The words rang through my ears. I looked down at my feet – shoulder width apart, lightly shaking. My hands were firmly placed at the middle of the mop handle that stood straight right between my feet. I felt water seep under my shoes as I very gracefully started swishing the mop around, avoiding knocking over the entire yellow bucket to the right — overwhelmingly aware that whatever I was doing, I wasn’t doing it correctly.
“Stop Minahil, I can’t do this, it’s too much to teach you how to do this right now. Stop,” my aunt chimed in again, with a slightly less angry voice.
I looked down again, started more aggressively swishing the mop around and mumbled an apology. I dipped the mop in the bucket, used all my might to ring out the water, and continued on with my very poor mopping.
As I heard my aunt audibly sigh from behind the dishwasher and my brother snicker as he walked by with a bus pan, I confirmed that my approach to ask for forgiveness as opposed to permission was the right choice.
Being the youngest family member, I had been patiently awaiting the day that I could start working alongside everyone. When you grow up as the child of immigrant restaurantprenuers, your first job chooses you. In my case, it wasn’t just my first job but the second, third, fourth and fifth as well. Starting as a dishwasher when I was 14, to serving as an assistant manager until my sophomore year of college, the surprisingly magical intersection of intensely strong aromatic scents, lots of family tension, and all of the Excel spreadsheets, have defined a significant portion of my life.
What I didn’t realize at 14 was that my insistence to start working at the family restaurant was both a blessing and curse that has followed me all the way to now. Due to a last-minute change that occurred due to unforeseen circumstances, my placement in the AIF Clinton Fellowship was switched from a legal advocacy organization to a women’s livelihood program that features Zaika-e-Nizamuddin (ZeN), a catering business run by 11 women in one of Delhi’s most marginalized Muslim communities.
Here, I was uniquely positioned to be an effective advocate and accurately help the women of ZeN. The years of pestering my dad to sit down and calculate our catering order estimates paid off when I was asked to do the costing for a supplementary nutrition program that purchases healthy snacks and meals from ZeN. Similarly, standing with my “customer smile” for hours at an exhibitions felt the same level of rewarding and nauseating whether I was standing in Buffalo or in Delhi.
More than anything, the biggest parallel between my experience at the family restaurant and at Zaika-e-Nizuamuddin was the grit I witnessed both from my parents and the ZeN members. The women of ZeN balanced all their responsibilities at home with work, often dealing with criticism from their family members, the same way that my parents dealt unwelcomed comments for opening a halal restaurant. Seeing the wide smiles of ZeN members when they greeted the customers after their first pop-up restaurant launched, instantly reminded me of the celebration my family had when their restaurant finally broke even.
Beyond life-saving Excel skills, growing up in a family restaurant has helped me understand the universal frustration, aspirations, and determination required to use entrepreneurship as a method to earn financial independence and create intergenerational wealth amongst minority communities — whether it’s a Muslim family in upstate New York or 11 marginalized women in central Delhi.