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Conversations with the Council featuring Maziar Keshavarz, Owner of Keshavarz & Associates

Service to others, it’s at the core of who Maziar Keshavarz is, not for the expectation of reciprocity but because it’s who he is, culturally, as a self-described Eastern man whose family has served others in leadership roles in their native homeland of Iran for generations at great personal cost. Perhaps that’s what made our meeting so different from all the conversations I’ve had with his fellow Economic Council leaders.

A simple phone interview was not going to cut it for Mazi. He insisted we meet at his office, get to know one another, have a meal, and have a meaningful chat. He told me, “This assignment was something he took very seriously. It was an honor and a privilege to be invited to talk about himself.”

I set aside 90 minutes in my day, not knowing what to expect as I rang the bell at his office space on Dixie Highway. Welcomed with a warm smile, he guided me up the stairs to his office. He sat me behind his desk to accommodate my computer, the power seat, quite unusual, I thought, as he sat across from me in the obligatory visitor's chair. Right away, he put me at ease as if we’d been lifelong friends, creating an immediate comfort and piquing my curiosity as to the catalyst of this kindness. That did not take long to discover. 

A theme that kept playing over and over was adaptability. It applied to his life in every setting, from when he left Iran at 18 to go to England to study mathematics before getting a student visa to study civil engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne in 1976.  The original plan was to finish university, rush back, and serve his people like his parents and previous generations had always done. However, the 1979 revolution upended that plan. His father, as during Shah’s regime, demanded freedom and democracy, and the new regime wanted nothing of the sort. His parents and sister were forced to leave the country. His father received political asylum in France in 1981, the same month Maziar graduated from F.I.T.

Literally, overnight he pivoted his focus on staying in the US and finding a job. He now had a new community to serve. “It took many years to feel that I was no longer a guest and a part of the community. Once I sensed the belonging, I began the sweet journey of appreciation.” And as you can imagine, adaptability serves as quite the superpower for a native Farsi speaker now living in the middle of Central Florida Orange Groves in the mid-’70s, a stark contrast to where he had been raised, Tehran, a city of 5 million at the time. “I learned much of my English listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Supertramp, and Pink Floyd, not for any reasons related to their messaging but just because I could understand their lyrics. They were decipherable!” And once he understood the lyrics to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” it took on a new meaning, a quip we shared a laugh about.

While in college, he met his wife Lucy, an artist and a 14th-generation Floridian dating back to the St. Augustine settlers who has been a steadfast partner and a very large part of his overall journey. They joke that their kids, Jila and Amir, are Persian Crackers. His father-in-law, a citrus grower, pushed him to go out on his own. In 1987 he embarked on the journey here in West Palm Beach, creating Keshavarz & Associates, a civil engineering, surveying, and consulting company, after a short stint with a couple of local companies. “When people can't pronounce your last name, they can’t trust you with multi-million-dollar projects. Thankfully my ability to communicate in English gave me an edge.”

As did his natural warmth, precision, and attention to detail helping him land his first project at the Northwood Baptist Church and many others to come, such as The Palm Beach County Convention Center, the Central Library, the Port of Palm Beach Cruise Terminal, Scripps, Old Palm and more recently Loggerhead Marinelife Center and region-wide water system improvements in the Glades area to name a few.

A key to his success beyond his talent is his ability to connect, a trait he learned from his mentor, his father. “I was told at 18 that I would be leaving the country to “learn more about and from other people.” “His imprint left on me in those early years has been permanent. Besides my ethics, I learned the importance of human from him. I learned to be highly focused on the impact of my decisions on people,” which is one of the elements that drew his interest in joining the Economic Council. “The root cause was my desire to contribute to my adopted community and country. A timely ask by my late friend Roy Davidson, Chair at the time, and his relentless pursuit didn’t hurt! I came from a country where a few chosen elites in ivory towers behind closed doors made decisions that affected people’s lives and businesses. It was, therefore, an attractive proposition to be part of an organization that represents the business community’s interest by not just challenging the local government but collaborating simultaneously, all towards the best outcome for the community at large.”

However, he knows there are critical policy issues the business community faces that often compete and conflict. “The voracious appetite for physical growth and the ability of the natural environment, perhaps our most critical economic asset, to withstand the growth footprint without reaching the tipping point and permanent damage are two mega-trends to watch. Palm Beach County’s diverse economic pillars, agriculture, construction, and tourism, which already provide a solid economic base all depend, to one degree or another, one common denominator, our magnificent environmental setting. Without it being judiciously preserved, our economy will face significant headwinds.”

Ironic, considering he makes his living impacting the natural environment but takes great pride in being responsible because of his parallel passion for the community’s economic growth needs now and for the future of our business climate. “We need economic pillars that are more resilient such as industries that are engaged in applied sciences perhaps related to the environment because the whole world is moving that way out of necessity. We also need to improve our engagement with the biotech sector and find better ways of capitalizing on that major investment decades ago. The onshoring of the computer chip industry needs a large space to develop. We have plenty of opportunities here. Micron is building its chips in Upstate NY and spending up to $100 billion. We could be the next company's destination. Why can't it be us? We need to identify these needs. We have exceptionally talented business development ambassadors to attract them here. We can achieve phenomenal success in transitioning into a matured community with a more diversified approach to generating new economic pillars while protecting the current pillars.”

With a collaborative spirit, Mazi is ready to step up and do his part to ensure success. “The singular theme in my upbringing as related to leadership was that leadership equated to unconditional and selfless service, not accumulation of power. The attributes I learned about leadership align strongly with the characteristics discussed in the Servant Leadership school of thought. Interestingly, that is an American concept formulated and promoted thousands of miles away from where I was being taught about life and leadership. I find that congruity very validating.”

It's quite evident that he is deliberate and committed to his beliefs. He has great confidence and immense gratefulness, a trait he instilled in his children. “I remind them how fortunate they are. In their worst days, they sit on top of the world if you look at it from a global perspective.” Much to his satisfaction, they both live with that perspective.

But it took some learning for Mazi to adjust to parenting in the western world. “I was taught that you don’t say no to your parents. Growing up Jila and Amir pushed back, and navigating that was difficult.” But today, Amir, a 35-year-old civil engineer, works in the company his dad founded 35 years ago, earning accolades through his achievements, long hours, and hard work. “It’s rewarding that I get to be a part of growing and improving my father's business. To be a part of something that has provided for me my whole life is satisfying.” Both father and son have earned the team's respect professionally while keeping a purposeful separation between them in the office.” I see Amir every day,” Mazi says, “and the cause and effect of his training are quite visible because they occur right in front of me.” And there’s no doubt Amir, the the firm’s Managing Director, will one day take the reins of the business, achieving further success in a selfless, ethical, and civic-minded way. After all, the best teacher is also right in front of him every single day. His other source of pride, his daughter Jila, works as a landscape architect in Manhattan and lives with her husband Scott and Nesa, their first grandchild, in Brooklyn Heights, NY. I could see the glow on his face when he talked about his family.

It was now 1:30 in the afternoon. We had slipped into a very comfortable conversation, and our time together flew by. I found myself not wanting to leave, like a child enjoying every drop of sunlight before it was time to come in for dinner, but I had another commitment. As I left, we walked past his ping pong table, promising to play a game the next time we met, shared an embrace, and said our goodbyes.  I made my way to my car, thinking there was something special about Maziar Keshavarz. I am not sure words can capture it, but I encourage you to spend some time with him so you, too, can experience what I was fortunate to feel.

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