Worked her way to CEO

Meet Shirin Behzadi, an entrepreneur and philanthropist
Meet Shirin Behzadi, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, business advisor, wife, and mother. She fled the Iranian revolution as a 17-year-old and worked her way from gas station attendant to CEO of a billion-dollar company.
“it was this expectation of a better life built on doing good in the world with gratitude that has been behind much of what I have been able to accomplish”

 Who is Shirin Behzadi? Define yourself

I am an entrepreneur, philanthropist, business advisor, wife, mother, and author of my own cashier-to-CEO American immigrant success story – which involved me giving it all up to give back and help others.

More specifically, I am an Iranian woman who moved to the U.S. at the age of 17 to escape the war and Iranian Revolution – without my parents and with little money – and worked my way up from gas station attendant to CEO of a company with close to $1 billion in sales. Just as others expected me to continue on the same path, I stepped down with gratitude to become an advisor and help other leaders, entrepreneurs and companies cultivate their own authentic vision and achieve their own success.

You left Iran following the revolution and emigrated to America at 17 years old, how did that fact shape your life?

Arriving in the U.S. as a 17-year-old woman who looked seemingly different, and without parents or a safety net, was a humbling experience to be sure. While my family led a comfortable life in Iran, the revolution changed everything, and virtually overnight I found myself alone in Los Angeles.

But the experience also instilled in me a determination to improve my situation guided by a vision and an expectation to achieve it – with a sense of gratitude and appreciation for even the smallest successes. I sincerely believe that it was this expectation of a better life built on doing good in the world with gratitude that has been behind much of what I have been able to accomplish. Embracing my experiences of fleeing the revolution and my humble beginnings here in the U.S. gives me hope about life and that staying authentic to my core principles can and will help me build a life I can be proud of without taking anything for granted.

You hold a bachelor’s degree in Accounting at California Polytechnic, why did you choose that course of study?

My parents valued math, the sciences and anything that could provide a reliable income. I always loved numbers and when I first started college, I originally thought I wanted to be a computer engineer. But I also knew that I had a vision to some day run a large company and learned that the language of business is finance and accounting. So, I switched majors from math to accounting to pursue the degree that could serve as a valuable foundation upon which I could build. As it turns out, it was a good decision since the degree ultimately allowed me to become an auditor and positioned me for a future in corporate stewardship, growth, and private equity.

“One of the major lessons I’ve learned through these years is that having a clear North Star for an organization is critical in helping everyone and all efforts aligned towards achieving it”

How did you jump from the point of no parents, no money – working your way up from gas station attendant to becoming CEO of a company with close to $1 billion in revenue? 

The journey from gas station cashier to CEO was a long and windy one that involved hundreds of incremental decisions, setbacks and sacrifices along the way. What guided me through it all was my vision and expectation to build something significant while staying true to my principles.

There was one common thread throughout all these years: every time I came to a fork in the road, I tried to take the path that would challenge me the most and expose me to something new. But I also never gave up on doing my best to do good. “Doing good” to me meant good work, good relationships, a constant focus on being a good person, and good contributions to my communities along the way.

I consider this entire journey to have been one big learning opportunity to help me grow and elevate others. Every setback, every challenge, every difficult hurdle was therefore easier to accept and navigate as I remained resilient in pursuit of building my vision and did my best to view obstacles as chances to learn and grow.

Having been on this journey of growth and learning has made it clear to me that my contribution would be to use these lessons and pay back to help educate others – which is how I look at my current calling as a C-suite business advisor. After a season of learning that culminated in me becoming CEO, I’m excited about my new chapter that allows me to give back.

You became an auditor at Ernst & Young and CFO of a major mortgage banking company and while CEO of Home Franchise Concepts, you helped the company raise hundreds of millions through private equity to grow into one of the world’s largest franchisors and family of franchise brands, you received the Ernst Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award among many other honors, what´s the recipe for your success?

Reflecting upon my journey, I believe I was able to achieve a lot because I believed I would. I had a vision that was authentic to me and that was based on my personal principles of doing good. That vision, the hope and the expectation that it would come through informed my decisions. In every decision in my professional life, I took the path that aligned best with that authentic vision and that would challenge me to learn. I was always a student and I was always guided by my personal principles. And of course, I put a lot of effort and heart into whatever I chose to do.

My suggestion is to be clear as to where you want to go and to be intentional in your decisions. It’s critical to have your vision be aligned with your core principles of who you are and want to be. Then apply yourself fully with passion and expect the best outcome.

You currently serve on the board of the Orange County United Way and the global Cherie Blair Foundation, what does it drive you? 

Even during my busiest times as a CEO, I always considered volunteering and philanthropy to be very important, gratifying work. So, I created ways for my employees, and the company to give back as part of a larger corporate culture.

After stepping down from my CEO role, I knew I wanted to dedicate more time to giving back. What I learned was that the ability to be of service is a gift. It has made my life richer and more meaningful. I’ve done my best to use my professional experiences to help nurture and grow the good work being done by the Orange County United Way and the Cherie Blair Foundation. And I’ve been richly rewarded as a result.

Recently you used your experience and insight to help leaders, entrepreneurs and companies create and achieve their Authentic Vision. What´s the name of your company, what services do you provide?

I’m passionate about helping organizations succeed. I’ve had the great fortune of leading many companies through various stages of growth. One of the major lessons I’ve learned through these years is that having a clear North Star for an organization is critical in helping everyone and all efforts aligned towards achieving it. However, for that North Star – that vision – to inspire, it has to be authentic and collaborative. There are steps in creating an authentic vision and in executing towards it, and I’ve been able to advise companies how to do both.

I’ve created Shirin Behzadi, LLC. to advise companies, their boards and C-suite about business strategy, growth and raising private equity to allow them to achieve their desired next level. For some clients, this counsel also involves helping them discover and achieve their Authentic Vision.

What does a normal workday look like for you?

Every day is different, of course. But in the last week, I advised two C-suite clients about growing their business and raising capital; attended a board meeting via Zoom; met with my Orange County United Way fundraising committee; worked with my social media consultant; and hosted a dinner for my fellow board members at BOMANI, a line of alcohol-infused cold-brew coffee drinks started by my son, Sam.

“I’d say the most difficult part is prioritizing all the possible places in which to invest my time and energy, because I’ve learned that being intentional means you can’t do it all”

What do you love most about your job? & What is the most difficult part?

After spending the first chapter of my life achieving and learning the value of keeping true to my authentic vision, I now have the privilege of helping others achieve a similar level of success according to their true selves. I love being able to apply what I’ve learned to people, companies and causes I believe in.

Today, I have the privilege of choosing the organizations and people that I work with. It’s such a pleasure to look forward to working with people that I like and respect towards growing companies and organizations with whose mission and values I’m aligned.

I’d say the most difficult part is prioritizing all the possible places in which to invest my time and energy, because I’ve learned that being intentional means you can’t do it all, at least with the same intensity at the same time. You have to be able to say no so you can say yes.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else does?

At every decision point, I ask myself the same question: does this opportunity align with my authentic vision, help me get to where I want to be and allow me to help others? Of course, all of my work is built on the foundation of doing well by doing good and I apply those principles in my daily life and work.

What are the do's and don’ts in female leadership?

To me, do’s and don’ts of female leadership are no different than any leadership. I’ve had the great privilege of knowing some amazing leaders and have found them to be empowering, competent, collaborative, empathetic and visionary. Many of these amazing leaders and innovators are women.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love hanging out with my husband, my son and daughter and our puppy, Pudgy. Anything we do from walks to just hanging out is fun to me. I also really enjoy working out whether it’s at a gym or outside. I love people and enjoy meeting up with, having dinner with or just socialize with my family and friends. In the past couple of years, I’ve picked up painting and singing. Although I wouldn’t say I’m good at them, I do enjoy both.

You conquered a life-threatening brain tumor and a two-year recovery during which you had to learn to walk again. What’s the biggest lesson you learned during that time?

The experience of dealing with a life-threatening illness was a very difficult lesson and a genuine gift. My life changed so much and for the better because it brought me back to my true self. I was forced to slow down and with it, allowed me to reconnect with my core, my authentic self. What I had learned so many years before when I was a new immigrant without my parents and without money helped me recover. I remembered that it was about taking one step after another and believing that better days would come as a result of those daily, difficult and hopeful steps.

That season of recovery gave me a sense of gratitude and appreciation, It also reminded that we aren’t guaranteed tomorrow and need to make the most of today and not take anything for granted.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?

I really enjoyed “Autobiography of a Yogi” and “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.

There were a few movies/documentaries that I also found impactful. Specifically, I liked

“The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work” and  “Awake.” I love health- and fitness-related podcasts such as ones by Andrew Huberman.

Do you have any particular philosophy that guides your career decisions?

My motto is doing well by doing good. I truly believe most of my successes were as a result of living that truth. For me, doing good has many meanings. On top of the list of those meanings is being good to others. I know that most of my career decisions were guided by that principle. Specifically, my path earlier in my career was chosen to allow me to be a mother who happened to work. So, when it was time to make choices, I had clarity as to where I wanted to go: the place that would allow me to grow while I had the opportunity to remain engaged with my children.

Doing good also means doing good work with passion and dedication. It means to be good to peers, partners and the community. Having done my best to live up to that motto has been the single most critical factor in all of my successes.

Of course, to be able to create a path requires a destination – a vision. I’ve had a clear and authentic vision that served as my beacon guided my every decision.

“No one truly has everything nor should they. A beautiful part of life is striving to reach for what you wish. It’s through that striving that you can learn and grow”

Many authors say women can and must strive to have everything – a shining career, a blossoming family life, and a perfectly balanced lifestyle all at once, others point out that– then women are placing unrealistic expectations on themselves if they believe they can have it all, you are married and have kids so according to your experience, what do you think about these statements?

I have a wonderful husband and two outstanding children. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my family life and consider it my priority. Over the years, I, too, felt the pressure of striving to have it all. What helped me focus my energy was the realization early on that there is no “having it all.” No one truly has everything nor should they. A beautiful part of life is striving to reach for what you wish. It’s through that striving that you can learn and grow.

Though I learned that there is no such thing as having it all, I did have lots of seemingly lofty goals. Life taught me that it is possible to have and accomplish those goals but that they would have to be in sequence – not at once.

For instance, when I decided that I wanted to have children, I also decided that my life and career decisions would have to be made with them as my priority.  My personal desire to put my family first could have been viewed to be because of societal or traditional expectations. For me, they were deeply personal and rewarding. As they grew and became more independent, I was able to navigate career choices differently.

I do believe that having strong values creates the foundation for building a great life. It is those values that help inform one’s priorities. And as priorities shift through life stages, it’s possible to achieve many things over time and with joy.

What are your plans for the future?

I am excited about continuing to serve as a board director and advisor to companies that I like. I plan on building Shirin Behzadi, LLC and helping companies prosper according to their authentic vision.

I will deliver on my philanthropic work across Orange County United Way, the Cheri Blair Foundation and others to make an even bigger difference in the world.

And I will grow personally and professionally in this new phase of my life. I understand now that I’ve been learning and training my whole life for this moment.

There is still the glass ceiling for women in the world: Fewer opportunities, jobs underpaid just for that fact of being a woman, etc. Have you experimented with the glass ceiling? If yes, what are the biggest challenges you have faced and how have you overcome them?

Being an immigrant woman means that there were potentially two glass ceilings I had to overcome, and yes… I’ve felt both. Very early on, I landed on a vision to someday run a large company. That vision coupled with my clarity around my values, helped me navigate the tricky and choppy waters of my professional life.

Rather than pay attention to or focus on what others may have thought about me – as a woman and an immigrant – I tuned them out. I learned that for me it was best to hear people but not necessarily listen to them. Their lack of regard or understanding of my capabilities, I concluded, was their short-coming; not mine. So, I pursued my authentic vision with determination and believed I had every right to and every talent  to become the empowered, competent, compassionate professional that was able to transcend gender, race and background.

All of this wasn’t easy, of course. My hope and belief is that with so much more representation of women who are successful leaders, we can accomplish a more level-playing field overall.

What tips, can you give to young girls who want to become an entrepreneur like you?

Take the time and make an inventory of your strengths. What are you good at? What do people say positively about you? It is based on those strengths that you can build.

Invest the time to determine where you want to go: your authentic vision. This doesn’t have to be exactly crystalized. Rather, it’s directional. For instance, I knew I wanted to run a large organization and could see myself in that role.

Believe and expect to be able to achieve your vision. The vision itself and the expectation that it will come true will help direct you to make decisions, choices and plans consistent with a path that will help you achieve that vision.

Ask for help. Entrepreneurship is rewarding and hard at the same time. It would be great if you could find someone in your life with an entrepreneurial mindset -or simply someone you admire- that can mentor you; I can almost guarantee that you will find someone willing to invest in your life if you ask.

I think in your position, many people may have the wrong idea of who you are,  and what you are (professionally) are,  with this idea in mind, what is being Shirin and what´s not?

If you don’t know me, you may assume I’m serious or unapproachable. I’m neither. People energize me and socializing make me happy. I laugh a lot, love comedies and enjoy being casual. To me, life is not to be taken too seriously.

It concerns me that if people see images of me, they may not know how much I love being around and having friends from all walks of life. Or that they may not understand how much I value kindness and emotional intelligence.

To me, the most precious gifts are people’s time, energy and emotional bond. Doing good by others and in the world is what inspires me.

“My hope and belief is that with so much more representation of women who are successful leaders, we can accomplish a more level-playing field overall”

Who is the woman you admire the most and why? 

I admire a lot of women. I know there are some well-known women that deserve a lot of accolades. But if I were to name who I admire the most, it wouldn’t be a name you recognize. In fact, it won’t be any one person. Rather, I admire many women who do their best every day to manage their families, do good work inside or outside the home, and contribute positively to the world by being good people.

What else do you want to add or share with us?

I want to encourage women to own their strengths and to declare their successes. There is so much we can and do contribute to the world.

Name: Shirin Behzadi

Company:  Shirin Behzadi, LLC

Country: U.S.

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