In 2008 a national public opinion survey found that two thirds of all Americans do not personally know an Iranian American. As a result, it suggested, the public's overall impression of Iranian Americans is largely based on the reductive one-dimensional image of Iranians found in the media and in reports on Iran. It is therefore not surprising that today's Iranian Americans have an overriding desire to be defined on their own terms, rather than in relation to the background drama of international politics or the baggage of the Iranian revolution.
The rest of the country is beginning to agree, if The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA)'s first-ever sold out event at UCLA's Royce Hall on May 10th, is any indicator. The PAAIA's mission, according to board member Dr. Sharon Baradaran, "is to create an influential community voice by promoting participation of Iranian Americans in all spheres of American life, and to create a sense of pride among the youth by showcasing the vast contributions of Iranian Americans to the larger society." The event, Passing The Torch of Success, showcased six Iranian American men and women who fly in the face of stereotype, each holding key positions in some of the most recognizable institutions in this country. They included Ms. Parisa Khosravi, the senior vice president of international newsgathering for CNN Worldwide; Dr. Friouz Naderi, the associate director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Dr Pardis Sabeti, a Harvard University Professor in biological anthropology; Dr. Hamid Bigliari, the Vice Chairmain of Citicorp; Mr. Sam Nazarian, Founder and CEO of SBE; and Mr. Omid Kordestani, business founder of Google.
While each distinguished guest shared their story and inspired the audience to resist pigeon-holing via prevailing stereotypes -- whether in one's career choices or in building a community identity -- it was Dr. Hamid Bigliari's experience that most exemplified these ideals. His unique career path proves that personal evolution and growth, when allowed to develop in its own way, defies expectation. He's been a successful nuclear physicist, a management consultant, and is now a Wall Street executive -- three highly regarded and divergent fields. What's more, in each instance he changed careers just as he reached the pinnacle of success in his profession. It was his insatiable interest in the world around him that kept him striving for new challenges. And so rather than settling into a rigid destiny, he used the things he learned in each field to continually revaluate the situation, and to grow.
His success as a nuclear physicist, Dr Bigliari said, stemmed in part from the realization that insight into a particular situation depends on asking the right questions. "The hardest part of any undertaking is to narrow it down to the core issue that needs to be resolved, because too often, there is far more noise than information and it is very easy to be distracted by the noise." This sentiment suggests why the Iranian American growth in the U.S. has been so difficult for the rest country to see and embrace.
Perhaps we've been "distracted by the noise," in the form of exposure to stereotypical images of Iranians in popular culture. Perhaps it's time for everyone to "ask the right questions" instead. It is not only Iranian Americans who stand to gain by being seen for who they actually are, the country itself will benefit, given how much the Iranian community offers it.
Upon embarking on his second career as a management consultant, Dr. Bigliari underwent what he terms a "rebirth," mastering myriad unfamiliar skill sets in order to succeed in his new job. This "rebirth" is not unlike the transformation experienced by Iranian exiles, who had to learn to thrive in a new culture and to express themselves in a different language. They facilitated this change in much the same way Dr. Bigliari transformed himself into a management consultant -- by honing their skills as listeners. "Careful listening is one of the most under-recognized assets in the world," Dr. Bigliari told the audience in Royce Hall, "and it isn't just what is being said that matters. You learn as much about people from what they don't say."
This notion is at the core of the Iranian exilic identity formation. In the polarity between the U.S. -- where at first one may not readily belong -- and Iran -- where one is no longer welcome -- lies the creative and charged space of exilic identity. Many Iranian Americans no longer say they want to go back home; home is here now. Ideas about dating, marriage, work-family, and women's career goals have changed. And it is in these moments that such viewpoints are no longer repeated, and actions and rituals take on a "western" tone that diasporic assimilation emerges.
It was in his third incarnation, this time as a banker, that Dr. Bigliari learned the important difference between being a manager and being a leader. "At its essence, managers are concerned about doing things right. Leaders are concerned about doing the right things." This insight is directly relates to how we, as individuals, yearn to be leaders in our own respective lives. For Iranian Americans, reinventing themselves and a new career path in a foreign country has taken precedence. Their success is a testament to their ability to establish a new vision for their lives by "doing the right thing." They then proceeded "to do things right" by directing their efforts in an efficient and productive way. America presented this immigrant group with vast opportunities for growth and self-expression rarely enjoyed in their country of origin. Iranians are one of the most successful immigrant groups in the U.S. precisely because of their spirit for growth and entrepreneurship, their vision for a better life that takes into account the full spectrum of leadership skills.
Dr. Bigliari and the other five panelists generated much needed discourse about the immigrant experience -- the notions of self-definition, success, and the loss of self-representation. Now that the Iranian American community has become well-established, there is an even greater need for it to integrate itself in all spheres of American life, be it political, cultural, or economic. But like other immigrant groups, this community can only embrace a bigger role in the larger society by first acknowledging that its voice matters and that it has much to offer. The PAAIA's panel presentation was a huge inspirational step in that direction, demonstrating that regardless the ubiquitous stereotypical imagery, a person's spirit for growth and achievement far surpasses ethnic or religious boundaries.