Three days before the Academy Awards, Anousheh Ansari, a Richardson CEO and former astronaut, received a tweet that put her center stage during part of Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. Ansari didn’t know Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, had no experience in the film industry, and had little time to prepare. Yet on Sunday night, when Farhadi won the Oscar for best foreign film, Ansari delivered a bold and politically charged speech on behalf of the filmmaker, who boycotted the ceremony.
“I was very nervous, just trying to make sure I could complete it,” Ansari said about her 45 seconds on stage beside NASA scientist Firouz Naderi. “I just put my head down and started reading it. It was exactly how he sent it to me. It was powerful.”
The speech denounced President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries. “Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear—a deceitful justification for aggression and war,” Ansari read during the awards. “These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others, an empathy which we need today more than ever.”
It wasn’t something she ever thought she’d have the opportunity do, and she says was shocked to receive the offer. After all, she has spent the entirety of her career devoted to technology and engineering. In 2006, she became the first female, Iranian, tourist, and Muslim in space. And since 2006, she has been serving as CEO of her tech company Prodea Systems. But her professional accomplishments are exactly why Farhadi chose Ansari to deliver his victory speech.
“He wanted two prominent Iranian Americans to take the stage in case he won,” Ansari said about herself and Naderi. “He wanted us to … demonstrate the other side of what immigrants can bring to the country.”
And it must’ve been a tough decision for Farhadi to give up his chance to speak, Ansari said. Farhadi, who directed The Salesman, is only the fourth filmmaker to win two Oscars in the foreign film category. Farhadi chose not to attend the awards ceremony out of respect for those affected by Trump’s ban.
So after the tweet from and a brief phone call with Farhadi, Ansari cleared her schedule and booked a flight to Los Angeles. She knew this was her chance to promote a positive message about immigrants like herself. Ansari immigrated to the United States when she was 16 years old. Ever since then she’s made big strides in her career and built her own company, which currently employs 75 people and develops telecommunications software for businesses, homes, rural areas, and to help refugees.
It would be a quick trip; arrive on Saturday, then take the red-eye home to Dallas-Fort Worth Sunday after the awards. All she had to do was make sure she had her flight and her hotel, she thought. That’s until she was bombarded by texts and calls from friends and family all curious to know about one of Hollywood’s most glamorous evenings.
“Everyone was saying, ‘What are you going to wear?’” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know, I guess I’ll grab something out of my closet.’”
But instead, Ansari ended up donning an ensemble that showed off her heritage. She wore a simple blue dress with a silk shawl that was designed using NASA satellite images from her hometown of Mashhad, Iran. The shawl was the creation of Azin Valy, and New York City designer of Iranian descent who owns fashion brand, Cityzen. Ansari had previously met Valy and thought the Oscars would provide an opportunity to promote a piece of her work. But she knew the timeline was short and therefore, chances were slim. Ansari shot her an e-mail anyway.
“[Valy] said, ‘Oh my god, this is fantastic! I’m coming, and I’m going to help you,’” Ansari recalled the designer saying.
The two met in Los Angeles at 7 p.m. Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon Valy had found a stylist and makeup artist. The the three showed up at Ansari’s hotel room with several options.
“I believe when something is supposed to happen, the whole universe conspires to make it happen,” Ansari said about the rushed preparations.
Since her speech, Ansari said she’s been inundated with hundreds of responses across social media platforms and via email. Most are positive, with the occasional negative reaction. Though the experience was a little rattling—you can see Ansari’s hands shake slightly during the speech—Ansari knows she delivered a message that encourages unity, promotes peace, and hopefully inspires change, she said.
“While I understand some of the underlying reasons behind it, I don’t approve of what’s happening,” she said, calling walls and bans divisive moves that single out large groups of people. “At the end of the day for this country to be great, it needs every citizen and person of every background to work together. So hopefully we’ll have an environment that promotes that.”