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American dream

Laid-off GE worker opens her own gift shop that include Mexican folk arts, crafts

By LYRYSA SMITH, Staff writer
First published: Monday, August 26, 2002

The way Yamila Mustafa sees it, getting laid off from her dream job gave her the opportunity to make another dream come true.

She climbed the giant American corporate ladder for almost 10 years. Now she's at the top of her own little Mexican empire.

Mustafa, who is Mexican, was working in General Electric's Waterford office as the commercial finance analyst for the Latin America region when she was laid off a year ago. Now she owns Mexican Beauty, a gift shop selling Mexican folk art and crafts in Clifton Park. It opened at the beginning of the month.

"Everyone always said I had the nicest office in the whole GE plant and it was decorated with all these things from Mexico," says Mustafa, sweeping her hand at the earthenware pottery, gleaming pewter, intricate tin mirrors and brilliant talavera ceramics in her store. "This idea was in the back of my mind once GE starting cutting back. I realized that even with my combination of skills, no person is that important at the end of the day to such a big corporation. I thought, 'I'm Mexican, they probably want to send me back.' "

Her last day was Sept. 19, one week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Mustafa hunted for jobs all over the country, but with the economy in a tailspin, she had no luck.

"Finally, I tell myself, 'You are Mexican and bilingual. You have finance and business experience, including starting up a small business and import-export. You love the art of Mexico and love to share it, and it's not available in upstate New York,' " recalls Mustafa, 35. "So, I went home (to Tampico, Mexico), met with suppliers, checked out merchandise and decided to do it."

The perfect mix of brains, background and Latina chutzpah led Mustafa, step by step, to Mexican Beauty.

Growing up

By the age of 15, Mustafa went to work in the morning and school in the afternoon to help her parents pay for education expenses.

"My parents had this great vision to have all their kids speak English," says Mustafa, who is one of six children. All of them attended a private English-speaking school in Tampico, from kindergarten through 12th grade. "My parents are not wealthy, though, and the school is very expensive."

In college, Mustafa majored in finance and worked as an accountant's assistant and then as the comptroller of a small family-owned computer business. In graduate school, Mustafa was the store manager of Mailboxes, Etc. in Tampico and got her first taste of international trade.

Mustafa began working with General Electric Plastics in Tampico as an import-export specialist soon after she earned her MBA from the University of Tamaulipas in 1992.

It had never crossed her mind to leave Tampico, where she still lived with her family, but two years later, Mustafa arrived at the GE offices in Waterford to interview for the position of customer service specialist for the entire Latin America region.

"There was tons of snow. So much snow," Mustafa says, shaking her head in disbelief. "I didn't know if I'd get the job. When I got the call three weeks later, I was really happy. I was psyched."

Her mother had a different reaction.

"Mom was furious. 'What?! What are you going to do? You don't know anybody there. It's so far away. All your friends and family are here. You've lived here your whole life. Why go there?' " Mustafa exclaims, mimicking her mother's intensity. "Fortunately, my father was instantly supportive."

After weeks of convincing her mother that the job was an important step for her career, Mustafa had 11th-hour doubts about being the first family member to move to the United States.

"It didn't strike me until the night before, lying in my bed. I was all packed and had my one-way ticket to Albany, and I thought, 'What am I doing?' I knew it was too late to go back. I cried all night," says Mustafa, her huge eyes filling with tears with the memory of saying goodbye to her family.

GE employees helped her acclimate to the Capital Region and made her transition easy, says Mustafa. She got an apartment in Clifton Park, loved her new job right away and made new friends quickly -- all of which made her layoff, seven years later, very difficult.

Once Mustafa decided to open her gift shop, the months of preparation, paperwork and hard work of unpacking hundreds of delicate items came easy. She plans to make three or four buying trips to Mexico annually.

History and legends

Today, Mexican Beauty is filled with products that represent dozens of artisans from many of the diverse regions and states of Mexico. Mustafa knows the history, legends and meanings behind the art and crafts. The store's name, its logo of papel picado (a punched paper decoration) and even the colors Mustafa selected for her business card represent the warmth and friendship of Mexico. They also reflect her innovation and pride.

"The idea is to bring new things in all the time so people can see new art each time they come," says Mustafa. "I have a lot of work to do, but I'm excited and I love doing this. It reconnects me to Mexico and I get to share my culture with this part of New York state. This is my new home, and I want to share my homeland with people here."

Mustafa says being self-employed is challenging and not getting a steady paycheck is scary. But even on slow days, when few people find Mexican Beauty on Route 9, Mustafa is full of faith.

"Las cosas sucedan algo," she says, exuding confidence. "Things happen for a reason."

To suggest a person for this feature, drop a note to: A Day's Work, Features Department, Times Union, P.O. Box 15000, Albany, NY 12212 or e-mail to lsmith@timesunion.com.


Where: 1733 Route 9, D&G Village, Clifton Park

Hours: Open daily

Info: 373-3450 and http://www.mexicanbeautygiftshop.com

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