As is the case for many University Canada West students, this year’s honorary doctorate recipient came to Canada to pursue her dreams of building a global business.
Shahrzad Rafati was born and raised in Tehran. At the age of 17, she convinced her parents to let her move to Vancouver to go to university.
When she arrived, Shahrzad spoke limited English and had never owned a computer, but she has a strong background in math and enrolled in the University of British Columbia to study computer science.
She initially struggled with programming but became one of the top students in her class while still finding time to work with UNICEF, helping the organization build out its databases in Vancouver.
After graduating in 2000, Shahrzad went on to study French at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, and leadership at Oxford University's Said Business School.
In 2005, at the outset of the digital video revolution, she founded BroadbandTV (BBTV). Initially, the company offered a set-top box that allowed people to watch internet videos on a television. However, three months later, when the hardware proved unpopular with customers, Shahrzad shifted the company’s focus to software and the growing trend of people uploading pirated videos to the internet.
BBTV created software that allows copyright holders – movie and TV companies, or sports franchises – to profit from the advertisements placed on that content, rather than try to get it removed. The software uses audio and video recognition technology to track video content uploaded to YouTube, Facebook or other apps and websites. Advertisements are then placed on the video content. The ad revenue then goes to the copyright holder, with BBTV taking a percentage.
The company now also produces software to help individuals and companies make online videos.
BBTV has experienced phenomenal growth in the last 15 years. Based in Vancouver, the company is the second largest video property in the world, generating tens of billions of video impressions a month with its video content viewed by more than 554 million unique viewers every month. In 2017, the Globe and Mail speculated that the business is worth more than $1 billion.
However, Shahrzad measures success not only on financial performance but on people, social and environmental key performance indicators. BBTV has a 0% pay gap between male and female employees, and the gender-balanced workforce has more than 40% female employees and managers.
Shahrzad has been described as a progressive entrepreneur and tech visionary with an uncompromising force of will who uses her creativity and incredible work ethic to solve real problems in business and society.
In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed her to represent Canada on the G20 Business Women’s Leader’s task force, a global initiative driving actionable, results-driven solutions to impact women’s economic empowerment as part of the G20 Summit. Last year, she was appointed vice-chair of Invest in Canada, a federal agency aimed at creating jobs in Canada by facilitating foreign business investment by highlighting Canada’s diverse and skilled talent pool, economic growth across multiple industries and geographic advantage as a hub for global trade.
Shahrzad was part of a small group of tech entrepreneurs invited to meet with former US president Barack Obama when he was in office.
Shahrzad has amassed a long list on awards and accolades over the years. She was named CanadianSME Magazine’sBusiness Woman of the Year for 2020. In 2019, she was named Visionary/Founder of the Year at the 2019 AdAge A-List & Creativity Awards and in 2018 Ernst & Young awarded her its Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Pacific, in the technology category. That same year she received the Canadian Innovation Award – Entrepreneur.
She was named one of Canada’s Most Powerful Women and one of Canada’s Top 40 under 40. In 2016 the Hollywood Reporter named her to its list of the 20 Most Powerful Women in Global Television and Fast Company put her on its list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2011.
In accepting her honorary doctorate of letters during UCW’s online convocation ceremony Sept. 25, Shahrzad had some words of wisdom for this year’s graduates.
“While so many around the world are seeking a return to normal, or the new normal, you are each transitioning into a new chapter of your life,” she said. “There is nothing to reopen. There is only reinvention. Revelation. Revolution. Your actions from today onward can shift thinking from a return to normal to a return to better.
“For each of you, there is no better time than now to make a difference. There’s no better time than now to help make the world a better place,” Shahrzad said.
“Consider this blank slate your canvas to paint the world how you envision it.”Published on Sept. 25, 2020.