IRAN'S CHANGING FACE

Young entrepreneurs choose to stay put

Ms Jahanban and Ms Nasiri started their own business two years ago, where they design and build custom furniture. Emigration from Iran has dropped since international sanctions were lifted in January last year.
Ms Jahanban and Ms Nasiri started their own business two years ago, where they design and build custom furniture. Emigration from Iran has dropped since international sanctions were lifted in January last year.PHOTO: WU BINGYU

For decades, Iran's educated elite headed for the exits to seek better opportunities abroad. But with the opening of the country's economy, more are staying and some are returning to start businesses.

Like many of her peers, university graduate Negin Nasiri wanted to get out of Iran. She was accepted into a graduate programme at California State University in 2015, but the United States government did not grant her a visa.

"Everyone here wants to go to America. I too wanted to experience living in another country and I came up with this elaborate plan to stay there after my studies," said the 27-year-old.

Today, even though her American dream was derailed, she is finding success at home in Teheran with Studio On, a carpentry business she started in 2014 with her best friend, Ms Shaghayegh Jahanban, where they design and build custom furniture.

"It's so busy now. We get at least 40 calls and messages a day to build furniture for homes, art galleries and cafes - in Iran and even overseas. Now we are just working by the order," added the fine art graduate from Teheran University.

Ms Nasiri is one of a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are seizing opportunities from an economic uptick and an increasingly open and connected Iranian society since the landmark nuclear deal signed in July 2015 under President Hassan Rouhani.

For decades, Iran's educated elite left the country for better career opportunities; the Iranian diaspora is estimated to be five million. But the brain drain from Iran may be showing signs of slowing down since international sanctions were lifted in January last year.

In April, Deputy Foreign Minister Hassan Qashqavi said that emigration from Iran had dropped by about 30 per cent, with the number of exit permits issued by the ministry decreasing from close to 700,000 two years ago to about 500,000 in 2015.

Professor Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, chair of the Centre for Iranian Studies at the London Middle East Institute, has observed such a trend too. "The improved economic situation is certainly an important factor reducing the brain drain from the country, in particular because Iranians are more confident about the future," he said.

"There is a general aura of hope and dynamism that came with the nuclear agreement and the pragmatic policies of the Rouhani administration," Dr Adib-Moghaddam added.

What is also happening is that some Iranians overseas are returning home.

Mr Hamed Jafari, who attended high school in Canada when his father moved there for a job in 2003, is back in Teheran. "I come from a middle-class family but for the upper-class Iranians, it's pretty common to send their kids abroad for education from a young age," said the 25-year-old, who returned three years later when his family moved back.

"Given the (previous) sanctions and unemployment levels, Iranian families preferred to invest in their children by sending them abroad. But the situation in Iran is much different now," he said.

Mr Jafari is the co-founder of technology news website TechRasa, the TechCrunch of Iran, where he writes about Iran's entrepreneurs, including those in Silicon Valley. Since the sanctions were lifted, more Iranian expatriates have been getting in touch with him and asking about work opportunities in Teheran, Mr Jafari said.

"Iranians who have lived abroad for many years are now interested in all the action that is happening in the country. They want to know about the opportunities here and are interested to either invest in a local start-up or establish their own company here," he said.

His co-founder, Mr Mohammadreza Azali, 28, said: "Before the sanctions were lifted, Iran was like a black box. You didn't know what was going on unless you went inside it. Now, Iran is a gold mine."

According to the World Bank, Iran's US$400 billion (S$578.7 billion) economy, the second largest in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, is expected to grow close to 7 per cent this year. Previously, the sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme had crippled its foreign trade and investment. With foreign brands kept out, Iranian start-ups have sprung up.

One of them is iHome.ir, an online portal of real estate listings for property buyers and sellers in Iran. Started last January with only five staff, the company has since expanded to 70 employees and has investors from France and Pakistan.

Its co-founder, Mr Mohammad Hosein Rafatnejad, said: "Iran is the last emerging market. If you have a share, you get to gain everything. But if you come later, you lose out."

The 27-year-old added: "In today's world, that's hard to find. Here, you don't have Google, Amazon or Facebook. And it's a chance. We ask 'why not have them here?' so we build them ourselves."

The mechanical engineering graduate from Sharif University noted: "There is no Google Play, but we have Cafe Bazaar. We don't have Amazon, so we built Digikala."

With the opening of Iran's economy, these entrepreneurs are not worried about foreign companies which have begun to eye the country. "Competition is always good, it will provide better services. But competition will not be easy for foreigners," Mr Rafatnejad said.

"Amazon coming to Iran? It's not going to happen in the next two years," he added, citing reasons like the lack of local knowledge and the country's inability to move money through foreign bank transfers, as PayPal and major Western credit cards do not operate in Iran.

In hindsight, the entrepreneurs said their decision to remain in Iran turned out to be a blessing in disguise. And their advice to expatriates: "Come back home."

Mr Jafari said: "The situation is not all perfect here. But Iranians abroad should come back and see the changes themselves."

For Ms Nasiri, starting her business has changed her view on life in Teheran. "Sure, there are things that make people disappointed and they try to go to another country," she said. "But now, I have carved my own path here. I have my family and friends. It's my city and I found a way to love it," she added.

"It is important to show that we can do something here. If you don't like it, you don't leave it. You try to change it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 01, 2017, with the headline 'Young entrepreneurs choose to stay put'. Print Edition | Subscribe