Angella Nazarian wound up in Los Angeles on a fluke. At age 11, while on a trip to visit her brothers, who were studying here, the Islamic Revolution broke out in her native Iran. She chose to remain in L.A. rather than return to a country in turmoil. She’s settled in nicely. She married into a prominent Iranian family: Her brother-in-law Sam Nazarian founded SBE, which owns an assortment of nightclubs and restaurants along with hotels, including the SLS at Beverly Hills. And she helps run the family’s charitable foundation.
But Nazarian has spent much of her life trying to make sense of that early upheaval. Her first book, Life as a Visitor (published in 2009), chronicled, among other things, her transition from Middle Eastern to Western culture. And the contrast between women’s roles in Iran and the United States has defined much of her work since. She has put together a number of well-attended salons to address women’s issues, and this week she’ll launch her first-ever conference, called Women A.R.E. (the abbreviation stands for aspire, respond, engage). Those onstage will include Sharon Stone and philanthropist Wallis Annenberg. We caught up with her recently to talk about why she wants to create a network for Los Angeles women.
Your first conference, Women A.R.E., launches this week. Tell us what you’re hoping to achieve there.
What we would like to do is bring women leaders from social entrepreneurship, the sciences, and wellness, to spark conversations. And then, in some way, we want to stimulate our dialogue with a call to action, so that when women come to an event, they can help, whether it’s giving money, time or expertise. Think of it a bit like the Clinton Global Initiative, where they assemble the right people in the room to really effect change.
Why a forum built specifically around women?
I’m Iranian, and I came here as a young girl. When I look back and think about the role women played in my life, I can think of many who showed me what it means to be a strong woman, women who exercised great judgment and integrity. But in terms of a woman who was really out there in the world, breaking boundaries, I was very limited in the role models I had. I have always found that the people who have really encouraged me to grow have been women. Whether women I’ve written about in my books, or people I’ve met, I’ve benefited from strong women. So why does it have to be only about me? Why can’t we do this on a mass scale?
So you had plenty of character role models but no professional ones. That’s possibly a consequence of the low participation of women in Middle Eastern society. What was it like coming from that environment to America?
There’s a big difference. When you think about Persian women, traditionally, there is never any anticipation or obligation for a woman to work outside the home. Just think that as a child, you come to the U.S. and see women being more direct in the way they talk, in how they articulate goals for what they want to do. It changes the complete paradigm of gender roles.
What are some of the biggest challenges for women in this country?
When you look at what’s happening in terms of how women feel about themselves, women are no happier about themselves today than they were in the 1960s. How can that be? There are more opportunities, more options.
Because we are not striving for the balance. We’re striving for perfection. There is this feeling that you have to be the best at your work, the best at your family. Women have to be aware that we’re not going to be perfect. We’re not going to be supermodels. There is such pressure to be fit, be PTA president, and also be doing great, fulfilling work. I think we’ve become too strict about a definition of what a successful woman does.
Is there a remedy?
Well, one of the most interesting trends going on right now is women entrepreneurship. Women are opting not to join the corporate life and trying to think of how they can build something for themselves, in a space where they have more power over their work schedules, etc.
How are men different?
Women tend not to focus as much on their strengths as they should. If you compare men and women on how they built their lives, the men are more likely to have built their lives around their strengths.
Lean In, the book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, has re-launched this debate somewhat, arguing that women need to be more assertive in the workplace. Does that play into your thinking?
I think Sheryl Sandberg’s book was really important in starting a dialogue about women’s participation at work. But there’s another perspective—that it’s not the case for all women. If you think about women on the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, that assumption is not going to work for them. There is so much diversity among women. We have to be careful that the assumption could be helpful for some, but not for everyone. There are women who are struggling every day, and they’re single mothers and they don’t know how to engage with that.
At your salons, it’s often a well-off group of people talking about problems that are sometimes half a world away. Are you ever worried that these gatherings run the risk of being too removed, too exclusive?
I think the mission is to really have social impact. A lot of what we’re trying to do is to bring awareness of some of the work being done here, making sure the women know about each other and see how they can collaborate.
Clearly, the way your vacation in America turned into a permanent stay has had a profound impact on you. But what was it like in those first moments, when you realized you weren’t going back?
I came here with one piece of luggage. When you are completely transported into a new world, it’s jarring. The first two weeks I thought I was on the best vacation ever, visiting my brothers. We went to Disneyland, to Santa Barbara. Before that, my only notion of what the States was like came through Lucille Ball shows. My father was still in Iran. He called us and said, “Things are getting bad. Angella can come home with Mom. Or she can stay with her siblings.” At that point my mom said, “I want to ask Angella.” At age 11, I said, “I don’t want to go back.” I was willing to forego being close to my parents. Who knew that my parents would come back five years later?
Have you ever returned?
I can’t go back. We have political asylum. But one of my great wishes is to go back. A few years ago we went to eastern Turkey, and we were close to the border with Iran. The sunlight, the smell of the air—it all comes back to you. I could feel how close I was to where I was born.
We’ve spoken about women and the role of women, but what about men? What role can they play in empowering women?
Men are full-fledged partners. I have ten nephews, a husband, and two sons. In the workplace, it’s essential for male bosses to make sure that they mentor women as well as men. There is a study that when women participate at the board level, they often put forth interesting ideas but these ideas aren’t really heard until a male repeats them. Why not be that kind of person who reinforces that and says, “By the way, Mary had suggested this...” The other way is when you are a partner with someone. It is so important to have a partner who backs you up.
Have you had that?
Absolutely. It would have been really easy for my husband to fall back on traditional Middle Eastern models of how a family is run. But my husband also had two strong sisters. Guys also benefit from having women role models who are strong, caring, warm, and engaged. He doesn’t feel intimated by a woman who wants to do more. And that’s good for me, but good for him, too.