from all over the world. I was given an American host family, who welcomed me to their home and let me take part in their traditions.
Lesson learned: At some point in every life, we experience difficulty, loneliness and pain. You are not alone. You can choose: be defeated by your hardships or grow from them.
Chapter 4 — Disaster
This chapter begins with my glimpsing on a campus TV the image of a plane striking a building on what would come to infamously be known as 9/11. I thought it was a movie. When I went to meet one of my teachers, another one looked at me and yelled, “Where are you from?” When I answered, “Iran” in my accented English, she shouted, “Go back home. Go back to your country!”
That led to dark days of fear and uncertainty. I ran back to my dorm room and stayed there. The next morning when I went out, all the names of the foreign students had been ripped from the doors. Even though Iran had not been involved in the September 11 attacks, I learned to be cautious introducing myself as Iranian. I stayed in more and more, only venturing out with a small group of close friends.
As days and months passed, I missed home more and more. Every night, I cried, and every morning I wiped away the tears hoping for a better day and a better life. The happy me turned into a quiet, rather sad person who preferred to spend time alone in my room, studying, listening to music, and dreaming of going back to my family.
The chapter ends with me sticking it out, deciding to stay and working hard. I ended up becoming an honor student and being admitted to graduate school.
Lesson learned: Don’t give up easily. Be strong. Don’t lose sight of the goal.
Chapter 5 — Going Green
This chapter tells the story of how I found out about the Green Card lottery around the time I started graduate school. It includes this passage:
“When I started my graduate degree in the Fall of 2004, I had not heard from my Green Card lottery yet. My number was not called, and I was about to lose the chance. In the last couple of days before my lottery expired, my number was called.
My uncle and I traveled to Chicago for the interview. My heart was pounding; I had teary eyes and cold sweat. This was my chance to finally be free to travel, to go back and see my parents, to get a job, to pay back my loans …
The officer called me to his office; he was a very young gentleman, very calm and polite. He asked me a few basic questions about why I am here and why I haven’t gone back to Iran for the past four years. He admired the fact that I valued my education and my persistence. At last, he stamped my passport and, with that, approved me for my Green Card.
My heart stopped. I remember things slowed down. I couldn’t hold my tears back: I just put my head down on his desk and started crying, saying, “I can go visit my family now.” He gently helped me get up and shook my hand.
I will never forget that moment! I wanted to scream in joy and run, but hey, I was in the Department of Homeland Security, and any suspicious action would have caused me lots of trouble. Still, I finally felt free!
And at last, I could get a job, a real, full-time job. Just a few weeks before my interview, I had an on-campus interview with State Farm Insurance Company and told them I was waiting for my Green Card. Very shortly after it was approved, I had an interview — and almost right away, I started my first job as a Systems Analyst at State Farm in Bloomington, Illinois. My career had launched!”
The chapter ends with the happy moment I went home to Iran after five years away. I was overjoyed to be there, but saw how things had changed in my absence. My parents had aged; my little brother had grown to more than 6 feet tall. My sister was married with two babies I had never met. And, most concerning, I learned that my father had suffered a stroke two years before! My family had kept it a secret because they knew I’d be heartbroken, that I’d want to come to see him, but that I couldn’t while I had only a single-entry Visa. I learned that he wasn’t allowed to drive, and that his personality had changed: He didn’t have the same sense of humor. He wasn’t as patient as I’d remembered. He was becoming forgetful, and would sometimes lose his balance and fall. We’d later learn that these were early signs of dementia.
Despite the bittersweet reunion, I felt happy, lucky and blessed. I was ready to get back to work. I came back to the U.S. more determined than ever to make a happy, successful life and to make my parents proud.
Lesson learned: The future can be better than the present, and you have the power to make it! Yes, there is some luck involved, but the work you do and the character you demonstrate as you do it gives you the best chance to succeed when opportunity presents itself.
Chapter 6 — Falling in Love
This chapter begins in the happy period of time after getting my Green Card and takes me to one of the most important events in my story: meeting and marrying my husband and future business partner, Bobby.
Once I was free to work and travel, my spirit was good. I felt like my old self again. I was working hard during the day, but going out with friends again, having parties, dancing late into the night. Work hard, play hard was my slogan! Now that I had gotten my life on track, I decided to finally put more time into dating and relationships.
Just before my graduation from school in May 2006, I attended a three-week boot camp for software developers, at State Farm, delivered by ThoughtWorks. One of the two teachers was a guy from Toronto, Bobby Norton. I thought he was cute and intelligent. I didn’t think we could officially date in the middle of the class, but we talked during breaks and kept in touch after the program ended. Bobby and I came from totally different backgrounds, yet had so much in common: Both of us were furiously independent, we’d both left home and lived on our own at a young age, and we were both hard workers determined to make a better life for ourselves.
Coincidentally, he was living in Toronto where my sister and her family had just emigrated from Tehran. After the bootcamp was over, we decided to keep in touch and meet up in Toronto the next time I was there to visit. I took almost nine months for that next meeting, and we made it just a friendly dinner with some flirting, but nothing serious.
A few months later, Bobby had a project in New York. He was staying at a corporate apartment in Times Square… he loved it there, and invited me to come visit him. Now, up to this point, we’d basically just been pen pals. I knew that we had some chemistry, and had a hunch that accepting this invitation was going to lead to something serious. I deliberated for a couple of days, but following my philosophy of saying “yes”, I decided to go for it!
We had a fun couple of days in the city, and some romantic nights. I was suddenly in a long-distance relationship, but both of us wanted to find a way to close that distance fast.
I broke the news of dating an American to my family, so they wouldn’t hear it from someone else. I told my Maman first; she was open-minded and excited that I had finally entered into a serious relationship. Baba and I talked about it later. He said, “I trusted you to leave the country at a very young age and live on your own, and I trusted that you could make good decisions then; there’s no reason I won’t trust your decision now.” Baba’s only reservation: He thought Bobby should stop shaving his head and grow a full head of hair before coming to Iran!
I am a big city girl, so I was ready to make a move from the small town where I was working. I applied to the consultancy that Bobby was working for, ThoughtWorks, and landed the job in 2007. I moved to Chicago, and Bobby moved there, too, to join me. The job quickly took us to Beijing just a couple of months after I joined, and we decided to share an apartment. We’d only been officially dating for six months, so this was a big step!
My project in Beijing was fun, working with a young team of people fresh out of college who were smart and dedicated. We worked hard but made sure to take time off to celebrate our hard work and accomplishments by going out in the city, eating great food, shopping, getting a massage, etc. Bobby, however, had never lived in a country where his first language, English, wasn’t the main language. It was interesting to see him live the immigrant experience for the first time and experience a little bit of the culture shock I had when I first came to America!
The chapter ends with Bobby and I getting engaged and traveling to Iran so that he could see where I came from, to learn more about my culture, and so my family could meet him. Family is everything!
Lesson learned: Try new things. Be open to adventure!
Chapter 7 — Here Come the Babies
This chapter begins with Bobby and I getting married in 2010, at a wedding attended by my parents, who got their visas to come just in time.
I was working as an engineer consultant for ThoughtWorks and traveling every week. Traveling was burning me out. Bobby had left ThoughtWorks to join DRW Trading in Chicago. I wanted to spend more time with him, so he and I decided to start our own business.
The business idea changed quickly when, in March 2011, we found out we were expecting out first child. It was an exciting time that quickly became crazy and life-changing: Just as I was about to give birth, we got news that Bobby’s father had suffered a fatal stroke in his sleep. Because it was so late in my pregnancy, Bobby had to travel alone to Florida to organize his father’s funeral. I was home alone, wishing I could be with him to comfort him. I woke up a few days after Bobby had left, the morning of the funeral, feeling strange… then I realized my water had broken. I was having our baby!
Friends took me to the hospital. We called Bobby at 6 AM to break the news: He was shocked: It was the day of his father’s funeral, and he was up preparing a eulogy. I was feverish and in pain, grieving for my father-in-law, crying and begging the doctors to give me time so that Bobby could make it back for the birth. He did! After 31 hours in labor, our son Armin was born. Bobby had literally gone from saying goodbye to his father at the funeral to holding our first newborn son in the less than 24 hours.
It was tough being a new parent. Neither Bobby nor I had any experience with babies. Since neither of us was originally from Chicago, we didn’t have a large support network to rely upon. I put the startup idea on hold to focus on being a mother while Bobby was putting in long hours at the trading firm. It seemed like we were always tired and suffering from one cold after another that first year.
Eventually, my parents received visas to come and visit their new grandchild right before Armin’s first birthday. They fell in love instantly! I was happy they were here at last, but I could see my father’s health was failing.
With my mom there to help, I began to focus once again on my company and consulting projects. I made a product to teach reading and writing Farsi to adults, a web application called “Literate.ly”. In the meantime, Bobby had left the trading firm to join a startup, which ended up leading to a position in yet another startup. As if there hadn’t been enough changes, just as I was starting to get some momentum going with Tested Minds, I learned that I was pregnant again!
Because of our insurance changing so much with Bobby’s startup moves, we had to pay 100 percent of the hospital costs of the birth of our second baby out of our own pockets. We negotiated a pre-payment plan with a hospital that had a very expensive clause for anesthesia. I said, “Oh hell no!” There were many, many ideas that came to mind about how we could use that money, including a pair of Malana Blahnik I had seen in the mall a couple of days before. I decided I was going to try to deliver this baby without an epidural and no anesthetic! Bobby tried to talk me out of it, but you do not challenge a hormonal, very independent pregnant woman who also happened to have a damn high tolerance for pain!
We found a fantastic doula to help us with the delivery, and to make this birth a special one given how difficult our first son’s birth had been with the loss of Bobby’s dad happening so soon before. Our second son was born naturally, with a victory smile on my face. Amazingly, our new baby boy, Aidin, was born exactly two years to the day from his brother!
The chapter ends with Bobby moving to yet another startup, me consulting and running my own company while staying home with the new baby, and not seeing the looming changes that were up ahead.
Lesson learned: Get up, make time meaningful, and find happiness in what you are doing. Know that hardship is temporary. Telling yourself something is hard makes it harder. Focus on the light at the end of the tunnel.
Chapter 8 — Transition
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.
This chapter begins with the decline and impending death of arguably the most influential person in my life, my father, just as my business career was in transition.
My parents had moved to Canada with my brother Mohammed. But my father had a seizure and multiple hospitalizations just as I was leaving one company for another.
My father began to suffer, and told my mother he did not want to live like this anymore. Neither my mother nor any of my siblings was able to make the tough decision to end Baba’s life as he wished.
Throughout my life, I often made decisions with my head and rarely with heart. I had to be practical here as well. I called the doctor to my father’s room that night and listened to him as a person and not as a daughter whose father and hero was dying. That night, I signed the paper to transport Baba to palliative care and to cut his food and water. My heart felt broken. My family and I drove home in tears and silence.
When the nurse called a few days later to tell us his end was near, we all went to kiss him goodbye. We started talking to him about our memories. My sister Moigan came clean about dating and smoking. I confessed to dating a guy in high school I knew my dad would never have approved of. Moigan and I knew if he could still hear us, our father would be laughing.
I held Baba’s hand as his breathing spaced apart, while my sister stroked his salt-and-pepper hair. We told him we loved him, that we would take care of our mother, our brother, that he was free to go. He made a long “aaah” sound, with a big smile on his face. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 … no other breath came. He was gone, with his hand in my hands, gone forever with a smile on his face.
Valioliah Aslanifar was beloved. He earned the devotion of his wife, Zahra, for nearly 50 years. He earned the respect of his four children and the adoration of his six grandchildren. Yes, he endured hardship. Even so, he created a legacy by being a powerful force for good in this world. That legacy lives on in me. He will forever be my example of compassion, patience, presence, fortitude, honesty and gratitude.
Lesson learned: Trust my head more than my heart. Keep busy, keep going. Always look for a brighter tomorrow. Teach your children character and live by example.