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Fighting for Survival

At the age of 12, Shahin Azizi used his entrepreneurial skills to save his family. Now, he's living the American dream.
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These days, Shahin Azizi goes by Sean. He's the founder and CEO of Toners Plus, an office supply company based in California. Azizi, his wife and their four children live in a five-bedroom house in Glendale, California, dividing vacation time between a condo in San Diego, a 40-acre ranch in Arizona and lakefront property in Colorado. But weekend getaways don't come often enough for the 51-year-old workaholic whose olive complexion, thick, dark hair, and elegant accent reveal his Iranian heritage. Any time of day, his wife and four kids know they can find Azizi in the office; he's never had the luxury of mixing business with pleasure. Azizi was forced to be an entrepreneur, thrown into the business world in a pair of handcuffs.

In the winter of 1969, when Azizi was in sixth grade in Iran, local police arrived at his school, arrested him and demanded he repay the debt his father owed when his restaurant went bankrupt. So, as the oldest male in a family of five children, with a father who was forced to flee to Abu Dhabi, Shahin instantly became the family's sole provider. The only way to pay the debt was to get the restaurant back on its feet.

"I was a father at age 12, with kids looking up to me to feed them," says Azizi. "At 19, I was like, 'Where's my life?"

In three years, the debt was cleared and, by 1979, Azizi's father had returned to Iran, but there was no time for celebration. Hezbollah had burned the family's restaurant to the ground just before Christmas that year for selling alcohol against Islamic law. During these times, the most stifling and chaotic years of the Iranian Revolution, religious minorities and political opposition groups were persecuted and tortured, deemed threats to the future of the Islamic Republic. The Azizis, a family of Christians who distrusted one-party ruling and the complete control of Islam, were, therefore, left in perpetual danger.

Many Iranians are reluctant to share exactly what kind of persecution they faced in Iran, even once they've settled safely in another country. Manouchehr Ganji, the former Minister of Education of Iran and author of Defying the Iranian Revolution: From a minister to the Shah to a Leader of Resistance, wrote in his book that it was common for duplicitous clerics to arbitrarily arrest, torture, mutilate, and execute citizens. He noted that roughly 70 percent of the population under 30 years of age opposes the regime, and that in the year 2001 alone, 220,000 people--mostly educated youth--left the country in search of better lives.

According to Franklin Lewis, Deputy Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, there were unconfirmed numbers of people executed for their political opposition to the regime. Still, he said, "People who were not necessarily subject to that were afraid that it might happen to them." In 1979, at the age of 22, Azizi fled Iran, believing he had no choice but to leave his family behind in search of a future that he might not otherwise lived to see. "I said, if I leave, I'd be able to take them with me once I got established somewhere," said Azizi. "It would be easier for me to survive than for eight people to survive."

On a tourist visa, he flew to Rome with $1,500 in his pocket. He enrolled briefly in an Italian university, before relocating to Greece, a country known for granting U.S. visas to Iranians. In his desperate travels, he met other Iranian men, willing to take him in, provided he passed the favor along to others.

"Believe it or not, at one time I had eight people in my apartment," Azizi recalled.

After saving $800 working at a Greek restaurant, Azizi received his U.S. visa and arrived in New York on December 16, 1980. He spent three sleepless nights in the airport, before meeting two Syrians who sympathized with his story.

"There were tears in their eyes," he said. "I was already so tough I didn't even know how to cry."

He lived in their home in Queens for a month, learning English at Queens College. At night, he worked at various restaurants and diners, including one Greek restaurant that was impressed with his mysterious command of the Greek language. He put himself through the electromechanics program at the City College of New York, beginning in 1984 and worked simultaneously as a manager at a bagel shop. He worked there with a British woman named Vivienne Lee, who would eventually become his wife.

"When I first met him, I didn't have any interest in him. He looked like a hippie. He had long hair and a beard," says Vivienne laughing. "A month later, though, he came in with a haircut and a shave, and that's all he had to do."

In 1985, after Azizi graduated school, the young couple moved to a friend's one-bedroom apartment in California, saving cash to buy a crib for their first child, who was on the way. There, Azizi worked at Hecks Office Supplies, making $2.75 an hour. After six months in the warehouse, his thorough knowledge of the products earned him a position at the front of the store. Soon, he was handling outside sales.

That company went under, though, leaving Azizi with all the contacts, but none of the credit necessary to start his own business. So, he partnered with a fellow Iranian who promised him 50 percent of their new company if he could reach $40,000 a month in sales in three years. When he exceeded that goal, however, Azizi was denied his share of the business. After his partner threatened to kill Azizi's family if he took a single customer with him, Azizi left the company without any clients.

His next venture was Glendale Stationers, which he co-founded with an Iranian named Gary. They promised to split the shares 50-50 from the start, with Gary handling finances, while Azizi took care of sales. For a year, Azizi cultivated the business through solid relationships with new customers, never knowing that each time Gary issued the payroll checks, he would write a memo saying they were payment for his purchase of Azizi's shares in the company.

"In one year, with my own payroll checks, he bought my shares behind my back," says Azizi, the anger slipping into his otherwise subdued speech.

It was 1996. By this point, Azizi had four children and a wife to take care of, with only $3,000 in savings, money that was stowed away for his children's education.

"It was one of the worst times in my life," says Azizi. "I mean, I stood up when I was 12 years old and did everything for my family, and I've been through starvation's den, but not with your own kids. You don't want to have to go through that."

So, he paid the rent, saved $1,000 for food (mostly hotdogs and beans) and, with the rest of the money, Azizi turned his home into an office. He registered the fledgling company, the first business that was truly his own, under the name Toners Plus. By the end of 1996, thanks to a few loyal customers, he was already making $20,000 a month in sales. He moved Toners Plus into a warehouse in 1997, where he has spent the better part of his days ever since.

"Finally my ship came," said Azizi, "finally, after all this hard work for the last 38 years." This year, Toners Plus ranked No. 3326 on the Inc. 5000.

Still, for Sean Azizi, his happy ending is not entirely complete. In 1996, he received his permanent green card, but after nearly 30 years, he still waits for the day he can safely visit the mother, father and four siblings he calls in Iran each month and supports financially. Though he doesn't believe tensions between the United States and Iran will threaten his business ties, he's aware that it could make a family reunion all the more unlikely.

But Azizi, ever the optimist, believes in an ancient Persian mantra that aptly characterizes the way he's dealt with an all but easy life: Pendare nik, goftare nik, kendare nik. "Positive thinking, positive talking, positive action."




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