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Leveling the playing field
What do Koreans, Pakistanis, and Tongans have that Iranians don't?

By Afshin Abedi
February 12, 2004

In the eyes of the US Small Business Administration (SBA), Iranian Americans are one of the only ethnic groups not recognized as socially disadvantaged, a definition that applies to Japanese, Bangladeshis, Hispanics, and almost every other immigrant and ethnic group in America.

It is time for the Iranian-American community to stand up for its rights and gain official recognition of our ethnicity in this nation. As an Iranian-American businessperson, for years I have witnessed firsthand the exclusion of our community from government and private programs, contracts, and incentives because we are not recognized as a minority ethnicity.

There is no question that the Iranian-American community has had great entrepreneurial success in this country. Yet like many other ethnic groups, and especially within the climate of suspicion inside the US toward those of Middle Eastern descent, Iranian-Americans have faced their share of discrimination.

For Iranian-American small business owners, the prejudices and cultural biases translate to lost customers and contracts and directly affect their family's livelihood. Unfortunately, when it comes to accessing the programs and services designed to help a small business overcome these exact obstacles, Iranian Americans are time and again rejected because their ethnicity is not officially recognized as one that faces these forms of social disadvantage.

From experience, I personally know of the frustrations of competing in an economy in which the playing field is uneven for ethnic minorities. The US government through the SBA has created such programs as the 8(a) Business Development Program and the SDB (Small Disadvantaged Business) Certification Program to allow minority ethnic groups with a strong potential for success to compete more effectively in the American economy.

This is done through, for instance, training and technical support or providing incentives to prime contractors to seek small businesses owned by minorities. This concept is noble, and necessary in my opinion, however, the part where the system has been flawed is in its definition of “minority.”

Our company, Telnet, Incorporated, is a high-tech Telecommunications and Information Technology consulting firm that provides advanced engineering solutions to clients in the US and abroad. Since its inception in 1996, Telnet has developed a solid record of providing high quality, timely, and reliable services and solutions to its clients.

While Telnet has unquestionably shown its potential for success, we have been turned down repeatedly by numerous government contractors because we are not considered a minority company. Telnet has also applied for SDB certification.

After months of hard work and providing the SBA with specific examples when Telnet faced discrimination because of its owner's ethnic background, our application was rejected. Even though the discrimination was similar in form to what other, recognized ethnicities face, upon inquiry into this subject Telnet was informed that it does not qualify as a socially disadvantaged company because it is owned by an Iranian-American. Apparently, the result would have been different had the owner been Tongan.

Due to our lack of awareness and limited access to these government programs, Iranian Americans have sat on the sidelines while other ethnic minorities have benefited from the prosperity these programs provide. This issue is not limited to the business world; rather, gaining official recognition toward these government programs is a major milestone in recognizing the entire Iranian-American community in the social fabric of our great nation.

The true meaning of the United States of America is only realized when all minorities are recognized for their experiences and welcomed as an equal member of our country.

I was very pleased to recently learn of a new plan by an Iranian-American group to gain official recognition of our ethnic community. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has recently introduced its 8(a) Support Project, a strong, well-researched, and promising initiative that will put forward a petition on behalf of Iranian Americans for recognition from the SBA toward the important programs that exclude us.

Personally and professionally, I strongly support NIAC's initiative. The team at NIAC has spent months researching the process of attaining official recognition of the Iranian-American ethnicity toward these types of programs, and has developed a solid strategy.

I encourage everyone to check the latest information on this exciting initiative for our community, and how our help is essential for its success.

Let's not wait another day to act toward gaining the official recognition Iranian Americans deserve for their experiences as a participating member of this country. Together, and with the strong leadership of such groups as NIAC, we can improve the overall standing and involvement of all Iranian Americans, whether in their civic, political, or industrial activities, and better contribute to the country we call home.

Afshin Abedi, Ph.D, is Director of Advanced Technologies & Operations at Telnet, Inc.

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