Five Questions For … Hesam Panahi, Rice University Entrepreneurship Lecturer

Houston—Entrepreneurship runs in the Panahi family, so it’s little wonder that Hesam Panahi now teaches the subject to undergraduates.

“Both of my parents were entrepreneurs,” he says. “That, I think, was a huge influence to me. It made me realize that I didn’t have to necessarily go to a 9-to-5 job, which led me to believe I could make my own path.”

Born and reared in Houston—save for two years in graduate school at Georgia Tech in Atlanta—Panahi began teaching at the University of Houston, starting the RedLabs student accelerator at the University of Houston. Three years ago, he worked with Kerri Smith, who runs Rice University’s student accelerator, OwlSpark, to combine their demo days into a “Bayou Startup Showcase.” (Last year, Panahi began teaching fulltime at Rice University.)

Panahi is active in the city’s startup community at the universities and co-working space Station Houston, and helping to organize events such as 3 Day Startup. He even volunteered to DJ in between startup pitches at demo day for the Surge cleantech accelerator.

In this week’s “Five Questions For …,” we speak to Panahi about the meaning of success, how curiosity drives him, and a Houstonian’s unusual fascination with some cold-weather creatures.

Xconomy: How do you relax outside of work when you want to tune out the noise?

Hesam Panahi: Coffee shops and spending time with the family. If I go to a coffee shop, I have a few different books I’ll be reading on the side. I’ll take one with me and spend some time there. I have a 7-month-old son. I spend a lot of time with him and [wife] Lina. That tends to work out as a nice way to get away from everything. When you have a 7-month-old, it’s not like you can do two things at once. Keeping him entertained is in itself a break away from everything else.

Some of the books are related to work, about pedagogy, different ways to approach teaching. I’ve been reading some philosophy books lately, stoic philosophy in particular. I get on this path [and] one book leads me to the next book.

X: How do you define success?

HP: Success is not feeling you’re doing the same thing over again with no measurable progress. It’s not about making a massive improvement; it’s about being able to show you’re constantly testing things out and moving forward. I don’t have any specific goals for 10 years from now. It’s more like if, 10 years from now, I’m still doing the exact same things now and not improved on it, then that is not being successful. I think when I look back at what I’ve been doing the last four years, the areas I’ve been focusing on, I’ve been doing something that both matches my interest and is good for my career. They happen to intersect with each other.

Success is just constantly learning. I want to be in a job or a career where you’re constantly having to reinvent the way you think about things. Look at entrepreneurship education 30 years ago versus now. A lot of the same basic underlying principals [are there] but the approach has changed; the timelines have changed.

X: What’s the most embarrassing thing about yourself that you’re willing to admit publicly?

HP: I have over 20 stuffed penguins. It started off as a thing; we thought penguins were cute. Lina and I would get each other penguins for birthdays and anniversaries. Then friends started giving us penguins. We had a child, so we get penguin clothing. I’ve amassed penguins in the double digits. I tried to donate some of the penguins to the Salvation Army and other places and I keep getting more penguins. They keep on coming into the house: stuffed ones, a penguin pacifier, toys.

It’s been going on for, like, 10 years. It started off where I got Lina one; it was part of a small gift. It turned into a downpour of penguins. Aziz [Gilani, a partner at Houston venture capital firm Mercury Fund] got me a penguin once. We have an endless supply all over the house. There are probably some in places that I don’t even know. I can’t keep track of them. There’s a penguin keychain; I have a little toy on my desk at work.

We have thought about maybe at some point to have to get [my son] a baby penguin a pet. We’ve actually looked into that. Are you allowed to actually have a penguin?

The only time I saw penguins was at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and once in San Francisco—never in the wild. Lina had a co-worker who saw a bunch hanging out in Australia. Maybe that’s a future destination for us.

X: What leadership lessons did you get from your parents?

HP: As entrepreneurs, they’ve always been against the conventional way to do things. That influenced me a lot. I didn’t feel obligated to go a certain way just because everyone else had gone that way. Just seeing them do it, made me feel it was possible anyone could do it, assuming the right skill set and resources.

There was definitely the idea of persevering. My father, he for a while ran a used car dealership. It’s very much a seasonal business; you have good months and have bad months. Just being able to push through that was something that was really inspiring. The other thing that I really learned is there are no titles. In small companies, there are roles and responsibilities. My dad and myself—I worked with him—washing cars in the middle of the Houston summer heat. Regardless that he was the founder of the company, you’ve got to do it all. To this day, I still really don’t care as much about having a particular leadership position or title.

From my mom … I learned that when you start a company, founding with friends can be a tricky way to start. You risk not only losing your company if things go wrong, but the friendship as well. It worked out well for [my mother’s company], but at certain times, you could see there was tension because of company issues and the results spilled over into the friendship.

X: Where do you think your drive comes from?

HP: Curiosity about why things have to be a certain way and why they can’t be done differently. I wanted to do things more efficiently: There must be a better way to do it. I’ve been teaching entrepreneurship classes for a while now and every single semester I want to redo the entire class. I want to refine it make it better. I don’t have to do that but I think you’ve got to continue iterating. That’s what drives me to continue working. It’s always a work in progress.

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