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Growing Up an Iranian Immigrant Was Tough but It Taught Me How to Lead

Not everybody has a choice about leaving their comfort zone.

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I was 10 years old in the winter of 1978, when the streets of Tehran were filled with protesters. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had succeeded in his goal of ousting the Shah’s 2,500-year-old Peacock Throne, and the country was in turmoil.   

Ahmad Aghasiani | EyeEm | Getty Images

The Tehran of my youth was modern, cosmopolitan and diverse. The people in my neighborhood loved America. Everyone wanted to go to college in the U.S. so they could get an education and pursue their dreams.

With the sudden regime change, the protests were becoming increasingly violent, the city was on virtual lockdown, and it was difficult for anyone to leave the country.

Related: How Other Cultures Think of Entrepreneurship

Fortunately, my mother, two older brothers and I were able to make it to the United States before the U.S. embassy hostage crisis and the eventual overthrow of the government. Leaving was hard. Everything that had been familiar to me would soon become a distant memory. Although I was sad to leave my childhood home, something inside me was excited about the new adventure and opportunity that lie ahead of us.

I could not have known it at the time, but this experience was instrumental in defining me as a business leader. It shaped the way I approach my career, my values and who I am today.

I was thrilled to be in America, but being a 10-year-old Iranian kid with broken English was not easy. The other kids bullied me every single day as the American embassy hostage drama played out. “You took the hostages!” they would yell at me. Not a fun time in my life. But the bullying and name calling did little to quench the fire burning inside to make something of myself.

I didn’t like school, but I made it to a prep high school, where the expectation was that everyone was destined for an Ivy League university. But my heart just wasn’t in it, and I stopped trying. Eventually, I flunked out. It wasn’t that the work was too hard. I just wasn’t motivated by the structure and ideals that there was only one way to succeed.

Having flunked out, my mother and older brothers told me that I should forget about my dreams. They told me if I couldn’t make it in school, I would certainly never succeed in the world of business. But I always knew deep down that my big goals and bold dreams were worth pursuing. I went back to school, gutted my way through and eventually graduated from college.

All of the challenges I faced growing up helped shape me and lead me to where I am today. I have learned three leadership lessons that tie back to my childhood as an Iranian immigrant. Each contributes to how I try to lead every day.

1. It all starts with big dreams and taking risks.

Having led several types of organizations, the truth is that most people are incredibly risk averse, but there are very few risks that will cause permanent damage. Calculated risks are almost always worth taking. Just like leaving our home in Tehran when I was a child was risky and could have resulted in failure, we knew it was a risk worth taking and did it anyway. The opportunity to succeed was greater than the fear of failure.

Related: 3 Things You May Not Have Heard About Taking Risks

Today, I still take the same approach when it comes to business. I look to create an environment where everyone on my team can dream big and take chances.

Organizations only win when each individual comes to work knowing that they can pursue their most lofty dreams. No one ever created a breakthrough innovation by shying away from every risk. Only by looking at the upside, can teams build things that people never imagined possible.

2. Don’t forget to factor in hard work and failure.

All of the lofty dreams in the world are useless if you don’t have a single-minded focus, strong will and are willing to put in hard work. It took me years of hard work and a whole lot of tenacity to make my big dreams a reality.

That’s why now when I’m interviewing others for various leadership roles, above all else I focus on attitude, passion and how hard they are willing to go after something. Hard work and practice matter. I’ll take a street fighter willing to practice their craft 10,000 times over someone who seems to be practicing 10,000 different things. 

The best teams are made up of people who have faced obstacles and overcome them. In fact, I believe that you are not truly a leader until you have failed, faced down that failure and found a way to overcome it -- like I did after I flunked out of prep school. I could have given up then, but I didn’t. I dusted myself off, gritted my teeth and got through college, even though it would have been easier to quit. Until you battle back from an obstacle, you won’t know what you’re truly capable of.

3. Diversity and inclusion make every team stronger.

I am relentless in my pursuit of diversity. My early years in America, when the bullying was at its worst, I realized how destructive homogeneity could be. Shutting others out because they are different never delivers the best results.

I want my teams to have as much diversity of thought, experience, gender, race and socioeconomic background as possible.

Related: 6 Simple Actions Startups Can Take to Foster Diversity

Having a team that understands as many different perspectives is the first step to understanding the world of opportunity that exists for any product or service. The role of a leader is to create an environment where all ideas, perspectives and backgrounds can be shared and appreciated.

In many ways, I will forever be the 10 year-old kid in Tehran during the winter of 1978 in the middle of a revolution. Coming to America and assimilating to the culture wasn’t easy. That said, while my journey was challenging, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Learning the value of calculated risks -- like the one we took leaving our home in Tehran; of hard work -- like how I battled back after failing out of school; and that people should embrace those who are different from them -- the opposite of how the playground bullies treated me; are life lessons that have brought me to where I am today. I’ve learned to never stop dreaming, to surround myself with determined teammates, and to embrace diversity and inclusion at every opportunity. I might not have learned these invaluable lessons had we stayed in Tehran all those years ago, and I might not be the leader I am today.

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