Iranian immigrants’ force in the US economy

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If Iran abides by the terms of the nuclear deal that call for inspections and a reduction in its nuclear infrastructure, economic sanctions in place since the Revolution in 1979 could begin to lift early next year.

What many people don’t realize, though, is the extent to which Iranian immigrants have long been a force in the U.S. economy, especially in the tech sector. I wrote about an Iranian tech entrepreneur building a modular smart watch to compete with Apple AAPL -0.84% Watch a few weeks ago. Since then, Blocks has raised $1.1 million on Kickstarter.

Alireza Tahmaseb, whose partner is Serge Didenko, is one entrepreneur; there are many more entrepreneurs, investors and executives in the tech industry with roots in Iran. If, as expected, the Iranian startup scene explodes, there is a ready conduit for funding and talent to pass to and from the United States.

Take, for instance, an organization called Persian Tech Entrepreneurs, which holds a handful of events in New York, Washington, San Francisco, each drawing hundreds of people. Membership has exploded to 7,500 this quarter to 2,500 in 2014, according to co-founder Shobeir Shobeiri, a first-generation Iranian American who works in business development at Pebble Tech. Julia Rasooly, CEO of PuraCath Medical Inc., is the other co-founder.

The growth speaks to eagerness with which the Iranian diaspora is stepping into the spotlight. “People are more willing,” said Shobeiri, who noted that some Iranian Americans were reticent after the Revolution, and then again after 9/11.

Among the speakers at its conferences, according to Shobeiri, have been Amin Zoufonoun, vice president of corporate development at Facebook; Farhad Mohit, co-founder of Flipogram, Noosheen Hashemi, co-founder of the HAND Foundation and formerly a VP of marketing and business development for Oracle, and Cameron Gorguinpour, director of transformational innovation at the U.S. Air Force.

Amin Zoufonoun - PTE 2012

As in many immigrant communities in the United States, connections between universities in Iran and the United States have enabled an informal and fluid relationship to continue between countries even while formal ties have been frozen.

There are two universities that I’ve heard spoken of in Tehran that have been feeding students (and future entrepreneurs) to the United States: Sharif University, which people sometimes call the MIT of Iran, and the University of Tehran, where Tahmaseb went. SUT has a total of 300 full-time faculty members, approximately 430 part-time faculty members and a student body of about 12,000, according to its web site.

Shayan Zadeh, currently co-founder and CEO of a stealth mode tech startup called Gear Zero, wrote about his journey from Sharif University, in a great op-end in the Wall Street Journal. After an undergrad degree from Sharif, he and his business partner, Alex Mehr, were accepted to a Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland:

There was only one obstacle: We had to obtain F1 visas to attend the school we’d worked so hard to get into.

In another country, this might mean a trip to the American Embassy, but the U.S. does not have an embassy in Iran. The closest embassy was in Turkey, but there were no flights at the time because of political tensions. So we took buses, walked and hitchhiked into Ankara to get visas. It made the college application process look like a breeze by comparison.

The duo went on to found online dating site Zoosk and grew it to 150 employees (they stepped down earlier this year, when Kelly Steckelberg became CEO.)

Nima Asgharbeygi graduated from Sharif in 2002, went on to a master’s in electrical engineering at Stanford and then co-founded Clever Sense, the creater of the recommendation engine Alfred. It was acquired by Google; Asgharbeygi is currently tech lead manager at Google.

Schools like Sharif and and the University of Tehran are key players in an internal tech ecosystem. Josh Lerner, the Harvard Business School professor who has written about how emerging markets countries can establish tech ecosystems, told me a few months ago that research institutions are crucial to sustain a technology ecosystem. Emerging economies that don’t have those centers of research and education face the challenge of building them; Iran already has them.

“Sharif plays the role of talent creation. They have built entrepreneurship center and incubator before and also recently launched a non profit accelerator,” said Mohsen Malayeri, co-founder of the Avatech accelerator. “However, they are the top university with the highest brain drain, by email. There is a trend of highly talented people leaving the country for higher education and most of them don’t come back afterwards.”

It’s anybody’s guess how those talent and money flows will change, if as most analysts expect, the barriers between Iran and the United States come down in the wake of the nuclear deal. But all the seeds for cross-pollination are there.

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