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Celebrating Iranian-American Women On International Women's Day

03/06/2015 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Celebrated globally on March 8th, International Women's Day represents an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of inspirational women while calling for greater equality. It is in this spirit that I would like to highlight the acts of courage and determination by these seven extraordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their communities.

In many countries around the world, women remain an untapped economic potential. According to the International Labor Organization, there are 812 million women living in developing countries with the potential to contribute more fully to their economies. Furthermore, there is a direct correlation between the policies in place to support women, the opportunities available to women and women's success in business. How do you think empowering women has the potential to shape society? -- Gew.co

Nikmanesh: Shaping a society is directly related to creating a balance. Creating a true understanding among both genders that assuming "roles" assigned to us by the norms dictated by society only creates a predisposition to further believing or the illusion that deviating from these roles would throw the society into an imbalance. And hence stalling us from expressing the desire to explore, experience and expand.

Ravanbach: Empowering women has a direct effect on their earning power and economic freedom. This freedom, In turn, allows a woman to not only make decisions that better her personal living standards but it also allows a woman to raise the next generation of children with a different perspective than what was, perhaps, handed down to them. This is of utmost importance in developing countries where the models of power have been etched in stone mostly by laws that limit the socioeconomic fluidity for women. The generational benefits of economic freedom are long term, as are the benefits of having a diverse working force where women can contribute to the larger picture of helping emerging countries have a voice as international players.

I recently started a second branch of my business in the middle east and a greater majority of my working incentive has been partnering up with women and contributing to their economic freedom. Giving these women the opportunity to run and establish their own careers will eventually shift the models and policies that have made them, for a lack of a better word, second hand citizens. And nothing makes me more proud than watching these girls roll up their sleeves and take their futures into their own hands.

Women still represent only five of Fortune 500 CEOs. And more worrisome is that the number has been stagnant for a decade. What do you believe is the solution? -- Sheryl Sandberg

Akhlaghi: I believe that the untapped economic potential we discussed in developing countries, can also be witnessed in mature economic markets. The fact that women represent five percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs, directly points to the lack of strong networks and support systems for women. A new study released by the Global Entrepreneurship Development Institute (GEDI), and funded by Dell, evaluated 30 economies considered developed or developing. The results of the study showed that more than 75 percent of these countries failed to meet the fundamental conditions necessary for females to prosper in business environments. The study went on to identify the favorable conditions needed to enable women to thrive in those same environments. Key recommendations were to "implement support programs to activate the growth of high-potential women" and furnish "leadership training." Linking women at the top with women seeking to move up in the direction of CEO, is critical. Mentor/mentee relationships are vital to the process. It is smart business to invest in the woman. It's sound thinking for the workplace community.

Ansary: Given the obvious severity of this imbalance, the problem and solution appear to two-fold: First and foremost is the fact that gender parity continues to be framed and looked upon predominately as a "woman's issue." This form of stereotyping not only places the primary responsibility for closing the gender gap on women, but also continues to perpetuate the male/female divide in the professional arena. Another factor is that many men, and in some cases even women in leadership positions perpetuate this cycle by subscribing to encrusted beliefs regarding the sexes. Therefore, a vital component in bridging the gender gap centers on a concerted effort to identify and shatter the ongoing stereotypes typically held in the workplace.

Rezaei: The solution starts with our children. We raise little girls to think they need to be pretty princesses and well-mannered instead of placing more emphasis on their leadership skills, their math and engineering skills and their hard skills. This problem is not only perpetuated by parents from the moment their child is born but it is also heavily emphasized by the media. True change can only happen if we provide amazingly strong role models in cartoons, toys, and every day environments for both boys and girls. Women doctors, lawyers, engineers, astronauts, carpenters and scientists go on to become amazing business leaders and CEOs. We need to normalize the image of the professional woman in any industry and we need to normalize the image of the woman CEO. This way, girls have something to work towards and know their value and worth to be about all they can contribute to this world and men can also envision that same world. It's important to include and educate both genders on these issues.

You have reached great heights in your career. What has inspired you most?

Ansary: My inspiration and motivation has been, and continues to be highlighting the exceptional contributions of Iranian women throughout history. But more importantly, to shed light on the plight of women living in Iran today, who continue to fight an uphill battle and demonstrate their resilience in the face of adversity with remarkable courage, grace and dignity. I am humbled and grateful to reconnect with the history of women in my country of origin, and it is my hope that I will be able to contribute in some small way to their ongoing struggle for empowerment.

Khatami: As a teenager growing up in an era of revolution in Iran, I truly empathized with the impoverished young generation striving for better opportunities in life. While we were all searching for social and political ideologies leading to life-changing social reforms and higher standards of living, I learned that the foundation for change stands on love and compassion for humanity. The love was there, but the question was how to overcome the obstacles of ignorance and poverty? Education seemed to be the answer I was looking for, the key to rising above the socioeconomic issues. It was only then that I set a personal goal to establish a non-profit organization with the mission of providing the noble gift of education for underprivileged children. Many years of volunteering and community service led me to the right group of individuals with a similar vision. Our team effort resulted in a dream come true, an establishment called Children's Hope International Literacy and Development (C.H.I.L.D.), an organization dedicated to promoting education among disadvantaged children.

Nikmanesh: The desire to learn, grow and explore. To prove to myself that it is all about mind over matter. As one of my idols, Audrey Hepbourn" once put it: "Nothing is impossible, the word itself says 'I'm possible"

What is your proudest achievement to date?

Akhlaghi: On the International front, it would be consulting with United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) out of Jordan. My staff and I were tasked with developing and leading trainings focused on the expansion of the women's and children's rights in Iraq. The results were notable and the stories have left a permanent mark on my heart. On the domestic front, it would be the creation and shepherding of the first civil and human rights organization dedicated to representing legal the rights of the Middle-Eastern, Muslim, South Asian and North African communities after 9/11.

Ravanbach: My proudest achievement has been building the brand outside the United States, in the Middle East (the place I was born). This has given me the ability to give back to the women in my community. In cultures where segregation occurs on a daily basis, women have coalesced and found their own voice almost out of necessity. The girls in my team, who have with the support of their families broken the mold and have taken the steps to educate themselves and dive in with ambition and excitement into this business, inspire me.

Rezaei: I was completely unaware of the gender equality gap as I have a very enlightened and progressive father who at a young age told me I was equal to my brother and treated me the same. I studied computer science engineering and out of the 55 students who were in my CS class, only three were girls. I never noticed, as I was too busy trying to do well in school. Only recently have I learned about the devastating statistics. I think those in strong positions need to do something about it. That's why the cartoons we create now have strong female role models and strong female characters, such as Sharhzad in our series 1001 Nights and a new preschool show about two silly, active sisters Lili and Lola. I think it's important to start with our kids, both boys and girls and for everyone to actively lend a hand to raise awareness and make a difference.

Studies show that historically women have reported a more difficult time finding mentors than men do, which has led to a number of mentoring networks aimed specifically at connecting women with female mentors. How has your experience with a mentor helped you?

Akhlaghi: Joan Ehrlich, the former District Director of the EEOC, was my lightforce, friend and collaborator. She passed away in January 2008, over seven years ago. I still hear her words, warm and encouraging. She provided a safe space where I could confide in her with anything, from personal to public matters. I knew her counsel was without agenda and always for the betterment of the whole. She introduced me to key leaders in the civil rights community and did so generously. Her door was always open to me. Though she marched with Martin Luther King, stood for the rights of those being discriminated against in the workplace and elsewhere, raised two children who are remarkably contributory to society, she was always a lady. She exemplified the essence of female power. Bold, elegant, nurturing, and unstoppable. She made reinventing once, several times during a lifetime, a natural by-product of growth. Always hungry for knowledge and never short on conversation. She was always ready to help in the moment, be it pulling out her during a meeting to make the call, send the email or bridge the divide. Things didn't wait until tomorrow for Joan. I have deliberately intended to adopt the many skills she naturally brought with her to every encounter. The most important skill I adopted from Joan is to be a mentor to other women coming up after me. I cherish those relationships.

Rezaei: Mentors and role models are so important. I have been very lucky to have many mentors and I also do a lot of mentoring myself now. My mentors have really inspired me and continue to do so and whenever I am in a difficult situation, I ask myself, what would this person do? It is helpful to visualize that and then to decide what I will do. It is especially important for women to have strong mentors, to build their networks and contacts, and this is something men are traditionally stronger in.

Torabi: More than mentorship, I've relied on modeling to help me advance in my professional career. I identify people I admire -- even if just from afar -- and study them closely to learn their steps, habits, beliefs... for the inspiration and guidance I need in my own career. And it's worked!

As far as gender equality, we need men to support this important cause because, frankly, gender equality is not just a 'women's' issue. It impacts everyone. When women have more rights, everybody wins -- men, women, families, businesses, countries, everyone.

As an Iranian-American woman and an advocate of gender equality, why do you feel it is crucial for men to support gender equality?

Ansary: Without a doubt, a crucial ingredient for women achieving full equality centers on the support of men. That is, one of the greatest obstacles for women has been and continues to be the behavior and attitude among men -- many of whom unfortunately discriminate against women in the public sphere. Women continue to collide with the "glass ceiling" in the sense that they are victims of sexual harassment in the work environment, and in many instances earn less for doing the same work as their male counterparts. Contributing to such challenges has been taking into account the role of women as mothers. That is, despite the fact that so many working women contribute to their household income, they continue to be looked upon as primary caregivers in the domestic sphere.

This dual burden undoubtedly impacts the ongoing quest for equality. Therefore, a significant component in achieving full equality rests on men dispensing absolutist notions regarding perceived gender roles both in the public and private domain.

Khatami: As an Iranian-American woman, I strongly believe that it is crucial for men to support gender equality. Men have been programmed for centuries to believe that women's main focus in life must be home management, motherhood and child-care. Unfortunately in the recent decades, there has been a reverse shift in the culture of Middle-Eastern countries, reinforcing a more primitive perspective toward women, in light of current world affairs. Values derived from religious fanaticism are misconceived as cultural or traditional ways of life. Despite that notion, men living in the modern world need to understand that gender equality do not translate into overwhelming expectations imposed on women to produce extra income for the household, as well as carrying on domestic duties. On the road to gender equality, men need to think and act in new ways. They need to reconsider the definition of manhood, reshape their relationships with their wives and daughters, and essentially share responsibilities with women at all levels.

Ravanbach: I encourage women to never even question their right to be at the table. I have been lucky enough to have never lacked a confidence in my capacity and ability to contribute fully and perhaps in some cases even more than my counterparts. The innate confidence is a must.

Sheryl Sandberg is most famous for advising women to lean in by "sitting at the table" in an effort to assert themselves as someone who deserves to be there and be recognized as a part of the meeting or conversation at hand. What is one piece of similar advice that you would give to other women to become empowered in the workplace?

Akhlaghi: Know your voice is a critical contribution. Trust that what you have to express is needed and wanted. Believe that you will be heard.

Khatami: My best advice is, "Be a gentle rock." Gender equality is often misconceived as being tough, aggressive and viciously competitive, qualities that may actually hinder progress and growth. Women are naturally attributed with softness, kindness, giving and compassion. When these qualities are combined with strength, focus and ambition, the ultimate leadership style is achieved. It is similar to the concept of ying and yang, a balance between feminine and masculine roles, which is essentially the key to success in all aspects of life for both women and men.

Nikmanesh: Not to be intimidated by the potential consequences of standing up for what they believe in, what's right and what's fair. Believe in yourself, Remain confident, Speak up and do not back away for the fear of being labeled, retaliated against or being treated as an outcast. Be fair, be open-minded and objective but keep in mind that "Well-behaved women seldom make history" Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

Torabi: Remember: You don't get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate. If you want something -- from a higher salary to better hours to a promotion -- speak up and let it be known.

With respect to finding a mentor in your profession, do you think gender makes a difference? Based on your experience, would you recommend that others pick a female mentor, male mentor, or one of each?

Khatami: For me personally, as a first generation Iranian-American woman, having a female mentor with a similar background as myself was a real bonus. It made me feel that it is possible to achieve balance between home demands, work and community voluntarism. However, I don't necessarily believe that gender should be the key factor in choosing the right mentor. Depending on the field of study, a mentor should be selected based on their knowledge and experience, as well as their willingness and ability to teach and share.

In the wake of Malala Yousafzai receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, bringing attention to girls' and women's rights in other countries becomes particularly important. In your opinion and experience, how can this help to advance women's rights in other cultures and societies?

Ansary: Just a few years ago Malala Yousafzai was an unknown figure. Today, she is the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In so many ways, Malala is the perfect example of how one voice has the potential to make a profound difference. She is a shinning beacon of hope, and her fearless determination has placed the education of girls at the top of the global development agenda. One girl, who momentarily dared to defy, has forever illuminated the eternal torch of courage.

Rezaei: These are issues that plague even the most modern of countries so we share this burden around the world and must make a change as best we can through education, media and awareness. A lot of our cartoon series are broadcast around the world. 1001 Nights airs currently in 100 countries and is very strong in the Middle East and Africa. I am hoping a lot of little girls and boys are watching the show and learning about humanity through it. We have such a long way to go and we need 100 more Malala's to begin to scratch the surface of fixing these issues and I would urge everyone to do what they can in their own way and in their own capacity where they live. It's remarkable how one person can make such a huge impact and even if you can help one person, you have done a lot.

Follow and support International Women's Day online by using your voice via social media:
- #MakeItHappen
- #WomensDay
- #IWD2015
- #InternationalWomensDay

Whatever you do, celebrate and empower women, call for equality and "make it happen."