OAKLAND — Hundreds of Oakland Unified students who receive reduced-price lunches but fell behind on their payments during the fall semester will start the new year debt-free, thanks to tech entrepreneur Payam Zamani.
Zamani, 48, who founded the Walnut Creek tech firm One Planet, donated $15,600 to the district to cover the outstanding lunch debt. Biochemist Scott Siler donated another $1,000 on top of that.
In an interview Tuesday, Zamani said it was his own experience growing up as a member of the Baha’i faith under religious persecution in Iran that inspired him to donate to the district. He was expelled when he was 11 years old because his school stopped educating Baha’i children.
Members of the Baha’i faith — the largest religious minority in Iran — for centuries have faced various levels of discrimination from the Iranian government, which intensified after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Zamani fled the country in 1987 and came to the U.S. in 1988.
To this day, Baha’is face expulsion from schools, as well as attacks and harassment, in Iran.
“We want to do whatever we can do to make education accessible to everyone, to make education something that people don’t even have to think about, that’s readily available to them,” Zamani said.
Zamani, who lives in Alamo, picked Oakland Unified to donate to because of the district’s ongoing financial woes, as well as the district’s share of African-American students. About a quarter of Oakland Unified’s student population is African-American, according to the district.
Zamani believes that racism is “the most challenging issue in America” and wants his company’s donations to benefit African-Americans in order to counteract the country’s institutional racism.
“As an immigrant, I feel like I am benefiting from a country that was partly built unjustly, and I have to do my part to bring about healing,” Zamani said.
Zamani reached out to the district to see how he could help and was told about the lunch debt, he said.
“The more money we save, the more people give to our programs, the better off our students are going to be,” district spokesman John Sasaki said in an email.
The donation follows a new state law that bans the practice of “lunch shaming” in some school districts, in which students who owe money for lunch meals are denied food or given a cheaper alternative meal.
Zamani said he hopes to give more to the Oakland district in the future. His company, One Planet, donates 20 percent of its profits to various philanthropic efforts every year.
He said he’s disheartened that in the Bay Area, which he calls “one of the wealthiest places on the planet,” Oakland Unified has struggled financially for years.
He calls on other tech entrepreneurs to also donate to the district.
“The entire budget of Oakland Unified could be covered by a couple of hours of profits from the top three tech companies in Silicon Valley: Google, Apple and Facebook,” Payam said. “There needs to be that willpower.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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