Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In celebration of Women’s History Month, I want to share some highlights from my recent conversation with Sepi Saidi, Founder and CEO of Sepi Engineering, who sat down with me last month as a guest on The Donald Thompson Podcast

Our conversation wound through many topics, from immigration to education, entrepreneurship to diversity and inclusion and the critical value of personal development. We talked about gender, worthiness and self-doubt, Sheryl Sandberg, HB2, workplace culture, and hiring people who are smarter than we are to do better work than we can do on our own. For me, Sepi is a strong example of the power and perspective of women in leadership, and her work inspires me to keep learning, listening, and growing.

Photo courtesy of Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson

Sepi moved to Raleigh from Tehran, Iran, as a female, in the South, in a male-dominated field, coming from, as she calls it, “the least popular country in the world after North Korea.” That same year, the Islamic Revolution tore through Iran, followed closely by the Iran hostage crisis, and her father passed away unexpectedly. What was first intended as an education abroad became a life and a home in America, but Sepi was prepared for success. 

“There are two lotteries you win in life,” she told me. “One is the country you’re born in, and the other one is the family you’re born into. And, for me, the family I was born into was a real lottery because I was surrounded by very strong, highly educated women. […]  When I came here to the United States, I was excited about the opportunities, and it was surprising to me that the women [in Iran] were much more progressive-thinking as far as their careers and their education than [many of] the women I met. I’m not saying that was everywhere, but that was my surrounding.” 

The full podcast gives much more context, but here’s a little of where things went from there. 

DT: What are some of the principles that you adhere to in building a company that’s not only financially successful but also a great place to work for your team members?

SS: From the beginning, I always believed that I can grow the firm to the extent that I can grow myself as a leader. I think leaders need to spend a lot of time working on their own leadership style and their own authentic voice: figuring that out and asking for support. I’ve had leadership coaches, gone to leadership classes, read leadership books. I have really spent a lot of time learning and evolving and understanding myself.

The other part, for me, has always been humility. 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. I share my real challenges with them, and I share my aspirations. I want to do great things. I want to offer a great quality of work. I want a great environment for people to work in.

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. I share my goals and my challenges. 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 I think openly communicating, having the courage to be humble and vulnerable and openly communicate what you need to get done, it’s really important.

Culture is everything. Everything. I think I cannot tell you how important the culture of the company is to me and how it has impacted our success, our recruitment, our team-building, our winning projects. I cannot express it. I remember three or four years ago when we had the various issues with House Bill 2, the bathroom bill. I was coming to the office and telling folks, “we want to create an environment where everybody feels safe.”

Whether you’re gay, lesbian, transgender, Latin, Hispanic, Black, Middle Eastern, Chinese, whatever it is, we want you to bring your whole self, and we want to create a space where 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.

DT: That’s so right; business is hard. As a leader, how are you responding to these things within your environment, within your company, within your area of influence?

SS: I’ve always had a huge passion for supporting women in leadership roles and in business. We don’t have enough females in engineering. We need to have more females in STEM, we need to have more females as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, we need to open doors for women. I don’t believe in Sheryl Sandberg’s concept of “Lean In,” because it puts all the responsibility on women. Yet, society doesn’t give them equal access to education, to jobs, to leadership roles, to the great network that men leaders have.

The male leaders also need to have a sense of obligation to open doors for women, because 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, and I think for other female leaders, that’s absolutely our obligation. I would say that racial issues fall into the same category.

If I stood here and said that access to education, jobs, money, prosperity across every community has been equal for African Americans and women as it is to young white men, that’s not true. It’s not the same. The access has not been equal. The opportunity is not equal. So once we understand this, it is our obligation to say, “What do we need to do about this?” And by addressing that inequality of access, we are going to build a stronger community.

In a way, I am extremely proud of the social unrest recently, because the essence of it is that, 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. It’s a tough period, but it’s a period for growth and an opportunity for positive change.

I couldn’t agree more.

Listen to the rest of our conversation on The Donald Thompson Podcast, and learn more about how to create meaningful, intentional conversations about gender in the workplace by downloading my team’s Women’s History Month Programming Guide.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is a serial entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, and Executive Coach, recently named one of Forbes’ Next 1000: Upstart Entrepreneurs Redefining the American Dream. He is currently the CEO of Walk West, an award winning digital marketing firm, and co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a technology-driven diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy. He is also a board member for several organizations in healthcare, technology, marketing, sports and entertainment, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on goal achievement and influencing company culture. Connect with Donald through LinkedIn or learn more by visiting donaldthompson.com.