My Journey from a Walnut Orchard in Iran to a Startup Founder in Canada: Part 2

In my last article, I talked about my upbringing in Iran and my early life on my family’s farm. While these experiences I had as a child and teenager formed the beginning of my interest in agriculture, it was my education and experiences as an adult that truly allowed me to pursue my interests and create meaningful contributions to the science behind farming.

In my last article, I talked about my upbringing in Iran and my early life on my family’s farm. While these experiences I had as a child and teenager formed the beginning of my interest in agriculture, it was my education and experiences as an adult that truly allowed me to pursue my interests and create meaningful contributions to the science behind farming. 

In this article, I’ll not only be covering my experiences coming to Canada for my education, but the journey I took after graduating that led me to eventually founding ecoation. This includes not only having a greenhouse of my own but gaining experience working alongside other farmers. I decided to take a risk and bet on myself, which after over a decade has grown into the company I am so proud of founding today.

What I want you to take away from this article, is that the process of creating impact through entrepreneurship very rarely follows a straight line. My journey was not simple, and it certainly wasn’t short. However, all these experiences shaped me into who I am today and gave me the ability to accomplish what I have.

Before we jump into it, this article is the second part of my story. If you haven’t read the first article, please feel free to check it out here.

Now, let’s get started. 

Leaving Home

In my last article, I discussed my grandfather, and his innate ability to not only grow his crops but to have a relationship with them as well. While he was certainly an outstanding farmer, his knowledge was limited. His experiences were grounded in the immediate practice of keeping his farm, and his insight did not necessarily extend far beyond the day-to-day upkeep of his orchard.

I, on the other hand, was becoming a young adult with a genuine thirst for knowledge. I was not satisfied with just growing crops successfully. I felt the need to understand how the plants grew, and why they behaved the way they did. Of course, as a part of the younger generation I became deeply fascinated by the newest technologies I was seeing on TV – something my grandpa didn’t have much interest in. He was old school and in his last years he did not want to be bothered by a crazy teenager who had millions of questions.  Some years after his passing, I began to receive a magazine shipped in from Europe that provided a view into the modern world of farming. This gave me a glimpse into what was possible far beyond my own experience. Whatever I learned from this magazine wasn’t enough to quell my curiosity. The study of agronomy was just too appealing to me, which is why I chose to pursue it in my higher education. 

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This, of course, is how I ended up here in Canada and later on in the United States. I did my bachelor degree in agronomy in Iran at Tehran University and I followed up with my Master’s in Plant Science, and my Ph.D. in Chemical Ecology, both from the University of British Columbia. After graduation, I moved to Illinois to do my post-doctoral studies at UIUC, working with two of the most decorated scientists in my field, Dr. May Berenbaum and Dr. Evan Delucia at the Department of Entomology and Energy BioScience Institute. During the second year of my postdoc, I was headhunted and moved to NYC as the Chief Science Officer of a multi-national sustainable development company and that is when I started interacting with the United Nations and other governmental groups. It was a bizarre turn of events. 

There was a particular day that I remember very vividly. I was In Tribeca, having carpaccio and Italian antipasto at Wolfgang Puck restaurant paired with my favourite wine. I was on the phone with a colleague from Tel Aviv. Maryam snapped a picture of me for fun. Later that night, I looked at that picture and it dawned on me, how on earth did this random dude go all the way from the mean streets of Tehran to the posh streets of Tribeca!  

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Throughout this 20-year-long process of educating myself, intense networking, conducting international business, traveling more than half of the world and absorbing knowledge from Wall Street giants, I achieved a lot. I had gotten published and won several awards, got into special places and met people of power, and experienced things that were not in my wildest imagination which I am incredibly grateful for. Throughout all this, however, I was always wondering whether there was a way I could parlay my knowledge and experience into something both meaningful and practical. As I mentioned in my last article, I made a promise to my Aunt Roya that I would make a difference in how farmers operated.

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Before going to New York, I was seriously considering staying in academia. I’d like to make it clear that academia is necessary for important knowledge to be passed down from teacher to student. I obviously wouldn’t be the man I am today without everything I was able to learn through my higher education. While I did seriously consider following in my mother’s footsteps and pursuing a career as an educator, I was at a sort of crossroads. 

As a figure in academia, I would have been able to publish articles and work with students, but in a way, my knowledge would be kept at a largely abstract level. While there was the opportunity to teach students who would go on to change the world, quite frankly, I wanted to change the world myself. So, halfway through my post doctoral studies, I made the difficult decision to leave academia and pursue my own goals, seeking to fulfill the promise I made to Roya so many years ago. 

My First Greenhouse

Before I moved to Canada to pursue higher education, I had taken care of a greenhouse all by myself. I rented a plot of land that was one hectare large, which is not much by today’s standards but was quite impressive 25 years ago. From there, I got to work building my first greenhouse. Mind you, this greenhouse wasn’t anything especially fancy. There were no gutters, there was no irrigation, and there was no climate control of any kind. Actual weeds were popping up in the greenhouse that we had to pick ourselves by hand. It was essentially a set of rows that yours truly had to till himself with a shovel – I still have some marks on my hands from the blisters caused by this work. 

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While today seeds are largely provided to growers by massive corporations, back in the day it was much more common to get your seeds from the little guy, so to speak. We had a plethora of crops growing in the greenhouse, from cucumbers, and tomatoes, to some truly (really, very) spicy green peppers. 

For these peppers, I would adjust the electrical conductivity of the soil and take all the correct measures to make them as hot as possible. I don’t want to reveal all my spicy secrets just yet, as I have plans to get back into the pepper game somewhere down the line. Not to get ahead of myself, but that “world’s spiciest pepper” record is looking pretty good to me. 

Anyways, despite the small, DIY nature of this greenhouse, I was still able to grow enough produce to help feed my family and make a small profit at the local markets. Honestly, although it was a humble operation, I still look back on that greenhouse with pride. 

This wasn’t my only experience farming as an adult. I ended up back in Illinois years later, running a massive 5,000-acre farm producing soy and corn. It was truly an impressive difference going from my simple, single-hectare operation to something on such a large scale. Later on, during my education in BC, I worked on my research project at Houweling's greenhouse and Van Der Mullen Greenhouses. Once I founded ecoation, I continued to work closely with Houweling and began to expand my experience in greenhouses even further. From our customers in Leamington, Ontario to farmers in Holland, Belgium, Morocco, and even as far as Japan.

It’s been a privilege to experience these different cultures, which all have one common thread – deep care for their work and their plants. While I am in love with what I do now, the passion I see in all these farmers inspires me to hopefully have my farm again somewhere down the line where I can grow some ridiculously hot peppers. All I have to say for now is, Carolina Reaper, watch out.

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Founding Ecoation

Despite amazing experiences at academia and later on in Wall street, I found myself at a crossroads of whether I wanted to stay on this course or pursue something entirely different. With farming in my blood and the promise I made to Roya years ago, I realized what I wanted for my life. This led to the foundation of my company, ecoation. Over a decade later, my baby is now a teenager. 13 years ago, we set out on the mission to help farmers use technology to improve their growing practices, and reduce pesticide use.

There were countless bumps along the way to get where we are now. Looking back on the scars on my head from falling out of trees as a child, to the blisters on my hand from tilling my first greenhouse as a young man – I’ve always been stubborn, and I’ve never let setbacks stop me from working towards what I want.

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I was faced with failure countless times on my journey, but my purpose was always clear. Every time I fell, I got right back up and continued to work towards my goals.

I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last 13 years, and I’m thrilled to be surrounded by a team of unbelievably intelligent and passionate individuals, from hands on engineers to dedicated investors who care about positive impact in the world. I wouldn’t have been able to make it nearly as far without them. 

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While I do still have dreams of returning to my background of farming one day, my mission, for now, is clear – to continue to bring agriculture into the future.

Right now, many startups are going through hardship and financial uncertainty. More than ever, you need tenacity and persistence. If you believe in your cause, you will find a way to survive long enough to make your dream a reality. The reason I shared my story here with you is because still after all these years it feels like a fairy tale! If you would have told me 25 years ago that one day I will be where I am today, I would laugh at you as hard as I could. Life is very interesting and sometimes, you just need to go with the flow and follow opportunities. 

The End… For Now

Thank you for taking the time to join me on this journey from my childhood into the present. While this is a good overview of my story up until now, this is far from the end. I hope that ecoation will continue to grow well into the future and that I will have many more stories to share over the next several years. 

It’s an honour to be able to help farmers in whatever way I can, and I look forward to continuing down this path. Truthfully, I’ve never been more passionate about what I do than I am right now. From my childhood in Iran to my years of education in Canada, crazy travels around the world and the eventual founding of Ecoation, it’s wild to look back on it all from where I am now.

Although I’ve already lived a very full life, I still feel like this is only the beginning for me and my company. I’m truly excited to see where things go over the next several years and beyond. I hope you come along for the ride, and join me for the rest of my journey moving forward.

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