Younes Nazarian, the chairman of Nazarian Enterprises and a prominent Southern California philanthropist whose $17-million gift to California State University-Northridge’s Valley Center for the Performing Arts in 2017 was one of the institution’s largest donations ever in support of the arts, died on Friday of natural causes. He was 91.
The donation by the Iranian-born refugee of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and his wife, Soraya, helped expand the reach of an organization dedicated to connecting with the diverse population of southern California by featuring acts that were just as diverse, including mariachi bands, orchestras from around the world and international dance troupes.
“It helped establish a center of gravity for the arts in Los Angeles where a community of thousands, students and artists come to celebrate their passion,” Sam Nazarian, head of SBE Entertainment Group, which owns various restaurants and hotels around L.A. and elsewhere, told The Real Deal.
The stage was subsequently renamed the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts — or The Soraya, for short — and celebrated its 10th anniversary in January of 2021, when Sharon S. Nazarian, the President of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation, explained why its mission was so important to her family.
“We were just so enthralled by what you and the staff and the university create for the broader Northridge and Southern California community, to offer the best performing arts the world has to offer to the most deserving community,” Nazarian said at the time. “For us, the idea of family and community is core to who we are. We see that really reflected in every single performance, every single offering that The Soraya has.”
The Soraya isn’t the only connection Younes family has to Northridge. The business school there is named for his oldest son, David, the founder of the investment firm Nimes Capital.
Younes, who was Jewish, was born to a single mother in a poor area of South Tehran in 1931 and was initially trained as a tool and die technician. Following the creation of the state of Israel, he moved for several years to that country before returning to Iran, where he worked in infrastructure contracting and manufacturing and established a successful import-export machinery business. In the late 1970s, just before Iran’s Islamic Revolution, he was forced to leave his business behind and move with his family back to Israel, and eventually settled in California.
The fact that he lost everything and was able to rebuild in America without ever complaining made a big impression on his children.
“As a son of a single mother in the Jewish ghettos of Tehran, overcoming the many challenges of his life — surviving the 1979 Iranian revolution and migrating to the United States and rebuilding a life for us all the while never looking back revealed the true optimist he was,” Sam said.
Younes Nazarian’s business career got a foothold in the United States four decades ago, when he became co-owner of Stadco, a Los Angeles-based tool and die manufacturer that served the aerospace industry.
Younes later came upon the technology firm Omninet, which had developed a way for trucking companies to keep track of their vehicles wirelessly. Younes brought that idea to Irvin Jacobs, the University of California at San Diego professor who had founded Qualcomm. Irwin then offered Younes a major stake in his company in exchange for Omninet — a stake that today is worth between $1 billion and $2 billion.
“How my father was able to understand a product that most MIT graduates couldn’t understand amazes me,” Sam Nazarian once told Bloomberg News.
In recent decades Nazarian and Soraya have also donated to other universities and Iranian-American and Jewish groups in California and Israel. Nazarian also served on numerous boards, including for the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.
“By far his proudest accomplishment was his impact through his philanthropic efforts across the globe,” Sam said. “It gave him the ability to positively affect the lives of children and less fortunate through education and the arts.”
Along with son Sam and daughter Sharon, he is survived by his wife, Soraya Sarah Nazarian, sons David and Shulamit and 10 grandchildren.