Amee Sheldon was born and raised in Mansfield, Texas, to a pair of Iranian immigrants. In Mansfield, a smaller city part of the greater Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Amee and her family found themselves in the minority amidst the white homogeneity of the city. It was a family rule not to speak Farsi outside the house, conceding their culture for the safety of assimilation. “There were some fascinating dynamics of growing up in a small town in Texas and then having your parents try to teach you your culture and language and religion at home, but then also say, ‘Hey, you know, we don’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves.’”
The shelter of their home wrought communion. As members of the Bahá’í Faith, a religious minority in Iran, her parents experienced persecutory displacement from their homeland. Here in Mansfield, they could open their doors for weekly Bahá’í gatherings, where the congregation was welcome to share in the fellowship of food and prayer.
Amee’s parents also placed high importance on education and, from a young age, nurtured her love of learning. Her mother had a successful career as a nurse, and her father earned a degree in aeronautical engineering. Political obstacles hindered her father’s career in the field, but they nevertheless drew immense value from the education offerings. Amee’s parents were intent on private school education for her and her sister and compromised certain comforts in life to afford the opportunity.
The private school presented a familiar sense of isolation: Amee and her sister were just two of a handful of students of color at their institution. “I felt othered…I didn’t want to draw attention, but it was obvious.” Her love of learning and steep involvement in athletics propelled her through the social challenges school presented. Amee’s parents didn’t pressure her with thoughts of her future, but college was the assumed path. She found herself surrounded by peers with predetermined careers and life plans; the decisiveness at such a young age was puzzling to her. “The only thing I was thinking about was the practical things like I need to get a job so that I can pay for things and be independent. And whatever field that translates into, then that’s fine.”
Amee landed at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), receiving provisional acceptance based on her first semester grades. Her SAT scores did not meet the University’s admissions standards. This caveat stung Amee, as she’d earned a 3.9 GPA in high school and simply didn’t test well. Integral to her identity was acting in service to humanity, and through her job as a peer counselor, she made it her mission to support the success of incoming students.
At UTA, Amee found a sense of home. The campus was far more diverse than the landscape of her upbringing, and in particular, there was a large population of West Asian students. “I wasn’t like the weird person out anymore… there are people here that are like me.’” UTA even had a Bahá’í club which grew her feelings of belonging.
Amee majored in interdisciplinary studies, with a focus on biology and psychology, priming for a career in the medical field. Her parents encouraged her to explore dentistry, with the idea she could take over her uncle’s practice one day. She worked with her uncle one summer during college and quickly learned the profession was far from her destiny. She didn’t want to bear the demand of a practice – or have to stare into a person’s mouth all day. Another job with a physical therapy office dissuaded her from this career as well. The PT told her outright not to pursue this further, for the grating toll it takes on one’s own body.
By the time Amee came to these conclusions, it was nearing graduation and too late to change course. She felt a pit of uncertainty; her degree was not highly specialized, which left the path forward undefined. She considered volunteering for a Year of Service to the Faith to remain active and productive while contemplating her options.
But the Faith had different plans for Amee. The Bahá’í World Centre, located in Haifa, Israel, was hiring and in need of recent college graduates. She interviewed with the World Center during the second semester of her senior year, and then one excruciatingly long month after her college graduation, she landed a position in their Office of Social and Economic Development. She spent the next two and a half years loving every moment. “I realized that even just after six months that the time spent there is incredibly special, and I wanted to make sure I took full advantage of all the opportunities that were there.”
Amee was broadly involved in the global efforts of her office, from microfinancing to literacy and youth development. This time in Amee’s life crystallized the importance of centering service in her career. “I get my fulfillment from helping people. I realize that whatever it is, it needs to have some direct hand in someone’s growth and development.”
As confident as Amee was of what she needed, she didn’t know how it would manifest. Her posting at the World Centre ended in January 2012, and she returned to the States, panicking for her future. Most of her family relocated to Orange County, CA, where she crashed for several months. “I tell many people that are going through similar things, like that transitional phase, it’s so painful and anxiety-inducing, but it’s part of the process.”
As she was getting restless living at home, soon enough, a close friend invited Amee to live with her in Sacramento while she assessed her next steps. Amee and her now-husband, a Colorado native she met in Israel, packed up and ventured north together. Sacramento would reveal itself to be a divine destination. During her time abroad, Amee crossed paths with a woman from Sacramento who worked for the health insurance company VSP Vision. She thought Amee offered the type of talent VSP was looking to cultivate.
Amee held onto her business card and reconnected with the woman upon her arrival. The woman provided support in reviewing Amee’s resume and submitted her application through the internal referral program. In September 2012, Amee landed a position as an administrative assistant in the VSP’s Office of General Counsel. Amee welcomed any opportunity to get her foot in the door, gain company-wide experience, and work her way up. VSP also offered a tuition reimbursement program, and in two years, Amee earned her Master of Organizational Leadership from the National University in San Diego, CA.
With her advanced degree and cross-departmental experience, Amee targeted an ascent into VSP’s management level. She frequently made it to the final round of interviews. Still, her goals were suppressed time and again by the doubtful bias of the hiring managers against her current administrative title. With little remaining for Amee to gain at VSP, she left.
A friend of a friend was hired at his software consulting firm, a Sacramento-based IT consulting firm. With this change, Amee achieved her desired job as a Business Analyst, alongside a significant raise. But this advancement came at an emotional cost. The culture was cut-throat, and as the only woman on her team, Amee was subject to ongoing discriminatory behavior. “I think it was always having to look over my shoulder to wonder what’s going to happen and not feeling secure there.” She knew within three months, she needed to plan for a departure.
VSP was her baseline as to what a robust and employee-centric culture should be. And she never wanted to leave, but with the lack of opportunity, she felt that was her only choice. She maintained contact with old VSP colleagues to stay informed on potential openings. It took almost a year before Amee gained traction. In 2015, a close connection had recently been promoted to manager and was building her team – she wanted Amee on board.
But the position was not guaranteed; Amee worked through numerous rounds of interviews before finally securing the role. At last, she could leverage her experience from the consulting firm to land the advanced title and salary at VSP that she had longed for. The compensation, however, was still a cut from her earnings at prior work, which would strain her life as she was the sole source of income while her husband was in his undergraduate studies. Ultimately, the decision came down to one thing, her emotional well-being: “Quality of life, you can’t put a price on that.” The culture of care at VSP was worth more than the difference in her pay.
Amee returned to VSP as an Operations Analyst with her mindset locked on breaking into the leadership team once and for all. To occupy such a position was the opportunity to apply her educational training and meaningfully contribute to that culture of care she was so drawn to. A year later, she was promoted to Senior Data Analyst, and with this momentum, she made her goal known to the current leadership. She was already demonstrating potential in her work and received the opportunity of interim supervisor when the full-time placement went on medical leave.
Within that year, Amee translated this experience into a permanent supervisory position. After eight months as a supervisor, she became a manager and, three years after that, a senior manager. With this ever-growing level of responsibility, Amee didn’t anticipate the bureaucratic enmeshment that accompanied it. “It was a lot of work, a lot of chaos, a lot of stress. But…there were a lot of wins on that team.” The helper she is, she made it her priority as a supervisor to nurture her employees and support their career goals. She’s proud that the only reason any person has moved on from her team was for promotion.
Upon becoming a first-time supervisor, Amee assumed the title of mother. She returned from maternity leave to the chaos of turnover occurring across the company outside of her department. “I was trying to figure out how to balance being a mom, pumping at work and all this stuff, being on like one hour of sleep and having to function like everyone else who has eight hours of sleep.” Her boss, who didn’t have children, had difficulty understanding why she left on time every day. She found support and strength with a group of colleagues in what they called the Sorority of Motherhood.
The balance of work and motherhood is a constant dance for Amee, one that relies on setting healthy boundaries, a notion she imparts to her team as well. The clarity Amee now possesses is far from the ripe anxiety of her youth. “Oh man, those were the best times of my life. Why was I so stressed out about not having a plan? I was taking steps and doing my best – and that was okay.” Now, she trusts in the process, anchored by her Faith and commitment to the nourishment of all.