When she turned 19, Mona Alikhah decided that she wanted to open her own photographic studio but her parents insisted that she went to university instead. Her father always told her that because she was a woman, she had to be able to stand on her own two feet. She got a good job as an engineer but then decided to follow her childhood sweetheart to the Netherlands. There she embraced Dutch culture and learned the language through trial and error but was unable to find a suitable job. She went through an identity crisis and then two months after the birth of her baby daughter, she made the decision to pursue her childhood dream and set up her own photographic studio. By keeping an open mind and using her Iranian background, she takes risks in her work and has successfully established a reputation for herself.

1. How long have you been in the Netherlands?

I came to the Netherlands at the end of 2000 in order to immerse myself in Western culture but also because my childhood sweetheart had moved here from Iran. He came to the Netherlands with his family as a political refugee back in 1990.

2. How did you become an entrepreneur and why?
My father was a head teacher and my mother was an entrepreneur, she was a dressmaker. I paid for my studies myself by giving English lessons and I graduated as an electrical engineer. Then I was offered a good job but after three years, I made the decision to follow by childhood sweetheart to the Netherlands. I immediately started having Dutch lessons. Although I had a lot of experience in IT, I was unable to find a suitable job. I really had to make a fresh start here and I decided that I still wanted to be a photographer.

3. Did you encounter problems when you wanted to become an entrepreneur?
I accepted Dutch culture right from the start and although I had a lot of difficulty with the language at first, I was open about it with my customers who gave me a lot of help in that department. Most of the misunderstandings which arose were connected with everyday occurrences. For example, if someone asks you at a business meeting whether you would like tea or coffee, you would normally say ‘no’ first of all in Iran. Then you would be asked a second time in Iran but not in the Netherlands. Don’t you want tea or coffee? That’s it then!

4. What are the differences between doing business in The Netherlands and in Iran?
In the Netherlands, everything is so well-regulated. Here, there are all kinds of organisations that an entrepreneur who is starting up a business can go to with questions whereas in Iran, you have to find everything out for yourself. There are a lot of rules and regulations here and contracts are concluded beforehand. I used to find that really irritating but now I find it useful.
I continue to be surprised at the concept of customer-friendliness in the Netherlands as in Iran, the customer is definitely not king! There a customer is just another person and not someone who you are going to try to impress. I focus on Dutch culture in my work but with an Iranian twist. I do fall in with customers’ demands to a certain degree but there are limits as far as I am concerned.

5. What is typically Dutch when it comes to doing business and being an entrepreneur?
You get to know each other first of all and drink coffee before getting down to business. In Iran, you get down to business straight away. And breaking the ice by talking about personal things in an informal atmosphere is simply not done in Iran – it would be regarded as intimidating to do that – however I consider it to be a delightful quality that Dutch people have.

6. What have you taken from both the Iranian and Dutch cultures?
The combination of the two cultures fills me with great inspiration. As a result of my background (Iranian ‘salt and pepper’ as I call it), I look at the bigger picture. For instance, I took a series of photos of a model wearing jewellery made out of potatoes and gold. I chose potatoes as they are typically Dutch and gold as it is typically Iranian. A Dutch person probably wouldn’t have come up with such an idea.
I also like to use women as the subjects in my photographs. Women are powerful and take on a lot of responsibility. In Iran, they are still suppressed. In Almere, I took a series of photographs on the subject of Marilyn in Almere (Marilyn Monroe visits Almere). The combination of past and present was extremely striking and I received a lot of commissions as a result of that project.

7. Would you ever go back to Iran?
I was shocked when I returned to Iran years after I had left and people referred to me as ‘you people’ and ‘you Westerners’. I was no longer one of them. However, I feel at home in both countries but I couldn’t be happier there than I am here.

8. What are the secrets of your success?
The key to my success is my expertise. Don’t have secrets, do business honestly and be open. I am open to change and I treat every problem as a challenge and an opportunity to learn through experience.
I don’t worry what other people think about me either.

9. What is your favourite fruit and why?
The orange – it tastes good and I like the beautiful patterns on the peel.

10. What is your favourite Dutch product and/or place in the Netherlands?
Clogs. They represent history and culture just like the handwoven shoes that we have in Iran called ‘giveh’.

TIPS from Mona

1. Accept Dutch culture
2. Make thorough preparations before starting your business
3. Ask lots of questions but remain true to yourself
4. Use your foreign descent to your advantage
5. Maintain your network

“I was shocked when I returned to Iran years after I had left and people referred to me as ‘you people’ and ‘you Westerners’. I was no longer one of them”