I remember exactly where I was on September 16, 2022, when I came across the image of a young Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Jina Amini. Her face, innocent and angelic, contrasted with her tragic story. Two days earlier, she’d visited the Iranian capital of Tehran with her family and was arrested by the morality police for wearing her hijab too loosely. She was detained, beaten by police, and pronounced dead from a fatal head injury.

Mahsa Amini’s senseless death struck a chord with an entire generation of Iranians who are fed up with the 43-year rule of an oppressive, violent, and unjust regime. Initial protests, mostly led by women, quickly escalated into a full-blown national revolt and the biggest challenge to the government since the revolution in 1979. Women poured into the streets, cutting their hair as a symbol of defiance. Their rallying cry—zan, zendegi, azadi (woman, life, freedom)—captured the heart of the movement. A simple wish, for freedom.

As an Iranian-American woman, I’ve experienced the killing of Mahsa Amini and the first woman-led revolution from afar. My dual cultural identity means that while my body is not on the ground fighting for basic freedoms, my heart is. This essay is for those who may have found themselves in a similar situation. How do we carry on when life becomes dark? How do we maintain a sense of well-being amidst a storm?

Exploring the impact of Iran’s instability on my role at Dropbox

While the protests were peaking, I found myself scrolling through endless images tagged #mahsaamini or #womanlifefreedom. Images of young people, with unlived dreams, risking their lives for freedom: I felt awe, fear, and bewilderment. Often, the imagery evoked a visceral sensation of nausea and pain in my gut.

I felt helpless. Beyond sharing information and support on social media, I didn’t think I could contribute to the cause in a tangible way. I also felt guilty. For my life, my freedom.

While holding all of this in, I was trying to show up as my best self at work. I treasure my position as a product designer at Dropbox. It’s something I’ve worked hard for and do not take for granted.

My Iranian-American identity compels me to have an immense amount of gratitude for my life. That’s because I can so clearly see where I could have been. This informs my attitude about what I do for a living. I pride myself on being a hard worker, someone who can be counted on to perform. The unfolding events in Iran challenged my ability to do that.

For all of us, situations like this will arise. How do we process what’s going on in our inner lives while continuing to hone our craft?

Among the core values of Dropbox is creating an environment of safety and “making work human.” During my onboarding, in small groups, I felt comfortable enough to share honestly about my grief as I watched the mass protests escalate in Iran. My onboarding buddies listened, acknowledged my despair, and asked how they could support. Through their empathy—their capacity for humanness—I felt a surprising amount of relief.

My manager was also a beacon of light and pillar of support. She brings her whole self to work and is a role model for doing so. Her willingness to allow space for sharing what I was going through facilitated a release of emotions. I was able to process my grief in real time; which resulted in feeling more embodied and motivated to focus on my work.

For me, this integration was key. Showing up at work as a whole person lessened the possibility of emotional burnout, and kept my spark for design alive.


Navigating life as an Iranian-American person comes with a unique set of gifts and challenges. It means seeing the world through dual lenses. It means longing for a place I’ve never been and likely will never see, literally and figuratively.

The Iran of my parents’ tales has profoundly transformed since the 1979 revolution. The ongoing repression and cultural degradation at the hands of the regime make it increasingly unlikely that I will ever visit, and if I do, I know it will never be the Iran my parents knew.

And yet. The language, food, myths, and music of Iran are deeply woven into the fabric of my identity.

The warmth of the community, visiting the home of a khaleh (aunt) for dinner, taking far too long to say goodbye, one kiss on each cheek. Grandparents on long walks, picking citrus from trees along the way, coming home with big bags to share, meticulously peeling the fruit as if to elevate it to an art form. Dancing at mehmoonis (parties) with every generation together in collective exaltation. Sharing rhythmic poetry. Cardamom tea. Hyacinths to greet the new year.

Still, there is deep generational trauma. Children who may never meet their grandparents, cousins who don’t speak the same language, and families broken. To wish that your family could one day be free. To hold your grandpa’s hand and see the world through his eyes. To learn your grandmother’s recipes beside her in the kitchen. To smell the air, taste the fruit, visit the villages of one’s ancestors, explore the cities, and see the skyline.

It’s a singular form of homesickness, one that those in diaspora communities will likely find all too familiar. I love a place I’ve never been and yearn for a place I’ll never go.

All of this has shaped me as a person, and is inextricably connected to my work as a designer.

How my Iranian-American identity shapes me as a designer

My history has broadened me. It encourages me to delve deeper, get to the root of things, listen to people and their stories. From the pain of witnessing violence and oppression blossoms compassion and concern for the human experience. I’m a more empathetic person because of my history. I don’t take people at face value; I seek to recognize their humanity and the ways they meaningfully contribute to our shared world. At its core, design is about using empathy to discover the heart of a problem. This is what drew me to the field and keeps me engaged.

Navigating a dual cultural identity means a lifetime of seeing two ways of doing the same thing, each with its strengths and weaknesses. This has taught me to be less enmeshed in a single viewpoint, to observe things with an almost anthropological perspective that’s mirrored in the way I design. I‘m able to step back from a specific design direction and examine it from a different angle. This allows me to generate novel strategies for addressing a problem. Moreover, my design work takes an inclusive approach, recognizing the diverse range of people who’ll interact with the surfaces I create.

Similarly, in product development lifecycles, I honor the point of view of each team member across distinct cross-functional roles. I engage them in design-thinking activities and encourage them to contribute to the design process. This collaborative approach is of the mindset that every team member has something novel to contribute because they possess a distinct worldview. I’ve found that this approach results in stronger outcomes.

When painful things are beyond our control, we have an opportunity to allow those experiences to bring us closer to ourselves.

Platforms for contributions

United for Iran is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization started and operated by Iranian activists, dissidents, and former political prisoners. They advance civil liberties and human rights in Iran by strengthening Iranian civil society, supporting Iranian freedom movements, and building people power through cutting edge research and technology.

The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center (ABC) is a non-governmental non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran.

The Child Foundation provides necessities to children living in poverty or hardship, enhancing the quality of life for these children and their respective families.

Arizona Persian Cultural Center is a non-political, non-religious and non-profit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of Arizona residents by promoting an awareness of the Iranian culture, heritage, language, history and contributions through education, music, dance, theater, art, food and sense of community.

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