Showcasing the Positive Contribution of Iranian-Americans: An Interview with Pirooz Parvarandeh

By Peyman Pejman

The Iranian-American Contributions Project, led by the non-profit organization of the same name, is the brainchild of Pirooz Parvarandeh, an engineering and information technology specialist. Parvarandeh came up with the idea of showcasing the contributions of his community in a scientific manner: collecting data about Iranian-Americans in the United States, which could then be used by public advocacy groups to demonstrate the positive contribution of Iranian-Americans and, hopefully, dispel the negative impressions held by some. He spoke to Kayhan London from his base in California.

What is the purpose of the project?

When you ask Iranians in America how many [Iranian-American] physicians there are, they don’t know. Prior to this [project], I [myself] didn’t know. If I don’t know, how will my children know? If I don’t know, how will my fellow American citizens know? How will politicians know? Basically, we are trying to put out the data so people know what the contribution of the Iranian-Americans has been.

This data is going to be available to all other Iranian-American organizations, and they can create a narrative around it. They can go to policymakers and say, ‘Look, there are 9,000 physicians of Iranian descent who are saving lives and providing services,’ or ‘There are this many companies founded by Iranian-Americans,’ or ‘There are this many teachers rendering services.’ These numbers are important in order to make an impression on our fellow citizens and policymakers.

The point is that we want other Iranian-American organizations to come and look at this data and [put together] a narrative. Our organization will not produce an opinion piece. Other organizations are free to [produce] an opinion piece, and it might be something like: ‘Here are all these luminaries and people who have come to the States as immigrants and become shining stars and done X and Y. People of America, please take notice.’ That is a narrative that IACP will not [produce]. We are just going to be the data repository. We are not in a position to articulate any policy or opinion.

So you don’t want to cross the line into advocacy?

It’s been our charter that we will never become a public policy advocacy group. That’s not something that we are good at. We just want to provide the data to other organizations that are well versed in public advocacy. We are a non-profit organization and we don’t want to commercialize or make money off this platform.

How did you come up with the idea?

I’ve been asked that question, and it’s hard to answer. I knew there was a need. I’ve been in the States for 40 years. I lived through the hostage crisis and all the other insults thrown at Iranians in America. My background is in engineering. I felt that what was missing was a data-centric approach to what was going on. I don’t know what sparked it, other than feeling that we needed to provide objective data and something that would not undergo too much questioning or suspicion. I believe that data is very central to making this immense point [about the contribution of Iranian-Americans], to show what’s going on. We are very data poor.

When did the project start?

The project started about a year ago. The idea was to create a very systematic approach to determining the contribution of Iranian-Americans in America. Initially, we thought we would reach out to all the Iranians we knew and have them fill out a form asking [the question], ‘What have you done and what has your contribution been?’ We soon realized that that would have been very non-scalable, and open to high degrees of subjectivity and potential exaggeration, or understatement.

So we decided to use a data mining approach where we would write software that would look at all publicly available databases. Primarily, these databases would pertain to people who are required to get some sort of certification to be active in their profession, such as attorneys, physicians, etc. That essentially became our data source. Then we had to take these millions of names and decide which ones might be of Iranian descent. So we compiled a list of 200,000 unique last names of Iranian descent, about 70,000 first names of Iranian descent, and went through these databases to identify those who had a high probability of being of Iranian descent. What I mean by high probability is that there are certain last names that are specific not [just] to Iran but also to adjacent countries. The last name ‘Moradi’ can be found in Afghanistan, Pakistan or potentially Turkey. So we assigned a probability factor to the names.

How is this project different from similar ones done in the past to highlight the contribution of the community?

They always focused on famous people, the stars of our community, and it almost became an anecdotal approach to the contribution story. There are several things wrong with that approach. One is that it covers a very small number of people. We will continue to cover the luminaries in our community. [But] someone looking at that database would say, ‘Who are the rest?’ We don’t get to see the contribution of those who are not famous: for example, a lot of people [working] in real estate, attorneys, teachers. We are trying to find people across all professions, famous or not, and quantify their contribution. Ultimately, we want to become a go-to source on the contribution of Iranian-Americans.

What are the different components of the project?

First is the data-centric part. We show numbers, maps, distributions, etc. That data-centric approach is then translated into a high-level abstraction, such as the GDP contribution of the people. Another approach, the human-centric approach, is when we interview individuals and talk about their contributions and life stories. That’s the Huffington Post series. We augment that with video interviews. You will see in the Huffington Post interviews that we have covered many different disciplines. It’s not necessarily a monolithic view. We also allow crowdsourcing, so if a student likes their teacher, they can go and interview them. This becomes a platform for capturing all the information about our community.

Who determines the Huffington Post interviews?

We have an internal team that basically does research on who to cover. We have tried not to focus on household names. We want to cover a diversity of professions, and we want to have gender balance, so we have tried to be 50-50 in our coverage. It’s a very subjective process. If you ask me why I covered this person and not the other, I wouldn’t be able to give you a good answer.

Will the database include all Iranian-Americans?

We acknowledge upfront that we are under-representing the population in the U.S. That’s a fact. Basically, there is no guarantee that we will capture every single Iranian-American in America. But we envision that over time people will add last names for us to research. If people gain trust in our system, they will say, ‘My last name was not there, but I can volunteer another last name.’ By definition, we will always be underrepresenting the population in America. People spell their name differently when they come to America, sometimes they modify it to make it Americanized, etc.

Is your focus on contribution or success? And how do you define the terms?

We are not focused on success. We are focused on contribution. Our definition is anyone who is active in a field and is working, who is making a contribution. We also want to distinguish between accomplishment and contribution. For example, someone who gets a degree has accomplished something. Whatever their profession is, we don’t care. They can be a firefighter, a schoolteacher, an attorney or a CEO. Anyone who is making a living in their profession is making a contribution by definition, because someone is willing to pay them money to do something and, therefore, it must be worth something.

How do you alleviate concerns about data secrecy, hacking, or the government requesting the data?

First, there is no legal basis for the government to ask for it. If the fear is that by doing this, we would be providing information to the government, and that the government would come and hack our system, okay, [then] there is a fear there.

That’s why we are employing security experts to make sure that does not happen.

Having said that, it is also very naïve of us to think that the NSA [National Security Agency], the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and all of these other organizations don’t have access to this information. The Immigration and Naturalization Service automatically knows anyone who has emigrated from Iran. For them to figure out what [these people] are doing – I don’t know what value that has for them, but yes, they can figure that out.

We are not doing anything that the government can’t do. We developed this with one software engineer. They probably already have this data. But we are not going to make any of this data public, because it would be against the privacy of those individuals. We want to be a trusted source of the information. The names in the database are not public. We are just presenting numbers. The names will never be presented to anybody. They are anonymous. If I say there are 9,000 physicians, I will never – we will never – publish the names of those physicians.