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Mo Honarkar embodies the modern immigrant’s success story

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photographs by Mary Hurlbut

The self-made man is a distinctly American idea. Originally coined in 1832 by Senator Henry Clay, the phrase then referred to men in the manufacturing industry whose success stemmed from within – from “patient and diligent labor” – as opposed to external conditions. History dubbed Benjamin Franklin one of the first. Mohammad (Mo) Honarkar will undoubtedly not be the last. But he may be one of Laguna’s best examples. Now the president and CEO of 4G Ventures, which holds a diverse portfolio of real estate and businesses in Laguna Beach, Mo’s story began half a world, and more than half a century, away. Far from Laguna’s beaches, Mo grew up playing on rooftops in Iran. The United States was a distant dream.

Mo Honarkar grandson

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Mo Honarkar and grandson Truth

What the modern day self-made men (and women) have in common might be more than a determined work ethic. Beyond grit, success like Mo’s requires vision. An ability to look at something everyone else has seen countless times, and notice something new. Where others might imagine insurmountable problems, Mo sees solutions. He’s brought that vision to his hometown. 

Growing up Tehran

Mo was born and raised in Tehran. He shared an apartment with his parents and five siblings. Though he was one of the youngest children in the family, he was the first to come to America. Before that, though, Mo got a strong sense for the construction industry. 

“Somewhere in high school I started to work with my dad on a construction site,” he says. “They were building a hospital. I was like a superintendent, though I was very young. After I graduated, I worked with him on building some apartments.” Real estate was always something he enjoyed. “It’s part of my DNA,” he says. Mo’s mother owned a business teaching fashion design. From her, he gained his knowledge of business and retail. 

Even during Mo’s childhood and coming of age – in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s – Tehran was a thriving metropolis. Mo likens it to Los Angeles. “It was a very happening town,” he says. Maybe it was that early influence of a big city, but Mo is drawn to diversity. “I like mix,” he says. “Very old people, young people, they live together, they go to shows together. Age, race, everything is diverse. It’s good for a city to be diverse.” 

After working for a few years with his father, Mo decided to continue his education and fulfill his plan to study abroad. “I met with a school counselor in Tehran in 1978,” he says. “I applied for school at USIU (United States International University) in San Diego and got accepted to the international university.” 

From the Middle East to SoCal

Coming to southern California in the late 1970s may have felt like culture shock. “When I landed in San Diego, and I had a couple of high school friends here already. I said: This is what America looks like? It’s a village!

Mo started his studies at USIU and San Diego State. He transferred to UCI in the fall of 1980, studying applied physics and engineering. “I almost got lost in the orange fields,” he says. “Orange County was so small at the time. Not much here.”

As a foreign student, English was Mo’s second language. But math always came easy, as did art and design. “Even from an early age, every time I had an art class, I built some kind of structure. My professors said, ‘Someday, you’re going to be a builder.’ They were right.”

Mo worked his way through college, taking nearly any job he could find. He worked in the college cafeteria and became known as the “ice cream man.” He drove a school bus in the morning, before attending classes himself. “I got myself into college. I’m a self-motivated and self-build person.”

The Iranian Revolution happened just after Mo arrived in the US. For five years, he was prevented from returning home and his family couldn’t leave Iran. When he was able to return, he discovered the home he left was no longer there. “This is not the town I used to live in. It was completely destroyed. I decided to return to the US. Now I was here for good, not just to study. So my family decided to follow me. My parents came first, followed by my brothers and sisters. I was the pioneer.” Mo also met and married during his time in Tehran, and brought his wife to the US in 1984. 

Mo discovered Laguna Beach while attending UCI in 1980. “Discovering Laguna Beach at the time was feeling like I was back home,” he says. Laguna instantly felt like his new hometown, though he was more than two decades away from being able to afford to live here. Still, he spent every weekend and all his spare time in the town.

Building connections…wirelessly and beyond

Once Mo graduated from UCI, he used his degree to pursue a career in computers and programming. He worked for various computer companies as a software engineer. In Toshiba America’s R&D division, his job was to program – all day, every day – in a 9 x 12 foot cubicle. “I hated it,” he says. Mo is a people person. A solitary job in a lonely cubicle proved unbearable. He begged to be transferred to sales. The job simply didn’t exist at Toshiba at that time, so he asked to be laid off. “You just had a kid,” his boss reminded him. Despite the tricky timing, Mo wasn’t deterred. He left. 

While helping his mother operate a clothing boutique in Irvine, Mo noticed an AirTouch store next door. “I saw a line of people going in all the time,” he says. This was during the early days of wireless, when cell phones were still the size and shape of bricks. Mo grew interested and, in 1998, signed up to open stores for them.

Soon, Mo founded the company 4G Wireless, and remained in the wireless business for 18 years, managing 1,200 employees across five states. Carriers came and went, as did hundreds of stores and kiosks, but Mo’s enterprise endured. He fought with the City of Laguna Beach over opening a Verizon store in town, the only store of its kind in Laguna, and won. Over those years, between his experience in retail clothing and wireless, Mo opened and closed between 400 and 500 stores. “I learned a lot about real estate,” he says. 

He also learned a lot about Laguna. He raised his two daughters here – 

Hasty and Nikki – and recently welcomed his first grandchild, Truth. His family connections remain far more important than his business ones. Hasty confirmed this in our interview last year. She said the extended family stays tight. They see each other every week, either at The Royal Hawaiian or picnics in Heisler Park. “It always looks like a scene out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” said Hasty.

Mo Honarkar with daughters

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Mo with daughters Hasty and Nikki, and grandson Truth

Real estate adventures

In 2000, Mo bought the famed Heisler Building that housed the old Jolly Roger Restaurant and Laguna Beach Brewing Company. He designed and remodeled his own home in Mystic Hills in the early 2000s. And, eventually, he became the founder and CEO of 4G Ventures, which holds a diverse portfolio of real estate and businesses in Laguna Beach, Corona del Mar, Irvine, Palm Springs, and beyond. The holdings include hotels, restaurants, event venues and community projects. So far, Mo and his team have revitalized Laguna’s historic Royal Hawaiian, as well as several properties in the Canyon including The Hive, Seven-Degrees, Kitchen on the Canyon, and Terra Restaurant on the Festival of Arts grounds. They’re also refreshing several of Laguna’s hotels and event spaces.

Mo Honarkar Cleo project

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4G Ventures scaled model for the Cleo hotel project

A shared love for Laguna

You have to ask yourself, Mo says, ‘What is Laguna?’ Everything is so completely different that it makes you wonder what defines the town. That, he says, is exactly the point – it’s not cookie cutter. That diversity of design is what makes it uniquely Laguna. “Every single unit is different,” he says. “You have modern, cottage, mid-century. When someone introduces a new building, don’t shut it down and say it isn’t ‘Laguna.’ Because that’s exactly what Laguna is – something completely different. That’s why we have character in this town.” Santa Barbara, Mo observes, has its own mission style. Newport Coast, everything looks like Tuscany. “But the character of Laguna requires every design to be different. That’s what we all love.” 

Growing up in a big city, Mo appreciates the mixture of businesses and restaurants available to locals and tourists alike. “I don’t see myself as a developer,” he says. “I see myself as a solutions provider. There’s so much character here. These buildings look old and tired. I don’t necessarily want to change them, but just fix them – redo the façade and make them look better. But I don’t want to force it. I want people here to want it too.”

Beyond the artists, designers and architects, Laguna draws people of passion. It’s not a town for the passive and uninterested. It’s a community that calls its citizens to action. While residents may not always agree, they do care. The occupants are as diverse, eccentric, quirky, quaint and unique as their homes. That character is not just what makes the town look different, but feel different. It’s a village of energy, with more than its share of self-made men and women, of which Mo is one of the leaders.