From War Refugee to Millionaire CEO: The Fearless Path of Helga Arminak

refugee CEO Helga Arminak
Courtesy of Arminak & Associates CEO Helga Arminak

By Helga Arminak, as told to Michele Lerner

I was born into a war in Beirut, and I grew up in a war.

Every day there were bombs and gunshots, people being dragged in the streets off the back of cars, and just terrible sights. Sometimes we went to school and sometimes we didn't. Sometimes we went for weeks without any water or electricity.

Courtesy of Measurable Difference Cosmetics CEO Helga Arminak
Helga Arminak

My father owned a jewelry store, but it was destroyed during the war along with his entire inventory. Then a bomb hit our house, directly on my parent's bedroom. Our house was destroyed, but we weren't physically hurt.

We had some cousins in Los Angeles and so we were finally able to get a visa to come to the U.S. when I was 12. We stayed with them for a long time, but I was pretty miserable. We didn't have any money and I didn't speak any English, so I got bullied in school and I cried a lot.

By the time I was 16, I started working as much as I could. I sold Culligan bottled water over the phone, worked in a department store, and learned to be a makeup artist.

Most of what I made went to help my family because my father never really recovered from the war and hasn't worked since then.

$3,000 and a Vision

I was totally focused on work when I finished high school, but my mother told me to go to college. I worked full-time and went to school full-time and got my B.A. with a major in international business and a minor in economics. My first career job was at a global packaging company where I worked for nine years, opening up Asian and South American markets for them. I traveled and lived abroad a lot of the time.

Even though my professional experience was in the packaging business, my dream had always been to do something in the cosmetics field. So in 1999, I used $3,000 of my savings to start my own cosmetics packaging business.

Helga Arminak
Helga Arminak

It took about a year after I started the business to get my first order -- and even that order was a small one. My former employer didn't want me to compete with their business, so I had to fight off a lawsuit while I was trying to get my business going.

That entire time I was living off my savings. There were times I thought about giving up, but I didn't: My passion to create my own company helped me focus.

After three years, we were finally profitable. And today my company -- Arminak & Associates -- has about $80 million in annual sales. My family members are now all financially free because of my company.

Using Fear to Become Fearless

There were a lot of barriers to my success, but I think my experience as a child during the war and as a refugee actually helped me.

Fear holds people back. But that kind of experience makes you fearless. If you think about the worst that can happen, I already know. It already happened to me and to my family.

All I can say to anyone who wants to start a business is that they have to be completely focused on that business and not let anything distract them.

Making a Measurable Difference

I recently started my own cosmetics line called "Measurable Difference Cosmetics," an all-natural line made for women by women. We don't test the products on animals and they are drug- and paraben-free. We sell eyelash growth serum, lash-lengthening mascara, eyeliner, lip lotion, and cellulite cream, so women can do their own in-home treatments.

Sponsored Links

But I also want to make a measurable difference in the world, too, so we started the "Look Good Feel Good" campaign. During the months of June, July, and August, my company is donating a portion of the proceeds from every mascara sold on our website or in a retail store to the Women's Refugee Commission. The commission helps improve the lives of women and children who -- like I once was -- are refugees around the world and in the U.S. It's not just refugees from war, but from a tornado or hurricane or anything that destroys a family's life.

Women like to look good and to feel good -- this campaign to support the Women's Refugee Commission is one way to fulfill both desires. I'm also starting an internship program with universities to help women succeed in business. The business world is a battlefield, but I think everyone who has the passion to start their own business can do it. Giving up is the easiest thing to do, but if you stay focused on winning and ignore all the daily distractions, you can achieve your goals.