Prescription for Success

Dr. Zahra Shahniani, owner of the Fair Oaks Pharmacy. Photos by Henk Friezer

Think about Dr. Zahra Shahniani the next time you trip over an obstacle on the road to success.

“Zahra,’’ as she calls herself when she answers the phone at work, is chief pharmacist and owner of the Fair Oaks Pharmacy on Mission Street and Fair Oaks Avenue.

She has earned the title Doctor of Pharmacy because of her degree from USC, but she says most people call her “Zahra’’ or “Dr. Zahra.” I would have been happy to write Dr. Shahniani, but for “Around Town,” she wanted to be just “Zahra.” Believe me, the name “Zahra’’ is a high title in this store.

Thirty-five years ago, Zahra had a hard time just getting to the airport to leave her native Iran. But the then-22-year-old and her husband Ed eventually managed to land in France, then the U.S. a year later.

Now, through her own work ethic, personality and the support of family, friends and colleagues, she has become a success, overcoming what she sees as cultural barriers faced by many Persian women — “Persian,” rather than Iranian, being Zahra’s preferred identification.

“It is not as bad as it used to be when I came here 35 years ago, but it still exists,’’ she said. “Now the women are proud of me and want to follow in my footsteps. It makes me feel good.

“The men — they tell me — they are proud of me, too. Who knows what a few of them say behind my back? People say, ‘wow,’ but you don’t know if it is a good ‘wow’ or a bad ‘wow.’ ’’

What makes Zahra even more special — among other things — is that it isn’t enough that she has succeeded. She’s been putting down markers for others to follow toward success.

She counts 10 people, both men and women, who started working for her as clerks who are now either pharmacy technicians or pharmacists.

“She’s my second mom,’’ said Jaklin Noshadian. “Whatever I have is because of her. I don’t want to imagine what I would be without her. She showed me the way to go. She is everything to me.’’

Shahniani’s son Brandon is in charge of all non-pharmacy matters, including the soda fountain.

Inspired by her boss, Noshadian became a pharmacy technician and is now applying to pharmacy school.

Both of Zahra’s sons honed their work ethic working for mom in the drug store. Both of them are still working there.

“She is the queen,’’ said Zahra’s 22-year-old son Brandon, who is in charge of non-pharmacy operations. “It is the way she treats people. You look up to her in that way.’’

Brandon started working in the store when he was in the third grade, and has done almost every job — from washing dishes to decorating the store for the holidays.

Both Jaklin and Brandon, along with many others who have worked full- and part-time since Zahra and her husband bought the store in 2005, have practiced what their boss preaches.

“Each person who works here is important,’’ Zahra said. “I teach them humanity. I teach them to look at customers as people. They are like my own family.’’

When Zahra left Iran, the country was at war with Iraq, and she recalls it was as hard to leave the house as it was to get to the airport.

“After the Iranian revolution, the government didn’t want college graduates like me and my husband to leave the country,’’ she said.

She recalls how lucky she and her husband were to get visas to France for a year and then to get student visas to the U.S. Of 300 people who applied for the visas, Zahra recalls that about seven were accepted.

She went to pharmacy school at USC, and then got two internships before being offered a full-time job.

Saving as much money as possible enabled her and her husband to buy a pharmacy in Burbank in 1992. She sold it in 2002, and then worked for chain pharmacies.

One day, the lawyer who helped her sell the Burbank pharmacy told her about a pharmacy in South Pasadena that he described as “perfect for you.”

“I went out and visited and fell in love,’’ she said.

Zahra has been in love ever since she and her husband bought the store in 2005. Now the sole owner, she appreciates the uniqueness of the drug store — its history; its old-fashioned soda fountain; and the decorations that fill the store on major holidays.

The pharmacy itself is unique. It even compounds prescriptions — something not done in many chain pharmacies. Zahra admits that unique is less in vogue for many large drug companies.

More and more, drug suppliers push customers to chain stores or to mail-order suppliers.

Shahniani with Jaklin Noshadian, a pharmacy tech hoping to become a pharmacist.

“They (corporations) don’t want the headaches they think we bring,’’ she said. “It takes time to make a compound prescription and then explain how to use it.

“We do compounds. Corporations don’t want to take the time to do that and possibly save the life of a child. We make these things from scratch. To me, it is more important to save a life.’’

If many drug corporations aren’t listening, many of her customers are still buying, and believing in Zahra and her pharmacy.

In fact, they are still entrusting their children in more ways than one.

“I have some customers who tell me that they want their kids to come here as their first job,” she said.

My email is Please write if you have any story ideas about people, places or things of interest to South Pasadena residents.