Burning Her Own Path

Sheida Jafari is an Iranian immigrant and a businesswoman. Her father left Iran in 1984 for better financial opportunities, and, by late 1987, her family was reunited in Rockville, Maryland. Sheida moved back to Iran in search of inspiration in 2006, but having been raised as an American, living under her homeland’s societal values proved a challenge.

Upon her return to the U.S. in 2009 she inadvertently became a human rights activist, which helped build the foundations to become the serial entrepreneur she is today.

We sat down with Sheida to discuss cultural misconceptions, experience-based community building and her unusual road

Tell us a bit about how you started your career in Silicon Valley.

A year out of college, back in 2004, I worked as a business development manager selling nanotechnology conferences to large tech companies. I was peddling these conferences to companies like GenentechGoogle, and Apple. I was completely bored, but the pay was good and I learned a lot about nanotech. 

The sales job led to a project coordinator position at a biotech firm that was equally boring. Then I got it into my head that I wanted to learn more about the clothing industry. After work in Colma, I’d drive to SoMA (San Francisco) to work as a fit model for a clothing designer and got to see the nuts and bolts of a medium-sized business. The product involved ripping off a lot of other people’s designs and use of questionable labor overseas. After learning more about the process, I realized I could only create things with which I felt morally aligned and the garment industry was, and is, daunting.

Feeling uninspired and frustrated, I decided to put everything on hold and visit my grandmother in Iran. I ended up staying for two-and-a-half years.  

What were you doing in Iran during this time?

I started working as a fixer for different news agencies. I ended up moving in with a guy that I wasn't married to, which is a big “no-no.” I took a lot of unadvised risks, but I couldn’t help it because I was an American kid that wasn’t as mindful of the rules as I should have been and that eventually led to a couple of arrests.  The third and final [legal issue] was really bad and it was best for me to come back to the U.S. in 2009.   

What are some stereotypes you had of Iran that were different once you were there?

The issues that the U.S. media and political dialogue focus on are not what people on the ground are preoccupied with in Iran. If you are a tourist in Iran, you are probably going to have a great time. You will be embraced by a very hospitable culture and I think many in the Iranian government are happy to have foreigners spending money there.

When you live there as an Iranian, however, you see things through a different lens. For me, the sheer complexity of the culture was overwhelming. The multiple identities that people held in order to function in the eyes of the government versus the eyes of their family and friends were mindboggling. When the repercussions for some basic human behaviors – like sex – are as extreme as they were in Iran at the time, people find odd ways to cope and circumvent the rules. Mass distrust and depression can occur when everyone is involved in a weird game in which transparency can get you killed. It’s a good lesson for the West.

What are some typical misconceptions of Iran that you encounter?

A lot of it is superficial stuff: “What are women wearing?  Do I have to cover my face?” and other things that have to do with women’s rights. It’s just a general feeling that people have towards Iran – they’re conditioned to feel something ominous [is happening]. I remember learning Iran was a “bad word” back in first grade. I remember turning pages in a huge elementary school encyclopedia to check out Iran. Someone had scribbled out Iran and written “hostage taker” and “killer” in the description. That’s when I realized it would be better to say I was French.

When you returned to the U.S., you were an activist involved in human rights.  How did it come to be and what did you learn during that phase of your life?

Human rights watch called me because of my recent arrest in Iran. I made friends with some of the employees and the people they hung out with-- human rights/pro bono lawyers, old-school activist and other Iranian leaders and artists. So when Ahmadinejad’s disputed election occurred summer 2009, they called me to help organize a hunger strike in front of the UN. I’m proud that the strike became a seminal moment of the Green Movement within the diaspora and led to sustained protesting of over two years. I learned the speed of activism and the need for on-the-ground logistics and operations – permits, approval, and bridge building – to make things happen in real-time. I learned how to gain traction in media. I was doing a lot of public speaking and public relations work, understanding how to hold presence with people, and people that don’t necessarily agree with each other. 

How did you re-enter the business world?  

Since our activist group required me to be in New York, I moved to Brooklyn and searched for a source of income. I answered an ad on Craigslist asking for help in basic accounting at a company named Pizza Packet. I walked into this office and was greeted by nine Hasidic men, each on the telephone. It was a big change: I went from protesting alongside hardcore activists from the Iranian diaspora to a room full of Lubavitch Jews selling spice packets for the pizza industry.  

At the time they had gone into production a bit too early. After five or six days of fixing their QuickBooks – and seeing that the company was hemorrhaging cash – I thought to myself, these guys keep on calling pizzerias, why doesn’t someone call food distributors? I made a couple of calls and got a huge order: big enough to multiply their production by nine times over the next year.  

Zev Drizin, the principle investor in Pizza Packet – showed up and asked me what I wanted in exchange for the increased revenue I had generated. Instead of commission, I told him that I wanted to run the company and he said ‘okay.’ He made me president of Pizza Packet under the condition that I would hire amongst the local community. In turn, I made the agreement that I would help the business reach certain benchmarks at which point I would move on to my next venture. That would be the end of my “MBA.” I did that in little under two years. I’m forever grateful he gave me that chance.

After you finished working at Pizza Packet, how did you get involved with Burning Man?

Zev is an adventurer. He wanted to work together after the end of our relationship in Pizza Packet. Not long after, Zev went to Burning Man. He showed up at my house in Brooklyn Heights – still covered in dust, he came directly from the airport – to tell me all about his experience. I decided to go the following year, in 2012, and had an amazing experience.

How did this lead you to being behind one of the largest and most talked about camps of Burning Man in 2014?

At the end of 2012, Zev and I began working on a portable hospitality experience based on geodesic domes. The concept came together because I found like-minded partners at Camp Ideate’s first year. We moved to Los Angeles and pursued the geodesic concept. By 2013, that crew built the Uhuru Camp, which continues to build an incredible community. Eventually, Zev and I moved away from that team and pursued the roving hotel concept elsewhere with other Burning Man builders. When 2014 came around, I found a like-minded individual in the Bay area who wanted to build a huge camp at Burning Man and it brought in enough money to fund our project to build a transportable hotel. 

Within five months, we created a 120+ bedroom hotel for about 350 people on a relatively small lot. We built living spaces with bathrooms, showers, kitchens, and bedrooms to create a self-contained roving experience. The Burning Man run was about prototyping a space that could be used for disaster relief and for revolutionizing the way that we live. This project was just the first step in creating momentum around lightweight, practical living spaces. In the process of creating it and the partnerships that drove it, I learned a lot about community and why cohesion and principles are fundamental in building experienced-based concepts.

My purpose in this project was based in creating viable housing for people affected by mass displacement resulting from natural disasters and war. But my partners did not share this intention. They wanted to continue to grow in the festival circuit. Since we couldn’t find common ground, there wasn't enough purpose for me to continue on the project.

That said, you’ve gone to Burning Man four years in a row now. Why do you keep going back?  

I go back because of all the beautiful people I’ve met there, passionately building for the sake of art. Watching people's’ faces experience Burning Man for the first time is the fucking best. When I can tap into the fresh awe on their faces while fully appreciating the traditions of “the playa” … that’s what drives me back.  

What's next?

I’d like to continue creating experiences curated with products and in spaces I can support. How we learn, build, eat, and work is changing rapidly. I’m doing a lot of consulting in the virtual reality space and learning more about augmented reality, particularly how it affects how we explore and learn. There is tremendous growth in “off-grid” capacities and the mass dissemination of knowledge of ancient as well as new age agricultural practices is also exciting.

Most importantly, however, it is my wish to always build a self-aware culture that is empathetic and inclusive. As a witness to emerging communities with similar ideas, I’m wary about noting when my progressive rhetoric is steeped in privilege. 

We also can do a lot better for women in our community building. My work at The Leadership Labs at Barnard with Athena Center founder and fellow Breakout member Nathalie Molina Niño has opened my eyes. The role of diverse women being relegated to a dinner or “women’s weekend” is tired. I hope to make more women conveners and owners of the spaces or experiences that I help develop so that all may explore the interdependence of the sexes with less institutional bias and in true partnership.

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