Reinvesting in our communities
Interview with Azadeh Hariri, an Iranian American philanthropist
March 14, 2006
Azadeh Hariri was born in Iran, went to boarding school in England and pursued her higher education in Lausanne, Switzerland and Indiana, USA. She spent her early years in Iran and belonged to a rather traditional family. Since 1979 Hariri has lived in California, creating and managing the state’s second largest food distributor, which was later sold. Her humble attitude and appearance is in contrast with her business acumen and sharp sense of presence.
More importantly, Hariri is busy making a positive difference in the lives of academically gifted yet financially constrained Iranians who wish to further themselves in America. She has been an active philanthropist for years and now Hariri is taking on a new challenge by establishing the Iranian Scholarship Foundation to give away scholarships to young Iranian students. I recently spent an hour with her at a café in Menlo Park, California to talk about her vision and perspective on Iranian American philanthropy.
What was the impetus behind your decision to set up this foundation?
When my daughter was going to school about 10-11 years ago, there was no scholarship program benefiting Iranian students and that was in the back of my mind. I was busy with my business those days and did not take any action till I heard about Ms. Farib Nejat and IFWC Scholarship Fund. I looked into their program and it was a small scholarship fund of maximum $1,000. I suggested then (year 2000) to start a meaningful scholarship program supporting talented Iranian American students. So I found Youth Scholarship Fund to give up to $10,000 to student under IFWC provision.
Tell me about the achievements of the Youth scholarship program and your vision relative to the next step.
We have already helped about 54 students with 74 scholarships for a total of over $500,000. That was just a start. Now I see the need to expand the program and help those Iranians who want to come to American universities and take advantage of the system here. One day they will go back to Iran and offer the befits of their education to the people of Iran. Because of the Patriot act and homeland security measures, it has become very hard for Iranian students to get admission or assistance in America and we need to step in and offer a stop gap measure.
How do you identify these academic talents? Are there any organizations in Iran that assist you in the process?
We are not working with any organizations in Iran. We have not finalized the selection process yet. We are working on establishing a system. Student applicants in Iran must apply for scholarship to us the same way that they apply to an American University. There is a selecting committee that will review all the applications and select a few candidates. Of course, we have to look at a list of criteria such as the family earnings for past two years to make certain that we are indeed helping the needy candidates. There is a committee of 8 luminaries who determine the recipients of the scholarship.
Do you limit the number of recipients due to limitations of funds?
Fortunately, we have not knowingly rejected any qualified candidates up to this point. We would like to eliminate cash constraints as the reason for rejecting candidates if they are qualified.
Do you plan to involve other potential benefactors in the Iranian American community to expand this philanthropic program?
Yes. That is what I do. Up to present, my family and I have prevented the shortage of funds but should the need arise in the future; it is my intention to approach other affluent members of our community and seek more donations and have them establish their own endowments and adopt a number of candidates.
Is the organization’s financial data public or kept confidential?
We are a 501c (non-profit) organization and we release the names of donors. The method of releasing this information is not finalized yet but we will do so.
I would like to ask about the prevailing perception that Iranian Americans by and large do not care much about these causes and if that is the case, what is the reason?
The foundation belongs to the community. There is no one claiming ownership. I have not had any problem approaching other potential contributors and asking for help. For a good cause, most Iranian Americans do not hesitate to step forward and make a difference. My own parents who owned the Starlight textile company in Iran had to leave everything behind and we basically started with limited resources. After 25 years, many are realizing that the time is right to start helping others in our community. We are very good at criticizing each other and not good at communicating. To a degree, it is good to be critical and demand perfection but it has to be balanced.
We have a very bright future ahead of us and as a minority group we are truly accomplished. In almost every field, Iranians have reached the positions of prominence. I certainly see a light at the end of tunnel.
Among American philanthropists, the impact of baby boomers who always favored instant gratification and their cultural influences is evident. Do you believe there are parallels among Iranians?
In most Iranian families philanthropy did not exist outside religious charity work. Typically Iranians expected the government to take care of things. The situation is changing now and we are realizing the benefits of philanthropic work and the eventual cultural and tax advantages that it can offer.
Do you handle your decision making on purely businesslike parameters and return on investment basis or are there other metrics in your decision making in identifying an individual’s potential?
Obviously, it is always in the back of my mind as how each individual will use the resources we offer him/her. We can learn a lot from other successful minorities like the Jewish community. One look at the percentage of Jewish students in Ivy League schools like Harvard will give us a good indication of their results oriented approach. We can emulate their approach by reinvesting the economic power that we have gained in our communities.
Are you thinking of creating a new generation of leaders for Iran or America as the new adopted country of our community?
The more leaders we have in America who understand Iran and its culture, the better off Iranians will be. We must have senators and congresspersons of Iranian descent in 20 years. We must fight ignorance and the only way to achieve that is to make sure Iranians reach the levers of power and decision making in America. Helping the leadership in the United States is the same as helping Iran. It is possible that in several decades, China becomes the new superpower but before that time arrives, we must focus on becoming an influential force in America.
Do you consider yourself a pioneer or a futurist?
I am a small fish in a huge pond. We have turned the corner but there is a lot more to be done. There are so many places and venues to make contributions, so many other organizations to bring into fold and as a result a create a lasting impact. I have more time now to devote to this cause and with the help of other colleagues such as Mr. Mehdi Safipour, we will be able to address all the areas that need our attention.
Are you focusing on undergraduate students and also do you have a target number to reach?
There are no specific numbers that we have identified and must reiterate that I do not see funding as the main challenge. However, it is difficult for most students to secure undergraduate scholarships. Therefore that is our area of focus.
Do you consider gender preferences in your selection given that Iran is still politically a male dominant system?
No. We only consider qualifications of a candidate regardless of the gender. I must note though that girls have become more goal oriented than boys in certain segments and even Iran is experiencing the same phenomenon. We receive more female applicants than male ones. As a result we issue more scholarships to females than males.
What advice or message do you have to give to the Iranian community?
I am not into giving advice but would like to ask the Iranian community to help each other and believe. Set aside criticism, stop being hard on one another and start being constructive. We can make a difference as a minority.
Do you think this is rooted in our cultural or political system?
Both. This is especially true in America. I think our next generation will be better integrated and will do so much more.
How can those who wish to apply or contribute contact you?
You can go IranianScholarships.com site. This is a new site and we are just starting to build it. They can call 1-650-331-0508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. I hope this has been helpful.
The first Iranian Scholarship Foundation Fundraising Gala will be held on April 23rd, 2006. Keynote Speaker is: Dr. Zarghamee and the MC: Mohsen Moazami, Vice President and Global Managing Director at Cisco Systems, Inc. Place: Faculty Club of Stanford University Ticket price: $250.00 per person