Amirmoez escapes Iran, overcomes gender barriers to succeed in the U.S.

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 214 views 

Laleh Amirmoez, architect, owner and president of Fayetteville-based AFHJ Architects, wife and mother is always eager to talk about her childhood in Iran, her move to the U.S., her path to an exciting career, her family and her involvement in her community.

Life to date for Amirmoez has been a journey of spirituality and unknown places. She has faced her fear of cowboys and Indians, rising with strength in a career she was destined to embark upon.  
“I am from Iran and I grew up there. I knew from the age of seven I wanted to be an architect.”

Her dad would “interview” her and her brother.

“We had those big reel to reel tapes back in those days, and those were later transferred to cassette tapes,” she said, adding that the interviews were about what she and her brother might want to be when they grew up.

Amirmoez knew early in life she either wanted to be an English teacher or an architect. She prepared in her early years by taking English in private school when it was not compulsory until middle school.

Her desire to be an architect formed at an early age when her father, a structural engineer, moonlighted by designing houses for friends. While he drew the plans, she would look over his shoulder. He encouraged her to draw things such as flower boxes on the windows. It was in those wonderful father and daughter moments that he unknowingly and indirectly influenced her decision to become an architect.

Continuing to practice the English language she declared her intention in middle school to become an architect. This would require her to take what was called “the math path” in school. She took the national exam and was accepted to architectural school in Tehran. Her parents had wanted her to come to the United States for her higher education, but she did not want to.

Laughing, she said, “My image of the U.S. was cowboys and Indians and I had heard only the bad news. I was scared of the United States and the people living there; I didn’t want to come.”

Her parents continued to push their children to go to the United States. Her younger brother left Iran and came to the U.S. She continued to attend architectural school in Iran to fulfill her undergraduate degree. It was at this time that her father, who was also in the Iranian Army, began to tell her that she must leave Iran. He knew things were happening. He was witnessing riots and saw slogans on the walls that told him the revolution was soon to come. Her father told her to take her life and get out of Iran.

She came to the U.S. and applied to Oregon State, Northwest Missouri State, and the University of Arkansas. She was determined to accept the first offer that came her way, which happened to be, Northwest Missouri State. She had brought all of her textbooks from the architectural school in Iran with her to show the context of the courses. Upon transferring to The University of Arkansas, her design classes were accepted, but she would be required to take all of the structure courses. After all the class work she had already done she was required to complete almost all five years of study at the UA.

She met her husband on the UA campus in Brough Commons. He had transferred from Oregon State University to complete his master’s degree. Her husband’s cousin was her friend in college while she was still in Iran and now lived close to them. Having someone she had known in Iran living close helped in her transition. Also, her husband had a friend who lived just a few blocks away that she had gone to architectural school with in Tehran. These connections provided a sense of home.

After marriage she informed her parents they had paid enough money for school and she would be responsible from that time on. She began working part time with an architecture firm and then later, after graduating, took the position full time.

Wanting to know how she had accomplished so much in a career field where only 17% of architects are female, she replied. “There were women in my classes both here and in Iran, so I didn’t feel the need to prove myself as a woman architect. Newton Hailey, now deceased, was the first person I worked for and he was very supportive of me. He lived with strong, independent women. He had two daughters and a wife. He was my biggest ally.”

Amirmoez credits Newton with helping her advance in her career.

“He was a real gem. An ally like Newton is very valuable in one’s life and it is important to hang on to our allies.”

Besides being an architect, Amirmoez wanted to excel in other areas of her life also.

“I took other classes because I wanted to better understand the culture of the United States,” she said.

This allowed her to learn how people reacted to her, not only as a woman, but a woman from a foreign country. By learning she became more admired by others and became involved in the community which allowed her to show others what she could do.

“People on the outside began to make me realize being a woman was not a good thing. Stereotyping was very strong then.”

Some structural and civil engineers and consultants would make comments such as “you must be good with color.” She was being boxed in as an interior designer, a more traditional female role.

“Another twist was added by not being from here,” she said. “It was one thing when an older man would call me honey because they did not mean it to be patronizing, but it was not at all okay when a younger man would call me sweetheart or honey.”

There were meeting with potential clients where she went with a male structural partner. Even though she knew and gave the answer to a client’s question, the next question was directed back at the male counterpart. She used that as a learning moment and became tactful and smart about the team she needed to put together.

“Sometime I simply needed a man to go with me to get the job,” she said.

As word of mouth began to spread that she was really skilled, her business grew.

“Now my competition comes from other women. I still have challenges today, but the challenges have switched. I was recently invited to sit on a panel at the Alley Scholars Summit. The summit was entitled Influential Women of Color. It was evident at that summit that women have conquered every field today,” Amirmoez said.

She admits it is still challenging at times to be in a male dominated industry.

“I get left out of connections after work at times because guys connect with guys on a different level. It’s kind of hard to say to my husband that I’m going out drinking with the boys tonight.  You can’t become who you are not. I had to figure out how to connect on my own level.”

Amirmoez said she and her husband eventually found time for a family.

“Architecture is very time consuming, plus I was involved in outside activities and it took the entire weekend to get caught up. I was very involved in my career and I didn’t think I had time to have a family.”

Around the age of 40 with her biological clock ticking she thought it was time to have children. She and her husband are now raising a boy and a girl, who are in the 6th and 7th grades, respectively. They adopted their children.

“One day my son asked me, ‘Mom, what took you so long to have kids? I told him you hadn’t been born yet.”

She had to scale back once she had children. She and her husband are flexible. She admits he carries more of the responsibilities around the house, while she picks up the kids from school and helps them with their homework. Flexibility is the key for her. She still has appointments in the evening and since she doesn’t keep traditional office hours, she and her husband have to partner together to make everything work. She feels by waiting later in life to have children she is spiritually a better mother, but admits it is physically more challenging.

“My kids keep me feeling young,” she said.

When asked if she occasionally faces adversity because she is Iranian, she said; “People make assumptions about my nationality. In the past someone I worked with on a project would say, ‘Do you know you’re not from here?’ People don’t always see life the same way. It is shocking that I was just like them … they saw extremists, I saw cowboys and Indians.”

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