Blown away by the Windy City

 

WILD GEESE: FIONA McENTEE: Founder of McEntee Law Group and hair salon Blowtique

FIONA McENTEE is only 30 years old, yet she already has two very different businesses under her belt – a law firm specialising in immigration and a blow dry-only hair salon.

The Chicago-based entrepreneur, originally from Dublin, is also planning to expand her hair salon business to four more locations.

Her journey to Chicago wasn’t easy. In 2002, the then UCD undergraduate got offered a place on an exchange programme to study law at DePaul University in Chicago. “The city felt right from the first few weeks of arriving. I knew Chicago was the place for me.”

She came back to UCD to complete her studies before returning to Chicago in 2005 to pursue a juris doctor degree at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “It was such a hassle to go back to Chicago to study law. I had to sit LSATs [Law School Admission Tests], which are college admission tests that everyone in America is practising from a young age, but something I had no experience in. I couldn’t even do them in Ireland so had to travel to London to sit them with no guarantee of ever getting a place.”

It was during her time at Chicago-Kent college of law that McEntee discovered immigration law. “I knew I wanted to work in an area connected with social affairs and human rights, but immigration was something I had never thought much about. A lot of people, when they think about immigration law, they think of undocumented people in the United States. They don’t think of proactive immigration. Anyone coming here not for a holiday needs a visa.”

McEntee wasn’t always her own boss. After graduating from Chicago-Kent in 2007, she got a job in immigration firm Visa Now, which organises thousands of visas each year for people to visit, work or join family members. The company also specialises in placing foreign nationals in US companies and in assisting placement of US employees in foreign locations.

“I worked in Visa Now for more than two years and the experience was invaluable . . . one year of experience there is worth 10 years at a general firm as it was so specialised.”

In 2009, she left Visa Now to set up her own practice. It took time to build up the business, though. “You have to prepare. You can’t sit there and expect work to come to you. You can’t expect the phone to ring off the hook.”

McEntee arranges visas for people to work in the US, for musicians to play gigs, for artists and fashion designers to put on shows. “I started representing Irish musicians such as The Coronas. It was good as they were repeat clients – they come here to perform every year.”

It was while running the law firm in Chicago that McEntee noticed a gap in the market for a blow-dry-only hair salon. “At home, a lot of people get their hair blow-dried, be it for a night out, a wedding or a special occasion. Such a thing doesn’t really exist here and, where it does, it is really expensive costing upwards of $80.

“People get their nails done every week here because it’s cheap, but not their hair. Even when you do go to the hairdressers to get your hair coloured or cut, you still won’t get a blow-dry included, despite forking out approximately $200.”

Having no experience with running hair salons herself, McEntee flew over her friend, Peter Mark-trained stylist Rhona Kane, from Ireland, to act as artistic director for the salon, called Blowtique. “We have 15 people employed at Blowtique at the moment and we are still recruiting. We want to have several locations around Chicago.”

Unlike setting up a law firm, location was of absolute importance for the hair salon, she says. “The main thing was finding a location and the location we have is unbelievable. The salon is surrounded by high-end residential condominiums.”

While she admits setting up a hair salon was a huge departure from her legal career, she says her work as an immigration attorney will still be her priority. “I think it is easier for Irish people to set up a business abroad than at home as there is a natural level of support here that you get from other Irish people. The Irish abroad really, really support each other.”

What about other Irish people thinking of emigrating to the US? “US companies love young Irish graduates as they are well-educated, eager and funny – which goes a long way here,” she says adding that companies are prepared to sponsor people if they prove themselves.

She admits that working in the US is tough, with people competing to work as many hours as possible. “When I first started working in Chicago I’d be in at 7am every morning and often I wouldn’t be out of the office until 1am.”

Another disadvantage of working in the US is the lack of holiday time.

“Irish people have it so good but they don’t realise it. They take the fact they have four weeks of paid holidays a year for granted. Over here, you could be working for several years before you’re allowed to take any paid holiday time.”

Despite the long-working hours and lack of holiday time, McEntee has no regrets about emigrating. “I would never be in the position – aged 30 – of having two businesses under my belt if I’d remained at home.”

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