The privilege of giving | April 17, 2013 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - April 17, 2013

The privilege of giving

Atherton philanthropist supports range of causes not only with funding, but with time, effort and intensity of purpose

by Renee Batti

Bita Daryabari begins her biography with an epigraph: "You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others — something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it."

Those words by theologian and Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer are a fitting introduction to what follows: an accounting that is long on substance, because Ms. Daryabari's giving far exceeds "a little thing."

During the last decade, the Atherton philanthropist has contributed millions in funding to support a range of causes — from helping Iranian immigrants in the United States and girls and women in the Middle East, to increasing awareness of the contributions to humankind of the Persian culture, to supporting construction of the UCSF Mission Bay Neuroscience Research Building to further the fight against Alzheimer's and other diseases.

But the monetary contributions are only part of the story. "She's not like some philanthropists who might put down their money and think they need to make no more effort," says Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University, and like Ms. Daryabari, a native of Iran. "She gives of her time and effort" to ensure that the projects she funds are successful in achieving their goals, he adds.

"She's a very unusual woman of almost infinite goodness and good will, humility and generosity — and that combination is very potent."

Mr. Milani has a front-row view of the powerful effects of her work. He oversees the Bita Daryabari Endowment in Persian Letters at Stanford, which she established in 2007 and which includes a prize awarded to artists of Iranian ancestry. He also is on the board of the Pars Equality Center, a nonprofit Ms. Daryabari founded in 2010 in Menlo Park to provide legal and social services to Iranian immigrants and to advocate for "more positive perceptions of Persians in the U.S. media," according to the center's website.

Fighting misperceptions

A native of Tehran who experienced life in Iran when it was warring with Iraq, Ms. Daryarabi moved to this country as a teenager, in 1985, joining a brother who had already emigrated. She learned early on what it meant to be viewed as "other" by people with no understanding of her culture and native country.

When the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred, the prevailing ignorance about Iranians ramped up suspicion and hostility toward the Persian immigrant community she was a part of, Ms. Daryabari says, planting a seed in her that ultimately would blossom into the Pars Equality Center.

But before any of that, Ms. Daryabari pursued a course along the trajectory of the American Dream: college, career, marriage and children. She earned a degree in computer science from California State University, Hayward, then a master's degree in telecommunications management from Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Her career included stints at GammmaLink and MCI Communications.

She married Omid Kordestani, who later became a Google executive, and the couple had two children. When Google went public in 2004, the couple's fortune was born.

"We decided we should share that with others in our community and elsewhere — the less fortunate," she says.

Ms. Daryabari has since married Dr. Reza Malek, an interventional neuroscientist, and the couple has had one child. Raising children took her off a career path for a while, but it didn't slow her down. "I'm an intense person," she says, which those who know her might consider an understatement. "For me, sitting home doing nothing — I would die."

She supports many causes — she's also an arts advocate — but the fruit of her efforts can be seen most dramatically in the work of her two nonprofits and the endowed chair at Stanford.

Unique Zan Foundation

A firm believer in the power of education, Ms. Daryabari began philanthropic work to help women in the Middle East in 2005, then launched the nonprofit Unique Zan Foundation in 2008. (Zan means woman in Farsi and Arabic.)

"Growing up in the Middle East, you see a lot of ... discrimination against women," she says. When the level of education rises, tolerance of discrimination declines, she adds.

"The way you can educate a region is to educate the women, because women will influence their kids."

Among the programs she and her foundation have funded are a girls' school in Kabul, where, she says, the principal goes to school with a gun and a bodyguard because of the danger of educating girls in Afghanistan; and a women's center in Hebron, on the West Bank.

The school was built in 2009-10, and is run by a local non-governmental organization, she says, adding that more than 120 girls are enrolled.

The women's center, established in 2008, got off to a slow start, serving fewer than 40 people its first year. "Husbands didn't like their wives going to the center," she says. But the facility, which provides children's day care, offers art courses and training in such marketable skills as hairdressing, candle-making and photography. The husbands now like the program, she says, "because most people who started going to the center three years ago are working and making money." It's now serving more than 700 women, and offers micro-loans to help women start their own businesses.

The foundation also supports the building and operation of orphanages and health programs. Those projects, like the school and women's center, were launched by Ms. Daryabari, then handed to "the local NGOs to take care of them," she says.

Pars Equality Center

Headquartered in Menlo Park, the Pars Equality Center recently opened locations in San Jose and Los Angeles to serve the largest Iranian immigrant populations in the state, Ms. Daryabari says. She decided to create the center because she saw a lack of support services needed to successfully integrate immigrants into life in the United States.

The center, she notes, is "the only nonprofit organization in the USA helping our community in such matters." And the services are free. They include legal help for family issues, domestic violence, rent problems, and barriers that refugees face in retrieving their assets because of this country's sanctions against Iran.

Social services include English language classes, job fairs and mentorship programs.

If the center can't provide a specific needed service, it has an extensive referral list, Ms. Daryabari says.

Endowment in Persian Letters

With the endowment, Stanford has been able to hire three full-time professors of Persian literature, according to Ms. Daryabari.

Mr. Milani, the director of Iranian studies, says that the idea for the program was launched years ago when he and Ms. Daryabari met for lunch, and she quizzed him about the paltry number of courses and lectures on Persian literature. "I said, we really don't have the means to do that — we need more money," Mr. Milani recalls, adding that she responded. "I'll give you the money." Within weeks, he says, the endowment arrived.

After the program was in effect for a while, Ms. Daryabari was happy enough with the results to expand the endowment, Mr. Milani said.

A highlight of the program is the annual Bita Prize, which includes a $10,000 cash award to the recipient and a trip to Stanford to lecture — a major undertaking in some cases, because the majority of prize-winners so far live in Iran.

Mr. Milani proudly lists the five winners, the first being Simin Behbahani, "a poet, a remarkable, defiant woman" who is a national icon. The others: "the great fiction writer" Goli Taraghi; Mohamad Shajarian, "one of the greatest vocalists of all time"; filmmaker and playwright Bahram Beyzaei, a scholar of Iranian theater; and architect Hushang Seyhun.

The presence of the prizewinners at the university, he says, allows students and the community to learn about and be enriched by writers and other artists "who have achieved something unusual — truly, the most prominent" of Persian artists.

Go to to learn more about Pars Equality Center.

Go to for more information about Unique Zan Foundation.


Like this comment
Posted by Yousef Rostami
a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2014 at 7:37 pm

As an Iranian, I am proud of her achievements,works and the way she thinks.