The Jassani Family
Ferozali and Anita Jassani live in Toronto, as does their daughter, Anar. Their son, Farhaz, lives in Houston. Feroz is the Founder and President of Steel Canada Limited, one of North America’s largest exporters of secondary, excess prime, and over-rolled steel. Anita is the company’s Senior Vice President, Anar its Vice President of Strategy and Operations.
Would you please tell me about your family’s history?
Feroz: My grandfather and his seven sons lived in a small village in India, Tavi. They were the only Ismaili family in the whole village. On the occasion of His Diamond Jubilee, our 48th Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, called on all the murids of India to join Him in Bombay for the celebrations. In spite of his being quite poor, my grandfather, through our Imam’s blessings, was able to save enough money for his family to travel to Bombay. They had never even been on a train before! It was also the first time any of them had ever seen a city. (I think this is why His Highness insisted that Ismailis come to Bombay: to see that a great world, a world beyond the village, exists.) The city amazed and fascinated my grandfather and his sons. My father, Pyarali Jassani — who was only 16, and who had only an elementary-school education — refused to return to the village: there were simply no opportunities there. Instead, he joined a relative’s store in Bombay.
Did your father remain in Bombay?
He had planned to, but then Partition came. My father moved to Karachi, and his father and brothers moved to Eastern Pakistan [Bangladesh]: he soon persuaded them to move to Karachi. At first, my father worked in a store for a very tough boss; over time, he and his father and brothers realized that they must have a business of their own. They set up a shop in the busiest bazaar in Karachi selling vegetable and soybean oil; over the years, they set up more and more shops in that bazaar, each run by one of the brothers.
Business was good — almost too good: they had to work all the time. They could not even go to Jamatkhana for prayers. They came to see that they needed to be in a different kind of business so that they could live a more balanced life. My father visited a cousin in East Pakistan who had a steel business: he realized this was the business they should go into. He bought a small steel shop in Karachi, and he and his brothers were soon all in the steel business. Thankfully, they now had time to go to prayers, which was very important to them.
Your family was wildly successful in Pakistan: why did you come to Canada?
In the late 1970s, His Highness issued Firmans advising us to make Canada our home. I arrived in 1982 and opened a small shop in Don Mills, which at the time had a large Ismaili community. I began reaching out to local steel businesses. I also applied for a business visa with a proposal for a company that would export steel to India and Pakistan. My application was rejected! The immigration agency said that such a business could not possibly succeed: all the other Canadian steel companies were exporting to Europe and Asia, which were much closer; exporting to India and Pakistan could not possibly be profitable. To make matters worse, Canada was hit with a recession.
At the time, I had an opportunity to buy steel from a warehouse in Hamilton; soon afterwards, I rented a space in Mississauga. The people who delivered the steel simply threw the metal plates on the floor: they even broke one of the walls! I was bound and determined to get a business visa, and so I called an employment agency and hired eight men to make my operation seem credible — even though there was no work for them to do. I also rented two other warehouses to make it seem like our business was flourishing — even though we had zero revenue! When the immigration officer visited me a few months later, I showed him my three warehouses and eight “employees.” He was amazed at how quickly I had succeeded! Over lunch, he said, “We will issue the visa at once.”
Over time, I noticed something: steel companies in Canada were all exporting Class 1/Prime steel and simply throwing out the byproduct, secondary steel. I went to these companies and offered to buy their secondary steel for a premium, at higher-than-market rates. I then exported this material to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and other developing countries. We now export secondary steel to more than 25 countries worldwide.
Since I was not certain I would succeed at the steel business in Canada, I started a number of other businesses at the same time. It was very funny: I had several phone lines on my desk, one for each of the businesses. Each incoming call was about a different business — this about steel, that about fabrics, this about spice, that about rice! I knew from the line which business the call would be about. Once the steel business took off, I sold the others.
Over 10 years, I acquired more warehouses. We now have four large warehouses, two of which serve as Jamatkhanas. All of our success is due to the blessings of His Highness.
It would be difficult for a Canadian to start such a successful business: however did you do it?
I first bought steel when I was 17, in Europe. My father gave me confidence by letting me make mistakes from a young age and encouraging me to learn from those mistakes.
Anita: Also, His Highness inspires us. We are constantly guided by His words, and we do our best to internalize and follow those words.
Have you often had the honor of being in His Highness’s presence?
Feroz: Yes — at opening ceremonies, groundbreaking ceremonies, AKU events, and so on. We have participated in campaigns to build new Jamatkhanas in Toronto, Takjikistan, Dubai, and elsewhere. At these events, His Highness first meets with dignitaries and then with murids, whom He blesses.
In 2013, I was invited to the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa for the presentation by the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada to His Highness of its Gold Medal. His Highness was the first non-architect ever to receive the Medal. Because I was by chance sitting in the second row, I was ushered with the dignitaries into the audience with His Highness following His speech. As everyone was congratulating Him, I could not for the life of me think of what to say. Suddenly, He turned around, held out His hand, and linked His hand with mine. Without thinking, I said, “I am a murid from the Mississauga Jamatkhana. I would like to request Your blessing.” His Highness gave me His blessing — and asked that I share His blessings with the members of my Jamatkhana!
The Ismailis are renowned for valuing education, for pursuing knowledge. The Fatimids had one of the more brilliant civilizations that has ever existed, and the rivers by Alamut ran black with the ink of their books following the Mongol assault. You are the perfect exemplar of that value, Anar: you earned an undergraduate degree from McGill, an MBA from Wharton, and an MA in Education from Harvard. How did you come to internalize that value?
When I was nine, we and other donor families met with His Highness at the Governor’s House in Karachi. His Highness gave us His blessings, told us what our family’s endowed fund would support, and — to our amazement — said to my brother and me, “All this began with your great-grandfather.” At one point, His Highness asked me if I liked school: I responded that I loved school! He then said, “You must study very hard so that you can serve our institutions.”
This experience was pivotal in my decision to study international development at McGill. On graduating, I learned that opportunities to make a contribution in international development within the AKDN were quite limited. I consulted the leaders of our community; they said, “If you want to achieve the very best, to perform at the highest level so that you can give back to our institutions in the future, you should continue your studies.” I noticed that the leaders themselves were all highly educated — and that they had studied at top-tier institutions: this motivated me to do the same.
After completing my studies at McGill, I realized that I had only a theoretical understanding of the world, that I needed to develop a “hard” skill set — specifically, in business. Fortunately, I was accepted into the Wharton MBA program. There, I learned that the majority of family businesses collapse in the third generation. I wanted to help ours flourish, chiefly because it has been such an incredible vehicle for service, employment, and financial aid within our community.
After graduating from Wharton, I joined Deloitte Consulting. At Deloitte, I had clients in the private and public sectors, in manufacturing, healthcare, and education. My work in the education sector — particularly in low-income neighborhoods — showed me that education is one of the more impactful tools with which to break the cycle of poverty. I witnessed first-hand the power of education to transform lives by cultivating hope and a growth mindset. That is what inspired me to pursue an MA in Education at Harvard. Following Harvard, I served as the Director of Learning and Development for the Government of Alberta, with a focus on adult education.
As part of my Time and Knowledge Nazrana, for the last three years I have been the Adult Education Strategy Lead for the National Monitoring and Evaluation team in Canada. During the pandemic, we had to wholly rethink how we provide quality religious education to the Jamat. This experience has been so very challenging and fulfilling. I feel so blessed to be able to use my education both to support the growth of my family’s business and to serve our institutions.
Your family has made many gifts to AKU; it has also made the University the beneficiary of one of your life insurance policies. Why have you been so wonderful to AKU? Why do you support the University?
Feroz: AKU is very dear to His Highness: education and healthcare are so important to Him. His Highness dedicated AKU to its donors. We have given to the University since its founding 40 years ago, were among the initial group of donors. At the time, my cousins and I funded a Chair and then two Professorships; we are now supporting the Kampala campus.
Anita: I attended the first Convocation of nurses: I was so impressed! AKU is like an oasis in a desert. At the Convocation, His Highness spoke of the criticality of nurses, of the criticality of healthcare in Pakistan. His vision for AKU was so impressive; He said, “When you support education, you support the entire family and community.” His Highness has given us such joy: being able to give, to support His vision, is such a privilege.
Feroz: More and more of my cousins have come to Canada over the past few decades. Thankfully, all are doing very well, and all support AKU. We believe that as Ismailis it is our duty to ask, “How can we help others?” We feel we must contribute, that we must help, especially since we are in a position of privilege. It is our firm belief that when Ismailis help one another, everyone flourishes.
On future gifts such as ours: even if a person can’t give during his lifetime, he can give following his life. What matters is participation — even participation in the future. Young people, especially, have many financial obligations — but they can commit to a future gift now. I rely heavily on life insurance for my financial planning; for instance, I recently took out a policy for my granddaughter: in 20 years’ time, the policy will help pay for her education.
Anar joined the family business in 2020; our son, Farhaz, worked with us for 10 years and then founded his own steel business in Houston. We trade quite a lot with him and look forward to further collaborations in the future. It is wonderful to share with our daughter and son not only our business, but also our passion for giving.
Anar: The saying is “sharing is caring,” but my dad always says that “sharing is believing.”
Feroz: And all of it — all that we do, all that we achieve, all that we give — is due to His Highness’s blessings.
A note on endowed funds
An endowed fund is invested in AKU’s general endowment, which is the investment portfolio of the University. The endowment — and so each of the endowed funds within it — pays out approximately five percent of its value each year, supporting everything the University does — teaching, research, financial aid, and on and on. Quite simply, the payout from the endowment is the lifeblood of AKU: the University could not function without it. The endowment — and the endowed funds within it — will exist as long as AKU exists.
An endowed fund, then, is like a “miniature endowment:” it, too, exists forever, and it, too, pays out five percent or so of its value each year. A donor can name an endowed fund after himself or herself, a family member, or anyone else he or she might wish to honour and memorialise. What is more, an endowed fund grows over time, with the endowment as a whole, thus increasing the good it does.