How Shermin Kruse’s childhood experiences in Iran have shaped her professional career

Shermin Kruse keenly felt the pressure of expectation when her family left Iran to come to Canada. She was only 11, but she was aware of what her father had given up to bring his family to this new opportunity.

“My father was an entrepreneur in Iran with about 200 employees,” Kruse says. “But he literally had to give all that up. Everything. All of his successes, not to mention his family, his money, his home, his soil and his culture. He had to give all that up to give us a better life. And so there was this tremendous expectation placed upon myself and my sisters as young girls that we needed to make something of ourselves.”

Today, Kruse is a partner with the Chicago law firm Barack Ferrazzano. She is a lawyer, a poet, a mother, a journalist and a painter. She’s also done modeling, photography and is a devoted human rights advocate. And in May, her first novel, “Butterfly Stitching” was published.

The book is a fictional tale based on true events from her own childhood and the accounts of real Iranian women.

“I knew I wanted to tell these stories,” Kruse says. “So one day, I did. I sat down and started to write it out. It took a long time before I figured out how to weave them together in a way that would please me.”

Back in the 1980s, Iran and Iraq were at war and Kruse was right in the middle of it.

“When I was in fifth grade, there were six rocket attacks a day into my city,” Kruse says. “So that would be like six attacks a day in a city like Chicago. So you’re not only dealing with the political oppression, but you’re dealing with tremendous safety issues and a war. So there were a lot of horrific things going on.”

It all helped shape the person who Kruse is today, but it didn’t define her.

“Most of my memories from my childhood have to do with the tremendous warmth and love in which I was surrounded,” Kruse says. “Gatherings happened all the time, much more frequently than they do in the West. The whole family gets together almost every week, sometimes twice a week and every time there is a gathering, there’s music, dance and poetry. And there are 30 or 40 people and lots of food and children running around. And this was all happening throughout the war. So it was a huge component of my life.”

Finding her voice

When she first arrived in North America, Kruse admits she felt very much like an outsider.

“When you’re a child, you come and you don’t know anyone and you don’t speak the language and you are very socially isolated,” Kruse says. “There is a tremendous amount of whether you want to call it a bias or misunderstanding about my culture, my beliefs and my capabilities.”

As she grew up, Kruse wanted to show that Iranian women are different from the way they are often portrayed in Western culture.

“It was important to me that there not be this perception in the West of my people, and especially of women, as simply sitting there and taking it,” Kruse says. “It’s a vibrant feminist movement in Iran. They’re in and out of jail all the time. There are political dissidents every day battling for freedom.”

Kruse had her own goals too, however, and set out to become a lawyer.

She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and her law degree from the University of Michigan. At Barack Ferrazzano, she concentrates her practice on strategy development and implementation in complex disputes with a variety of domestic and international corporations.

One of her challenges has been to keep her sense of creativity in the work she does for her clients.

“Creativity is highly regarded in the entrepreneurial realm but in the legal realm, it seems they try to knock it out of you, particularly in law school,” Kruse says.

“But being able to think outside the box and really perceive issues you have in front of you as a problem that can be solved in at least 30 different ways and trying to come up with different solutions, it’s a skill set that can be fostered, encouraged and improved upon.”

Driving change

As Kruse looks at the professional landscape for women, she says it’s difficult to compare career opportunities in the U.S. with those available in Iran.

“Only 13 percent of the workforce is women in Iran,” Kruse says. “It is both culturally and economically difficult for women to find work and remain employed in Iran. But they are doctors and lawyers, politicians and cabinet ministers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t compare to the situation in the U.S. You don’t need your husband’s permission to work here.”

Still, the situation in the U.S. is not perfect and Kruse hopes she can be part of the process to bring about change.

“I’m an equity partner in a law firm,” Kruse says. “I can afford great childcare. But what if that’s not your position and your career is still important to you? The lack of good, affordable childcare in the U.S. is a huge impediment to women’s success in the professional world.”

One of the keys to having a successful culture, or a successful organization, is the ability of people to work together toward common goals.

“I don’t minimize the significance of each thing that each person on my team has to offer,” Kruse says. “They could have tons of bad ideas. But sometimes, they come up with these really great ideas. If you don’t foster an environment where they freely come to you with those ideas because you don’t respect their role, it’s devastating.”

We all grow when we are allowed to actively participate in the world around us.

“If you are an intellectually curious person and always have a desire to learn and grow, then moving along the path or up the ladder is very satisfying,” Kruse says. “It’s fun and it makes you happy.”

To learn more about Shermin Kruse’s book, “Butterfly Stitching,” visit www.butterflystitching.com