Hearing the life story of Zaya S. Younan can be a tonic in troubled times. From coming to America alone as a near penniless child to trying to take his company, Younan Properties, into an IPO just as the 2008 crash hit, he’s had to draw on resilience and determination that stand in contrast to the business towers, converted-castle hotels, and fine wines that he now provides to his clientele. After graduating at age 19 from the University of Illinois and working several low-level jobs, he spent more than a decade as a young executive with companies across the business spectrum, including General Motors, Johnson Controls, and TRW.
In 2002, at age 39, he founded Southern California–based commercial real estate company Younan Properties, where he remains chairman and CEO. The company has a portfolio of high-rise office buildings in the United States worth $2.8B. Having moved recently into Europe and the business of luxury hotels, golf courses, cigars, and wines, with plans for broader expansion, Younan Properties became part of the larger Younan Company, the eponymous family business where his employees include four of his five children. (The fifth is still in high school.) The 57-year-old Younan sat down to talk with CSQ about hislife’s journey.
YOU CAME TO THE UNITED STATES FROM IRAN BY YOURSELF AS A 13-YEAR-OLD BOY. WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO DO THAT AND WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
We were Assyrian Christians, a small minority in Iran. I lived in a tremendous amount of poverty. My father was a truck driver. At an early age, I learned that it was very frustrating for me to live in that country. I met some tourists that came to our house and needed to use the bathroom and drink some water. They turned out to be Americans. So, I developed a huge interest in going to America. I saved up my money, got my own airline ticket, and got my own visa, without telling my parents. I headed to America alone. The trip took 48 hours! I had so many connections with the ticket I could afford. Tehran to Amsterdam to Frankfurt to New York JFK to LaGuardia to Chicago. When you’re a kid you don’t really think in terms of how long it will take; you think about the endpoint. I had an uncle who lived in Chicago, so I lived there first. Obviously, you’re scared, you’re a little kid. I was very scared, but I was very happy to change my life and to come to the place that I had heard so much about. I was very excited to get here and to start my life here. And my parents joined me a year later.