Iranians have been making significant contributions to business, science, culture and entertainment in the United States since the early 20th century. Today, there are almost one million people of Iranian origin living in the United States. In this series, IranWire profiles the Iranian-Americans you should know, highlighting their achievements and careers, and asking what it means to be part of one of America’s most educated and successful communities.
Bita Daryabari, a philanthropist, former Silicon Valley computer scientist and education advocate, was born in 1969 in Tehran. She moved to the United States in 1985, where she studied computer science and completed a Master’s degree in telecom management.
Driven by her love of culture and education, she has spent the last decade promoting, setting up and financially supporting educational projects. In 2006, she founded the Unique Zan (Woman) Foundation, which set up an education center for Palestinian women in the West Bank. The following year she worked with the prominent Afghan human rights activist Sakineh Namdari, founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning, to build a girls’ school in Kabul. She has also helped set up education projects for women in Bangladesh and Pakistan. “I wanted to help the people in the Middle East, where I came from, because I knew, growing up, that I could see what was missing in the region,” Daryabari told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015.
In 2010, she founded the Pars Equality Center in San Jose and Los Angeles, California to help Iranian and other Persian-speaking immigrants with legal and social services; she expanded this work in 2015 with the Daryabari Iranian Community Center.
Daryabari has a strong commitment to preserving and promoting Persian culture, and has made sizeable endowments to ensure research and education about Iran flourishes. In 2016, she set up the Bita Daryabari Presidential Chair in Iranian Studies at University of California Berkeley, donating $5 million gift toward the study of Iranian languages, literature, arts and culture and with a specific focus on ancient Persian history. Speaking about the endowment, Daryabari said she hoped the gift would help facilitate knowledge about Iranian culture and history, not only for Iranians living in the country, but also for non-Iranians. “Hopefully all of these students (studying Iranian history and culture) will make a difference in the future,” she said.
In 2008, she donated $2.5 million to the Persian Studies chair at Stanford University, followed by $4 million toward expanding Iranian research at the university and to make it possible for Persian literature and language academics to join the program.
In 2014, Daryabari donated $2 million to the Centre of Shahnameh and Persian Studies at the University of Cambridge’s Pembroke College. The center boasts a large library, publishes research on the Shahnama texts and illustrative manuscripts, and maintains a database cataloging this research.
“My family are lovers of culture,” Daryabari has said. “From childhood I was very interested in poetry and arts, especially music and painting.” In 2009, she turned her philanthropic pursuits to help fund “Shah Abbas: the Remaking of Iran” at the British Museum, an exhibition produced by the London-based Iranian Heritage Foundation that highlighted the legacy of one of Iran’s most influential kings, who ruled the country from 1587 to 1629. The exhibition met with considerable praise from the British media.
In 2008 she founded the Bita Literary Award, which awards $10,000 to an individual who has made a marked contribution to “literature and freedom”. Winners of the award have included prominent Iranian writers Simin Behbahani and Goli Taraghi, the movie and theater director Bahram Beizaie, the musician Mohammad-Reza Shajarian and Hooshang Seyhoun, the Iranian architect, artist and scholar. In 2009 she funded Iranian Artists through the Venice Biennale to display their work for the first time after a 30-year absence.
Daryabari has also donated to the University of California, San Francisco to create a neuroscience research center, and to UC Davis. She set up the Bita Daryabari Scholarship Program For Women of Middle East in Business and Law at Golden Gate University.
She has won praise and awards for her philanthropic activities including the United Nations Appreciation Award for Outstanding Leadership, Commitment and Support of the UN and Achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2011. She won the 2012 Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which is awarded by the US-based National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations and celebrates immigrants’ contributions to the United States. The World Affairs Council’ Global Philanthropy Forum, which recognizes foreign-born leaders’ contributions to economy and culture, honored her in 2015. In 2010, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian-Americans named Daryabari Philanthropist of the Year.