This interview with Hamid Hashemi , chief executive of iPic Entertainment, which manages theaters, restaurants, bars and bowling alleys, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.
Q. What were your early years like?
A. I was born and raised in Iran. The focus of society in the Middle East is family. In the United States, it’s more about the individual. This is a country that’s very competitive, and that’s the greatest thing about it. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you come with, you can rise to the top. You can do whatever you want. This is a luxury you don’t have in other countries.
But the other side of that is when you grow up in the Middle East, it’s all about the family. Your weekend, your entertainment, is getting together with the rest of your family, and families are big. When we got together, it was up to 100 people. My father had 11 siblings, and my mother had three, so when we got together, there were probably 50 kids.
When you grow up in a family like that, there’s a sense of security. It isn’t just because you are getting taken care of; it gets ingrained in you that you take care of other people.
And what kind of things were you doing outside of class?
I was a happy kid. We had a good upbringing. We would create our own soccer teams. Here, we schedule our kids. It’s not what they want to do; it’s what we want them to do, and we schedule everything for them.
Where I grew up, those luxuries didn’t exist, so we all had to do our own thing. There were no leagues. The kids on the street would create their own team, of all different ages, and you competed with kids in a different neighborhood. We did it all ourselves. It helps you to become self-sufficient.
Tell me about your parents.
My father was a self-made man, a serial entrepreneur. He started with a pharmacy, and he was in real estate and built clinics. He’s always been my role model because every Sunday we would get in the car and drive to rural areas where people didn’t have access to medical care.
He had this little box that he would fill up with different kinds of antibiotics and painkillers. We would literally drive three hours outside of town to visit people. And they would line up because they knew that he was coming. These people were in desperate need of medicine.
My mom was also very inspiring. She’s the one who always said, “You can do whatever you want. If you want to succeed at it, you’re going to succeed at it.”
Did you have an idea early on about what you wanted to do for a career?
When I was 12, I decided I wanted to be a heart surgeon. I saw my grandfather have a heart attack and he was lying there helpless. That’s when I decided what I wanted to do. I had three years of medical school before the revolution took place in Iran, and I had the opportunity to leave or stay there.
I moved here on Dec. 10, 1978, and tried to get back into medical school. But at the time, it was $18,000 a year, and I came here with $700 in my pocket. There was no way I could earn that much money and go to school.
And when I first got here, school was in session already, so I spent most of the first few months literally just watching TV and learning English. I watched “Sesame Street” and “Three’s Company.” There are no blonds in Iran, so I didn’t understand all the blond jokes.
Once school started, I really started focusing on business courses. And I delivered furniture on the weekends, and I worked the night shift at a hotel, from midnight until 7 a.m., to support myself. As soon as I got out of school, I started in real estate, renting homes. I needed quick money. Then I started my own real estate company.
So you had the entrepreneurial drive early on.
Initially, being an entrepreneur was not the goal. It was just survival. When you come to this country as a foreigner, you don’t have all the safety nets that you have when you grow up here. If you don’t make it, you don’t live. It’s as simple as that. It was that desire to just survive.
But once you have some level of success, that builds confidence. And good entrepreneurs are never happy. You’re always reaching for the next thing. Every success leads to another one because you’re always testing yourself. You’re never happy with the status quo.
I don’t think people are born as entrepreneurs. I would say you’re born with curiosity and not being happy with the status quo. You always want to know more and learn more. When you apply that to business, you become an entrepreneur.
What’s a key leadership lesson you’ve learned?
If you’re trying to build something new and different, you’ve got to create a safe environment where people feel comfortable taking risk. If you don’t feel comfortable about taking risk — and worry that you’re going to be fired — you’re not going to go beyond your limitations.
How do you hire?
Once you know exactly what you want to do in life, your perspective changes. You become focused, and you’re going to be able to succeed no matter what you do. So that’s what I look for.
One question I always ask is, “If you had all the money in the world, and you had one year to live, what would you be doing?” Their answer tells me who they are and what they are. I’m looking for somebody who has a purpose, who’s focused on other people.
What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?
As much as you plan your career and plan your life, there are events that will change everything 180 degrees. I’ve had multiple events like that. I always wanted to be a doctor and now I’m in the theater business. But those defining moments in your life are what really builds your character.
Adam Bryant, “Hamid Hashemi: A Good Entrepreneur Is Never Happy” NY Times, September 18, 2016. Accessed via: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/18/business/hamid-hashemi-a-good-entrepreneur-is-never-happy.html?ref=smallbusiness