Passionately Manufacturing Life, Art and Success
By Dawn Robinette
Photography by David Teran
When Mona Helmy shares that she’d tell her younger self to be herself faster, it’s easy to understand why. Helmy, CEO of Helmy Plastic Manufacturing, is caring, confident, passionate, talented and successful.
“When we’re young, it’s a journey. It takes time. The faster you become you, doing what you want to do in life—not what school taught you or culture implies—I would tell myself that I needed to become Mona faster. It’s a journey. It took me awhile to be comfortable with me, but the faster you get there, the happier you’ll be.”
“I advise everyone, any business owner, to just be authentic. Be transparent. Sometimes, it might work against you. But the majority of the time, it works for you. Be you. Speak your mind. Get to the point where you’re comfortable in your own skin.”
It’s great advice from someone who had to grow into leadership when she became CEO of the company she co-founded with her husband, Abe. The world shifted when Abe was diagnosed with cancer, a battle he ultimately lost in 2009. “The last month of his life, we were discussing the company and he said something about me running the company. I got very angry and said, ‘Both of us together can’t run it,’ because we were going through the recession.
“’How do you expect me to do it?’ He just looked at me and said, “Well, sell it or close it or auction it, but I know you can do it.’”
That simple advice has guided her. “It’s very simple, but it means the world when somebody needs that advice. It’s four words: You can do it. Sometimes, no matter how strong you are, you are not confident that you can do it and you need to hear it from somebody else.”
Flashing forward, there’s no doubt that Helmy found her way. Helmy Plastic Manufacturing is celebrating 33 years of success and Helmy herself was named Manufacturer of the Year by the San Antonio Manufacturer’s Association in 2020, the same year she was inducted into the San Antonio Women Hall of Fame.
Helmy serves on several Boards including the San Antonio Manufacturing Association, the San Antonio Women’s Chamber of Commerce and SA100, a community wide group of women leaders. She is also a member of the National Association Women Business Owners and Pacesetters. But that wasn’t always the case. “Abe loved people. He loved telling a story. I was very sheltered growing up and I was an introvert. I was behind the scenes.”
When she received the San Antonio Business Journal Family Business Leader Award, a light went off. “It was a very happy day, but also a sad day for me. When I walked into the reception, I had my family, but I looked around and everyone was hugging each other and shaking hands. Everybody knew everybody, but I didn’t know anyone in the community because I was always behind the scenes.
“That was the day I decided to get involved.”
She jumped into organizations and began volunteering. “And I love every minute of it. My advice to other women is to do it much sooner than I did because you learn so much. And building your network is an asset to your growth.”
When COVID hit, those organizations shifted to online events and meetings, something Helmy ultimately learned to embrace to stay connected. But navigating the pandemic for Helmy Plastics was a bigger challenge. “It brought back memories of 2009. My brain started working, ‘I’ve got to do something to save my company, to save my employees. We’re a very small, humble company. We’re innovative. Our biggest strength has been our ability to adapt. And that’s how the shield product came. I wanted to come up with something that would help my community.”
Helmy began manufacturing clear face shields to help protect from COVID spread. It landed Helmy on the cover of the “The San Antonio Business Journal” with a headline, “Adapt or Die”.
“That had a huge impact on me. The manufacturing adapted, but how is Mona going to adapt?” she explained. “Life is short. I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
That meant digging back to a love of art that began when she entered a design contest in second grade, submitting a design for a Persian rug. Still living in her native Syria, she won second prize and her teacher gave her tips to help her art grow.
Helmy immigrated to San Antonio with her family when she was an adolescent and ultimately graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a BFA in Architecture. “At the time, the architecture school was in the same building as the art school. I’d see the art students and their work and say, ‘I’d love to do that one day.’”
A side hobby she occasionally enjoyed, her family took notice and gave her art supplies as gifts, but she never really had the time to dedicate to it. Then the pandemic hit.
“Everyone was scared, including me, because we were dealing with the unexpected and everybody was evaluating life. I was overwhelmed with the shield project at work. But I had all of these art supplies. So I pulled everything in and I challenged myself to paint every day. ‘I’m going to paint every day and put out as many art babies as I can.”
She began sharing those “art babies” on social media, posting pictures of the works that fuse her imagination with culture, family and her upbringing in abstract ways. And her social feeds began blowing up with compliments – and requests to buy her work. Her paint passion/COVID coping mechanism continue to blossom and her art passion project, Mona Helmy Art, was born.
Helmy was shocked. “It’s just combining imagination with culture,” she explains, but when you see the stunning results, it’s hard to believe that it’s just a hobby. She now has a dedicated group of fans – and customers. “Selling your work brings a completely different feeling. It validates what you’re doing. When a complete stranger buys your art, it takes it to a completely different level. It’s a part of you, something you created, and it’s now in someone else’s home.”
“I have the same feeling when I see our plastic products. When we started, our mission was to bring ideas to life. The first time I saw one of our products in use, I thought, ‘We did this’. It’s the same with my art, bringing ideas to life, but in a different format.”
Combining her community commitment with her art, she’s now selling works to benefit the nonprofit community and has had local art shows to support organizations like SA Youth. “I love combining art and charity to bring awareness. I have such respect for the organizations that put so much effort into helping our community.”
While the titles of CEO and artist are important to Helmy, nothing compares to being mom to her adult children, Sara and Jonathan, and grandmother to Annie, Sara’s one-year-old daughter. “Family means so much to me. It’s part of my culture and how I grew up, surrounded by a loving family. But losing Abe, I became more loving and protective. I had to be mom and dad to my kids.”
She uses her own family background as inspiration for how to parent. “My family was so loving. Now that I’m at an older age, I realize that my mom and dad were not rich. We were middle class or lower middle class. We never knew that because they provided so much love that we didn’t see the other parts of the equation, whether we had money or not. We just grew up full of love and care.
“That’s what motivates me: keeping the people around me happy, putting a smile on their faces. I feel very responsible for my team, for my kids.
“Each day, I look forward to learning something new and putting a smile on somebody’s face. And going through the day without wronging anyone. If I can accomplish these three things, I’m a happy camper.
“Success is looking back at your life in your final moment and being able to say, I faced it all, I stood tall and I did it my way. ”