President of SEPI Engineering Group
Starting a business is often much more challenging than most entrepreneurs could ever expect.
Few people know that better than Sepideh Asefnia, founder and owner of SEPI Engineering Group. But then, few people have the drive and ambition to overcome as many challenges as she has either.
Born in Tehran, Iran, Asefnia’s parents sent her to live in the United States for high school. After she graduated, she attended N.C. State University, where she majored in engineering. Almost two decades later, she stills lives in the Triangle area, where she is president of a thriving engineering business and owner of a host of awards for her involvement in civic life.
“Always challenge yourself,” she said. “That makes life very exciting. Every single day of my life I should be happy about what I do and happy about what I’m trying to achieve.”
Asfenia said that she didn’t dream of engineering as a child, but her parents encouraged her to study a lucrative profession, and she found herself drawn to engineering. After graduating from N.C. State, she took a position with the N.C. Department of Transportation, where she stayed for 11 years.
In May 2001, she founded SEPI Engineering Group, which provides civil engineering and planning services to private and public sector clients. The decision wasn’t an easy one, she said. She had job offers from large national firms in Texas and Florida, but she and her family had grown attached to the area. Plus, she wasn’t sure she was ready to take the risk.
“I felt that I wasn’t ready to be on my own,” she said. “I wanted to get more experience and work for a larger firm.”
After months of soul-searching and speaking with colleagues, she made the decision to strike out on her own. Asfenia said that Wake County was the perfect fit for her venture. The weather was ideal, the schools are great and the universities provide a constant stream of qualified workers.
But even though she prepared, Asefnia said she couldn’t anticipate some of the challenges that arose.
“Once I made up my mind that I would start a company, I had a very clear vision about the disciplines and what geographic areas I would like to serve,” she said. “It was definitely more challenging than I thought. Because you are not in the fire, it’s harder to imagine, it’s a very challenging process.”
It was a challenge she willingly took head on, she said. Roadblocks are the nature of the beast and the business, she said, and they allowed her to continually improve her skills and herself.
“I loved it,” she said. “I really, really loved it. I think the most exciting part for me was that every time I was facing difficulties and challenges and had to make tough decisions, it helped me grow as a person, and I liked that process. Pushing the limits is what I like to do.”
Asefnia said she is constantly driven to maximize her potential, and she sees the hurdles in business, family and community life as a way to increase it. She said she rarely dwells on any problem. Instead, she focuses on finding the solution.
The approach has paid off. Business Leader magazine ranked the company in its Top 100 N.C. Small Businesses of 2009 list. Asefnia was named 2006 NC Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Association and earned the Business Leader 2005 Women Extraordinaire Award.
“I just keep thinking, ‘Have I done all I can do? Can I do more?’” she said. “There is no limit to what you can do as a person. I don’t give up easily.”
One challenge is that engineering is typically a male-dominated field. Men aren’t used to seeing women in the profession, much less in an executive role, she said. Asefnia said she has had to work a little harder and always felt that she had to “prove” her competency.
“I think it’s something that’s not automatically given,” she said. “In general, I have to earn the fact that I’m qualified and know what I’m saying. That takes time.”
Asefnia said women are much more accepted in the field now. She is proud to have helped build a strong network of female leaders, who often have a different way of looking at problems and bring a fresh perspective.
“I think that communication and interpersonal skills come easier to women, and that helps as well in dealing with an organization like mine that has lots of employees,” she said. “Communication for the company is very important.”
Asefnia is proudest professionally of the remarkable employees who have chosen to work for her.
“Every time I see someone very talented, someone with a great mind, and they chose to work here, I’m proud because I know they have options,” she said.
Asefnia said that her proudest personal accomplishment is her children. Throughout her career, she’s tried to integrate her business and family life, and ensure that each always gets enough attention. She said the best example she can set for her children and co-workers is to be happy.
“If they feel that you are happy with what you do and are happy being a mom and having a career, then they’ll be happy,” she said. “But if they feel like you are stressed all the time, then they get stressed.”
Asefnia plans to stay in the industry as long as she can. She said she enjoys mentoring young professionals and grooming tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. She encouraged those new to the working world to find and pursue their passions.
“Don’t see anything as an obstacle,” she said. “Do what you really love in life. And have fun. Enjoy everything as much as you can.”