With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the West Asia Council has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. Our latest interviewee is Neda Nobari.
Neda Nobari is a community activist and founder of the Neda Nobari Foundation, a decade-old private foundation that advocates for social justice through the arts and education. Before launching her career in community service, Nobari was the Vice Chair and founding member of Bebe Stores, Inc. for 22 years. During her tenure with the company, Bebe became an iconic leading women's fashion brand in the U.S. and abroad with a market capitalization over a billion dollars. Nobari is a graduate of San Francisco State University (B.S. Computer Science '84) and Dartmouth (M.A. Liberal Studies, '15.) Her graduate research at Dartmouth focused on the intersection of diaspora and cultural identity of Iranian-American women. In the summer of 2016, SFSU announced the creation of the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies, enabled by a significant donation from Nobari. She is a mother of two sons.
Who is Neda Nobari? Can you tell us about your background, both personal and professional?
I was born in Tehran and raised in Abadan. Most of my recollection of Iran is from my life inside the British-built compound that we lived in which belonged to the National Iranian Oil Company. When other Iranians talk about their experiences from the old days in Tehran, I don't really relate because I hardly spent any time there.In September of 1978, I moved to the States to live with my aunt and uncle. Their kindness and generosity changed the course of my life over a summer.
I graduated from San Rafael High School in the San Francisco Bay Area in the winter of 1979. I was 16 years old. The hostilities from the hostage crisis were hard to endure, and often made high school life unpleasant. The two years at College of Marin proved to be more rewarding and the last two years of my undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University were a transformative and liberating experience.
I completed my B.S. in Computer Science from SFSU in 1984 and got a job as a software engineer at an Irish communications company. I didn't enjoy writing code and took the opportunity to switch to the fashion industry when I received an offer to join Bebe Stores. My first project was to computerize the inventory management system and set up P.O.S. stations at the three boutiques that comprised the company at the time. Over the next 22 years, I was part of a remarkable experience of building a successful vertical brand with hundreds of locations all over U.S. and other countries.
After transitioning away from the corporate sector, I established a private foundation that bears my name and went on to attend Dartmouth College. I graduated last year with a master's degree in Liberal Studies with a thesis on the intersection of diaspora and cultural identity of Iranian American women. I am currently actively involved with the foundation's work on harnessing the power of the arts, film and education in service of social and environmental justice.
What was the motivation for starting your philanthropic work and how has this work evolved?
My parents were always helping others in the community. I learned from them the responsibility that comes with being a member of the larger family of humanity. I began volunteering at a young age, and recall giving money to charities even as a student who had so little of it. Years later, as an accomplished businesswoman, I was able to establish our foundation to focus more intensively on giving back. Since I was not familiar with the non-profit sector, I hired an experienced consultant to help me navigate the vast philanthropic landscape, narrow down focus areas and identify potential organizations of interest. We paid site visits, met the Executive Directors and learned about their programs.
It has been both eye-opening to fathom the scale of needs in our society: single moms facing homelessness while escaping domestic violence, rain forests disappearing, displaced indigenous communities, endangered species, abandoned teenage pregnant girls, formerly-incarcerated inmates trying to reenter society, and on and on.
The foundation has become my platform for learning about the pressing issues in my local community and beyond. I attended a two-week residential Non-Profit Leadership program at Stanford University and learned about the business approach to running efficient non-profit organizations, about impact investment and new hybrid for-profit with social investment models. Over the past eight years, the foundation and I have come a long way. We don't have all the answers, but I remain optimistic about the potential of seeking new solutions to our problems and the promises that the future holds for subsequent generations.
What specific lessons have you learned?
I have learned that giving a former foster youth or incarcerated individual access to free higher education can break the cycle of poverty not just for that person, but also for their community. I have learned the critical role of promoting awareness, and ability of independent journalism and documentary films can play in elevating the discourse and offering alternative narratives.
We must think of "education" not only in terms of the classic meaning of schooling, but also community education about issues that should concern us all. A democracy is built on well-informed citizens; thus, our foundation supports artists, filmmakers and journalists who provide such information. Ultimately, our goal is to foster real change through promotion of citizen participation and helping to build a movement that can sustain such positive change.
Do you have a guiding philosophy or mission statement that directs or influences your philanthropy?
Our foundation's mission statement is: "Promoting social and environmental justice through arts and education" but that's just the work in progress. The issues are so interconnected that it's difficult for us to zero in on one single focus. We have an eco-system approach to addressing issues, a flexible model we call "Indie-Philanthropy."
What are SFSU's plans for the endowment that you have made to launch their program on Iranian Diaspora Studies? Will they be following in the footsteps of any diaspora programs in other universities?
We have designated $3.5 million out of the $5 million gift towards an endowment for the Chair of the Center because leadership is key to its success and the implementation of the vision. The University will conduct a search for the Chair position over the next several months and once the leadership is in place, we can better articulate the academic plan for the Center. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other center dedicated to the studies of Iranian diaspora, so we'll be pioneering this field. We have a new Dean for the College of Liberal and Creative Arts, Andrew Harris, who is very excited about the new Center that will be housed in his college. President Les Wong and Provost Sue Rosser have also been incredibly supportive throughout the proposal process. The Center's foundation is being built on accessibility, knowledge distribution and transnational collaboration, so we will definitely be looking at other diaspora studies programs at other universities across the globe.
In your view, what are the Iranian diaspora's distinguishing features? What about the Iranian-American community?
Over the past four decades, since the 1979 Revolution and the mass migration of millions of Iranians all over the globe, Iranians have often been seen through the prism of US foreign policy towards the Islamic Republic, and through media stereotypes built on Orientalism, Islamophobia, and misconceptions about this region of the world. All too rarely have Iranians been represented in terms of their significant artistic, cultural, or humanistic contributions, in the past and the present.
Political tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments have indeed undermined the process of establishing a confident identity among Iranian-Americans, one that is reflective of our contributions to America and other societies. The second and third generations of Iranians born outside of Iran are well educated and interested in exploring their cultural richness through the arts and humanities. The goal of the recently launched Center at SFSU is to provide a platform to study the complex, diverse, and often misunderstood world of the Iranian diaspora.
What or who has been the biggest singular influence on your work?
I can't say that there has been one singular influence; it's been a culmination of 53 years of lived experience. The Liberal Arts Program at Dartmouth really helped me in identifying my passion and articulating my interests. It also gave me confidence to trust my intuition and "follow my bliss," as the great mythologist Joseph Campbell would say. Ironically, I reconnected with my Iranian cultural heritage at Dartmouth and have followed this renaissance with vigor over the past three years. I took a diaspora studies course that eventually led me to the idea of establishing the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies at SFSU. Positive influences are everywhere if one is open to them.
Which project have you enjoyed working on the most so far?
It's not so much a singular project that I can identity, but more about the relationship with the people behind the projects that is most rewarding for me. Philanthropy has given me the opportunity to get connected with amazingly talented and dedicated individuals who are making the world a more enlightened place. To be in regular contact with their optimism, hope and fire for humanity is the most enjoyable part of my life.
How can you measure the impact of your efforts?
That's the 400 billion dollar question that has the philanthropic world in a spin! Impact measurement is what grant makers are urged to consider when donating to nonprofits; in turn, nonprofits are required to show the impact of their donors' funds. It's a valid point but not as simple as it may seem. Some things are easier to measure than others.
For example, a four-year full scholarship including year-around housing for a former foster youth at SFSU cost a donor $50 K. At the same time, it costs taxpayers somewhere between $30K to $60K per year to keep that same person in prison. It's alarming to note that over half of the foster youth in this country end up in the prison after five years of leaving the foster system. The math is simple, the savings enormous, and, the impact obvious. But how can one really measure intangible and un- quantifiable impact of changing one person's life and the ripple effects of their transformation on others in their community? They pay it forward and the impact multiplies exponentially through the entire society.
The impact of documentary films is also difficult to measure. A well-investigated and researched documentary film can ignite the conversation about, for example, the effects of GMO on the environment or health, and ultimately become part of a movement to change consumer behavior that can in turn change the standards for the food supply chain. How can the impact of that one film be measured in the context of the larger movement? Who would take the credit? Does it matter? These are difficult questions to answer. At our foundation, we collect information about the impact of our support by getting involved with the organizations and learning from the inside. We are hands-on partners, making every effort to minimize the need for extensive reports, allowing the organizations to focus on the work that we so admire and wish to support. Clearly we cannot be involved at this level with every organization that we support at any given time, but we do a good job with most. We also do our due diligence by reviewing their tax returns and asking specific questions regarding their finances. There is no silver bullet. It's tough to measure the influence of the arts. And yet we believe in the power of art as an educational tool to increase cultural awareness, promote compassion and expand the mind.
How does your experience as a businesswoman inform your work in the non-profit world?
In the for-profit sector, you have to start with a business plan, find a void in the market, identify your niche and competitive advantage, have a strategy, build your infrastructure, and come up with the capital to start. Many of the non-profits are heart- and mission-driven and their Executive Directors often don't have the business experience of running an organization. This is why the top business schools in the country are increasingly offering programs that are specifically targeted to non-profit executives. For a family foundation like ours, it's different because there is no fund raising involved since the funding comes from one source. This can create a problem with accountability, but it also increases flexibility. I am conscious of such problems and utilize best practices from the for-profit world in managing our organization. It's a privilege to benefit from business experience and apply it to doing social good.