Being a Persian woman, involved in the empowerment of women across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, March gives me a unique opportunity to write. This is the month of Women's awareness with International Women's Day on the 8th and Women's History month throughout, as well as NoRooz, which translates literally to a "New Day", and is the celebration of the New Year for so many millions of people across the landscape that my work takes me.
In this piece, as I have done in others, I will celebrate an Iranian-American woman who has achieved much in a new land called Home. Look for other posts this month on women, Islam and the need to give voice to the voiceless.
NoRooz is a holiday which dates back at least 3000 years. It translates literally to a "New Day" and is marked by the moment Winter turns to Spring - the Vernal Equinox.
NoRooz is celebrated by millions of people living in countries as diverse as China and Turkey, and so many in between. For Persians, it is our strongest point of pride. It is the moment that brings us all together, from various religions and social beliefs to economic realities and ideological tendencies, we all see the moment that Winter turns to Spring, as the moment that we reclaim our common Persian heritage.
Each year I, and so many like me, retell the stories of No Rooz gone-by to our children who stare wide eyed at a fantasy of an Iranian life they missed.
In comes Shabnam Rezaei and her bi lingual, multi-cultural cartoon cohort, Babak.
Babak is an 8 year old boy who celebrates his first NoRooz in the US, with his Persian family. He was given life in 2005 by Big Bad Boo, a company Shabnam co-founded, after 10 years in finance with Fortune 500 companies such as JP Morgan and Deloitte & Touche, to make cartoons exposing kids to various cultures and languages. As a Persian woman, Shabnam faced a stereotype, against which she would bump up increasingly more often after the 911 attacks. A secular, educated Persian woman, she found it odd that people would greet her achievements outside the home with surprise. Bolstered by the support of a tireless entrepreneur as a husband, Shabnam started Big Bad Boo Productions to create content that could help dispel the myths of so many ethnicities and nationalities that were lumped together and misunderstood. It's safe to say, she has found a thriving niche.
The reality of content today is that people find most of it at their own convenience, online. What has become known as Over the Top Television (OTT) has created a market where consumers can seek, and expect to find, niche content. The market for bilingual entertainment in particular is growing at a record pace. More than 33% of US households consider themselves bilingual, which translates to 26 million people. Rezaei estimates this to be a $12 Billion market opportunity. "Not only are families cutting cable and going to OTT platforms at an alarming rate, but more and more customers are finding they are able to get the content they are looking for, and that keeps them coming back for more". Rezaei's plan is to continue to capitalize on this market, and keep creating content that helps introduce the world's children to each other, in various languages and cultural reflections that foster acceptance.
After the success of Big Bad Boo Studios with its line-up of productions including Babak & Friends - A First Norooz, and its newest show Lila & Lola, Shabnam is expanding to an online kids channel for global children called Oznoz. A tech savvy executive, Shabnam uses the internet to corralle support and draw from a global talent pool. Lila & Lola's logo was the subject of a Facebook poll among loyal fans and friends who want to see the shows succeed. Oznoz is similar to Netflix and made for bilingual children. With shows like Elmo's World, Sesame Street, Babar, Bob The Builder, Musti and others translated into Persian, Chinese, French, Spanish, Japanese, Hindi and German, Oznoz is carving out a loyal following of parents who want less mindless TV in their children's lives, but don't mind the meaningful screen time to expand their horizons. Oznoz gives parents the control they need to stream what they like, choosing from a well curated selection of educational shows that teach so much more than languages - they prepare kids for adulthood in a globe replete with diverse people with rich cultures worthy of respect.
Shabnam's work has been recognized broadly for her work, and recently won Vancouver's 40 Under 40 Award as well as Canada's Woman Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
Equipped with an in house Head of Research & Development, her daughter Aliana, Shabnam has created a digital platform for global children to get to know each other seamlessly, without the intrusion of stereotypes and news headlines that threaten to unravel the common bond children seem to form so naturally - the need to giggle in front of a screen. For me, in my household of 3 little Iranian-Americans, Babak and Friends was a heaven-sent around this time of year many years ago. It helped me demonstrate to them that other kids were experiencing the same uneasy introduction to NoRooz - its sights, smells, traditions and flavors - as they were, and that was ok. Since then, we nod to Babak each year, as we set our haft seen and begin the countdown to No Rooz; a New Day.