When you’re driven to change the world━in this case, turning around the negative perception of Iranians━you’ve got to be open to new ideas. Shabnam Rezaei implemented software solutions for the financial services industry by day; by night, she worked on PersianMirror.com, a website she created to show the positive side of Iranian culture.
Think outside the box
But then Dustin Ellis, half-Iranian and half-American, appeared, seeking some publicity on PersianMirror.com for a script he was writing for a half-hour TV cartoon.Babak & Friends━A First Norooz is about an 8-year-old boy discovering the traditions of the Persian New Year and becoming proud of his heritage.
What better way to change perception about Iranians then by starting with children?
Rezaei and her husband, Aly Jetha (a serial entrepreneur), liked Ellis’ concept. They provided some funding and became partners in the production of the cartoon. By enlisting big name Iranian-American celebrities, such as Shoreh Aghdashloo and Catherine Bell (the star of CBS’s CBS +0.84% J.A.G.) to do the voice-overs and selling DVDs directly to parents, the animated show achieved success.
If there’s a will, there’s a way
Rezaei and Jetha went on to form Big Bad Boo Animation Studios, to expand the one-off TV show into a series about the adventures of four American kids of different ethnicities: an Iranian (Babak), Cuban, Indian, and Korean. The cartoon helps kids see life through a global lense. Raising money and getting distribution was challenging. However, after many “nos,” eventually the series was able to raise money and get distribution on public television stations in the U.S. It also airs in Canada.
A key competitive advantage is that the company keeps costs low by doing its animation in Vancouver, Canada, which has a thriving animation industry. Salaries are lower there than the U.S. and, because Jetha is Canadian, the company qualifies for substantial tax credits. Since the content is educational, Big Bad Boo is also able to tap foundation dollars.
Keep stretching and reaching
Rezaei’s vision for the company has expanded. It’s not just about teaching acceptance of Iranians, but of all people, no matter the race, nationality or religion. It’s about teaching languages so children grow into adults who can thrive in a global economy. It’s about teaching STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math). It’s also about reaching large audiences.
Rezaei’s passion for her purpose helps her get past the many rejections she receives when seeking money and distribution. It pushes her forward and encourages her to think outside the box.
While the U.S. is a vast melting pots━a blending of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities━developing programming appealing to individual groups is considered niche and is not appealing to major TV networks, which want content with wide appeal. Rezaei and Jetha have a different view. If you add up all the different micro-communities, you have a mass market. Thirty four percent of all Americans are bilingual, according to Gallop. That’s nearly 40 million households.
The couple continues to develop multicultural educational content for kids, including 1001 Nights,based on 1001 Arabian Nights. Among the series in development are Astra’s World, in which a 7-year-old astronaut explores new worlds, helping those in need, and Gone Bananas, in which three rascals get into all kinds of trouble without saying a single word. But Rezaei needed a way to bypass the networks to get wide distribution.
If one door is closed, try another
Taking a page from Netflix NFLX +0.55% and Hulu’s playbook, Rezaei and Jetha started another company Oznoz that streams children’s content online for a flat monthly fee, with no advertising. In addition to their own content, they license content from the likes of Sesame Street and translate it to as many as 10 languages. The only true competition, is YouTube, but it has ads and links to inappropriate content alongside the videos. Many parents don’t want their kids to be pitched unhealthy food and unneeded toys. Oznoz also allows parents to control the amount of time kids watch and which shows they watch.
Oznoz can now easily get feedback directly from parents about what their kids like and what they might like more of or improvements that might be made.
Knowing what matters to her, what makes her heart race, keeps Rezaei going against all odds, just as it keeps the most successful entrepreneurs going, according toForce Multipliers: How three fundamental adaptations can help women scale big.
What keeps you going?