Children are often asked what they want to be when they grow up. When I was asked, at five years old, I said an astronaut and a teacher. I imagine that no matter what I would have said at that age my parents would have smiled and told me I could do anything I set my mind to doing.
But as I got older, the question came at me more frequently and with a more serious tone. By the time I was in high school, it stung every time an adult asked about my future career aspirations. Though I had the support of my parents to pursue whatever career path I desired, I was scared to share my dream of starting or running an insanely profitable company. It seemed to me a child's dream, similar to playing in the NBA or becoming a movie star. It took the death of my Saba (grandfather) Avraham to realize I wasn't too old or naive to dream.
Saba died in Israel when I was a junior in college. Though more than 5,500 miles of land and water separated us, I felt very close to my grandfather throughout my life. When I learned to speak Hebrew, I would call him just to talk. When I learned to write in Hebrew, I followed my calls with letters. And whenever I could, I would visit him and my grandmother in Netanya, often for weeks at a time.
So when Saba passed away in March more than a decade ago, I became obsessed with learning more about the man I had known for less than 20 years. I began asking my father, aunts, uncles, and cousins about my grandfather, and soon the picture I had of a sweet, wise old man morphed into an image of a strong, confident hard worker, willing to risk everything for the opportunity to give his family a better life.
Saba was born in a Jewish ghetto in Esfahan, Iran in May 1919. Through sheer willpower and hard work he managed to make enough money to leave the impoverished ghetto for the more opulent capital city. Once in Tehran, my grandfather started a successful fabric business, first by selling reams of fabric on his back and then opening a shop adjacent to the seediest part of town, where all the prostitutes and drug dealers lived. While the neighborhood was not the best for raising a family, business took off as his clientele had plenty of access to cash.
But life was never easy for Saba or the rest of the family. As Jews, they were always considered najes (impure, unclean) and were barred from certain jobs (like those that involved food for fear of contamination), not allowed into certain restaurants, and prohibited from walking outside in the rain (for fear their impurities would contaminate the water systems). For a long time, Saba was able to tolerate such discrimination because it ultimately did not impact his family's well-being.
But everything changed the day a couple of policeman walked into my grandfather's store demanding that he pay an exorbitant amount of money to a certain merchant. The officers, wielding a piece of paper fraudulently signed with my grandfather's name, would not leave until my grandfather paid the "debt" he owed. No lawyer or court could protect my grandfather from the deceptive scheme.
In an instant, Saba made the decision that he and his family would no longer tolerate living under a regime that allowed for the mistreatment of its minority populations. Rather, my grandfather was willing to risk everything - leaving behind the country where his family had lived for generations, the business he built from the ground-up, the home where he raised his children - for the opportunity to live in a country that would welcome his family with open arms. True, Israel was an infant country at the time with little infrastructure and plenty of enemies, but it was also a free country where Saba believed he could re-build an even greater life.
But the path to a "greater life" was bumpy. When Saba moved to Israel, he did not speak Hebrew. And when he first opened a children's toy shop in Netanya, the business almost fell into bankruptcy because he was not familiar with the culture, the neighborhood, or his customers. But my grandfather did not give up or give in to his frustrations. Rather, he learned from his mistakes. First, he learned Hebrew. Then, instead of selling toys, he went back to the business that he knew well: fabric. Finally, he got to know the area and learned that the Orthodox women in Netanya had a hard time finding fashionable, modest clothes. Many would travel hours on the bus just to shop. Thus, with persistence, adaptability, and hard work, Saba was able to succeed by taking advantage of the opportunity to open the first Orthodox women's shop in the city.
From the death of my grandfather and the stories I heard about him following his passing, I learned the importance of challenging the status quo, standing up for what you believe is true and right, taking risks, learning from your mistakes, and persistently following your passion. His passing made me rethink my career path, which at the time was directed toward getting a law degree and joining my father in the real estate industry. While I'm sure I could have been successful had I taken that route, I would only have chosen it because it was the easiest road to take - not because it would have made me happy.
After Saba's death, I realized that the best opportunities are worth taking a risk on and working hard for. And since I had always dreamt of business ownership, I decided it was worth pursuing even if the path toward achieving my dream was destined to be a bumpy one just like Saba's.
Today, I am still on the path toward business ownership, but I now know that I have chosen the right path. I view each career opportunity (or risk, depending on the perspective one has of my choices) on this road as a learning experience that challenges me to stretch myself professionally while delivering excellent results. How about you? How did you choose your career path?
If you're interested in reading more about my grandfather and what it was like to live in Iran, check out Leaving Iran: A Glimpse Into The Persian Mind.