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 user 2008-10-07 at 2:06:40 pm Views: 163
  • #20716
    From Victim of the Iranian Revolution to CEO of an Inc. 5000 Company
    the age of 12, Shahin Azizi used his entrepreneurial skills to save his
    family. Now, he’s living the American dream.These days, Shahin Azizi
    goes by Sean. He’s the founder and CEO of Toners Plus, an office supply
    company based in California. Azizi, his wife and their four children
    live in a five-bedroom house in Glendale, California, dividing vacation
    time between a condo in San Diego, a 40-acre ranch in Arizona and
    lakefront property in Colorado. But weekend getaways don’t come often
    enough for the 51-year-old workaholic whose olive complexion, thick,
    dark hair, and elegant accent reveal his Iranian heritage. Any time of
    day, his wife and four kids know they can find Azizi in the office;
    he’s never had the luxury of mixing business with pleasure. Azizi was
    forced to be an entrepreneur, thrown into the business world in a pair
    of handcuffs.

    In the winter of 1969, when Azizi was in sixth
    grade in Iran, local police arrived at his school, arrested him and
    demanded he repay the debt his father owed when his restaurant went
    bankrupt. So, as the oldest male in a family of five children, with a
    father who was forced to flee to Abu Dhabi, Shahin instantly became the
    family’s sole provider. The only way to pay the debt was to get the
    restaurant back on its feet.”I was a father at age 12, with kids
    looking up to me to feed them,” says Azizi. “At 19, I was like,
    ‘Where’s my life?’”

    In three years, the debt was cleared and, by
    1979, Azizi’s father had returned to Iran, but there was no time for
    celebration. Hezbollah had burned the family’s restaurant to the ground
    just before Christmas that year for selling alcohol against Islamic
    law. During these times, the most stifling and chaotic years of the
    Iranian Revolution, religious minorities and political opposition
    groups were persecuted and tortured, deemed threats to the future of
    the Islamic Republic. The Azizis, a family of Christians who distrusted
    one-party ruling and the complete control of Islam, were, therefore,
    left in perpetual danger.

    Many Iranians are reluctant to share
    exactly what kind of persecution they faced in Iran, even once they’ve
    settled safely in another country. Manouchehr Ganji, the former
    Minister of Education of Iran and author of Defying the Iranian
    Revolution: From a minister to the Shah to a Leader of Resistance,
    wrote in his book that it was common for duplicitous clerics to
    arbitrarily arrest, torture, mutilate, and execute citizens. He noted
    that roughly 70 percent of the population under 30 years of age opposes
    the regime, and that in the year 2001 alone, 220,000 people–mostly
    educated youth–left the country in search of better lives.

    to Franklin Lewis, Deputy Director of the Center for Middle Eastern
    Studies at the University of Chicago, there were unconfirmed numbers of
    people executed for their political opposition to the regime. Still, he
    said, “People who were not necessarily subject to that were afraid that
    it might happen to them.” In 1979, at the age of 22, Azizi fled Iran,
    believing he had no choice but to leave his family behind in search of
    a future that he might not otherwise lived to see. “I said, if I leave,
    I’d be able to take them with me once I got established somewhere,”
    said Azizi. “It would be easier for me to survive than for eight people
    to survive.”

    On a tourist visa, he flew to Rome with $1,500 in
    his pocket. He enrolled briefly in an Italian university, before
    relocating to Greece, a country known for granting U.S. visas to
    Iranians. In his desperate travels, he met other Iranian men, willing
    to take him in, provided he passed the favor along to others.”Believe
    it or not, at one time I had eight people in my apartment,” Azizi

    After saving $800 working at a Greek restaurant, Azizi
    received his U.S. visa and arrived in New York on December 16, 1980. He
    spent three sleepless nights in the airport, before meeting two Syrians
    who sympathized with his story.”There were tears in their eyes,” he
    said. “I was already so tough I didn’t even know how to cry.”

    lived in their home in Queens for a month, learning English at Queens
    College. At night, he worked at various restaurants and diners,
    including one Greek restaurant that was impressed with his mysterious
    command of the Greek language. He put himself through the
    electromechanics program at the City College of New York, beginning in
    1984 and worked simultaneously as a manager at a bagel shop. He worked
    there with a British woman named Vivienne Lee, who would eventually
    become his wife.”When I first met him, I didn’t have any interest in
    him. He looked like a hippie. He had long hair and a beard,” says
    Vivienne laughing. “A month later, though, he came in with a haircut
    and a shave, and that’s all he had to do.”

    In 1985, after Azizi
    graduated school, the young couple moved to a friend’s one-bedroom
    apartment in California, saving cash to buy a crib for their first
    child, who was on the way. There, Azizi worked at Hecks Office
    Supplies, making $2.75 an hour. After six months in the warehouse, his
    thorough knowledge of the products earned him a position at the front
    of the store. Soon, he was handling outside sales.

    That company
    went under, though, leaving Azizi with all the contacts, but none of
    the credit necessary to start his own business. So, he partnered with a
    fellow Iranian who promised him 50 percent of their new company if he
    could reach $40,000 a month in sales in three years. When he exceeded
    that goal, however, Azizi was denied his share of the business. After
    his partner threatened to kill Azizi’s family if he took a single
    customer with him, Azizi left the company without any clients.

    next venture was Glendale Stationers, which he co-founded with an
    Iranian named Gary. They promised to split the shares 50-50 from the
    start, with Gary handling finances, while Azizi took care of sales. For
    a year, Azizi cultivated the business through solid relationships with
    new customers, never knowing that each time Gary issued the payroll
    checks, he would write a memo saying they were payment for his purchase
    of Azizi’s shares in the company.”In one year, with my own payroll
    checks, he bought my shares behind my back,” says Azizi, the anger
    slipping into his otherwise subdued speech.It was 1996. By this point,
    Azizi had four children and a wife to take care of, with only $3,000 in
    savings, money that was stowed away for his children’s education.”It
    was one of the worst times in my life,” says Azizi. “I mean, I stood up
    when I was 12 years old and did everything for my family, and I’ve been
    through starvation’s den, but not with your own kids. You don’t want to
    have to go through that.”

    So, he paid the rent, saved $1,000 for
    food (mostly hotdogs and beans) and, with the rest of the money, Azizi
    turned his home into an office. He registered the fledgling company,
    the first business that was truly his own, under the name Toners Plus.
    By the end of 1996, thanks to a few loyal customers, he was already
    making $20,000 a month in sales. He moved Toners Plus into a warehouse
    in 1997, where he has spent the better part of his days ever
    since.”Finally my ship came,” said Azizi, “finally, after all this hard
    work for the last 38 years.” This year, Toners Plus ranked number 3326
    on the Inc. 5000.

    Still, for Sean Azizi, his happy ending is not
    entirely complete. In 1996, he received his permanent green card, but
    after nearly 30 years, he still waits for the day he can safely visit
    the mother, father and four siblings he calls in Iran each month and
    supports financially. Though he doesn’t believe tensions between the
    United States and Iran will threaten his business ties, he’s aware that
    it could make a family reunion all the more unlikely.But Azizi, ever
    the optimist, believes in an ancient Persian mantra that aptly
    characterizes the way he’s dealt with an all but easy life: Pendare
    nik, goftare nik, kendare nik. “Positive thinking, positive talking,
    positive action.”