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.

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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.

5 Women Who Are Saving Tech
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From War Refugee to Millionaire CEO: The Fearless Path of Helga Arminak
If there's a grandmother of the female-tech leadership movement, it's Weili Dai, who in 1995 co-founded semiconductor company Marvell Technology (MRVL).

Dai was the first woman to be a founder of a global semiconductor company. But co-founder isn't the only hat Dai has worn for Marvell. She's also served as chief operating officer and executive vice president, among other positions.

Dai's influence has helped the company become a dominating force in the semiconductor market. Marvell has brought in annual revenue of more than $3 billion over the past three years.

Meanwhile, Dai generates positive press for the company just by being herself. In 2012 she was honored with the Outstanding Leadership Award from nonprofit Upwardly Global. She's a truly inspiring executive, and not just if you're a woman or a techie.
Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) was in rough shape when Meg Whitman arrived as CEO in September 2011. Its stock had taken a colossal downturn from $48.64 that February to $22.32 in September.

Whitman faced the seemingly insurmountable task of saving the dying giant. Even after her appointment, HP's stock would sink even further to a low point of $11.94.

Still, with fierce determination and a thick skin, Whitman has brought better times to HP.

After the team working on Microsoft's (MSFT) search engine Bing awarded multiple server orders to HP competitor Dell (DELL) (the most recent for $350 million), Whitman called Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, and demanded to know why. Ballmer sent back a lengthy memo detailing nine reasons. Whitman analyzed it thoroughly and took action. The next time Bing needed servers, they went with a bigger order ($530 million) at HP.

It will of course take much more work than one order for Whitman to reshape HP. However, being receptive to criticism and using it to improve is a great quality in a CEO, and HP may already be benefiting from it. Since hitting that low point of $11.94, HP reached a 2013 high of $23.84.
Two years ago, IBM (IBM) picked one of its senior vice presidents, Virginia "Ginni" Rometty, to be its new chief executive officer. It was the first time in the company's history that a woman had been appointed CEO.

Since then, the company has seen another first: the first time its stock went above $200.

Rometty earned the CEO position after steering IBM's acquisition of the consulting unit of Pricewaterhouse Coopers in 2002. At $3.9 billion, it was the largest deal in IBM's history, and as Rometty herself said, the "first and only time a professional services firm of that size has been integrated into another large company."

Offering consulting services has diversified IBM's product offerings, which has in turn broadened the company's reach. In a fickle industry that is constantly changing, having a strong competitive advantage is a huge plus.

IBM went on to make more than $100 billion in 2011, the year of Rometty's appointment, and made $104 billion in 2012. If Rometty has her way, the company will maintain this upward momentum for a long time to come.
Like Whitman at IBM, Marissa Mayer was appointed chief executive officer at Yahoo! (YHOO) after a string of CEOs had jumped ship from the company. Yahoo! was struggling, and in 2011 its share price had dropped under $12, its lowest point since 2002. Morale was low, and the company looked to Mayer to save it.

Mayer, who was the 20th employee at Google (GOOG), worked quietly during the first few months following her July 2012 appointment, trying to get the clearest sense of Yahoo!'s business and culture. Then, in February 2013, she made major waves by announcing a controversial telework ban. The era of Mayer had officially begun.

The telework ban sparked a national conversation on the value of being able to work remotely, and arguably brought Yahoo! more attention than it had received in years.

Since then, Yahoo! has enacted a string of tech mergers, each one more high-profile than the last. Its largest acquisition was the recent buyout of popular photo blogging platform Tumblr, reportedly for $1 billion.

Yahoo!'s share price is the highest it's been in more than four years, and for the first time since 2010, the company saw an increase in its annual revenue. Mayer definitely has a long way to go, but she's had some impressive results thus far.
It's pretty much impossible to talk about women in technology and not bring up Sheryl Sandberg.

The Facebook (FB) chief operations officer has brought copious attention to the subject through the release of her book, "Lean In," regarding the empowerment of women in the workplace. But her professional track record is remarkable by itself.

For a long time Facebook's future looked uncertain -- thanks in part to movies like "The Social Network," it was some were tempted to dismiss it as a fad invented by a nerdy college student in order to look cool, as opposed to a business that could be monetized.

Sandberg's mature, business-oriented presence has helped change that. Since her 2008 appointment, Facebook has achieved impressive earnings in the realms of mobile applications and advertising. The company has weathered its share of blunders (most notably, its disastrous IPO in May 2012), but its annual revenue has more than doubled since 2010 -- proof that, with Sandberg's guidance, the company is ready for adulthood and in a position to make some serious money.
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