Reprinted from Entrepreneur Magazine on 02/19/2009. Click here to see original piece.

An Entrepreneur Out to Mend Global Fences

Shabnam Rezaei has been working towards a better understanding of Iran for several years. But trying to change America's image of her native country is an enormous undertaking, even for this woman of intelligence and determination.

By Christina Scotti - February 19, 2009
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One day after President Obama announced his Administration was open to talks with Iran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad replied by saying the world was "entering a new era of dialogue," and that he would welcome discussions.

Still, political tensions between Washington and Tehran -- which have now existed for three decades -- are not easily fixed, especially since Iran's nuclear intentions remain unclear.

Any détente that could emerge is important, however, and progress is being closely watched by Iranian-born entrepreneur Shabnam Rezaei.

Rezaei, who has an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a graduate degree from NYU's Stern School of Business, has been working toward a better understanding of Iran for several years. But trying to change America's image of her native country is an enormous undertaking.

In 2004, Rezaei started Persian Mirror, an online magazine to "teach the world about Persian culture.”

“I felt like every time I told people that I was born in Iran, they would ask me what it's like there and if it's as bad as it's portrayed in the media. So Persian Mirror was reaching out and explaining,” she said.

The Web site, which Rezaei says was started as a "hobby" and now boasts five million hits a month, caught the eye of producer Dunstin Ellis. He contacted Rezaei and captivated her with a cartoon about a young Persian boy named Babak who is living in the U.S. "He is an 8-year-old boy who feels stuck between the two cultures. So at home he is getting Iranian culture, and at school he is getting American culture. But at the core of it, he is feeling really left out."

Rezaei quickly fell in love with the idea of Babak -- and of explaining Persian culture through him. So within days -- and without any entertainment experience -- she had invested $50,000 in the project and started Nooroz Productions.

"Nooroz is the Persian New Year…we spend 14 days in Iran celebrating it,” she explained. “We put things on a table to celebrate -- sort of like a Christmas tree. But on the table we would put everything that we want in the New Year. For example, you would put seed which is [representative of an] apple and that's for a fruitful life. You would put a book of poetry or a book of religion on the table so that you have faith with you when you go into the New Year. All these different things symbolize all the good things you would want in the coming year."

Providing both non-Iranians and Iranians with lessons in life and customs is the mission of Nooroz Productions. Since the first cartoon, Babak and Friends, she has completed production on Mixed Nutz, which has a similar theme, but with more characters and different ethnicities.

"When we came up with the idea of Mixed Nutz, we took this concept of teaching kids culture through entertainment but made it a little bit more universal so that maybe bigger distribution platforms will be interested in our product" says Rezaei.

Distribution, Rezaei candidly admits, has been an uphill battle.

After raising $4 million to produce Mixed Nutz, which took a year and half to turn out 13 episodes, "we are now in the process of selling this concept to TV stations. When we pitched the idea to Disney (DIS), they said it’s great that you have these kids. We love the concept, multiculturalism is wonderful, but could we make Jae [one of the characters in Mixed Nutz] Asian [instead of specifically Korean] because that will hit a bigger demographic?"

But Rezaei said no.

"From a business perspective that makes sense, but from our core values and what the whole purpose of our company was, it made no sense. So now we've actually verified that we're in this space and Disney is in this space and the two shall never meet because we're going after these niche markets" says Rezaei.

And that’s why later this month Rezaei is starting Oz Noz Distribution Company, which is an online platform similar to (AMZN) that sells DVDs and other related content. "We will sell and offer free and downloadable content for multicultural children," she says.

Rezaei is also not slowing down on turning out new series. She is starting production on a new concept, called 1001 Nights, in the coming months. “The story is really a beautiful framework for television. The premise is about this king from long ago, who finds out that his wife is betraying him and declares that he will take a bride every night and execute her the next morning.”

But, as the classic story goes, the bride tells the king a bedtime story but doesn’t finish it. “So,” Rezaei explains, “for 1001 nights, she tells the king stories and over this period he falls in love with her.”

Good for the bride and a good way for Rezaei to structure her series. Indeed, she jokes that the cliffhangers will leave her with “great commercial breaks.”

Between all of her different ventures -- a Web site, an animation company, a production company, and a distribution company -- Rezaei has not yet made a profit. But between selling Mixed Nutz and starting the new distribution platform, she believes the company will be in the black within the next two years.

"We want to be able to reach out to our consumers directly. And with the launch of new technologies, iTunes (AAPL), downloadable content, there is a ton of opportunity for small businesses and startups like us that want to get directly to a niche market." Only time will tell if she can capture and hold one of those niches.


1. Where were you the moment you decided your business plan?
Most of my ideas either come in the middle of the night or as a result of brainstorming with my partner Aly Jetha -- either way he is always involved and a great sounding board.The idea for PersianMirror came as a result of being frustrated with poorly designed Web sites that did not explain Persian cultures and traditions such as Persian Weddings and New Years traditions in an accurate manner. Aly Jetha [Rezaei’s partner and husband] and I were planning our own wedding and wanted to know the meaning behind all the items that you might find on the "Sofreh" or wedding spread. These symbolize all the good things you might want in your new life such as good health, good fortune and so on.

2. What was the one thing you didn't know that you had to bluff your way through?
It feels like I am bluffing my way through most things in life. As an example, I never considered myself an "authority" on Persian culture or Iranian history but having lived there through revolution and war has built a certain amount of curiosity into my fabric that allows me to keep learning more about Iran. Building a Web site or running animation production were two of the other things I had never done before. As long as you surround yourself with smarter people and show interest and humility, you can do anything.

3. What one life lesson did you learn that helped you build your business?
"Don't take no for an answer." We know that our projects may be considered niche -- [and when others big distribution companies aid no] we decided to do the show ourselves. Our audiences have yet to vote on the content but we believe in what we've set out to do.

4. Who is your role model or inspiration?
My father Mojtaba Rezae. He is well-read, well traveled, curious and kind. He has believed in me and that has given me confidence to take anything on. He is also a very calm, patient and rational person and every day I look to find those qualities in myself (which isn't easy!)

5. What do you wish you had more of: time or money?
Definitely time. If you have time, you can always make money. But you have no control over time. Once you've lost it you can never get it back.

6. What is the one word your employees would use to describe you?
Adaptable. It is a characteristic I hope to also apply to our business and pass on to my employees. I encourage my animators to try their hand at different aspects of production such as storyboarding, editing, character designs and so on. The more skills you develop, the higher your chance of being gainfully employed in a very tough business. It feels like every day new technologies and problems emerge and the people and companies that can move quickly and do different things are the ones that will survive.