Western Firms Failing to Woo in Iran

Apr 4, 2016 · 6 min read
Tehran from Modares Expressway

Last week’s Reuters article on Iranian expats holding off on returning to Iran caught my attention, not because I am UCL graduate and former investment banker, who decided to leave my well paid, London based job and move to Tehran over four years ago. After first reading it and disagreeing on the whole, I saw this article shared amongst Iranian friends and republished through several secondary information providers. I seem to be the antithesis to its argument and I’m not alone.

I have personally met and interacted with a significant group of expats currently working in Iran working in fields ranging from journalism, to petrochemicals, from further education to oil & gas, as well as a surprisingly large number of the all important entrepreneurial expat stamping their own unique mark. All revel in Persian and the more modern day Iranian former glory, though none have been under the illusion that Iran is a romantic eastern utopia. All have slogged through the pollution, social-restrictions imposed by the authorities and the red tape to find their own equilibrium, as one should expect in an Emerging Market work environment. To expect something other than this is naive.

“most expats seem to live in northern Tehran, which, as far as I’m concerned, is another country altogether in terms of amenities, demographics, and the overall cultural milieu”

“Sure, pollution can be a nuisance and social restrictions abound” says Yara Elmjouie, the former head of marketing for an Iranian animation studio, “but there are easy workarounds”. Yara, like myself lived in Tehran for several years. “having left just half-a-year ago, I can tell you I miss my friends dearly”. Yara was born and raised in California and has studied and worked in New York. “I led a very socially fulfilling life”, referring to his days in Tehran fondly. “Besides, most expats seem to live in northern Tehran, which, as far as I’m concerned, is another country altogether in terms of amenities, demographics, and the overall cultural milieu. My decision to leave had very, very little to do with the quality of life.” Despite moving back to California, he has steely plans to return to Iran in the medium term, both to contribute with his unique set of skills and to take advantage of the vast opportunities on offer.

“I approached recruiters directly, and yet nothing was done”

In downright contrast to the article, several expats have been put off by the lack of opportunities by multinationals reluctant to fully engage in Iran. “I applied to Nestle two years ago” says Niki Aghaei, raised in Toronto and a graduate from the University of Waterloo, with two years under her belt in Tehran. “I approached recruiters directly, and yet nothing was done.” Niki has been working in the local startup scene and is now the managing director a Limitlines, a mobile/web development and digital marketing company. She was frustrated, like many, by the few western firms operating in Iran over the last few years and strived to turn her stay into a success. “One of the biggest frustrations I’ve encountered is the limited HR expertise, even when it comes to multinationals operating in Iran”.

Iranian expats don’t have the subconscious negative perception of Iran, which affects others of non-Iranian descent. We see Iran for what it really is and can look past the misconceptions to see real opportunities. “A six month trip made me realise the opportunities to start a business (in Iran) is much brighter for me than in the overcrowded marketplace in Europe”, said Ali Reza Jozi, a co-founder of a popular tech news website Tech Rasa. “I completely moved back to Iran in 2014 and for me there was no going back. The growing startup scene for me gives me a reason to stay.”

Multinationals have been shuttling teams through Tehran to investigate the opportunities in this opening market. Despite the interest, many it seems, are still put off for political reasons. Foreign firms seem to want to ‘wait and see’ in a mass herd mentality. Despite sanctions being removed and most Iranian banks reconnected to SWIFT, the interbank payments system, few foreign banks are actually willing to cooperate with their Iranian counterparts, crippling many of the medium and large firms immediate plans to set up shop.

Having personally visited Iran often as I was growing up, I have seen the huge leaps Iran has made in improving the bureaucracy, even during the worst periods of the sanctions regime. There is no doubt a vast amount of red tape to overcome, but having the skill set to navigate around this is one of the best skills an entrepreneur can have in my opinion.

Personal security is not the problem many in the west perceive. As with all major world cities, petty crime is a problem in Tehran. But as far as personal safety goes, I feel safer on the streets of Tehran than I do in certain parts of London. “Tehran is ridiculously safe”, Yara agrees, “I know it sounds bizarre, but it’s hard to think of another place in the world where I’ve felt as safe as I have in Tehran. In Iran, much like Japan, it is illegal for private citizens to own and carry firearms”. That’s not to say petty crime and theft is not an issue, “but then again, you could say the exact same thing about San Francisco and New York, and few would categorise them as dangerous cities”. Having worked as a journalist, Yara cautions, “There are other things to be afraid of in Tehran — such as engaging in acts of journalism and political activism”, referring to the invisible moveable red line all of us are aware of.

“I’ve recognised a disturbing amount of misinformation circulating internationally regarding the quality of life here for women”

Many foreigners still seem to confuse Iran with Iraq, or compare Iran to one of it’s many neighbours by looking at it on the map, or even not knowing anything about it’s location in the ‘middle-east’, or it’s huge influence on the region’s culture. Despite the proximity of troubles in it’s neighbours, Iran’s security situation is unique and in general very safe. Some expats focus their attention to challenging Iranophobia. Sogand Fotovat, a graduate from Fordham University in New York and a graduate student researcher in Tehran, is an admin on the popular Facebook page, ‘See You in Iran’. The page has ballooned in popularity and now available on several social network platforms. “I’ve recognised a disturbing amount of misinformation circulating internationally regarding the quality of life here for women”. “It is imperative that I challenge these diaspora disconnections and this rampant Iranophobia”. “The best place to informatively do that is from within Iran”.

“I thought I would be here for six months, it’s now been two years”

Let’s also get back to the many pull factors for Iranian expat professionals and entrepreneurs. Iran has a diverse economy with only 10% of the GDP in the Oil & Gas sector. There is excellent road infrastructure throughout most of the country with beefed up air and metropolitan and inter-city high speed rail infrastructure under construction. There is a highly educated workforce with high female participation (the majority of university graduates are female), as well as the third largest absolute number of engineering graduates in the world after Russia and the USA. There are favourable foreign investment and labour laws, very attractive to multinationals, given the local market also available to them. Iran is the largest frontier market left in the global economy with a large and relatively affluent middle class with a strong desire for foreign goods.

“In our eyes, it’s the multinationals and in some cases, foreign governments, that need to step up to the challenges and opportunities Iran offers”

Apart from that, the legendary Iranian hospitality is real and seductive. The natural beauty in the landscape and mountains throughout Iran are breathtaking. The ancient culture and history of the country is evident in everyday life. “You really fall in love with it all”, quips Maryam Abazeri. “It’s not easy all the time, especially being a young woman with more constraints here than elsewhere”. Maryam is a Costa Rican-Iranian, raised in the US who visited Iran to get to know the country, but now works in Tehran. “It’s a culture of warmth and hospitality and once you step inside that, it’s hard to leave”. “I thought I would be here for six months, it’s now been two years.”

Are these not major pull factors for Iranian ex-pats and others? I and many friends and colleagues are proof that that they are. In our eyes, it’s the multinationals and in some cases, foreign governments, that need to step up to the challenges and opportunities Iran offers. There are many of us that have spent years here. We are certainly not hard to woo, we have faced our challenges here and overcome them. Many, like myself, are here for the long haul.

Thanks to Mohsen Khalkhali and Niki Aghaei

Ali Wijetunge

Written by

Raised, studied, employed in London, now living in Tehran as an entrepreneur, riding the inevitable wave as Iran opens up to the world

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