By Nazanine Nouri
Shahrzad Rafati, the Iranian-born Canadian founder and CEO of BroadbandTV (BBTV) Corporation Shahrzad Rafati — who was appointed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2018 to represent Canada on a pre-summit G20 Business Women Leaders task force — has seen her company ranked among the top companies owned by women around the world by TRUiC in June of this year.
The Really Useful Information Company or TRUiC creates easy-to-understand guides to entrepreneurship accessible. To date, it has helped more than 250,000 Americans start their business.
“Women-owned businesses are changing the landscape for what a more equal society could be,” wrote Rafati on her Instagram page when the ranking was announced in June. “I’m proud to be in such great company with @SaraBlakely, @ariannahuff, Cher Wang, and Dame Stephanie Shirley highlighting women-owned businesses!”
The Iranian entrepreneur founded the company seven years ago and has opened offices in Europe, Latin America, India and the Far East. With 587 million unique viewers consuming 46.9 billion minutes of video content per month, BBTV is today the world’s second largest video property in terms of unique viewership behind Google.
Aged 40, the founder of BroadbandTV has also picked up numerous awards including 2018 Ernst and Young’s Pacific Entrepreneur of the Year (Technology), Canada’s Top 40 under 40 and Canada’s Top 150 Women in 2017. That same year, she was listed among The Hollywood Reporters 25 Most Powerful Women in Global Television.
“Shahrzad Rafati is an outstanding choice to be Canada’s G20 Business Women Leaders’ task force representative,” Prime Minister Trudeau said of Rafati at the time of the G20 in Buenos Aires. “She’s a proven leader, with a remarkable success story, whose vision has revolutionized an entire industry. I know she will bring the same energy and drive to her new role to tackle the challenge of equality in the workforce and create more opportunities for women to work, lead and succeed.”
Rafati created an executive committee of leaders from the private, public and non-profit sectors in North America to advise on the advancement of women’s leadership in business.
“Gender equality and female economic empowerment are essential to the success of global economies and industries across all sectors,” Rafati said at the time. “In Canada, we have come a long way, but there is still much work to be done to ensure women have access to equal pay, quality employment, social services and education, financial parity and economic opportunity.”
Rafati added that BBTV had eliminated the disparity in pay between their male and female employees and that 43 per cent of employees were women. “Equal pay for equal work isn’t just the right thing to do,” she noted. “The benefits of operating a gender balanced environment run deep to benefit our bottom line.”
Rafati was born in 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution. Both her parents were entrepreneurs – her mother had created a small textile factory and her father was a real estate developer. In 1980, following Iraq’s invasion of Iran, the family took refuge in a village in the north of Tehran to escape the bombardments that hit the capital city at regular intervals. That is where Shahrzad was enrolled in school and would prove to be a brilliant student despite the difficult times both due to the war as well as the ‘moral order’ imposed by the new regime, particularly on women.
“I wanted to learn new things and take control of my life,” she told the French daily financial newspaper Les Échos. “Yet society did not offer any real choices. I therefore decided to finish my studies as quickly as possible to follow my dreams.”
In 1996, taking advantage of a favorable climate in Iran, Shahrzad left for Vancouver to visit family friends. She spent her first year learning English and teaching Mathematics to students of Iranian origin to pay for her classes. Two years later, she graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of British Columbia to study computer science.
In 2005, at the age of 25, she founded BroadbandTV together with a few close partners to enable broadcasting on the Internet. YouTube had just been launched and media groups were viewing online videos as the ‘new frontier.’ The aim was to fight illegal downloads by enabling broadcasters to ‘monetize’ their video content that inadvertently found itself on the Internet. Internet piracy had become a real calamity with countless websites for illegal downloading like Napster, KaZaa or e-Mule seeing the light of day.
BroadbandTV addressed a real need. Developed internally by Shahrzad Rafati and a handful of software specialists, its technology was capable of identifying on the Web, particularly on YouTube, pirated content originating from a given video producer, deleting it, and renaming it to include revenue-generating advertisements. “Most of the people who illegally download videos don’t realize they’re pirated. They are simply fans,” said Rafati. “BroadbandTV in a sense simply transformed piracy into a source of profit.”
In 2007, Rafati signed an agreement with the National Basketball Association – a major producer of sports videos on the Internet that each year lost millions of dollars due to illegal downloads. She then went on to sign up other major accounts including Sony Pictures and A&E (History Channel and Biography Channel.)
Yet it was just as much the major accounts as the small individual creators that helped develop the platform. Anxious to monetize their videos on YouTube, they increasingly turned to the Vancouver start-up. BroadbandTV offered a monetization service that enabled them to generate profits as well as solutions to grow their presence on YouTube in exchange for a percentage of their revenues.
The start-up rapidly attracted large media groups and Shahrzad Rafati finally chose to partner with RTL Group. In June 2013, the Luxembourg giant media company with 53 television channels and 28 radio stations acquired 51 percent of Broadband TV’s capital for 36 million dollars.
Backed by RTL Group, she has created a division specialized in “branded content” to manage the relationship between creators and major brands, developed her own music and video game networks on YouTube, and in particular, started the creation of online games and mobile applications.