Crashing The Coffee Gender Barrier With Iran’s First Female Roaster

Shylee Mosali has much to be proud of. As the first female coffee roaster in Iran, and one of the country’s most reputable coffee experts, she has faced considerable discrimination and injustice—and her main weapon to fight back is with knowledge, expertise, and a focus on quality. Today Mosali is proud that she can have conversations about specialty coffee with her grandfather, and that nowadays, her mother drinks high quality brewed coffee instead of the cheap stuff.

The journey to this reality was no easy road.

Shylee Mosali was born in Qazvin, a town near the capital city of Iran. A nerdy kid who overcame her shyness only to protect her younger brother from bullies, she lost her father at age 13. With this tragedy came great change, and she and her two siblings were raised by a single mother who worked and went to school at the same time.

Mosali took on her mother’s independence and determination. She grew up hearing the story of how her mother, armed with her first paycheck, bought her grandmother a piece of jewelry to mark her independence. But with a sense of tradition and obligation, Mosali followed a path towards becoming a doctor.

After two failed attempts at the medical school entrance exam, Mosali settled for a Clinical Laboratory Science major and a dream of an independent life in a large city. Armed with an education, and against the will of her conservative family, Mosali moved to Tehran at the age of 21. “I did it but I had no faith in myself and I was sad and depressed,” Mosali tells me, “but if I had told even a little bit about this to my mother, she would have forced me to cancel my plans and move back to my hometown.”

New to city life, Mosali slowly began to exercise the independent streak she learned as a child. She met a new group of creative friends, started dating, and began hanging out at a local cafe. Her time spent socializing in a cafe would soon prove to be more formative than any of her school classes.

With no previous experience and no expectations, she applied for a job at Sam Coffee Roasters and got it. Historically, her family would have found it shameful for an educated and financially stable woman to work as a restaurant or cafe employee—so Mosali hid this part of her life from her family.

Her first training at work was about coffee—what else?—and Mosali stunned the room by earning the top score among 50 coworkers, including the baristas. “Only two months passed and I already had a great feeling of being seen and appreciated at work,” Mosali remembers, “which definitely helped to be able to ignore the negative thoughts about me working in a cafe.”

Because of her educational background, the chemistry part of coffee science and botany caught her attention mostly and triggered her enthusiasm about the world of coffee. Cafe work was tough and her circumstances felt a bit strange, but Mosali excelled at her new secret cafe life. She did a lot of research, read many books, practiced a lot during training, and continued to rise through the ranks at work. After a few months, she was promoted to a prominent barista position at Sam Coffee Roasters in Tehran.

With this achievement in place, it was time to end the secrets, and to proudly invite her mother to the cafe to share her new home.

The visit was joyful. To celebrate, Shylee Mosali bought a piece of jewelry for her mother, just as her mother did for her grandmother when she went to work almost 30 years earlier.

Years passed, and Shylee continued to excel at Sam Coffee Roasters. After 36 months of prominent barista work, the company chose Mosali to train to become its next coffee roaster. This was a major moment for Mosali, and also represented an historic accomplishment in Iran’s male-dominated coffee community.

The truth is, Shylee Mosali is the first woman in all of Iran to work professionally as a coffee roaster, and for a nationally recognized, prominent company like Sam Coffee Roasters, the impact cannot be overstated. “I felt all that effort and hard work finally paid back,” she says. “It was a dream come true for sure!”

As Iran’s first female-identified roaster, Mosali sees herself as a node for future change in the country’s growing coffee industry. Mosali believes all human beings are equal and capable; this sentiment draws no line or distinction between men and women. She instead prefers to be evaluated for the quality of her work and expertise rather than her position as a woman. She also rejects the novelty that comes with roasting in Iran and instead sees coffee as an international phenomenon with no border.

“I strongly believe having sexist views in my profession or even limiting myself to a specific geographical location does nothing good for anyone. This can’t stop me from pursuing my dreams.”

Her curious and rebellious character is what led her to break social norms and taboos around cafe culture and coffee consumption, but for her, it doesn’t stop at Sam Coffee Roasters. With dreams of working for a big multinational coffee roastery chain and eventually starting her own small boutique roastery—perhaps far from Tehran—she strives to motivate and educate the next generation of Shylees in Iran. Until then, she’ll stay deep in the science of coffee, pushing boundaries, obsessing over flavors, and savoring her own quality time with the fruits of possibility.

Shahriar Azimi is a coffee professional and freelance journalist based in Tehran. This is Shahriar Azimi’s first feature for Spudge.