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  • 02.02.17

An Iconic Designer (And Immigrant) On Life In The U.S. Today

Sohrab Vossoughi, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran when he was 14, talks about his fears–and his optimism.

In a time when immigrants are under attack at the highest levels of government, the Iranian-born designer Sohrab Vossoughi is a living refutation of Trump’s recent executive order. Beyond being a tax-paying American citizen, Vossoughi is the founder and chairman of Ziba Design, a Portland, Oregon-based design consultancy that has worked with clients such as Nike, Microsoft, Samsung, Intel, and FedEx. The firm has provided 600 jobs over its 33 years of existence, and Vossoughi estimates the products Ziba has worked on have contributed billions of dollars to America’s GDP.

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For instance, Ziba is known for developing the first universal USB flash drive for M-Systems, Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboard, the Coleman smoke detector, and the Heinz ketchup bottle–a design which Vossoughi says saves the company $10 million a year. The company’s System 1000 Hemodialysis Machine from Althin CD Medical is considered an industry standard. The XSTat, the world’s first hemostatic device for bullet wounds that acts as a modern-day tourniquet for soldiers, was approved by the FDA in late 2015–and it was designed by another immigrant formerly on Vossoughi’s staff who happened to be from Iran as well.

Ziba’s international roots are representative of the design community’s global nature, where having offices around the world and staff from a variety of countries and backgrounds is standard. But now, given President’s Trump executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (including Iran), Vossoughi’s afraid to leave the country he considers his home. He’s already canceled a personal trip out of anxiety, and worries about his ability to travel for business, since Ziba has an office in Toyko. “My passport says I was born in Iran, but it doesn’t say what I’ve done for this country, that’s what they don’t see,” he says. “I never thought this would happen to this country. This is not the country I came to 46 years ago. It has changed so much, unfortunately. There are some good things that have happened, but we have gone backwards.”

[Photo: courtesy Eastman Innovation Lab]

Vossoughi immigrated to the U.S. from Iran when he was 14, attending high school and college here before working as a designer at Hewlett-Packard and founding Ziba in 1984. The first member of Vossoughi’s family to come to the States actually arrived during the 1950s to start the Iranian Consulate in New York; another uncle arrived in the mid-’60s, married an American, and settled in the Bay Area. Vossoughi was sent by himself to live with this uncle in 1971, and his parents followed a few years later, getting out of Iran just before the Iranian Revolution, which saw the overthrow of the shah and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Vossoughi’s wife also immigrated during the revolution: “She talks about the similarities to some extent with what happened with the revolution in Iran,” he says. “No one knows what is going to happen.”

When he first arrived in the U.S., Vossoughi was struck by the diversity of America compared to Iran. Then, it made him feel safe; it made him feel like he wasn’t alone even though he was from a different place. “When you’re living in the 1950s in Iran, it’s a pretty homogenous society. Everybody for thousands of years of civilization is the same,” he says. “But here I see Hispanics, I see Chinese, everybody coming together. That’s the beauty that I saw in the United States. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you are, as long as you work hard and abide by the laws, this land will give you whatever opportunity you can take.”

At Ziba, he’s tried to imbue the culture of the company with that kind of perspective, hiring international talent and people from a wide variety of backgrounds. He’s especially proud that Ziba is more than half female. “It’s the collective genius of these people that come together, that background, that frame of reference has a lot to do with coming up with a solution that’s truly unique and global,” he says.

He attributes some of the firm’s success to what he calls the “immigrant syndrome,” where immigrants tend to work harder and be more entrepreneurial because they have a broader frame of reference and a greater perspective about how hard life can be in some places outside the U.S. “I’ve seen so many of our foreign designers who come here on the H-1B from third-world countries,” he says. “But whether they’re from Italy or Taiwan, they all want to stay here and they work so hard.”

But Vossoughi is worried that the diverse, international flavor of his company will suffer during the Trump administration, especially given new reports that the H-1B business visa program is about to be scaled back dramatically. “It’s not that we don’t want to hire Americans. We can’t find the talent,” he says. “We have a couple of people we have selected and are working with immigration lawyers, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to bring them here. The government doesn’t understand our issues.”

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Beyond his practical business concerns, Vossoughi is also thinking about how extremism in general can be dangerous for freedom of religion and speech–not to mention creativity. Instead, he advocates for balance, both in life and in design. “Whether it’s politics, food, or exercise, it should be balanced,” he says. “That’s the principle of Ziba. Destruction is very easy, doing something wrong happens very fast, and it takes so many people so much effort to correct that. That’s what I’m afraid of. I’m praying and hoping that society will bring that balance.”

Still, Vossoughi is staying optimistic. “I am so proud to say that we should stay on course, stay with your values, your principles, don’t deviate, he says. “You do have to navigate a lot of barriers I’m afraid–H-1B visas, people being hassled at the border–but I don’t think we should deviate from what we truly believe and what we think is right for our clients and our business and the country.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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