Professional Development

Photo by Studio 306

Collaborative change agent

Mahtab Rezai embraces her bicultural identity as both immigrant and American

By Sue Hawkes

As I was watching the making of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning megahit “Hamilton” on PBS, I was powerfully reminded that the vast majority of us are immigrants in this country. I know that sounds painfully obvious, however — being several generations removed from my relatives who transplanted in Minnesota — I’ve almost completely disassociated myself from that reality. This was further emphasized as Mahtab Rezai, principal and CEO at Crux Collaborative, and I discussed why she emphasizes collaboration in all areas of her life. She uses her unique perspective as both an American and first generation immigrant from Iran to help educate others on acceptance, inclusion and the fact that America is a collaboration in itself.

Collaboration at work

As a business owner, Mahtab integrates how she personally and professionally operates. “Crux Collaborative is my prototype of what a workplace can be,” she shares. “People show up with their full selves. Our business proves that you can laugh every day at work and also demonstrate incredible expertise and professionalism.” Mahtab works on transactional experiences for regulated industries like health care and financial services, and while these aren’t the sexiest industries, she finds they have the largest opportunity for innovation. “I know things about how humans interact with software. My clients know the critical things about the data and types of plans there are and what the limitations are. The people who use this are the ones who really know what they need. I love being able to create a construct where I’m able to bring all of us together to create a solution.”

Collaboration in identity

Mahtab’s identity is a collaboration as well. “I identify as American wholeheartedly. I also identify as an immigrant wholeheartedly,” she shares. “To me, these are great things. They are not contradictions and the term ‘American’ can house all of them.” Mahtab’s family came to the United States when she was six years old in order for her father to study English. A few months after they arrived, there was a fundamental Islamic revolution and as members of the Baha’i faith, they needed to find a way to stay in the U.S. to escape religious persecution in Iran. She spent part of her childhood growing up in married student housing at the University of Minnesota and watched as her parents went to school, got jobs and learned English. “My parents integrated pretty quickly within one generation,” says Mahtab. “We are the only country in the world that creates people who come in as one nationality and then identify as American within one to two generations.” Mahtab is passionate and definitively states, “Integration happens. That is the American story.”

Still work to do

“It’s incontrovertible, America is getting Browner,” Mahtab continues. “The color of America is changing, but the spirit of it is very much intact.” There are still people in our society who do not accept this, however, and Mahtab feels “the inability to see that is really heartbreaking.”  As an example, she shares the Toni Morrison quote: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate,” and this speaks to Mahtab because she experiences this kind of othering herself.  “White is still the societal norm and standard, so everything else is up for questioning,” she explains. Her parents taught her to cope in this white-centric world as she was growing up, telling her “You have to be twice as good, twice as prepared and twice as effective to get half the credit.” Even now Mahtab believes she needs “to be excellent in order to sometimes be categorized as able.”

Collaborative connector

This experience is a contradiction to the immigration and collaborative identity that is both the history and current reality of the United States. It is Mahtab’s personal mission to help make Toni Morrison’s quote no longer true, and she sees herself “as a connector and educator to help people understand these realities exist.” Mahtab admits as a person of color it can be tiring feeling like “the spokesperson for an entire race,” yet she sees it as her role. “If I don’t do this, who will?” she asks. Collaboration is her solution for change. “It is about introducing concepts and working together to evolve. It is not about distributing blame and shame,” says Mahtab. “It is about collaborating with others to bring awareness so they can look inward and examine their reactions to people who are different from them. It’s about doing this in a way that makes people feel safe enough to have these conversations even though it may be awkward and uncomfortable at first.”

Mahtab Rezai is a true leader, one who includes and uplifts all people through collaboration. Through her work at Crux Collaborative she combines the expertise of her staff, data from her clients and survey research to create solutions that provide exceptional user experiences. She draws on her perspective as both an American and immigrant to help others embrace that America “is becoming browner” and is a collaboration of people and identities. She believes this is part of the evolution of the U.S.: “All of us are collectively developing the skills and ability to have these conversations and reframe what we think is normal or standard. When collaboration works, it feels like alchemy. It almost feels magical. I love working with people to create things together, and make transformative changes.”

More about Mahtab Rezai

  • What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned? “Creativity, innovation and success are the work of great teams.”
  • What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self? “The things you think are going to break you are actually the things that are going to transform you.”
  • What advice would you give to women in business? “Success doesn’t mean following established patterns and frameworks that were created by men.”
  • How do you measure success? “Success is meeting your objectives and having had a great time doing it. I don’t think it’s successful if you met your objectives and everyone is miserable.”
  • Is there balance? “Balance comes in moments, it’s not a destination. There are moments you achieve balance and then you go out of it. Balance is about push and pull.”
  • What is your best go-to source of inspiration? “Spending time by bodies of water.”
  • What have you read that people should read? “Fiction that’s written by immigrants; they are amazing narratives and give a humanity and perspective into the lives of people in a way that reading an academic paper or research article wouldn’t.”
  • What’s your best habit or practice? “Every night before we go to bed my husband, my kids and I say what our favorite thing was that happened in the day.”
  • Looking to improve your user experience? Contact Crux Collaborative


Sue Hawkes, CEO of YESS!, is a Certified EOS Implementer, Certified Business Coach, WPO Chapter Chair, bestselling author and award-winning entrepreneur. She has been helping entrepreneurs and leadership teams succeed for the past 20+ years.