Monday 16 September 2019

Legally Blonde... entrepreneur and lawyer Fiona McEntee is the newest diaspora success story

With a recent appearance in Vogue, entrepreneur and lawyer, Fiona McEntee is the newest diaspora success story. But, she says it hasn't all been plain sailing

Fiona McEntee has featured in American Vogue and on US national television
Fiona McEntee has featured in American Vogue and on US national television
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

As I wearily pushed my bike up the hill at UCD in 2002 I couldn't help wondering how it came to be that so many of the girls in my law class had model good looks, blonde hair and cars. Intelligent, beautiful and, crucially, not windswept and bedraggled like me: How had life been so good to them on all fronts? "Simple" a friend of mine responded.

"Wealthy businessman father marries beautiful woman who bears him beautiful daughter - for whom he buys a car. Beauty, wealth and intelligence are all connected - it's not fair, it's Darwinian." In fact both of Fiona McEntee's parents were businesspeople - they ran a chain of beauty salons and barber shops in different parts of south Dublin - but she was beautiful, with immaculate blonde tresses. And she did have a car. The Darwinism didn't end in college however. All these years later it still looks like natural selection that she has become one of our year's more illustrious alumni: In the decade since I cogged her company law notes she set up her own legal practice in Chicago, introduced her fellow Yanks to the concept of a decent blow dry through her own chain of beauty salons, made friends with rock stars, been featured in American Vogue and on national television in the US and was recently honoured at a gala in New York as one of the 40 most important Irish under 40. Oh and had a child and got married with the other hand.

It hasn't all been a gilded passage for the 33-year-old, however. "It can be very tough living away from Ireland", she tells me. "Life moves on without you. People here (in Chicago) often assume that you want to move to the US if you grow up in Ireland but that isn't the case at all. Even though I've always had a great support structure around me emotionally, it can be difficult being an immigrant. As an immigration attorney here I've seen undocumented Irish people who can't go home for a relative's funeral. These are people who add to the cultural and business life in the US. It's inhumane."

She knows whereof she speaks. After finishing in UCD and completing her juris doctorate in Chicago, Fiona was faced with the gruelling Illinois bar exam (in UCD an Irish-American lawyer had warned us of the US bar exams: "you will lose weight, hair and possibly sanity"). As the day of the exam approached however her grandmother lay deathly ill. She passed away shortly before Fiona sat the exam and, by awful coincidence, a close family friend, Joan - "who was truly like an aunt to me" - passed away around the same time. Her mother urged her not to come home for the grandmother's funeral and did not even tell her about Joan as she feared that Fiona would be too upset to sit the exam. "I didn't come home for my grandmother's funeral, which was such a tough thing. When Joan was dying I rang mum and she said to me 'we're all fine, we're just sitting here watching Friends'."

Fiona's parents also helped her out with the college fees as it's impossible to get a loan in the US unless you've lived there for a while, and would go on to pass the exam, and worked in immigration clinics as part as law school. She won the prestigious Calley Award which is given out to the best young lawyer in the city and after a year working in a law firm in the city of Chicago, decided to go out on her own, an immigrant specialising in immigration law. "It was tough at the start", she recalls.

"I won't say the phone was exactly ringing off the hook the first day but slowly but surely we built a great client base and a reputation. Americans are so much better at promoting themselves, Irish people tend to say thing like 'oh I'm only OK at this' whereas Americans will put themselves out there. There's a way to do it without being brash or full of yourself, I had to learn that."

She would go on to specialise in handling visa applications for a lot of prominent Irish musicians, including The Boomtown Rats, Clannad and The Coronas who she knew from her teenage years growing up in Knocklyon. "I remember going to see them as an eighteen year old - they were friends of my little brother - and just thinking, these guys are really, really good. It's incredible how your paths can cross with someone in life again."

If work anchored Fiona in Chicago, it was love and family that helped her put down roots. After moving to Chicago to do her masters a friend of hers in the city tried to set her up with Brian Sajdak, the man who would become her husband. Brian works in a juvenile detention centre in Chicago. "When I was brought over we were brought to these American Pie-type parties with this guy called Dave, he had been friends with Brian going back to when they were altar boys together. They were talking about the guy like he was my future husband but I'd never met him. It started as a joke and turned into this big hoopla, it's like you think you're moving thousands of miles from home and then you get there and there's matchmakers just like there was at home in the old days! But they turned out to be totally right. He proposed in my parents house in Knocklyon on Christmas Eve."

That was six years ago. When her family and friends began arriving over to the US for the wedding, she and her mother were astonished at how difficult it was to get a decent salon-standard hairdo for the wedding. (Hair is important to Fiona. Early in my journalism career I did a piece on Olympic swimmer Michelle De Bruin and interviewed her to see if she had any memories of De Bruin, who had also studied law in UCD. De Bruin's chlorine-frazzled tresses were the main thing that seemed to stand out. "And she was a spokesperson for Pantene!" she wails). And so just as Columbus brought the potato to America, so Fiona decided she would introduce the concept of the blow dry to Chicagoans.

"All the women were in absolute disbelief that there was nowhere to get a blow dry. In some places you had to blow dry your own hair after spending a fortune getting highlights done." Call the consulate! "And I said to my mum, 'come on let's just do it and do it now before it's too late' - there were other salons popping up in New York and LA, and the timing just seemed right."

Colin Farrell famous observed that Irish women are hairier than their American counterparts, did Fiona notice cultural differences with how American women present themselves? "It depends on the city you're in", she says. "In Chicago, even though it's a big city it's still the American midwest and that means they're more low key than the women in the cities on the coasts. In terms of dress everyone's much more casual here. We love getting dolled up and wearing fake tan. I never wear fake tan now even though it would've been my number one thing before. Maybe part of that low key approach is not really knowing too much about blow dries - we still have very well heeled women asking us things like 'do we need to arrive with our hair washed?' and things like that." Shocking. The launch of the first salon, just off Michigan Avenue, prompted a blizzard of press and was covered in the Chicago Tribune and Fox News and was recently featured in America's style bible, Vogue. Its celebrity clients have included The Real Housewives Of Chicago. Due to her success Fiona was one of the Irish Echo's 40 under 40 - something she describes as a "huge honour."

These days, Fiona still practises as a lawyer and is also a prominent campaigner for immigration reform - she can talk at length about the injustices facing the undocumented Irish in the US and of the creativity needed to overcome their plight. She also juggles two businesses with motherhood. Baby Rose was born to her and Brian just over a year ago. "It's been incredible, all the cliches are true, it changes your life so completely," she tells me.

"It definitely makes you much more organised as well. You have to get things done when you can. My parents sort of split their time between Chicago and Ireland now, they've been a huge help to us." And she says that it's the founding of a family more than anything else that really binds you to America. "When people talk about home now I tell them 'this is home."

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