Rose: You’ve created a livelihood based on the notion of exploration and dreaming. Where does this curiosity and sense of wonder come from?
Azadeh: The true answer is I don’t know. What I know to be true is that I genuinely feel happy when I am around kids. I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on what it is about their interactions and their world that enlightens me whenever I am around them. My sense of curiosity comes from the kids themselves, the curiosity and excitement they have in our discovery meetings where they share their learnings with open eyes — not taking things for granted, asking lots of questions and being engaged in the moment. They give me energy to continue whatever work it is I am doing and that translates into both my professional and personal life.
There’s an openness that is inherent to your work. Was there something in your childhood that informed the work that you do and how you see the world?
Openness is interesting. The source of this openness and curiosity comes from a combination of the travels of my childhood and my dad.
I grew up in Iran, and each year we traveled to different countries to visit family. I think this exposure to different cultures and seeing the different ways people lived, talked, dressed, and looked early on made me very curious and open to different ideas and understand that there are many ways to do things.
My dad was our champion in expanding our minds and teaching us to be open. Growing up, he would give us poem books that he liked to read, and would challenge us with fun assignments. They were obviously really challenging for a child in first or second grade, but he never placed my brother and I in this “childish” box where things were limited to us based on our age.
In giving us these books of poems, he wanted to share part of the world that he enjoyed, and it connected us to him. My dad instilled confidence in us, taught us that we have access to things and that there aren't these two separate worlds, one for adults and one for kids. It was one world that we all shared. I learned from the pride my dad had in us as children. I owe a lot of my openness and my love of instilling the same confidence in kids to my dad.
What was the inspiration to create The Giant Room?
The inspiration for the Giant Room was to create a space for kids to express, nurture and explore their curiosities. A lot of times spaces that are designed for kids (such as schools or daycares) actually stifle and hinder their curiosities. Many of the programs designed for kids are created through the lens of an adult and not through the lens of a child.
We wanted to create a space for kids where they could get super excited about their ideas, get curious about things to learn, discover what they are curious about, and create an opportunity for them to build a world they want to live in. Their ideas are the starting point; we are open to their imagination and ideas. It’s what allows us to design programs where a two-year-old can relate to a 12-year-old and offer robust learning experiences for all of them.
When we started, a lot of people were skeptical, saying there was no way you could create a space that would engage children two-to-twelve-years old simultaneously. But it does happen; they all co-create together and enjoy their time. They feel like they belong there. With the Giant Room we wanted to create a space that was like their second, bigger bedroom, allowing them to act on their most giant ideas and dreams. The room itself doesn’t necessarily have to be big, but it gives them the space to think big, be ambitious and act on those giant ideas. We are there just to help them make it possible.
On the significance of the name…
It took me a while to come up with this name, but I love it. It’s a reflection of the words kids like to use to describe their world. When you listen to their conversation, “giant” comes up a lot in their language, especially when they get excited about something.
When kids come to the space they usually say, “Oh this isn’t as giant as I thought it would be” and we tell them, “It’s your ideas that are giant.” They always love that explanation.
On leaning into the courage of stepping into new ventures and the unknowns…
I enjoy the space of uncertainty and the unknown. If I have a day where I am not solving new problems, or I am not learning something new, I get bored. It’s embedded in my personality and makes being an entrepreneur exciting. Everyday has its own challenges, everyday you have to think of a new way of doing things, a new way of making things efficient, a new way of approaching your community, a new way to keep them engaged. I truly need this, and it gives me a sense of purpose and joy.
Play, dream and imagination is at the core of your work. How might we as adults reconnect with this childlike sense of wonder?
A question that many people ask us is, “Have we done any research on parents that come to the Giant Room with their children to see if they are more creative in their own work?” We have yet to do this, but it would be interesting research for us to conduct. We see it happening all the time where parents are more excited than the kids and request workshops or classes for adults.
Parents make comments that ring true to this notion of connecting to one’s sense of wonder. They say, “It’s been so long since we’ve gotten lost in making and building and being around these materials. Being in the moment and just building what I want to build. If only I started my days exploring like this. I feel like I'd be much more creative in my own work and it would open my mind more.”
We say the Giant Room is for everyone. We see the connection and engagement happening for the whole family, and it’s even become multi-generational where grandparents are creating and building with their grandkids.
What does the Giant room environment teach about creativity, perspective and doing what you deeply enjoy?
I learn from everyone that comes into the space. Being in a space where there’s constant ideation has been great for my creativity and the creativity of everyone that works at the Giant Room. We generate programs from what we’ve learned from the kids and it’s interesting to see how people from different backgrounds, and social economics engage with the programs.
When we started the Giant Room, we questioned the need for a physical space. We decided it was needed in order to create this inviting culture that honors and cultivates the imagination and curiosity of the children, as well as the families that come together. Being in this environment makes my mind think, be flexible and look at things in different ways. It also makes me feel like I can do anything.
I wake up excited knowing that this room is going to be filled with kids everyday and that there are going to be interactions that impact all of us.
What is the driving force behind all of the work that you do?
To see the kids happy and proud of what they created - you see it in their eyes, that honest excitement. The happiness and enjoyment that kids and families have with the programs, and the positive changes in the community we’ve made and are a part of with The Giant Room.
“I enjoy the space of uncertainty and the unknown.”
Having created multiple companies and pivoting along the path to where you are now, what have been the most arduous and challenging parts? How did you find the resilience to stay in pursuit of your “sunshine”?
Starting a business is super challenging. Running a business is super challenging. So depending on the day you ask me there are different things that come to mind.
I think there are two types of entrepreneurs. The first type are those who have a background in business or finance who find a good business opportunity and find a way to create a sustainable company. For them the value is creating that economy and growing it, bringing that value to society. Then there are the entrepreneurs who start from something that they really love passionately, who want to bring this value to society and think that they are the best in doing that. I’m definitely part of the second type.
I don’t have a background in business. I have a background in education so for me the passion, excitement, and energy to start a company comes from my love for kids and my love of being around them, learning with them and providing opportunities for us to learn together.
I love what I do, so that’s definitely not a challenge. Finding a way to keep the business sustainable, have it grow, make sure that it’s accessible for all different types of families and that we respond to the challenges that families are facing, these are probably the most challenging aspects for me.
On following your intuition…
As an entrepreneur you constantly have to make quick decisions. You don’t always have the data or time and sometimes you just have to make the call - trusting your intuition. It’s also important to reflect and learn from the decisions you’ve made. You can’t blame yourself when things go wrong; that’s the worst thing you can do to yourself as an entrepreneur, but reflecting is necessary to gain insight for growth.
Trust in yourself. Be comfortable in making decisions and in the areas where there are a lot of unknowns, rely on your intuition.
You move through life with such ease and fluidity injecting joy and a vibrant energy in whatever space you are in. How do you find joy in the mysteries of uncertainty?
People gravitate towards familiarity, it’s what they respond to. However for me in a twisted way, I find unpredictability and this gray area of not knowing what comes next, familiar. I get excited about figuring out how to approach things—I thrive, enjoy, and get energy out of it. When things are calm, it doesn’t feel familiar to me and I don’t know what to do with myself. It’s not always butterflies and excitement. I need these challenges in my life otherwise I just don’t feel alive. I love seeing what life will bring you.
What are some of your guiding principles?
I always go back to my why. Why did I start? What was my mission? I am always making sure that I am connecting back to the values that I stand for and am upholding these as I continue so that I do not lose perspective in what I do.
To continuously grow, stay curious about learning, and to be open to the world around me.
How does chasing sunshine manifest in your life?
Well, I love sunshine. For people who work in the education field, that sunshine is the smile or spark you see in a child’s face or whoever they work with.
That spark in the kids’ eyes, the smile and genuine excitement — that’s what I'm chasing, that’s my sunshine everyday.
Is there an image that immediately comes to mind that encompasses “Chasing Sunshine” for you?
There is this one particular image that I love of a two-year-old who is looking through a microscope for the very first time. She’s trying to figure out how to close one of her eyes so she can see the specimen. Watching her learn how to cover one eye so she could see into the microscope truly summarizes why I love what I do and why I do this. Sharing these types of moments with children is my sunshine.
Wisdom to share with those who are in the midst of finding their sunshine…
Don’t be hard on yourself. If you find joy in something, are curious about something, be open to it. If you enjoy it and it draws you in, trust it. Don’t keep questioning it; things don’t always need to be logical or aligned.
At the end of the day even if it doesn’t go anywhere, that joy and energy you gain from the experience will help you be successful in other parts of your life. So do it. Give it a try.