H@H: Ep 52 – Zeenia Irani joins NEW H@H host, Adam Ward on his first episode of Here@Haas. Zeenia discusses how her heritage, culture, and upbringing have formulated her perspectives and passions of community and the overall importance of elevating and providing support for vulnerable communities.
On how her Zoroastrian roots influence her perspective – “Good thoughts, good words. Good deeds, which translates to in our book, the Avesta – And so growing up with these tenants that really influenced a sense of community and giving back.
On the importance of finding your passion & purpose – “When you are able to focus on your passion and purpose. That’s when change really takes place because it’s coming from being a human and it’s coming from knowing what our morals and values are. And that is what I would encourage folks to really think about is: what really matters to you and why do you care about this?”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Adam Ward: I’m Adam Ward. And this is here@haas, a student-run podcast connecting you to all Haasies and the faculty that changed our lives. This week on here@haas, we are joined by Zeenia Irani, EWMBA class of 2023, and recently appointed VP of social impact in the evening weekend MBA association. Welcome to the shows Zeenia.
[00:00:23] Zeenia Irani: Adam. Thank you so much for having me today.
[00:00:26] Adam Ward: It’s awesome to have you. Zeenia, to start off with, I know you’ve been working in public service. We’d love to understand a little bit more about your career journey.
[00:00:35] Zeenia Irani: Yeah, Adam. I started working in politics and after politics, I transferred over to the NGO sector where I worked for the UN Foundation, UN world food program, Mercy Corps, and now Finca International. And in these roles, I’ve built strategic partnerships to help vulnerable communities in need. And a story that really stands out to me was my time traveling to Colombia and Venezuela and witnessing the scale of what is now the largest refugee crisis in the world. I believe it’s rivaling that of the Syrian refugee crisis where I witnessed countless individuals flee the border. I remember standing with one foot and Venezuela and the other end in Colombia with people carrying their home supplies on their backs and just seeking refuge and having to sell local wares on the street.
[00:01:43] And I’m talking lawyers, doctors, people from everyday lives having to flee. And during this time, really meeting with these people on the ground, hearing their stories, hearing their vulnerabilities, and the sadness that really came with having to start a new life, not by a choice of their own. And providing these individuals through this emergency response with e-cards or e-vouchers to help them get through during a very difficult time of when they needed it most.
[00:02:20] Zeenia Irani: And in many ways, I could see these people’s stories in the story of my own family. Going back to Zoroastrian with a population of 150,000 in the world today, we fled Iran as refugees and because of the embrace of India, my people were able to succeed and thrive and do well. And as a result, it’s really sparked my interest for such communities, vulnerable populations, specifically refugees, because I know through my family’s story how the embrace and welcoming of communities and populations that are different actually contribute to the benefit of society.
[00:03:14] Adam Ward: So, Zeenia, what is your family story?
[00:03:17] Zeenia Irani: Adam, part of my family story is my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease over a decade ago. And due to the degenerative effects of this disease, I witnessed and watched how my dad was forced to leave the workplace. And similarly, witnessing my brother’s story of stage four cancer, it taught me some valuable lessons about the fragility of human life, but also the need to embrace people who are different. And much of my work with the disability community I’ve come to learn that 80% of people with disabilities are excluded from the workplace due to judgments and stereotypes against people with disabilities.
[00:04:10] And I’ve seen it firsthand with my dad and I’ve seen it firsthand with countless others as part of my board work with a disability rights organization called Together International and doing some work in partnership with the American Association of People with Disabilities of working with individuals who are 30 times more talented than I will ever be, but witnessing and seeing how they are excluded each day from life because of various stereotypes against them. So as a leader, as a woman of color, as someone who works in the global humanitarian sector, I am completely committed to advocating for communities who are different because by building inclusive environments, I know how we could do better.
[00:05:04] Adam Ward: Thank you for sharing that story, Zeenia. And it’s true in all the work that you’ve done and everything that we are so grateful for what you do in our community.
[00:05:12] Zeenia Irani: Well, you know, I truly believe by bringing community and people together, we can make the world a better place. A lot of this stems from my religion and my culture as a Zoroastrian woman, living in the United States. Zoroastrians are a rare monotheistic. It’s said to be the first monotheistic religion, actually in the world.
[00:05:35] There are about 150,000 of us in the world today. The majority of us happened to be in India. And I have seen how the embrace of democratic societies welcoming my people in have contributed to building a culture of philanthropy, giving back, and knowing the importance of a community of how we can make the world a better place. That’s been an aspect of who I am.
[00:06:02] Adam Ward: Growing up in that faith, do you have any particular stories or childhood memories where that idea of community really came to life for you?
[00:06:10] Zeenia Irani: Yeah, I would say it’s really the background of what Zoroastrianism really represents of good thoughts, good words, good deeds, which translates to in our book, the Avesta, (unclear). And so, growing up with these tenants that really influenced a sense of community and giving back and visiting India each year and seeing and witnessing the influences of the Zoroastrians in the community, such as the Tatas, the (unclear), and the culture of philanthropy that they’ve built in India. It did still a sense of me wanting to go beyond myself and building a sense of community to give back.
[00:06:53] Zeenia Irani: And I’ve seen that firsthand with the Parsis of India and what philanthropy means and building this culture of giving back.
[00:07:01] Adam Ward: Absolutely. Going back to your words of good words, good deeds, and Zeenia, I’m interested, it’s rather timely we have in this conversation around Persian New Year and I know that’s something that you’ll be celebrating. I wonder if you could explain to listeners who may not know very much about that.
[00:07:17] Zeenia Irani: So, Persian New Year is an ancient tradition. It dates back thousands of years. It’s celebrated by millions worldwide and it literally means spring renewal. It’s recognized as a United Nations international holiday as well. And it brings together family, community, and as a center of what it means to build a new and give back and importantly, a lot of yummy food and great traditions.
[00:07:49] Adam Ward: I want to know what are the traditions in here?
[00:07:51] Zeenia Irani: It’s the building up a haft-sin table and on the haft-sin table, there are seven things that one puts on the table or the seven sins. Sabzeh, which is a grass or a sprout, which means rebirth or renewal, Senjed which is a dried fruit, which represents love, Seeb which is apples, which signifies health and prosperity sear.
[00:08:20] Seer which is garlic, meaning taking care of your health. Samanu is a sweet pudding for prosperity. Serkeh vinegar, which means patience and wisdom, Somāq which is a Persian spice for the sunrise of a new day. So, with that, there’s a lot of symbolism. But it really goes back to, let’s get rid of the old and start a new day with positivity and embrace. But in that new day is how we’re rebuilding the community. How are we striving for something that is better?
[00:09:00] Adam Ward: With this idea of a new day or new dawn as we’re doing this in March 2021, as we’re hopefully nearing the end of the pandemic fingers crossed, more vaccines are coming out. Does this celebration have any particular resonance?
[00:09:15] Zeenia Irani: Yeah. For all of us, I say 2020 was an unprecedented crazy year. I need not say more. And I would say this year in particular, 2021 is feeling so much more hopeful. And one thing that I’m most looking forward to is being able to meet so many of you in person on campus.
[00:09:41] Adam Ward: That’s a great place to transition to speaking about that. Actually, you know, we’ve understood a little bit about your background and your career. Interested, Zeenia, you’ve got this experience in the public sector. I know you’ve been based on the East coast and now you’ve moved across the West coast and pursuing this MBA at Berkeley. What prompted you to want to do an MBA?
[00:10:00] Zeenia Irani: Moving to the West coast is actually not an easy decision at all. I had built such a comfortable known bubble in DC. And I wanted to break through this and feel a little bit of discomfort by coming to this land called tech, to really understand it better. And truthfully Adam, partner with people like you to push me to new limits, to be thinking a little bit differently. I know the ways I think traditionally, as it relates to nonprofit NGO work and I came to an MBA to go beyond and think in a really new direction.
[00:10:44] Adam Ward: So, Zeenia, two semesters in, we’ve nearly done a year of our first year at Haas. What have you learned about this land of tech in the Bay area?
[00:10:54] Zeenia Irani: I have never met so many software engineers in my life. But being in the Bay area, I recognize that this is the town of innovation and thinking differently and I’m excited. I’m excited to partner with so many people like you from industries that are so different from what I’m used to, to help create sustainable impactful programs, changing people’s lives.
[00:11:29] Adam Ward: That’s awesome to hear and Zeenia, I know you’ve been partnering with a lot of people in Haas already and you actually ran a campaign in your first semester called Hearts Against Hunger. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
[00:11:42] Zeenia Irani: In partnership with my amazing friend and colleague Eugene, we truly wanted to go beyond ourselves in all things that 2020 really was and in doing so, having worked for the United Nations World Food Program in the past a recent Nobel peace prize winner, I wanted to bring a handful of my colleagues from the UN to Haas of how we could work together as a global community to create change. And Adam, in a short period of time, I saw how we did just that. In less than two months, we provided 11,000 meals to vulnerable individuals in need around the world, which is huge.
[00:12:32] Zeenia Irani: Truthfully, I can’t begin to express the gratitude and how humbled I am to be able to work with our classmates on initiatives like this.
[00:12:45] Adam Ward: Zeenia, what advice do you have for people in MBA schools or students or people who just want to step up and go beyond themselves to run campaigns like this? What actions should they take to run a successful campaign?
[00:12:57] Zeenia Irani: I would say it’s authenticity. And when I say authenticity, meaning channeling what is really important to you, whether it is hunger, whether it’s environmentalism, whether it’s animal rights, LGBT rights, there are so many incredible social impact initiatives that are out there. And what it really breaks down to is that focus on what matters to you as an individual.
[00:13:29] And when you are able and one is really able to focus in on their passion and purpose, that’s when change really takes place because it’s coming from being a human and it’s coming from knowing that what our morals and values are. And that is what I would encourage folks to really think about is what really matters to you and why do you care about this?
[00:13:59] And through that you can channel and bring together like-minded individuals who are going to want to join you on your cause and your mission to do some good.
[00:14:11] Adam Ward: With that drive, how do you want to propel your leadership with the MBA? What do you want to do in the future?
[00:14:19] Zeenia Irani: Yeah. Adam, I would say my long-term career goal is to be a CEO of an international organization advocating for refugee rights. Of course, I know we as humans evolve and change with time and I’m excited for to see where Haas takes me. But overall, I would say advocating for people in need is one of my core missions and one of my core philosophies.
[00:14:46] Adam Ward: That’s awesome to hear and Zeenia, we started this conversation talking about community and philanthropy, and I’m incredibly grateful to you for explaining the why and the sort of defining reasons about what drives you. And I’m super excited to be along the journey and see as you go on and do these incredible things in the future.
[00:15:05] To finish off our conversations, we have a bit of a tradition at here@haas of ending on a few lightning-round questions particularly as it pertains to what people have been getting up to during shelter in place.
[00:15:16] Adam Ward: So, Zeenia, what book could you recommend? Something that you’ve been reading?
[00:15:20] Zeenia Irani: And this is the political nerd in me of Beyond Machiavelli. So, these are….
[00:15:32] Adam Ward: This is like for those listening, Zeenia has walked up to her desk and got her book.
[00:15:42] Adam Ward: I’m seeing you have some great pot plants as well in your house.
[00:15:44] Adam Ward: What have you learned about Machiavelli, Zeenia, that we could all take in our day-to-day?
[00:15:49] Zeenia Irani: I would say just continuing to learn about the current state of human nature and what it takes to get to that next level of how to successfully resolve conflict with people and individuals.
[00:16:02] Adam Ward: That’s awesome Zeenia. And we’re just really grateful for you coming on the show. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:16:07] Zeenia Irani: Thank you, Adam. So much. It’s been so much fun.
[00:16:10] Adam Ward: Thank you to everyone listening also for tuning into here@haas. Know a Haasie that has a story to tell? Nominate them on our website, haaspodcasts.org. And if you enjoy this week’s episode, please subscribe and leave a rating and review. It really does help. And of course, share this episode with your favorite bears.
[00:16:27] This episode was made possible with the help of associate producer, Paulina Lee. Until next time, I’m Adam Ward, and this is here@haas.