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Management Sheena Shehnaz Zain: ‘I have to be reminded every day can’t be great’

Sheena Shehnaz Zain, owner of Aziz & Company pose for a picture at her store September 21, 2016 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Sheena Shehnaz Zain, 46, owns Aziz & Co., a boutique store that opened on Oct. 1, 1964, in Ottawa.

My father came here in the late 1950s to see if Canada was a better place for the children he wanted someday. He went back to India, married my mother and they came back in 1964. Both were educated and spoke fluent English. My father sold goods door-to-door. My mother was a shopkeeper's daughter and wanted to work, to breastfeed and not work for someone who said where and when, so she told him they'd open a store. She wore a sari every day until I was a teenager; I'd get, "Why does your mother wear a bedsheet?"

I changed my name to Sheena. Nobody could say Shehnaz, it was Schnoz; they spelled it like that in the yearbook. In the seventies, nobody tried to pronounce your name, nobody asked how to pronounce it. I never was ashamed; it was an accommodation to not make me cringe hearing my own name. I made 'Zain' to reflect patrilineage and matrilineage and was never going to change it when I got married.

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I have an honours BA in theatre studies from York University. For first-generation parents, they were very gracious [to let me leave Ottawa for school]; said they came here to let us have better lives. I love Toronto, and lived by myself two years. For some immigrants, that is a little unusual because parents expect you to stay home until you're married.

My father had heart attacks in 1991 then 1996, and couldn't work any more. A cousin who's a doctor said, 'It's the beginning of the end.' So I moved back. I didn't have one day saying, "I work for a theatre company."

My sister [Jasmine] took over the store but had another job, with a paycheque. Through the grief of my father passing away [in 1998], part of my brain thought, 'I'm going back to Toronto. Here comes my door opening.' There was a blossoming friendship with a PhD student [Reid, her future husband] who was living in Toronto. We got engaged in February and he got a job in June with Foreign Affairs [now Global Affairs] in Ottawa.

My husband was posted to Delhi from 2002 to 2004. That post, really living in India for the first time, made me really see everything in my life differently, and especially the store – it gave me a much deeper appreciation for the handcraft of it all – it made me proud to offer these things because I felt connected in a way I hadn't before.

I asked my sister and my mom if they were really okay with letting me be in charge of everything, and they both said yes. I took over in the fall of 2013.

The hardest part is inconsistences; a great day, a great week – then suddenly not. I have to be reminded every day can't be great.

I do my absolute best to not buy products made by child labour. My sister started that. We use Canadian values in a way we couldn't have expected my parents to think about. Their struggle was to raise us, put us through school – it was a sacrifice for us to grow up where we could look at privilege. I have fair trade, and Made-in-Canada lines of solid-coloured leggings and tops that pair perfectly with Indian prints – that's what I call 'win-win!'

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I'm a baseball fan because of my mother. Amid all the newness, she fell absolutely, insanely committed-in-love with baseball: the Expos, then the Blue Jays. She knew every team and player. My dad bought a four-inch-square television for the kitchen so she could watch all the games.

Feminist February is absolutely me selfishly using the store to forward what I think is important. When [customers] are being checked out, I ask 'Are you a feminist?' They say, with utter aplomb, 'Of course.' What's surprising is young women [saying] 'No, I don't call myself a feminist.' When I recite the definition, there's that head-scratching moment of, 'What? Yeah, I am a feminist.' One gentleman and woman argued about being humanists. I tried to explain you can't be humanist without being feminist.

As told to Cynthia Martin. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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