Thirteen years ago, Chiraz Zouaoui (Class of ’05, B.A., business administration/accounting) left her homeland of Tunisia for the United States, carrying little more than her personal belongings and $800.
Today, she is the founder and chief executive officer of City National Security. The company, which Zouaoui established in 2001 while a student at California State University, Dominguez Hills, provides security personnel for businesses and institutions throughout California.
“I knew what I was here for,” she says. “There is nowhere else you can achieve what you can in the United States. The opportunity is non-stop, even though with the recession [business is] slower than before. But I have been blessed to be in a position where I can create jobs, pay taxes, and be part of the American Dream.”
As CEO, Zouaoui focuses on the public relations aspects of her business, and aspirations to compete with industry giants. However, Zouaoui is confident that her company can thrive because of its size, not despite of it.
“I make sure that my clients have access to me even though I have a lot of managers,” she says. “I give my clients the ability to reach me so that I can follow up on the quality. They would never have access to that with a bigger company. It took time for us to convince the clients that we can do a better job—and now they know.”
Among those who “know” City National Security are major home improvement companies and general retail chains, numerous schools, hospitals, hotels, shopping centers, and other businesses throughout California and Texas. Zouaoui says that the ability to diversify the company’s services has been her formula for surviving the recession.
“When the economy got hit at the beginning of 2007, security for construction sites was 60 percent of my business,” she says. “We provide security for big projects, guarding multimillion dollar machinery used for building roads, freeways, and landfills. Then the economy [failed] and I said, ‘I have to do something.’ We started diversifying really aggressively from that point on. We are thankful that we are all over the place in the industry. It helped us to grow and if one [client industry] is hit, the others are safe.”
Zouaoui says that although being a woman in a male-dominated industry required a lot of adjustments at first, both for her and her fellow competitors in the business, in time she has been able to prove herself as a non-threatening but equal contender in the security industry.
“I went in with the attitude that I am different,” she says. “I am a safe and friendly competitor. .. [I play] business by the rules with integrity. I don’t take shortcuts. My competitors are my friends and they call me, we discuss things. I became the ‘soft’ person in the industry. They don’t look at me as someone who’s out to get them, [but as] a respectful person who is good to talk to.”
Zouaoui says that her student days were “the best experience ever,” and counts finance professor Ricardo Ulivi and the late Chiou-Hsiung “Bear” Chang among her greatest mentors.
Zouaoui, who recently joined the CSU Dominguez Hills Alumni Advisory Council, also says that the diversity of the student population enhanced her education and prepared her well to work with people from different backgrounds.”
“It’s a school that gave me knowledge and confidence,” she says. “I’m not the best at everything, but I learn every day from experience. Dominguez Hills put me in that position.”
Zouaoui, who recently became a new mom, says that she looks forward to handing down not only the legacy of her success in business, but of her ingrained work ethic.
“A friend of mine asked me, ‘So you think your child will take over [the business]?’ and I said, ‘Yes, my child will take over, but I will teach them how to make money, not how to get money,’” says Zouaoui. “That’s what I learned myself. The best I can give my child is to teach them how to be independent, how to prove themselves to society, how to have integrity and how to work hard. What’s important in my life is success and success is not just about me and making a fortune. It’s about giving back to the community, creating jobs, making a reason for my existence here.
“I knew that in my position of being an orphan at an early age, I had two paths to follow,” says Zouaoui. “I could have been a failure because people expected me to be. Or I could have taken another turn and made my life a success. I looked around and decided, ‘I want to be this.’”