From Iranian Immigrant to Engineering Entrepreneur, with Sepi Saidi

Sepi Saidi immigrated to this country as a female, in the south, in a male-dominated field (engineering), coming from one of the most polarizing countries in the world.  She shouldn’t have had a chance. And yet, this May she’ll celebrate 20 years at her company SEPI, Inc – a company that now has over 200 employees in 7 locations. Find out how she did it and what her giveback is.

Transcript

Donald Thompson: Welcome to the Donald Thompson Podcast. I have with me a good friend of mine, Sepi Saidi, of Sepi Engineering. Sepi, welcome to the show.

Sepi Saidi: Thank you, Donald. I’m looking forward to having a conversation with you.

Donald Thompson: Me as well.

Sepi Saidi: It’s so good to be here.

Donald Thompson: Yeah, it is. It has been a long time, a long time coming. One of the things that I would love to do is give you some space just to introduce yourself to our audience and share a little bit about you, about your family, about what drove you to become an entrepreneur, some things to kind of set the stage and then we’ll talk as friends.

Sepi Saidi: Okay. Wonderful. So you can stop me because sometimes I start and then like I’ve been talking for 30 minutes.

Donald Thompson: Alright.

Sepi Saidi: I’m originally from Tehran, Iran and I came to Raleigh straight from Tehran. I mean, straight from Tehran, and that’s almost four decades ago. I was a teenager when I came to Raleigh and this was prior to the Islamic revolution. And when I came to Raleigh, I’m the youngest of three, I have an older brother and sister, and the reason I came here, which is something everybody wants to know. “Why Raleigh, North Carolina? Everywhere United States, why Raleigh?

And the reason is very random. Unfortunately, I wish it was a more sophisticated answer, but my brother’s best friend was going to NC state and my brother wanted to go because his best friend was going to NC state.

So they came to Raleigh and then my sister came. I was in high school. Then my brother decided to leave and go to Florida to go to Embry-Riddle to study Aeronautical. But I stayed and I studied Civil Engineering. I went to school. It was a tumultuous time when I first came. Very difficult because Islamic Revolution happened just less than a year after I came, and we all came to Raleigh. And we always say life, as we knew it changed in a matter of nine months.

Everything got upside down, my father passed away unexpectedly; not related to the revolution he got ill. And then after that, we had hostage crisis. So, it came a very, very difficult and different world for very young students being abroad, had come here just to study and go back to what they called home. And then you find yourself in a land that you have to create a life and home for yourself.

Donald Thompson: That is a powerful story both in terms of the moving to another country, but being a part of the American dream when Iran in relations with America were not great. Right? During that period.  What was going through your mind during that time of building that future in a new land, but having your Homeland in turmoil?

Sepi Saidi: You know, for a very long time, I still thought that the regime’s going to change; Democracy’s going to happen in Iran. For a very long time, I still was very hopeful that I could go back and live in Iran. Because I had studied Bio-Ag Engineering and my goal was to go help farmers and help  improve the quality of farming and all of that technology to bring that.

So I was very hopeful for a while because I think a shock like that doesn’t settle in immediately. It takes a long time for you to accept, “Okay. What is my future? What is, is my reality?” And I guess for me, it took a long time. It took a long time for me to get settled.

Donald Thompson: When you think about the process of now being an engineer, and I want to take back to the college experience. I don’t know this for sure. I’ll make an assumption. There weren’t many female engineering students, or at least a dominant number during your educational experience. What was that like? How did you think about that? How did you handle that during your educational phase?

Sepi Saidi: It’s a really good question. There were not many. I heard from somebody said that there are two lotteries you win in life. One is the country you’re born in, and the other one is the family you’re born into. And for me, the family that I was born into was a real lottery because I was surrounded by very strong women. Highly educated. My mom had a college degree, my grandmother, my great aunts. One of my great aunts was the first female criminal lawyer in the country in Iran. And very strong women.

And they were always advocating to me and my sister.  I never grew up in a family that was any different between us, me, my sister, and my brother and I. And there are ambitions, our goals, what we need to achieve. How we were treated was so powerfully equal that I, a hundred percent believe that, that’s one of the basis of what we need to work on for young females is to empower them and support them. That feeling you get, that’s just incredible. That feeling of, “I can do anything, I can be anybody, I can set the world.”

So when I came here to the United States, I was excited about the opportunities and it was surprising to me that the family life compared to a family I grew up in, and the family life most of the people here around me. The women there were much more  progressive-thinking as far as their careers and their education than– and I’m not saying that was everywhere, but that was my surrounding.

So I had come here already feeling very strong about, yeah, I mean I could do whatever I wanted to. I could, and never really thought anything about it that I’m a female, I’m in the South, I’m in the male-dominated field. And I have this fourth one that I made up from the least popular country in the world after North Korea.

Donald Thompson: Right. I mean, when you say it, I mean, it’s female, right, engineering in the South, from Iran. And that family structure, that family support. That became where you built your self-esteem from. And that’s really powerful because I think a lot of young people, and that’s whether it is gender or whether it is ethnicity, the people that believe in you at an early age is so critical to how you view yourself. And I think that one of the things that we all can do as leaders is how do we figure out that give back so that we can work with young people and help instill that belief that anything’s possible, even with all of the things that are occurring, that might not be positive. You can still figure out how to make a way. And so I love that. That story in that background.

Sepi Saidi: It is true. As recently, what I’ve been thinking very much about, which I’m going to incorporate it. That’s why I bring it up here into my talks when I give talks, is I think for young people or any age, a sense of worthiness. You know, worthiness that has nothing to do with your socioeconomic status, doesn’t have anything to do with how many followers you have on social media. What are you compared in high school or in any level? A sense of worthiness that comes from inside of you that I think propels you to want more for your life or what, you want to live your own authentic life.

And you expect a lot out of your life. I think that is something that is, it’s just really important. If we have listeners at any age, we could be struggling with that. Believe it or not, it could be really struggling at any age. And no matter how successful we are, do we have that really as a human being inside of us, do we have that sense of worthiness no matter what? And even if our family of origin, even our parents, that they didn’t give to us, we can give that to ourselves.

Donald Thompson: That is powerful. And I appreciate the way that you framed it, right? Because independent of where we are in our journey, we all can creep into that self-doubt, we all can have peaks and valleys in our life. Areas where we’re strong ,areas where we need support.

And I think that you know, as I’ve grown as a businessperson and as an individual. Right? I’ve allowed myself to bring my guard down to ask for help. And to use my network and people that really care to help me when I’m in those valleys. And I think that’s really, really important. I love the way that you brought that out.

Let me ask this of you. Tell me a little bit now about the entrepreneurship journey and what gave you the vision, the will to not only start your own firm, but now stay with it and build something that has had a significant impact on the local economy here in Raleigh.

Sepi Saidi: Thank you very much. Yes. So that entrepreneurial journey for me was truly a journey because if you had met me in college, I was the last person you would pick as an entrepreneur. I was not that person, like you say, “That is going to be the next President of United States, so they’re going to be–” That, I wouldn’t have been voted for that. And it was, it evolved. After I graduated, I went to work as a civil engineer for 10 years. I got my license. My specialty was highway design and traffic signal design and engineering.

And as I started working, I was recruited. I was working for the department of transportation. And then I was recruited to go to work in private sector. And I was very scared to leave the OT. I had small children. I have two wonderful children. I’m really proud of them.

They’re adults. They’re not young children anymore. I’m very proud of them. They were small and I was very, very scared to leave this big organization that I had so much support, to go in a company that was private, and it was a startup. They wanted me to help them to start a discipline in transportation design.

And when I went, I kind of thought about it and thought about it. And I was very, very frightened. And I’ve used this in my life a lot, that every time I get very frightened, if being fearful has excitement with it, then I feel I’ve, I’m making the right decision.

If it doesn’t have excitement with it, I feel like that’s not what my gut is telling me to do. So I went to, I had excitement around it, and I felt, okay, at the end of the day, I’m a professional engineer. I can get work if it doesn’t work out. When I went to work in the private company that I went to work at, I started loving this private consulting work because it, there was a chase and there was an RFP. And then we have to build relationships with clients. You have to win a project; you have to interview. I love that chase. And I went after it and it was so exciting to me. So I stayed there for about three and a half years, and I learned that I love change and I love challenge.

I love that. That was the way that I feel like it kind of has laid out all of my career. So I left the firm I was working at and I decided to go work for a much larger firm because I felt it would be a larger challenge and a larger change. And the offer that I had was in Texas and one in Florida. I didn’t have the particular offer I wanted in North Carolina.

And that’s when I started really just kind of digging in, and thinking, and meditating, and a  couple of my colleagues were encouraging me to start a business. And I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never started a business.” And one of them said, “Well, if nobody’s done it, nobody knows how to do it if you’ve never done it.”

So I said, “Oh, that’s an interesting point. That’s a good point.” And I didn’t have any partners. So it was just, it was myself. And I started the business from the bonus room of my house. Truly. And my kids were nine and five, but when I started it, the vision, I created this vision in my head, which I tell everybody.

And I use that today and I tell the directors in my office today, “You don’t have to know how to get there, you need to be able to see that in your mind. You need to visualize success. You just have to visualize it.” Once you visualize it, what does that look like? And you get excited about it, then you kind of step in and then, path unfolds. And then you find another, and another, and I got excited about the vision of this company I wanted to create and start.

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. I mean, I’m getting like, “The chase, change, and challenge.”

Sepi Saidi: Yes

Donald Thompson: Right. I, I heard you say those, those things and you found out what motivated you, what allowed you to be your best self, and then you took that risk. And I think that so many people have a business inside of them that needs that willingness for them to take that risk, or a book that they should write, or a speaker that they should become.

But what holds them back is that little bit of fear that says, “What happens if I don’t make it?” And in your case, you said, “I’m a professional engineer. If it doesn’t work out, I can always go back and get a job.”

Sepi Saidi: You know, that’s very true. And I have to say, now that I look back, and I think it’s very true for entrepreneurs, for artists, for anybody who does something that is not mainstream necessarily, or, or it’s difficult.

I think it’s a yearning. It’s a feeling that it’s hard to not do it. It’s almost like, “I just can’t not do it.” And the risk sort of pays comparing to the yearning you have to, to experiment this, to try it, to see. And sometimes it doesn’t work out and sometimes, but I think that’s what pushes you forward. And we all have that if we listen to it. I think you really have to pause and, and allow it, and hear it, and follow that we don’t give enough value to that voice that we hear.

Donald Thompson: Hmm.  That is really, really powerful. When you think about leadership. Right? Because you now run a very large organization. And so you’re responsible not only to your clients, but you have a team of people to lead, and, and help grow. What are some of the principles that you adhere to that you coach in building a company that’s not only financially successful, but a great place to work for your team members?

Sepi Saidi: My leadership has evolved over the years. We’re going to be 20 years old next May. So that’s a big, yes, a very exciting time. I can’t believe it. 20 years is a long time. And I, from the beginning, I always believed that I can grow the firm to the extent I can grow as a leader. So I have to be able to grow and evolve and change to be able to grow my organization.

And I’ve really worked on myself. I think leaders need to spend a lot of time working on their own leadership style, and their own authentic voice, and figuring that out and asking for support. I’ve had leadership coaches, I’ve gone to leadership classes, I read leadership books. I really have spent a lot of time learning and evolving and understanding myself.

And, so that has been a key element for me always going forward. The other part for me has always been humility. I think humility for me, it’s one of my values. It’s really important to me. I think if I’m humble, I can hear more, I can learn more, and then I resonate with my team members in the company. They see a real person.

Donald Thompson:  Right.

Sepi Saidi: I share my real challenges with them, and I share the aspirations. And I’m a very, I aspire a lot. I’ve always aspired a lot. I love, I’m ambitious, I want to do great things, I want to offer great quality of work. I want a great environment for people to work in.

So  I have a very aspirational perspective, but also, I’m very real with folks. I don’t pretend I’m not having a bad day, or not a really hard time we’re going through, or that I don’t have hard days. Like in a pandemic, I’m an extrovert, I’m a really extreme extrovert. So not being able to be around people, it’s hard for me.

So I shared those things, I shared the aspirations, I shared the goals, the challenges. I tell folks, I paint the picture. I paint a picture of where we want to go. And I believe that we have a team that can take us there and grow with me. And so, so I think openly communicating, having the courage to be humble and be vulnerable and to openly communicate what you need to get done, it’s really important.

And I think what has really helped us over the past few years, especially is I have focused on this word that a lot of times people use it as a cool thing, but to me it’s incredibly meaningful, which is “culture.” It’s everything. Everything, I think I cannot tell you how important is culture of the company to me and how it has impacted our success, our recruitment, our team-building, our winning projects. I cannot express that the importance of culture for us. We, I talked about bringing your whole self to work. I remember three or four years ago when we had the various issues with, I think it was the bathroom bill. We call it our house bill.

Donald Thompson: Yep, yep.

Sepi Saidi: I was coming to the office and telling folks that we want to create an environment that everybody feels safe. They can bring their whole self. Whether you are gay, lesbian, transgender, Latin, Hispanic, Black, Middle Eastern, China, whatever it is, we want you to bring your whole self, and we want to create a space that you feel that you belong, and you’re supported. And I think those are the areas. Just being authentic, relying on your team, visualizing great things, staying positive and pushing forward. Business is hard.

Donald Thompson: That’s right.

Sepi Saidi: Business is hard.

Donald Thompson: That’s right. I, I tell you, I don’t know if there’s anything to add to that. It’s, it’s difficult. I mean, it’s the reason that the rewards are worthwhile both financially, and personally, and fulfillment. Because of that challenge.

Sepi Saidi: Yes.

Donald Thompson: Right? And you know, one of the things that strikes me when I listen to you, and I’ve got pages of notes, like this is great. But when I asked you the question about your leadership, culture, and principles, you started with personal accountability. You started with your own personal development, how you could be better where you learn. And I think that is one of the true marks of people that are truly successful, is that, we have high standards for our organization, but we have high standards for ourselves. Right?

That we become the leader that we need to be. In my case, in my leadership journey, I came from an athletic background, son of a football coach. I was a little too direct, a little too– I had some people skills work.

Sepi Saidi: Finesse.

Donald Thompson: Yeah, I had to learn some people skills to be able to lead professionals across all different backgrounds and ages and demographics. And that was a personal, and still is to a degree, journey for me. And because I cared enough about the teams that I was leading, working on me was something that I embraced. And so it’s like, how much you care about others will be to the degree that you continue to work on yourself and improve.

Sepi Saidi: So true. And I’ve heard you speak. You are excellent. You are excellent. Really. I’ve, I’ve taken a bunch of notes from your talks. But it is, and I love to learn from other leaders that I see their style and what resonates with me. And I’m thinking that I’m going to take a note on that. It’s, it’s just that constant journey of learning.

Donald Thompson: That’s right.

Sepi Saidi: And growing and, and not feeling like, “I’ve got it. I’ve got it. I’m here.” And it’s really not an easy thing to be a part of because you have to check yourself. You’ve got to constantly check yourself.

Donald Thompson: That’s right. That’s right. So let’s zoom out a little bit and talk about some things that, that are going on in our country, in our, in our world. And purposely, I wanted to spend the bulk of our time on you and your business success and inspiring other leaders.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t get your feedback on some of the things that are occurring in our world. And so we’ve got a pandemic that’s happening, we’ve got the most contentious election I’ve ever seen, there’s a lot of racial unrest that’s going on in our country. As a business leader, how are you responding to these things within your environment, within your company, within your area of influence?

Sepi Saidi: That is, is a really important question. And, I had always had a huge passion for women supporting women in leadership roles. Women in business, women need to be more, we don’t have enough female in engineering. We need to have more females in STEM, we need to have more female as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, we need to open doors for women. And,  I’ll get to your question quickly.

Donald Thompson: Sure.

Sepi Saidi: Okay. So I don’t believe in the, necessarily in Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of Lean In because we’re, again, putting responsibility on women.  She says, “You need to make your partner a partner. You need to sit at the table.” She has four pieces, but what I say is that, “Why are we putting the responsibility again on women?” First, society doesn’t give them equal treatment of access to education, access to jobs, access to leadership roles, to the network of the great network that men leaders have it. Even men who have sports backgrounds, Donald, like you, there is a real value there that women don’t have that.

So, what are we as a people who’ve made it, like, I suppose if I could say it about me, who have had the challenge, it’s my obligation to make this path easier for women. And I think it’s the male leaders. I think they also have to have a sense of obligation to open doors for women.

And that’s when change happens. For me, it has made a big difference. I’ve had male colleagues who’ve opened the door, who’ve told me to come join this board of directors, come make this introduction for me. It has made a big difference for me. And I think for females, it’s absolutely our obligation. I would say for racial issues, it falls into the same category, Donald.

If I would stand here and say that the access to education, jobs, money, prosperity across in every community, it’s been equal for African Americans and women, and not of young white people, it’s not true. It’s not the same. The access has not been equal. The opportunity is not equal.

So once we feel we understand this, it is our obligation to say, “What do we need to do about this?” I mean, I know wholeheartedly that for me being a female, there has been obstacles that I had to overcome, that it hasn’t been for my male colleagues. It’s the same thing for African-Americans in the society.

If you are a young, I would say you’re 18, even 18, 20-year-old, young African-American male or female, you grew up in a family that your grandparents still remember when they could not drink from the same water fountain.

Donald Thompson: Mhm.

Sepi Saidi: You have heard that story. That narrative is still a part of this young person’s upbringing.

Donald Thompson: Yep.

Sepi Saidi: Is that not an opportunity for us to look at this situation and say, “They don’t see the world the way my daughter or son sees the world.” Because they have been raised with a narrative that’s a different narrative than my daughter and son. So they have obstacles that you know, a young, handsome white man who’s walking down the street doesn’t have to worry about getting looked at like, “Are you going to rob my purse?” Nobody clutches their purse. So I think these are the realities of the society, that I feel what has happened with this social unrest has taken down the curtain of a lot of this satisfaction; a lot of inequality, a lot of issues that as a United community, we need to address.

And by addressing that we are going to build a stronger community. We cannot have folks who have any criminal record or we, and we do that, for example, we are one of the firms who does the chance for rehire. So if somebody has a record, we don’t just eliminate them because how do you introduce these folks back into the workforce?

If a young person who grew up in a circumstance that they didn’t have the right mentors, they didn’t have right healthy surroundings, they make error. They have a record and then I don’t hire him. How are we going to give him a chance to get him back into the society? So I think that I am extremely proud of the social unrest in a way. Of course, like everybody else, we don’t like damaging property. That’s not what we’re talking about, but that’s not the essence of this. The essence of this is at the end of the day, folks are saying, “We want to be heard. Things have to change. We are qualified, we are capable, we’re smart. Can we have an opportunity here? Can you open the door for us here?” That’s how I see it. And I think that it’s a tough period, but it’s period for growth and opportunity for positive change.

Donald Thompson: Oh, that is awesome. Giving people that chance of rehire. Right? Everyone deserves their second chance if they’ve paid their debt. Right? If they’ve gone through the process, and they’ve atoned for that mistake, we don’t want to create an environment where the only option is a negative long-term path because there’s no chance for the future.  My dad is a retired football coach and one of the things that he’s done that I, I support, and, and, but it’s his thing is he has five transition homes in Greenville, North Carolina, so that people that are coming out of prison, getting off, drugs can have a place to stay.

The same thing that you were describing of getting a job, some people won’t rent to someone if they’ve got anything on their criminal record. Right? So if you can’t find a job and a place to stay, it pushes you back to the negative element that will always welcome you. The negative element is always welcoming. Right?

And so we need to think about as a society, how do we treat those of us that don’t have the advantages that we do? And are we proud of how we treat those people? And over time, we can get stronger and build a stronger society if we all do what we can, where we are. Right? And in, in example, in your case that I think is, is really powerful.

So I have a final question that I would like to ask. What’s next for Sepi? When we think about goals and aspirations, whether they be personal, whether they be growing your business, what are some of the big things that you want to continue to grow and thrive as you look to chase the future?

Sepi Saidi: Yes. Thank you. So for business, we are on a strategic goal to grow the company in the Southeast. So we currently have seven offices. We’re in South Carolina. Now we’re in Charleston and Buford, South Carolina. And we are also in Florida. We had actually made the acquisition during the pandemic in Florida.

We’re in Fort Lauderdale and in Western Florida, Palmetto. So, we want to grow in the Southeast. That’s still a big passion of mine. I want to continuously create a company that stands out as far as our culture and what we do, how we do our business, how we create that experience for our employees and for our clients is a very, very important thing to me.

And I really want us to change the game on how everybody sees engineering firms to be a very different creative, cool, fun, edgy, you know, always ahead of the game. So that’s really exciting to me still. And I have an outstanding team in the company that I, they are the ones who are creating success. As you know, it’s your team. It’s always your employees. It’s always the folks around you.

And, I was smart, like a lot of folks, leaders to hire people that are smarter than you. So it’s totally the team; always the team. So I’m very excited about that, and personal level, I really like to support more women in leadership, women in STEM, in science, technology, engineering, math. I would love to support more female immigrants or male immigrants.

Anybody. I tell folks I’ve lived here for all of my life. I cannot lose my accent. Just, it’s okay. It’s okay. But I can’t. So I want to encourage other folks who are immigrants, or have an idea, or have a passion, or want to start the business to think, “If she did it, I can do more. I can do more.” So that’s a passion for me giving back. Maybe hopefully doing talks.

I keep talking about writing a book. Hopefully, I’ll have that inspiration about writing a book, because I think that could be, that could be fun for some folks who want to be entrepreneurs that who’ve maybe benefit from my experience.

Donald Thompson: That is awesome. I am so appreciative that you’ve taken time to spend. I feel like I know you even better and I’m even more inspired. And the one thing that you said that I want to leave our audience with, “Culture is everything.” And I think as we think about our society, our communities, our businesses, what kind of culture do we want to be a part of and create? And what can we do about it to move past kind of the rhetoric and the talk and, and move towards action to make it a great place to work and live for all.

Sepi Saidi: Yeah, and it applies to everything we talked about. It applies to social uh, unrest, it applies to our offices, to society we want to live in. We have to be, we have to make the effort to create the world we want to live in.

Donald Thompson: Absolutely. Sepi, thank you so much. This has been a joy and I can’t think of a better way to end. It’s been my absolute pleasure.

Sepi Saidi: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. It was a real pleasure. Thank you, Donald.

Full Episode Transcript

The Donald Thompson Podcast is hosted by Walk West CEO, mentor, investor, and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant Donald Thompson.

Music for this episode provided by Jensen Reed from his song, “You Can’t Stop Me”.

The Donald Thompson Podcast is edited and produced by Earfluence. For more on how to engage your community or build your personal brand through podcasting, visit Earfluence.com.

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