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GC of Fender overcame life challenges to hit a high note

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Aarash Darroodi

Aarash Darroodi with a Fender Custom Shop David Gilmour Signature Series Stratocaster. Photo by Moshe Zusman.

When he was a little boy growing up in Iran, Aarash Darroodi recalls dashing for cover when sirens warned that missiles were coming from Iraq.

“I remember buildings being blown up around us,” he says. “When the Scud missiles hit the ground, the vibration that you felt in your chest, even when it was miles away, was unbelievable; something I will never forget.”

Those attacks are part of Darroodi’s turbulent, decades-long journey during which he was separated from his parents, survived war, traveled throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia, and eventually landed a dream job as the top lawyer at one of America’s most iconic music companies.

“Overseas, we consumed American music at a rate you cannot even imagine. It was our only access to American culture,” says Darroodi, 41, executive vice president and general counsel of Fender Musical Instruments Corp. “It’s quite fascinating and ironic that as a child I loved Elvis and Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix, and one day I actually would be working for the same company that supplied these angels with the instruments to create.”

Safe home to war zone

Darroodi was born in Houston, where his Iranian parents, Ali and Marjan, were studying chemical engineering. It had been their intention to return to their homeland to work in the oil industry, but their plans unraveled when skirmishes between Iraq and Iran began in 1980.

Because the battles were remote and infrequent, his maternal grandparents recommended sending the 6-month-old boy, who had a U.S. passport, to Iran so they could care for him while his parents applied for work authorization in the U.S. and established a home.

“My parents stayed because had they gone to Iran, they would have never been able to leave,” Darroodi explains, adding that his father also would have been drafted into military service.

A few years after he arrived in Iran, the war escalated and missile attacks intensified on Tehran, where Darroodi and his grandparents, Hamid Arbab, a doctor, and his wife, Lila, would stay while trying to secure visas to get out of the country. They spent most of their time in the city of Mashhad, considered safer because it was a holy site less likely to be bombed. There, Darroodi enrolled in school and tried to live as normal a life as possible. As he got older, the boy realized his grandparents were not his actual parents and asked where they were. “And they would say, ‘the United States,’” he says.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow. Hollywood movies come from the United States, rock ‘n’ roll comes from the United States, and my parents are in the United States,’” he says. “‘I’ve got to find a way to get to the United States.’”

Because they were banned from traveling to the U.S. from Iran, Darroodi and his grandparents went to 19 countries on tourist visas to seek help at U.S. embassies, the last being Turkey, which granted them visas in 1988.

His grandmother sold everything the family owned, and all three traveled to the U.S. By then, Darroodi’s parents had withdrawn from college and moved to Monrovia, Maryland, where they earned degrees in accounting and got jobs with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. They later started their own accounting firm. Darroodi recalls being the only Middle Easterners in the community and seeing few people of color. “I faced discrimination on a daily basis,” he says. “I was spit on. I was told to go back to my country.”

When he applied to a prestigious private school in fifth grade, the headmaster called his mother in for what they thought was an interview. “The gist of what he said was, ‘Your son is very smart, but his accent is too thick, and he really won’t be able to fit in with the other kids,’” Darroodi recalls. “We got in the car, and my mom started uncontrollably crying. But I didn’t cry. I waited until I got home. I didn’t want to make her sad to see me sad.”

Breaking the mold

The family eventually moved closer to Baltimore, and Darroodi went to public school, where he continued to face bullying and discrimination. He asked to leave and was allowed to graduate early and enter a community college.

Darroodi became interested in law after reading the book and seeing the movie Barbarians at the Gate.

“Seeing those dealmakers and the lawyers in that movie working in mergers and acquisitions and high-powered finance completely inspired me,” he says.

His mother’s boss, Philip Litman, became a mentor, advising Darroodi to prepare by studying finance and accounting. He earned a degree in accounting from the University of Maryland in 2003; became a CPA in 2004; graduated from Georgia State University College of Law in 2006; and earned an LLM at Georgetown University Law Center a year later.

After graduation, Darroodi worked as a corporate attorney for Union Labor Life Insurance Co., but he felt unsettled and wanted more. He attended a cocktail reception for a firm specializing in private equity that he hoped to work for. He recalls a managing partner asking why he was there. “I said, ‘This is a fantastic firm, and I dream to work in this industry.’”

The lawyer turned to Darroodi. “He said, ‘Have you looked around here? You don’t fit the pedigree.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Look around you. We recruit specific types of people. I don’t want to waste your time. This is not your type of place.’”

Darroodi eventually was hired by a venture capital firm. While working on a merger that involved a company in Scottsdale, Arizona, a recruiter for Fender called. Fender, which is based in Scottsdale, was investing hundreds of millions in a digital presence, including lessons, e-commerce platforms and more, and it needed someone who understood tech. The recruiter told Darroodi he found him through LinkedIn, and the company soon hired him.

When he joined Fender in 2015, its legal department was small. Darroodi handled responsibilities including prod-uct compliance, import and export, manufacturing, employment and international legal matters.

He credits Fender CEO Andy Mooney with creating a culture that allowed him and others to flourish. “He brought a wind of change to Fender from products, process and people, and completely changed the trajectory of this organization,” Darroodi says. “He also saw immense capability within me and truly changed my entire life.”

Turning up the volume

Today, Darroodi oversees Fender’s global legal operations. “When I took over, my goal was to have the legal department representative of the people that touch our instruments. I was the first to hire a female attorney at Fender, the first African American attorney, Asian American attorney, Latino American attorney, LGBTQ,” he says. “That’s something that’s very important to me because in essence, I’ve been able to provide them with opportunities they may not otherwise have had.”

Darroodi sees himself as a disruptor—a modern, tech-savvy, globally well-versed general counsel he describes as “Lawyer 3.0.” The challenge he always faced in his life and career was not fitting the mold. He often struggled. “I personally felt for so many years that to be successful in law, I had to hide my Iranian heritage, my true identity,” he says. “I always perceived my background and my accent as a weakness and a disadvantage. However, and perhaps ironically, this perceived weakness actually became my greatest strength because all of the issues I resolve as GC is me tapping into my experiences as an Iranian American.”

Outside of work, Darroodi and his wife, Camelia, support refugee communities in the United States by helping to provide food, shelter, clothing and job placement.

And there are perks working for Fender. One of the best parts of the job is connecting with world-famous musicians.

“Part of the reason this is one of the coolest jobs on earth is the fact that we get to interface with these people,” he says. “I’ve met Bruce Springsteen, I’ve met Billy Joel, Billie Eilish. And what’s fascinating about it is that they’re such humble people. They’re regular people. As Leo Fender said, ‘Artists are angels, and we give them wings to fly.’”

Darroodi, who plays guitar (he favors the Fender Stratocaster and ’70s rock) believes that music belongs in everyone’s life. As president of the Fender Play Foundation, the company’s charitable organization, he has worked with the Los Angeles school system to provide free instruments and music education.

“Without music and arts,” he says, “life lacks color, from our perspective.”

This story was originally published in the February-March 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Rockin’ It: Fender GC overcame life challenges to hit a high note.”

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