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Nazanin Daneshvar, CEO of Iranian e-commerce company Takhfifan
Nazanin Daneshvar, CEO of Iranian e-commerce company Takhfifan
Sophie Fay

TEHRAN — She could be the future of Iran.

It has been a long parade of investors and foreign CEOs in the office of Nazanin Daneshvar, a young female engineer who founded the e-commerce company Takhfifan (Persian for "discount"). She welcomes such visitors, and foreign journalists, who have come to Iran to discover a country as hopes have risen that the international economic sanctions will be lifted.

With her beige-and-black Hermès scarf, a long black jacket over her beige pants and flat-heeled shoes, this Internet start-up boss is making sure not to break the dress code imposed by the Islamic Republic. Even when she travels abroad, Daneshvar doesn't remove her scarf, well aware that she has become the symbol of a country that wants to change — but at its own pace.

In a small building in northern Tehran where Islamic militia members, the Basiji, can scarcely be found, she tells the story of Takhfifan, which has grown to 60 employees (80% of whom are women) in seven cities around Iran.

Her employees are working hard to bring price reductions to the million of customers for restaurants, concerts, hotels or spas thanks to group deals, in what is the biggest tech company in Iran to be run by a woman, boasting some 10,000 partnerships with retailers.

But success didn't come easy for this Tehran Polytechnic University graduate, who cut her teeth as a computer science project manager for five years in London and Berlin. Once she launched her company, it took several years and a constant push for media exposure to finally be taken seriously.

"When I started five years ago, I was 26 and I had to bring my father to business meetings and introduce him as the CEO of the company," Daneshvar recalled.

She has now become a mentor at the Avatech start-up incubator, set up inside Tehran's main university. This project caught the eye of President Hassan Rouhani's economic advisors. Two years into his presidency, he has ambitions to develop the country's private sector, which represents barely 15% of the national economy.

Old economy, new economy

Iran has been welcoming back members of the diaspora who return home to invest in the private sector, like Saïd Rahmani, founder of Avatech. This banker organized a competition for new start-up companies, following the model for Silicon Valley innovation.

Female entrepreneur success stories in Tehran are blossoming. Looking for the tastiest eggplant caviar or the most exquisite chicken with nuts and pomegranate sauce? You can order those at Mamanpaz.com, a website founded by Tabassom Latifi that allows you to order homemade dishes prepared by Iranian cooks. Other websites are dedicated to providing parents with the necessary survival kit to raise kids or beauty and cosmetics advice.

"It's all about female entrepreneurs," quips a young man at the "Afterworx" party organized in a French restaurant inside Tehran's lavish Palladium commercial center, where serious networking of entrepreneurs and potential investors takes place.

Out of Iran's population of 80 million, 60% are under 30 and and 70% live in urban areas. And nowadays, there are more females than males in higher education. All these factors make for a very lively and productive sector and that pleases Parissa Porouchani, who created Bazaarnegar 21 years ago, a leader in Iranian marketing research for international companies like Danone, Henkel, Sony or Samsung.

Porouchani learned her trade in France, where she spent 18 years. When she came back after the Iraq-Iran war to take care of her parents, she faced many difficulties. At that time, it was much harder for women to find their place in the economy, and many of the smartest ones pursued academic careers even if it meant wearing clothes that followed the conservative dress code imposed by the regime.

"I didn't want to stay at home," Porouchani said. "I wanted to take matters into my own hands, this is why I created my company."

The task was far from being easy in the begining; in Iran, seeking out opinions for market research is often synonymous with "spying." Her work agenda must be submitted to and approved by the state on a monthly basis. The first appointments she managed to obtain were because of the clients' curiosity more than anything else: They wanted to know who was this woman who sent them mail and offered them a new type of service. Ultimately, she found her audience.

Even if she was actively following the progress made at the Vienna talks about the nuclear program, she would never discuss politics. Foreign companies have since established contact with Bazaarnegar, anticipating the possible opening of the national market.

"We are currently conducting a dozen reasearch projects a month. If suddenly we jump to 25, we will need to restructure the entire company," Porouchani says.

Waiting is hard

Mina Fakhari, CEO of Nina Salon which supplies Koodakoo, a website specialized in baby products, is waiting impatiently for an agreement. Paradoxically, Nina Salon is a familial company founded in 1955. It is one of the main suppliers of Tehran's bazaar and should have everything to fear of a possible market opening and the resumption of international relations.

Rumor has it that because of the economic sanctions, the bazaris — businessmen close to the regime — and some pasdarans — Guardians of the Islamic Revolution — grew extremely rich by controlling the import channels. Inflation rose by 40% a year. The government and the Central Bank reduced it to 10%. Fakhari explains simply that "power is in the hands of the suppliers."

Inside Nina Salon, there are some items that give away the opulence in which certain Iranian citizens live. A four-meter high (13.1 inches), 5-meter wide (16.4 inches) princess castle ready to be sent to some little girl's bedroom. In the basement, VIPs are introduced to the children's line of clothing of Italian designers Fendi and Roberto Cavalli. This is bling-bling Tehran style.

"What is happening in the field of new technology draws attention to the place of women in the economy, but the situation has been improving for years," notes Daneshvar.

Farzaneh Kharaghani, editor of the financial daily Jahan Eghtesad, has seen the same trend. She created the Iran Council for Female Entrepreneurs, that today has 80 members across different economic sectors. She welcomes the government's promise to have 30% of women in its highest ranks.

Bijan Ghodstinat is the (male) founder of the nationally-acclaimed tomato sauce Chin Chin. He set up a start-up incubator in the basement of a villa in the very trendy city of Darban, where 17 out of 24 current members are women. "Iran's future is within the hands of its daughters," he declares.

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