In this latest piece in the Insecurities series, I open up about how many of us sub-consciously try to endear others in our journey to appease ourselves.

The Dersh and I?

Alan Dershowitz and I probably disagree on more than we agree – especially the people he hangs with, namely OJ Simpson, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump. But, that said, I do whole-heartedly echo the following taken from JPost:

"Whatever successes Jews have achieved have been as a result of their hard work, creativity and determination (...)

Indeed, when people find out I am Muslim, sometimes they put down their guard (or hood) and whisper an anti-Semitic comment. Early on, I’d pretend like I didn’t hear it, uncomfortable in getting confrontational or appearing like I was lecturing them. As I grew more successful and assertive, I would find myself echoing Mr. Dershowitz, verbatim.

Growing up in neighbourhoods with large Jewish populations, I attended primary and high schools that essentially shut down on Jewish holidays. I literally stepped into a sukkah before even entering a mosque. I was as Muslim as a BLT sandwich, washed down by a pint of Guinness, to leave no doubt. I grew up atheist but over time referred to myself as agnostic out of respect for others who believed in God. I was spiritual, and saw some good in each religion, but ultimately saw much more separation, discrimination, destruction and death. No gracias.

Mr. Dershowitz would continue to add:

So, no – Jews do not control the world. Many contribute to the world through their individual accomplishments, but that is true of members of every religion, ethnic and racial group."

Indeed, having devoted my entire adolescent and adult life researching successful people: I could see the combination of hard work, ingenuity, and instincts of survival that are required ingredients to succeed.

The world would be a poorer place – intellectually, artistically, charitably and in many other ways – if there were no Jews. Many European countries that were complicit in ridding themselves of their Jewish populations have come to regret their actions."

The Original Underdogs

If you got back to the foundation of the wealth of information I have absorbed, it starts with those World Book encyclopedias my father ordered in 1986.

Growing up in Canada, invariably I spent a lot of time lost in Volume H after first immersing myself in the voluminous Hockey entry. Invariably, you turn the page and land on another article starting with H, the Holocaust.

Indeed, by the time I was older to hear of the stereotypes, racist jokes and tropes, my mind was already made up about “the chosen people.” That article in Volume H didn’t exactly cast Jewish people as “controlling the world.” In fact, you kind of understand why they adopt a “Never Forget” stance. Then as you get older, you may want to ask why Jewish people have their own hospitals, until you understand the history of prejudice, only to walk away impressed and humbled by how such world-class institutions serve us all.

The sustained injustice and prejudice that Jewish people have faced since the dawn of history went into overdrive after the creation of the state of Israel and its undoubted success, which drew further envy and jealousy. I’m not suggesting Israel’s foreign and domestic policy is without reproach (no country is perfect), but Israel is a supremely impressive exercise and example in organizational prowess and tactical execution.

Anti-semitism predates message boards & obscure websites

Given the vast boundaryless nature of the Web, you can find a treasure trove of articles and websites defaming Jewish people. Similarly, I can probably search and find a source or another that suggests a higher representation of Jews in media and finance. Maybe that is factually correct. Maybe it’s not. To me, the first times I heard those allegations, I sought to go deeper to find out why, and learned of the historical limitations that Jewish people had in ownership or the prejudice they faced in certain industries.

I don’t identify myself as Iranian let alone Muslim, or for that matter Canadian or North American. As such, when I studied history, I would analyze the individual instead of casting them in a group. But if I had to “stereotype” the Jews, it would actually be as a model of hard work, creativity and striving for success through family, sacrifice and faith.

I did not, however, find Jewish people to be that homogeneous. I suppose if you are the kind of person who finds Black or Asian people to look alike, then maybe Jewish people think alike; but that is all hogwash. Indeed, when recounting a quote from the late Christopher Hitchens, Mr. Dershowitz put it best in the HuffPo:

"'two Jews, three opinions' is a far more accurate characterization than some conspiratorial group-think by the Elders of Zion."

Channel The Negatives Into Positives

That all said, in 2000/01, Wall Street wasn’t exactly rolling out the carpet for someone named Ashkan Karbasfrooshan. That can convey whatever you think it conveys, but the reality was that the obstacles were stacked against me (as they may be for you, today, during a pandemic):

  • Iranian-Muslim born Canadian from Montreal
  • Young but tremendously ambitious and driven candidate, scaring the living daylights out of most interviewers
  • with a decent GPA from a very good school (and better business school), but not the globally-renowned better overall school in the city
  • Dot com bubble bursting evaporating many of the companies leading the hiring spurt
  • Nasdaq crash forcing companies to retrench
  • 9/11 which would lead me to use humor to diffuse that whole “is Ash the 20th hijacker” thing.

As such, I had no choice but to move away from finance & investments and gravitate to the world of startups, and namely, digital media.

The Muslim and the Jews?

As Mr. Dershovitz would observe, in light of this stereotype:

"Yes, there are many individual Jews in positions of influence in Hollywood, in network television, in sports and entertainment, and in many other areas of American public life. These individuals, who happen to be Jewish, do not act together in any kind of conspiratorial manner. There is no “Jewish control” of any of these areas — or of the many other areas, such as medicine, law, academia, finance — where there are large numbers of individual Jews in high positions. Many of these individuals are Jewish only in the sense that their parents or grandparents happen to be Jews. They do not live Jewish lives or support Jewish causes. They certainly do not conspire to exercise any sort of “Jewish control” over the areas in which they work."

one couldn’t help but notice the irony of looking for work in media after not finding a welcoming home in finance. But mind you, I never actually thought I was being discriminated against. Partly because I didn’t identify myself as Iranian/Muslim. Partly because it would have been ridiculous for me to think the Jews in the media (or finance) world were conspiring against me!

My viewpoint was that if I couldn’t land employment in finance it was due to that challenging backdrop on Wall Street for anyone. But even once I ventured from finance to media, the outsider-having-to-create-his-own-opportunities remained my reality. Indeed, sub-consciously, in a post-9/11 reality, being an Iranian-Muslim from Montreal while building my career in media where its Mecca was New York City was admittedly a latent source of insecurity.

I never actually stopped and wondered: “hey, how come no one Jewish in media or finance has ever given me a chance,” because for one, I can count on one hand the people who gave me professional opportunities (despite acknowledging the many shoulders I directly/indirectly stood on to earn success). But I also tuned it out, because not doing so was hurtful.

During the Black Lives Matter protests, as a perpetual ally of the underdogs, I wondered if Black candidates count the number of white hiring professionals who give them a chance? Or, if white recruiters realize the power they have to foster change when they recruit someone from an overlooked group? What does a person of color think before walking into an interview with a white interviewer?

To be clear, I didn’t actively try to endear myself to Jewish people in media. Given my Nature and Nurture, I sought to endear myself to everyone, including my peers who happened to be Jewish. But, indeed, if I looked at things statistically, whereas the likelihood I’d be pitching to someone on Madison Avenue who happened to be Jewish was 25%, whenever I’d venture to Hollywood, that number may have been 75%.

Hollywood is the Global HQ of Bizarro World

Hollywood has a reputation for having wonderfully constructive and positive first meetings where everyone pretends like some kind of amazing win-win partnership is forthcoming, but then seemingly nothing seems to materialize most of the time. I don’t think this was related one bit to my background; I’ve discussed this dynamic with many peers and it’s what makes Hollywood both great and frustrating. But as you get older and make a concerted effort to transparently open up about these emotions and thoughts (and possibly expand into a new form of storytelling), I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that Hollywood was the growing source of my professional frustrations. I get it though: LA is both extremely open to ideas but also extremely paranoid about the exchange of ideas and thus a bit cagey, understandably. Some of it may stem from its roots.

Ultimately, Hollywood is transactional in nature. Sure, there are allegiances, but loyalty seems to go to the highest bidder. Don’t believe me? In one generation, relative newcomers and outsiders (Apple, Amazon, Netflix) have upended an industry through nothing else but more near-term money at the expense of long-term value creation. Hollywood, as we knew it, is over.

The Reluctant Entrepreneur: Paranoia, Insecurity, Emancipation

Entrepreneurs generally strike out on their own due to their principles and purpose. I was no different. When I left AskMen in 2005, I was effectively pushed out after trying to do the right thing to ensure a successful integration, then frivolously sued, before routing them in the legal ring, court of public opinion and arena that matters most: the marketplace.

In my 2019 documentary Fox in the Henhouse, I expand on why I refer to myself as the “reluctant entrepreneur & ethical capitalist.” Indeed, as I covered in the 10-Year Overnight Success, even as I’d already secured office space for WatchMojo in Montreal and had started laying down the foundation of building our video empire in December 2005, over the holidays I stopped in New York City before getting some sun in Miami to interview with a company that happened to be led by two Jewish executives roughly my age, and advised by a more senior Jewish gentlemen. During lunch at a restaurant off Park Avenue, I made up my mind as I watched the three discuss minutiae. In the book, I somewhat crudely asked myself

"if I wanted to swap working for three stooges for three clowns—metaphorically speaking, of course. None of the three were clowns, and all were accomplished in their own way, but I didn’t want to waste my time sitting around and convincing people of what I felt (and knew) was the better way to treat stakeholders."

At the core, that captures the moment when entrepreneurs strike out on their own. But the reason I thought of that exchange while writing this piece was at some point, the older gentleman turned to me, and of all of the things he could have asked me, he said:

“What do you think of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?”

Now these days, Mahmoud is somewhat best known for his biting Tweets (oh I kid you not) but at the time, aside from his snazzy jacket, the Iranian president from 2005-13 had made ripples after giving a speech in Farsi which had been translated to “Israel must be wiped off the map,” though in Farsi it was more that “Israel would collapse.”

Now at that moment when asked for my thoughts… my mind wandered into how it would look if I asked a fellow Black person I was interviewing or exploring a partnership with what they thought of Louis Farrakhan, Barack Obama or for that matter Robert Mugabe… but since correcting the statement (i.e. wiped vs collapse) would have implied I was in agreement with the sentiment, I replied “well his curious fashion sense notwithstanding, I disagree with what he’s said of course,” going to add how I had many Jewish friends (and wasn’t a closet Nazi; ok, I may omitted this last part).

But it did ultimately push me to ask myself if at 27 – the same age Hugh Hefner left Esquire and stayed back in Chicago to launch Playboy – I wanted to continue to live to endear myself to and reassure others about my intentions and thoughts, or if I wanted to aim higher.

Entrepreneurship isn’t merely living a few years like few want to in order to live the rest of your life like few can; to me, it’s about being able to treat people the right way and stick to your principles. Fifteen years after that lunch, I continue to work with the same four co-founders at WatchMojo, one of whom is my wife. That tells you everything you need to know about character, candor, compromise and our culture and communications.

I didn’t want needless aggravation (though entrepreneurship just gave me a different kind of anxiety and trauma!)

New York, New York!

Now mind you, that conversation in December 2005 was as much about my desire to move to New York City, which had always carried a highly symbolic imagery for me. Having studied finance, New York City was the center of gravity for my earliest career aspirations. Then at Mamma, when the company decided to open an office in Manhattan, I was passed up. While at AskMen, as the head of sales, I’d persistently ask to relocate to the city to be closer to the ad agencies whom we were beholden to. Then even after IGN bought AskMen and it made all the sense in the world for me to move there, I was once again held back. Ironically, I was finally being offered a job in New York City, but I couldn’t bring myself to accept it. New York City would have to wait. I could hear a greater calling.

Walking to the Beat of Your Drum

Entrepreneurs sometimes find their calling because the door is slammed on their face. I wasn’t given many opportunities, but I never had a sense of entitlement. I was always grateful for leaving Iran and moving to Canada at 6; I looked at how others like Jewish people had suffered greater injustice. That’s also why I emphasize perspective to friends, family and colleagues. But inasmuch as I don’t have a sense of entitlement, I wondered: why do I then get disappointed when someone doesn’t __________?

But that was the thing, I didn’t have any expectations generally speaking to give me something; but I always clung to the notion that at least when informed of some kind of injustice, that I would hear more than silence. If my frustration stemmed from the industry, I felt that if Hollywood was based on ideas and relationships, its leaders should walk the walk. If my frustration was about a group of people who themselves had experienced injustice, then again I was disappointed with how people did seem to… forget (i.e. Hollywood knew about Harvey Weinstein, for example, but did nothing, and so on).

I had to change, not because “other people don’t change,” but because I was projecting them to be more principled than they were.

To me, everything happens for a reason, you just have to be patient and learn from it. When I look at where my life has taken me, I have no complaints. Naturally I would do everything differently, better – people who say they wouldn’t do anything differently if they could are insane at best and lying at worst – but that doesn’t mean I would want to be anywhere else.

By the end of 2019, my entire worldview began to shift from expectations to gratitude. Then 2020 was an even more seminal year because of the tough decisions I made years earlier.

Today, the same way that I no longer felt a need to live in a given city or have a given title, I saw people and things for what they were, and not what I projected them to be. I’m not perfect, I don’t know why I presumed others were and put them on pedestals, only to be disappointed when they would show their true colors (oftentimes, perfectly fine but flawed people struggling throughout their own journey; but sure, occasionally just someone dishonest and unethical). Once I grew more realistic about others’ good, bad and ugly tendencies, I found some of the peace of mind I sought which always seemed so elusive.

Throughout, I realized that I wasn’t trying to win over Madison Avenue or Hollywood, the Jews or the gentiles… I was just trying to “beat myself,” but I could only be my best version and live my best life once I stopped beating myself up when something didn’t go my way or someone let me down. We all have insecurities, we all have demons; the sooner we find let them go and/or find Balance, the sooner we find our promised land.