Migrating to the United States at age 18 for college, without knowing anyone in 1983 was a difficult yet exciting new beginning. Having fled Iran less than a year earlier after the Islamic Revolution at age 17, on the back of a camel without food and water for 3 days, was a surreal experience where the lines between life and death and success and failure were completely blurred. Once given the opportunity to study in this country, it was of utmost importance to succeed, find ways to give back through a career in a health-related profession, and found an organization to focus on sustainable development programs in education and healthcare to help women and children in the underdeveloped regions of the world.
Coming from a diverse background and heritage that included Persian, French, Russian, and Italian roots, having compassion was of utmost personal importance. A career in healthcare, dentistry, practiced with kindness and care and further developed by starting the Virtue Foundation after the tragic events of 9/11 has been the driving force behind how life can be more meaningful and balanced while contributing to the greater good.
CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP — What meaning do you give this term?
It is about realizing your dreams, creating organizations and entities that not only are successful as growing concerns but seek to contribute to the greater good. It is based on developing a business and a work environment where lines between legality and morality are not blurred. It is where one realizes that just because something is not illegal, it doesn’t make it moral or ethical. It is the realization that you can be a successful professional while helping others along the process. It is where you are conscious and aware of your decisions and actions before they are taken. It is knowing that you can still make money and achieve your dreams while doing the right thing. It is understanding that there is “taxation” on your success, meaning the more you make it, the more you should feel obligated to give back. When we give back to others, we are actually the ultimate beneficiary of such actions, as it makes our lives more purposeful and much richer than before.
MENTORS — We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been an invaluable mentor for you? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My father-in-law has been a great mentor to me. A retired pediatric surgeon, medical school professor, and author, he has always balanced his professional life with the spiritual side of life. Throughout his career in both France and Iran, he has always tended to patients who were poor and unable to pay him, has always respected the rights of others no matter who they are, and has always been focused on his personal development and growth as a human being, even more than his professional accomplishments. When after the events of 9/11, I discussed the idea of starting the Virtue Foundation with him, he was fully supportive and encouraged me to do my utmost to make it happen while always remaining humble and true to myself. He has always reminded me that doing good for others should be done because helping the less fortunate is our human duty, and we should never seek fame and accolades while doing so. He has always reminded me that good actions should always be accompanied by great intentions, not for personal gains or recognition.
TO THRIVE — When you see yourself thriving: Do you see yourself opening up opportunities for others along the way to participate in your success, and how?
Sharing your success with others, and watching them also reach their goals and dreams, could be as rewarding as personal success. As an extension of personal growth and development from a spiritual perspective, one should always look for opportunities to contribute to the lives of others in a meaningful and sustainable manner. As an example, when I find investment opportunities that look promising, whether it is in real estate or equities markets, I like to share that knowledge and information with others, and over the years, I have been able to do that for many friends and relatives alike. Even though I don’t draw any material compensation for sharing these opportunities with others, witnessing my friends prosper and succeed has been a very rewarding experience for me. Moreover, as it pertains to the charity I have founded, the Virtue Foundation, by bringing others on board and building on previous successes, I have not only been able to help many more people in the process, but I have also seen these recruited volunteers also thrive in their respective roles, sharing the spotlight with me. According to the great Persian thinker, Ostad Elahi, a true human being rejoices in the joy of others and shares in their sorrows.
CAUSE — What are the causes close to your heart, and you are supporting right now? Can you share a story how you got involved? How did it make you feel?
The closest cause to my heart is the Virtue Foundation, a nonprofit organization with Special Consultative Status to the United Nations I founded after the tragic events of 9/11. It focuses on sustainable development models in healthcare, education, and access to justice, by empowering women and children in particular, in the underdeveloped world. To date, we have been to over 20 countries, helping thousands of people in the process. By training locals in rendering healthcare, educating them properly, and giving them the tools, instruments, techniques, and technologies they need, we have been able to build successful development programs in healthcare in some of the most impoverished regions of the world, in places such as Ghana, Mongolia, and El Salvador.
One story that I like to share is about a project we did in the state of Louisiana after the mass devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. What started as a small-scale project where our donations and efforts focused on sixty 6th graders from two of the worst-performing public schools in the state, where these underprivileged students were given Apple iMacs and the proper training and quality of education they sorely lacked, grew to an amazing success story. When ABC’s Nightline picked up the story, the momentum generated by it paved the way for us to receive over 600,000 dollars’ worth of laptops from Apple, plus over 300,000 dollars’ worth of software and training from Microsoft. This enabled 6th graders from many more Louisiana schools to receive the computers and training they so desperately needed. Over a year later, the late and outgoing governor of the state appropriated several million dollars to be used for this project statewide, as all 6th graders were able to receive the same benefits. Something that started with 60,000 dollars of Virtue Foundation’s money had now grown into 6,000,000 dollars helping many needy children in our own country, which made me feel very happy by realizing that one never knows what could happen if you start something good and dream bigger.
THE FUTURE — How do you see the face of entrepreneurship in 5 years? How do companies /brands need to adapt to secure their place in the future?
People and entrepreneurs need to be more inclusive, tolerant, and compassionate. They need to realize that just because something is not illegal, it doesn’t make it moral and ethical. Oftentimes, the lines between legality and morality are blurred enough that people seek to take advantage of that for their sole benefit and at a detriment to others. Entrepreneurs need to realize that you can still succeed, make money, and grow your business, without hurting others and the environment. If they can afford to do so, they should support worthwhile nonprofits and charities that fit their corporate missions, and they should find ways to give back to the greater good. They should hire people based on their talents, aptitudes, and potentials, and not on their ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, or skin color. Companies need to see that consumers are much more conscious and aware of the world around them and that they have many choices. They should not take their customers’ loyalty for granted, and they should be much more socially, culturally, and environmentally conscious. This will sometimes mean that they should not put corporate profits above all else and that they should show compassion and seek to also become a solution to the world’s many problems.
ADVICE — What kind of advice would you like to give to an aspiring entrepreneur who feels limited due to their background or lack of resources?
I always say that life is full of both overachievers and underachievers. The latter individuals may think big, may have the talents and tools necessary to succeed, but they are either overtaken by fear of failure or gravitate towards feeling victimized by life’s circumstances. All their aptitudes remain as potentials, and they never go from an in vitro modality to an in vivo one. They end up blaming others or even the environment for their lack of success, instead of seeking empathy and sympathy of others while playing the role of life’s victims perfectly. The former people are fearless and don’t make excuses for their own lack of effort. They are relentlessly in pursuit of personal and professional growth and development and are willing to give their utmost efforts and make all the necessary sacrifices to succeed. They don’t want to be victims. Instead, they seek to lead themselves and others towards achieving their goals, are humble enough to realize that there is a lot they don’t know and that they constantly make mistakes along the journey. They are interested in learning from those mistakes and are willing to make the necessary adjustments to move forward. They are not afraid of failure, and they seek to surround themselves in empowering situations, by associating with and emulating those that are better than them. For example, someone who is extremely interested in losing weight should frequent people who are in excellent shape, as this empowering environment will motivate him to lose the necessary weight. if he chooses to spend time with others who are even heavier than he is, what motivation will he have in this disempowering environment to lose the weight he so much wanted to shed?
DRIVE — Do you sometimes feel bad for “wanting more out of life”, and if so, why? What is your personal motivation that leads you through the hardships of entrepreneurship?
What I want most out of life is learning from everything and everyone, for as long as I live. It is a lifelong pursuit of personal growth and becoming a better human being each and every day. This philosophy will never allow me to feel bad for wanting more out of life, as I realize that I will always remain a work in progress, and there will be improvements to be made in every aspect of life. Knowing that I can always get better and be better has created a constant source of motivation for me that has been quite sustainable. Throughout the years, I have also realized that hardships and adversities teach us a lot more about ourselves and life than successes do. When we succeed, the ensuing happiness and the emotions it engenders often prevents us from seeing or even looking for the underlying life lessons. We are simply too happy and too proud to look for those lessons. However, facing hardships and adversities will allow us to delve within, peel off the layers of materiality and its associated distractions, and find the invaluable lessons of life. What I have learned in life through hardships, conflicts, and failures has been a lot more valuable than what I have learned while experiencing success and victories. Knowing that these apparent hard times can teach me the most important lessons of life has enabled me to want to face them head-on, instead of shying away from them.
CHALLENGES — Entrepreneurship is very challenging. We each have our own coping mechanism. Mine is humor. What is yours? Can you share a story?
We all need our own coping mechanisms and venues through which we can vent and let go of some of the inevitable pressures that are bound to be built within us over time. I use two vehicles as my personal coping mechanism; one being humor and the other is playing competitive soccer. For the former, I always try to make others laugh, by telling them funny stories based in reality but sometimes exaggerated to make them even more humorous. For the latter, I organize competitive soccer matches that oftentimes include many friends younger than me. As their captain, I motivate them to play hard throughout the entire game and yell at them when they don’t. If they show any lack of effort or if they are not giving it their utmost on every play, I will be right in their faces, pointing out what they did and didn’t do, and what they should have done. Sometimes, some of them may get upset at me during the game, but none of them carries this outside the field when the game is over. These soccer games have allowed me to cope much better with life’s many challenges throughout the years.
YOU — Is there anything you would like to share that we have not asked you here?
I consider myself an eternal student of life, fully believing that we all have a purpose and a mission in life we must accomplish. I believe everything in life happens for a reason, and each life’s event and each person we encounter can teach us valuable lessons. I believe life is a long journey, congruent to a heavyweight boxing match when we need to go the full 15 rounds of 3-minutes. We earn our livings and fulfill our missions during those individual rounds that last three minutes. However, we all need those one-minute breaks between every two rounds to regroup, refresh, strategize, rest, refocus, and tend to our aches and pains before the boxing match resumes. We need to bring more balance into our lives, and we tend to our psychological, physical, and spiritual needs as we strive for professional success. We need to think of others who are less fortunate than we are, and to the extent of our abilities, we need to do whatever we can to help them. We need to constantly challenge ourselves to become better people, and we need to understand that throughout life, we are bound to make many mistakes, but the key is to learn from them and reduce them in number, while knowing we will never reach a mistake-free life.
The Virtue Foundation’s mission is to increase awareness, inspire action, and render assistance through healthcare, education and empowerment initiatives. The foundation seeks to provide both short-term impactful and long-term sustainable development solutions to communities across the globe. Follow The Virtue Foundation on Facebook.
Demee Koch about the MEDIUM interview series on CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP:
Conscious entrepreneurship for me is about building a sustainable business that values and respects the resources used and makes an effort of giving back to society.
I believe we need entrepreneurs to really get involved in the causes close to their heart.
This is why I reach out to entrepreneurs that aim for more than generating profit. With this interview, I aim to share entrepreneurial purpose-led passion to inspire others.
Looking forward to learn from you. Reach out to me via LinkedIn.