Business

Trailhead Boise was cool. Then it wasn’t. Meet the guy just hired to turn it around.

At Boise Startup Week, local food startups compete for Albertsons deal

In an event sponsored by Albertsons and Trailhead, local food startups competed for $10,000 and a deal with the Idaho-based grocer that could land them a spot on the shelves of their Broadway store.
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In an event sponsored by Albertsons and Trailhead, local food startups competed for $10,000 and a deal with the Idaho-based grocer that could land them a spot on the shelves of their Broadway store.

Even now, after spending half of his 36 years in the United States, Tiam Rastegar faces an identity crisis.

His mother was a police officer in an all-female royal brigade serving the last shah, or king, of Iran. Tiam was 18 months old when his parents fled Iran in 1983 to escape persecution after the Iranian Revolution. They took their son to Germany, where he went to school and made friends.

When he was 17, he came to America. Now a U.S. citizen, a Boise resident, married with two children, Tiam Rastegar (TEE-am RAS-tuh-gar) took charge four months ago of Trailhead Boise, the Downtown startup incubator and coworking space launched in 2015. His charge: to pull Trailhead out of its recent doldrums and make it exciting again.

Rastegar is a young business leader with an MBA, and he presents himself like one. All talk of design thinking and strategy, risk-taking and business models.

But inside, he says, he still grapples with who he is. A Persian? A German? An American?

Escaping the ayatollah

The U.S.-backed shah was deposed in the 1979 revolution, replaced by an Islamic theocracy that drove some Iranians into exile. Rastegar’s parents stayed on until persecution — a cousin of his father’s was assassinated — drove them away.

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Iranians climb trees to watch a demonstration in Tehran in support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iran Revolution of 1979. In background is the Azadi Tower, then known as the Shahyad Tower, built by the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to mark the 2,500-year celebration of the founding of the Persian Empire. Aristotle Saris AP

“They mourned, and still are mourning … the loss of their country, of their kingdom,” Rastegar said in an interview at Trailhead North, the incubator’s second site, opened in 2017 at 404 8th St. in BoDo. His parents planned to go to the U.S. They stopped in Frankfurt, Germany, en route. But they lacked a proper visa and documentation to continue to the U.S. “We couldn’t go back, because we were refugees, asylum seekers,” Rastegar said. ‘We were stuck in Frankfurt.”

The family lived with other refugees in an asylum home for two years, then moved to a Rodgau, 17 miles from Frankfurt, where they had an apartment in what Tiam called “the projects.”

He had a gift with spoken language, and he learned to relate to ethnic Germans. He developed two identities: one Persian, one German. He joined a youth handball club.

“I was a bridge to the immigrant population, because I could relate to both sides,” he said. “I spoke like a German. I behaved like a German. I carried myself – punctuality was really important to me. … I quickly developed some early leadership skills through my handball club. ‘You’re the team captain, because you can talk to the three Turks, and you understand their struggles, you know what happens when they go home, how they live their lives, and you also understand the German side of things.’”

A ninth-grade teacher encouraged him. “’You have potential,’” Rastegar said the teacher told him. “’You’re smart. People seem to like you. You’re respectful to me. You should do something with that.’ I think, ‘What the [expletive] is he talking about?’ I thought of myself as a hoodlum from the projects who was good at sports and good at words and could talk to girls. I really had myself pinned that way.”

He took an interest in politics. In tenth grade, he became class president.

Pride in Persian culture

His parents, meanwhile, “were disrespected” by Germans, he said. “They were treated as lesser people. My father did an amazing job of not letting that get to him. My mother, not so much. …

“There’s a lot of pride in Persian culture. We have our history and our kings. We’re in the Bible. Our religion [Zoroastrianism] is 10,000 years old. There’s all this pent-up greatness that came to this halting crash in 1979, and now we look at it as sort of shame.”

His parents, he said, still hoped to move to the United States ”and start over yet again.”

Eventually they did. The Rastegars had relatives in the Boise area. Tiam Rastegar’s father, Seyed Abdolrahim Rastegar Shariatpanahi, is a cousin of Homy Panahi, the chairman and co-owner of PKG, a Meridian company that designs and makes human-machine interface systems like touch screens and joy sticks for defense contractors. Rastegar’s father got a job there, emigrated to the U.S. and still works there. His mother, Mitra Ommani, is an Uber driver.

At 17, Tiam enrolled at Centennial High School in Meridian for his senior year. After he graduated, he sought to return to Germany – and his handball-club friends – to go to college. But he was told his U.S. diploma would not be accepted.

So he applied for a four-year student visa in the U.S., got it, and enrolled at Boise State. There he studied international business. He met a fine-arts student from Iowa and married her. “And we decided to stay in Boise and make our lives here,” he said.

After he graduated in 2005, Rastegar followed his father into PKG. He began as an intern and worked his way up to marketing director. He traveled the country to meet with Fortune 500 clients.

In 2015, he earned an executive MBA from Boise State. That same year, he quit PKG for a job at Vacasa (Vah-KAH-suh), a vacation-rental startup with a Boise office that now employs 145 people. He helped Vacasa build its business through acquisitions of other firms. “It was a great opportunity for me,” he said. “But I did travel a lot. I traveled too much.”

Rastegar and his wife, Emily, have a son, now 10, and a daughter, 7.

Knowing his desire to settle down, a former supervisor at Vacasa who was on Trailhead Boise’s board told him last year that Trailhead was looking for a new executive director. Tech entrepreneur Raino Zoller was the first ED in 2015, followed by digital marketer Dan Faricy, who left in mid-2018.

‘Put Trailhead back on the map’

To learn about Trailhead, Rastegar went last summer to event called Stand Up Startup, where members go on stage at Basecamp and discuss their ventures with other members. He listened to a presentation by the founder of the Boise Period Project, a nonprofit that distributes menstruation kits for homeless women.

“I was just blown away,” Rastegar said. “This was like, ‘If I could help her?’ Be very clear: I’m not going to be the one putting these kits together and handing them out. But if I can help her, and raise awareness of her cause, so that more people can have access to these products, that’s what I’m passionate about.”

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Coding experts, students, instructors and potential employers gather for a series of presentations at Trailhead in 2016. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

He interviewed with Trailhead’s board, met with some Trailhead members and won the job.

Membership had fallen from 350 in 2016 to 220. “They wanted me to put Trailhead back on the map,” he said.

“The way they put it to me was, ‘You need to revive the patient. We used to have a lot of vibrancy. We used to have a great culture here. A lot of energy, a lot of bodies in the room. And we have lost that. We have lost our touch with the community. Programming doesn’t exist anymore. Mentorship and educational program have kind of fallen by the wayside. We need you to bring that back. We need you to make people aware of what Trailhead is and how cool we are, and people are gonna want to be part of it.’”

Rastegar made a splash at Boise Startup Week in October by organizing a crowd-pleasing pitch competition at Jack’s Urban Meeting Place. Dubbed Trailmix, the competition drew 42 small food companies seeking to get their products into Albertsons stores.

Albertsons meeting
Joni Kindwall Moore, third from left, winner of the Trailmix competition at Boise Startup Week, meets afterward with Boise Mayor David Bieter, fourth from left; new Trailhead Boise Executive Director Tiam Rastegar, far left; and several Albertsons leaders. Provided by Joni Kindwall Moore

“He has an innate knack for understanding what an entrepreneur needs to succeed in a startup environment,” said Faisal Shah, the Boise tech entrepreneur who cofounded Trailhead and serves on its board, in a text message. “... He has already developed exciting startup programs and created significant opportunities for entrepreneurs to connect with local companies and organizations. Stay tuned. He is just getting started.”

Rastegar works at Trailhead North, which offers dedicated desks and some offices for entrepreneurs. It’s a three-block walk to the original Trailhead, now known as Basecamp, at 8th and Myrtle streets. Basecamp offers $35-per-month open desks with coffee, internet and conference room. As Rastegar puts it, “Our mission is to accelerate creation, development and scaling of new-business ventures. You start at Basecamp. You scale at North.”

Trailhead opened to fanfare in 2015 with support from local business leaders, the city of Boise and companies including Albertsons and Micron Technology. This is the original site, now called Basecamp, at 500 S. 8th St.
Statesman file

Dreaming in three languages

He once thought Iran was his true home until, as a young adult, he returned to visit and found himself homesick for Frankfurt. Then he thought Germany, where he is still a citizen, was home -- until he spent some years in the U.S.

“There is still a bit of an identity crisis going on,” he said. “When I drive, the German comes out. When I play soccer, the German comes out. When I’m around family and there’s food, the Persian comes out. … I still dream in all three languages. I still think in all three languages, depending on the situation.”

Those identities developed as he grew from son to husband, boy to father, handball-team player to mergers-and-acquisitions specialist to startup leader. From Tehran to Frankfurt to Boise.

In 2018, Rastegar became a U.S. citizen. He’s happy about that. “I always say Iran is my motherland, Germany is my fatherland, and the U.S. is my awesome new stepdad,” he said.

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David Staats is business editor of the Idaho Statesman, which he joined in 2004. He has assigned, edited and reported business, politics, government and other Idaho stories since 2006.Get the top Idaho business stories of the week in a free email every Monday morning. Go here, then press the “Select” button under Idaho Business. If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.

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