At age 14, Anoosheh Oskouian convinced her parents in Iran to send her to the United States to receive an education. That was in 1978. After the Iranian Revolution, she couldn't return home, so she stayed and earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering.
Oskouian was working at a sheet metal fabrication shop that served a local shipyard in Long Beach, Calif., when her life changed.
"I was with the company for five years, in charge of developing a totally new industry in the environmental field with thermal oxidizers," she said.
"The owner of the company decided to lay everyone off and close the company, seeing no future in the shipyard industry. The owner called and said, 'If you want to keep the business up and running, let me know by tomorrow whether you want to buy the assets or not.' I had 24 hours to decide."
Oskouian tapped the savings from her 401(k) retirement plan and bought the company. She has since transformed it into a successful air pollution abatement firm, Ship & Shore Environmental Inc., with $12 million in annual sales. The company makes equipment that helps plastics, printing, aerospace and chemical manufacturers reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
What pushed her to buy the company?
"It was probably one of the scariest things because I had so many thoughts and questions through my mind," she said. "My gut feeling and my inner voice told me this is the best step in the right direction."
Early in her career, Oskouian frequently went into meetings where people assumed she was an engineering assistant or engineering secretary, "helping" with the presentation. She pushed ahead.
"If a woman doesn't have enough confidence in herself, she usually becomes a bit intimidated or taken aback by how she is perceived, whereas if you are confident, trust your skills and know your material, and if you are able to talk the talk and walk the walk, you will be able to break that barrier fairly quickly after the meeting starts," she said.
One memorable anecdote from her career came at a plastics industry technical conference in September 2001, just after the Sept. 11 attack.
"The whole country was in emotional shambles and disarray. A lot of people wanted to cancel, so I started calling registered attendees and convinced them one at a time to come by telling them, 'Nothing can get us down. By not following through with what we wanted to do, we would give in to what the terrorists wanted us to do.'"
Keep in mind, this was coming from an Iranian-American woman.
"I had to deliver the opening speech that morning. I shared my story of the reasons why America is so great and the reasons why we are all here."
She adds: "I hadn't planned to deliver such a speech, but I went off script because my inner voice guided me so, and I listened. I was extremely emotional, and it was one of the very few times I got a standing ovation."
Being an Iranian immigrant is sometimes an issue.
"I did overcome this from an early age on by learning that I am not, or the country [Iran] is not, what people perceive it to be. We are totally different than what anybody else knows about us. That's why I am a trustee at the Farhang Foundation, to make sure people understand who we are and who we are not."
The foundation celebrates and promotes Iranian art and culture.
"Our objective is to give the proper recognition and view of what Iranians are all about rather than what media and other people want them to be," she said.