Payam Zamani: Supporting a Socially-Responsible Business idea
With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Payam Zamani.
Payam Zamani is an entrepreneur, philanthropist and investor. He is the founder and CEO of One Planet Ops, a hybrid tech firm that runs a suite of online technology and media businesses. The company’s mission is to support strong business ideas while at the same time building an ethos that helps improve society and gives back to communities. This philosophy is embodied in the company’s tagline, innovation + intention, to convey that good ideas and profitable businesses are not enough; to positively impact the world, we need align all our efforts with the right intentions.
Zamani is a member of the Bahá’í Faith. In 1988, he arrived in America from Iran as a refugee fleeing religious persecution. Thrilled for the opportunity to receive a higher education, he put himself through college and in 1994 earned a B.S. in environmental toxicology from the University of California, Davis. Shortly after graduating, Zamani began his entrepreneurial journey founding and launching Internet-based businesses including Autoweb.com, the first online car buying service. In 1999, he helped to take the company public. The company’s market cap ultimately reached $1.2 billion.
Today, in addition to running One Planet Ops, Zamani currently serves or has previously served on the Board of Directors or Advisors to many technology-based startups, including The RealReal, SoulPancake, Wayfarer Entertainment, and BestMile. Payam is a mentor to many entrepreneurs, recent graduates and youth, especially those who have had to face oppression.
Together, Zamani and his wife, Gouya, support the Tahirih Justice Center, a national nonprofit that works with immigrant women and girls who are fleeing violence. They also support the Equal Justice Initiative, which recently opened a monument and a museum in Montgomery, Alabama honoring the lives of African-Americans who were the victims of lynching after the Civil War.
In 2016, Zamani received the Tahirih Justice Center’s Hope Award. For Tahirih, his personal story of immigration is one in which inspires hope for individuals fleeing violence in search for new beginnings here in the US. In 2017, IranWire listed him as one of 50 Iranian-Americans you should know. In 2018, Manoto –a leading Persian broadcasting network –aired an inspiring talk he gave on the future of business and philanthropy that was broadcast to over 40 million people.
Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?
I was born at a hospital in Tehran in 1971; however, at the time we lived in a small village close to Karaj called Kalak. My parents were interested in delivering the unifying and the progressive message of the Baha’i Faith to as many of their countrymen and women as they could. As a result, during my early years, we lived in many different cities. The experience of living in different areas of the country–from Tehran to Hashtgerd to Ali Abad in Mazandaran and ultimately to Shiraz–gave me a chance to experience different cultures and see Iran in a way that few Iranians have. This, combined with growing up as a Baha’i in some of the most difficult environments in Iran where people were far from open-minded, got me used to hardship. Baha’is are still treated severely in Iran — imprisoned, oppressed, and persecuted. Since the 1979 revolution Baha’is have lost many of their basic rights — their businesses are regularly seized; their children can’t attend universities; many have been sentenced to long prison terms, even though they’re innocent of any crime; and others have been executed. That harsh reality exposed me to a very different side of Iran — the opposite of the hospitality and the friendliness it is known for.
What were the most important factors to business success in your first company Autoweb.com?
Many factors combined and contributed to the success of Autoweb.com. Of course, it helped being on the forefront of an emerging technology platform–the internet. It was 1994, and we were the first to market selling cars online. Another crucial factor was my brother Farhang. We made up our team, and we were a great match, not only because we were brothers, but because he knew the technology and I loved selling and marketing. But most importantly, we persevered with the attitude that failure was not an option. Putting it into perspective, we saw no challenge in business that could remotely compare with some of our challenging life experiences. Along with luck, persistence, and being accustomed to hardship, we met a lot of good people along the way who helped us navigate the terrain.
You started One Planet with the mission to support strong business ideas while at the same time building an ethos that helps improve society and gives back to communities. Could you elaborate on this for our readers?
As a Baha’i, I believe that work offered in the spirit of service can really be the same as worship. I’m interested in figuring out how my work can be elevated to that level — in fact, it has been and will continue to be my life’s journey. But I do believe that any company that sets that ethic of selfless service to humanity as its mission, its North Star, will end up building something far more meaningful than if they were only motivated by financial success. I believe that successful businesses can have massive impact on making the world a better place. So, I’d like to see how every company can adopt a serious social impact agenda. I’d like to see that we all go beyond financial gain and start using other metrics to measure our overall success both as individuals and as businesses. I find this to be a much better path to happiness.
What were your greatest failures and what did they teach you?
After Autoweb, I started a company called PurpleTie. The idea: to change the dry cleaning industry. I needed to raise $400 million to build that company. I was 27 years old and fresh off of a successful IPO. My mistakes: I thought that success would come easily, not realizing that repeating success is far from easy and it requires many stars to align. I did not raise what I needed, but did raise enough including my personal cash infusion to start the company and test the concept in the Bay Area. I ultimately had to shut down the business. It was a humbling experience, and in that sense a very valuable one.
What was the most important part of your whole business journey?
The path to success is far from linear. Entrepreneurs have to be nimble, adaptable, flexible and humble, ready to admit mistakes, change paths and persevere to move forward. It’s easy to get caught paying attention to the few massive successes that capture the headlines. But the fact is that there are very few of those, and entrepreneurs need to realize that the chances are extremely low to almost zero that they’ll build the next Facebook or Google. That doesn’t mean they cannot be successful. Once the expectations are aligned with reality then the path to success becomes much more reasonable and achievable.
More and more ideas are being turned to reality with the help of incubators, accelerator programs, and the heavy expansion of web-based collaborative platforms. Startups seem to be sprouting up by the hour, so with the influx of ideas, what are the unique trends investors are looking for?
The rapid rate of technological advancement — which continues to accelerate — has and will continue to provide us with many opportunities to innovate in areas that, in the past, were not possible or could have even been fathomed. Of course, the overwhelming majority of these startups won’t survive — and that’s okay. To innovate we have to be comfortable with failure. I don’t follow trends as much as I follow great entrepreneurs, solid financial models and companies with an interest in being massively successful, but not without considering their role in the betterment of the world.
As the virtual world continues to grow at an exponential rate, more and more businesses are turning to sentiment analysis for marketing and reputation management. What can we learn from computers that might be able to read online sentiment better than we can and why is it worth it?
A few years ago I started a company that did not survive, called Shout The Good. Our technology would scan and analyze online social media posts, and then rate them based on their positive, negative, loving, or hateful sentiments. The aggregate information allowed us to score social media accounts based on their overall intent. It was kind of like the Nosedive episode of Black Mirror, but long before that episode was filmed; maybe the inspiration for it came from Shout The Good? In general, I learned, the intent of the innovator matters. If the intent and the approach is correct and aligned with what is good for us as a human family, then these kinds of technologies can be great in making us more intelligent about many things that we, as humans with blinders and prejudices, may not be able to easily detect.
You are or have been actively involved at a leadership level in many of the Philanthropic organizations including Tahirih Justice Center, … What is your philanthropy philosophy and what motivated you?
I strongly believe that being a philanthropist is not limited to people with significant assets, but is rather a state of mind. We should all give sacrificially to causes that we believe can make the world a better place. Sacrificially, to one person that may mean $100 per year and to another even $1 billion may not be enough. This concept of Universal Philanthropy is something that companies — and all of us, as members of one human family — should embrace.
My wife and I care deeply about the obstacles and barriers refugees and migrants face — after all, I was one myself. Baha’is believe in world unity, and in the education of all children, especially girls, so Tahirih Justice — which supports women and their children fleeing domestic violence — fits perfectly into my charitable wheelhouse.
I also believe that entrepreneurs have a unique opportunity to have impact at scale. I really believe that all companies, regardless of size and regardless of the primary focus on their business, should have a social impact agenda. In fact, I believe that doing the right thing, and considering the impact of our work on humanity, represents a natural, healthy ingredient currently missing from many of our profitable endeavors. By including these ingredients, we will build better companies, better products, and better societies, and the outcome will in fact be more valuable and more profitable businesses. This isn’t just a theory — I’ve seen it happen, time and time again.
Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?
I not only love Iran because I was born there — I love Iran because it’s also the birthplace of my Faith, the most recent global religion with followers in all corners of the world. I also love the United States as a country that has provided me with opportunities that I was denied in my own home country, including the right to attend a university. I appreciate the favorable and supportive environment offered to entrepreneurs in this country more than most other countries. The unique perspective that people like me have, I think, offers us an edge because we are more likely to focus on all the opportunities and be less concerned about the obstacles. After all, the obstacles often seem small relative to the kinds of obstacles we have had to deal with earlier in our lives.