While many in the Auburn community consider Sidney James Nakhjavan worthy of the title “phenomenal woman,” citing her philanthropic efforts, when asked if she saw herself as an important figure, Nakhjavan simply stated that she never truly thought about it.
“Truthfully, I have never even thought about being an important woman figure, per se,” said Nakhjavan. “I am generally too busy balancing family, work and “hobby” time.
“It’s nice for you to ask the question, but the honest answer is — I have never really thought about it.”
However, between balancing the life of a family and business woman, Nakhjavan’s journey to recognition began right here in East Alabama.
The daughter of Dora James and the late Cal James Sr., Nakhjavan, or Sid as many know her, grew up with fond memories of her childhood in Opelika.
Upon graduation from Opelika High School, Nakhjavan attended Emory University in Atlanta, graduating in 1986 with a Bachelors of Arts in International Studies and a minor in French History. During her time at Emory University, Nakhjavan had the opportunity to study abroad in France for a year and intern at the Carter Center at Emory. It was during that summer in France that Sidney discovered a world far beyond the rolling plains of Opelika.
“In college, I discovered the world as a fascinating place,” Nakhjavan said. “We are still global citizens, even in Rural Alabama.”
Nakhjavan began cultivating her career in fundraising and public relations through various advancement and alumni relations positions for the Emory University Annual Fund, the Emory Alumni Association, the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University, and the George Washington University Annual Fund
After going back to school to obtain a Masters of Liberal Arts with concentrations in 19th-century Romantic Music and African-American Literature from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in 1994, Nakhjavan returned home to the Plains where she was named the first Director of Development for Auburn University’s College of Liberal Arts and the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Arts.
Just as quickly as things began for Nakhjavan, it all came to a brief halt when Nakhjavan’s father, Cal Sr., was diagnosed with brain cancer. As the disease progressed, ultimately claiming his life, Nakhjavan left her role at Auburn University, serving as the chief executive officer of James and Snell Motors, to lead and help her family through the difficult transition.
According to Nakhjavan, it was the strength of her own family values that was the driving force in her decisions during that transition.
“Our values are family, love and putting others first,” Nakhjavan said. “We wanted to buffer the tragedy from other people.
“We did everything we could to take care of the people working with us.”
Since that moment, Nakhjavan has truly taken care of her community.
Currently, Sidney is active in various nonprofit organizations, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Lee County, the Auburn Women’s Club, the Community Foundation of East Alabama, and the Frank M. Johnson Jr. Centennial Committee. She is also a Benefactor member in the Women’s Philanthropy Board.
Her daily duties include serving as executive director of the Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies & the Women’s Philanthropy Board, the flagship division of the Cary Center.
“As the executive director of the Cary Center, I lead and work with a fantastic team of program directors who produce educational outreach programs within the topic areas of wealth management, philanthropic engagement and nonprofit leadership,” Nakhjavan said. “Our program participants range in age from 4 to 94 and are from all over the country. There are three divisions of the Cary Center: a youth division to include Camp iCare, REAL Cents REAL Change and the iCare Youth Programs; a Community and Collegiate Division that includes the Cary Center Nonprofit Affiliate Program and a volunteer training program called Volunteers in Philanthropy; and an adult division that has the Women’s Philanthropy Board and the Student Philanthropy Board in it.
“Through these educational outreach programs, we educate, enable and inspire thousands of participants annually to reach their full potential.”
Nakhjavan is also an instructor for outreach in the College of Human Sciences and teaches within the Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies minor and major programs.
“I also teach a class called Gender, Wealth and Philanthropy in the Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies curricula,” Nakhjavan said. “This class served as the pilot class for the minor in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies which, in turn, inspired an undergraduate major in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies.
“These two academic offerings are through the College of Human Sciences at Auburn University. As an instructor, I interact daily with students who are being prepared for careers in the nonprofit sector or who are interested in financial responsibility and philanthropic leadership.”
And as Nakhjavan stated, it's the relationships and friendships found that are probably her favorite part of work. Considering her mission, Nakhjavan said the uniqueness of the Cary Center as one of the few academic centers of its kind is something that the Auburn community should feel very proud of.
“Our work at the Cary Center has involved, for years, thousands of people annually,” Nakhjavan said. “Our footprint is vast and we believe that we have a very positive impact on our participants. For that we are very, very grateful and proud.
“Nationwide, there are very few academic centers of this nature, and we have been in existence since 2011. What makes the Cary Center even more distinct is that we grew out of the Women’s Philanthropy Board — the first and only of its kind that has grown out of a women’s initiative.”
As for Nakhjavan, her message to the community, one that she is proud to serve, is a simple quote — the lyric of a famous song by the Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
“Love is all you need,” she said.