17 July 2003

Magazine publisher aims to reach Iranian-American tech audience

Publisher Susan Akbarpour seeks to open doors, make connections

By Kathryn Schmidt
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- When one hears Susan Akbarpour's story, it is hard to believe that she is only 34 years old. A native of Mashad, Iran, Akbarpour has tackled some daunting obstacles to emerge as one of the innovative publishers addressing the needs of Iranian-American professionals. A champion of women's rights and an example of the dynamism of Iranian technology professionals living in the United States, Akbarpour is opening doors for her compatriots all over the world.

The only daughter of two successful Iranian journalists, Akbarpour became a published writer at age 11, when she wrote a satirical piece for her father's monthly magazine, "Mellat" ("People" in Persian). Reza Akbarpour had established the magazine in 1979, a few months after the revolution in Iran. Prior to the revolution, her father had worked for Khorasan, a respected daily newspaper named after the province in which it is published. Her mother was a freelance writer for the same newspaper.

Akbarpour was 14 when her mother died in a car accident. She lost her father to cancer six years after that, when she was 20. "I am a survivor," Akbarpour says. "I had two younger brothers to take care of. We were fortunate to be well-off, and we were left a good inheritance, but I still needed to go out and make a career."

She decided to pursue what she knew best: journalism.

"My father was a very successful journalist, but he was not lucky," she says. "With the conservative revolution in 1979, the magazine my parents started was banned. My father said he had had enough of the ruling clergy. He did not want to get involved with them."

Akbarpour says her always-supportive father was not happy about her career goals as a journalist, and given the revolution, career prospects for women, especially in journalism, were dim. But that did not stop her.

Akbarpour says that although she did not agree with the conservatives' politics, she spent hours talking to them. "They were in power. I am an example of the generation of reform who would not sit at home. I wanted to be in the circle," she says.

In 1993, armed with a B.S. degree in French language and literature from Ferdowsi University in Iran, Akbarpour set out in her job search.

"I saw an employment ad for a journalist at Khorasan, the same newspaper where my father had worked for 14 years of his career. I applied immediately," she says.

She says the position required experience in journalism, a writing and a knowledge test. "The test was not that tough," she says. Her score was the highest out of some 600 applicants. One month later the newspaper had still not called to schedule an interview.

Characteristically, Akbarpour did not give up.

"I called them and visited the human resources department to ask them why they had not called for an interview, when I had passed the requirements for the job." Their answer: we do not hire women. Finally, after a persuasive pitch, they granted her the interview, but not the job.

"They did not want to hire me because I did not wear a chador, the headscarf worn by Iranian women," she explains. "I told them, ‘I will wear it as a uniform, you just have not asked me!" With that, she was hired as a columnist.

Reluctantly, she wore the chador, but only in the office. "Nothing could have stopped me from exploring my opportunities, even that troubling long black cover," she says.

"They even put me inside a cubicle of blue curtains in our open platform office for about a year so that the men couldn't see me. But one day, after I wrote a satire about the condition of Iranian women who feel imprisoned in society's 'blue curtains,' the president -- who was a cleric himself -- ordered that the curtain around me be removed. So all of a sudden I was free, and had a face and a voice open to the public, just because I didn't want to be a silent, inactive woman!" Akbarpour recalls.

No one was prepared for her swift rise through the ranks of the newspaper.

"Nine months after being hired I was an editor and special correspondent," she says. At first, she says her superiors, the conservative clergy who insisted that she wear a chador and not talk with male colleagues, would not look her in the eye.

"They would look down at the floor when they spoke to me," she explains. Just months later, these same clergy had compromised.

"They accepted me despite how different it was to interact with me than with most women in their lives. The same human resources official, the editor in chief, and my other supervisors who would not make eye-contact with me at the beginning, would now give me tea and offer me a seat," she says. "It was a dream come true for me once he told me, ‘we have realized that women like you who do not wear a chador can still be honorable.'"

Today she still receives e-mails from women working at Khorasan, thanking her for opening doors for women journalists there.

In 1997, following her successful stint at Khorasan, she decided she was ready for another challenge. She moved to the United States. Before long, she started working on her Master's degree in journalism at San Jose State University, and in 1999, she launched "Iran Today," a 25,000-circulation monthly for the growing Iranian community in the United States.

Printed in both Persian and English, and read by entrepreneurs, engineers, physicians, business people and other professionals, the newspaper laid the foundation for Akbarpour's most recent venture, SiliconIran.

Akbarpour started SiliconIran in December 2000, and under her leadership, it has become the premier business and technology information source for Iranians working in the high-tech industry in the U.S.

"I wanted to be different from other Iranian journalists in the U.S. They were publishing small papers in Farsi; I wanted to publish in the mainstream," says Akbarpour.

Mainstream it is. SiliconIran, the magazine, is published quarterly and circulated to 7,200 individual subscribers, and 400 corporate subscribers. Its total circulation is more than 10,000 with predictions that it will grow to 30,000 in coming years. While it is sold in mainstream bookstores in the U.S. and Canada, the public can also access the magazine online (www.siliconiran.com). The company also sends hundreds of free copies to Iran.

Akbarpour says when she started SiliconIran, she did everything from scratch.

"We now have more than 7,000 Iranian professionals in our database, and we have respected sponsors like Motorola, EY, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank," she notes.

With its magazine, website and twice-yearly conferences, SiliconIran provides a service in almost every medium available. Akbarpour says SiliconIran's members are all able to take advantage of these three synergistic tools to educate themselves, and communicate with like-minded professionals.

While SiliconIran focuses primarily on Iranian-Americans working in the high-tech field, Akbarpour says the network "is going international," reaching out to people in Singapore, France, Canada, and even Iran. Iranians are beginning to benefit from the network by reading about their peers in the U.S., notes Akbarpour.

In spite of U.S. sanctions against Iran, Akbarpour says that young, educated professionals in Iran benefit from the free flow of information via the Internet. "At first, the Iranian government placed restrictions on its citizens using the Internet, but after a couple of years, they realized their efforts were futile, and lifted the restrictions."

Since that time, Akbarpour says, she gets about 10 e-mails a day from people in Iran looking for business plans, information and jobs.

"If young Iranians can get access to other parts of the world, they can see democracy first-hand. It can open up the world's doors," she says. Akbarpour says she hopes that the sanctions on Iran will be lifted one day soon. "These sanctions keep Iranian youth out of the circle," she explains. "They can't see democracy and what's out there."

Akbarpour says she wants to show that Iranians are "equal, talented, educated people, who have been very successful in the U.S." She hopes that with time, more young people in Iran will have access to all the amazing opportunities available in the world.

"I am someone who can get access to other parts of the world," she says. "I see myself as revolting against the restrictions placed on the Iranian people."

Akbarpour has high hopes for the future for smart, educated young Iranians who strive to succeed in the world but who live under repressive regimes or imposed sanctions. She acknowledges that it will not happen overnight.

"We need to get that country (Iran) into a constructive engagement in order to get them to think differently. The Internet is the best momentum to get Iranian young people connected to the outside world," she says, and predicts that there will be more and more doors opening between Iran and the outside world.

"It's not just me," Akbarpour says unassumingly. "It is the story of my generation."

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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