by Amber Nimocks
photographs by Nick Pironio
With another narrator, the story might seem a tragedy: A young woman leaves her home for opportunity in a far-off land, only to learn shortly after her departure that her father has died and that a violent revolution has turned her country inside out.
But when Sepi Saidi recalls the tumultuous events of her own high school years, the story becomes the foundation for a life grounded in optimism. It’s this optimism, she says, that has guided her beyond the tumult of her youth and helped her found and grow SEPI, a top civil engineering and construction firm that today employs over 350 people in offices across North Carolina. Recognized by Inc. Magazine and listed on the Zweig Group Hot Firm List, the firm has boomed under her leadership. Last year, she was named among the top 20 CEOs of the year by the Triangle Business Journal; in 2013, she was the Business and Professional Women of Raleigh’s careerwoman of the year.
She inspires confidence, says Charles Hayes, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, on whose board Saidi serves.
“With Sepi, you know you’re going to get good, reasoned, well-thought-out answers and direction,” he says. “She’s a good business person who understands what it takes to grow businesses and recruit businesses, so she is extremely helpful in that arena. And she gives of her time and energy to do what she can to make our region a better place.”
SEPI’s engineers work across the state has included site design of Raleigh’s Sycamore Creek Elementary School, survey work for Charlotte’s street car line, revamping the entryway to Campbell University in Buies Creek, and environmental planning for many other commercial and government developments. The mother of two grown children, Saidi has also immersed herself in the community. The past-chair of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, she currently sits on the boards of directors of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, the WakeEd Partnership, the Triangle Land Conservancy, and N.C. State’s Institute for Emerging Issues, among others.
When Saidi came to the United States in 1977 to attend Cardinal Gibbons High School, she was following the path of her brother, who attended N.C. State. Then, she had no idea Raleigh would become her home, the place where she would make her mark.
She’d come from a comfortable Tehran family, prospering in the Western-facing Iran of the 1970s. After she left, it was never the same. A year after she arrived in Raleigh, her father passed away. Then, in early 1979, revolutionaries drove the Shah of Iran from power and installed the Ayatollah Khomeini as their supreme leader. The West watched in shock as the social and political dynamics of Iran and the Middle East changed overnight.
While scenes of chaos in her homeland played nightly on her television in Raleigh, Saidi grappled with personal turmoil that few of her classmates understood.
Optimism seemed her only option.
“Being pessimistic was so draining, it seemed like a waste of life,” she says. “I remember in college I kind of thought, ‘I have to feel how I want my life to be and I have to believe and understand that there’s nobody who can control my life but me.’ ”
Saidi credits her mother for that positive outlook.
“My mom had this big emphasis on making us completely responsible for our lives—when something happens in a negative way or in a positive way,” she says. “There was a lot about taking responsibility for your life. We would never be able to come home and complain about a teacher. We would never get away with much excuses—at all, ever. Figure it out.”
‘You Don’t Know Until You’re Tested’
The resilience instilled by her mother—today, they call it “grit”—stood Saidi in good stead as she graduated from Gibbons, earned two degrees from N.C. State—one in civil engineering, another in agricultural engineering—and then worked her way up in the North Carolina Department of Transportation. After a dozen years in highway design and traffic engineering there, she set out on her own, founding SEPI Engineering & Construction in 2001. She gave her new venture her own nickname, a shortened version of Sepideh, which means “dawn” in Farsi.
“It seemed simple and very easy to say,” she says.
The company, which was then focused on civil and road design, traffic engineering, and surveying, grew steadily for the first five years, from a lone employee to a staff of 38. In 2008, when the housing bubble burst and the recession bulldozed the economy, Saidi decided to be assertive rather than retreat.
“It had a huge impact on me,” she says. “It really tested my resilience. Sometimes you just don’t know until you’re tested. It helped me diversify our market more quickly than we would have.”
Again, she says her attitude was key.
“It was very important to teach me to stay optimistic … the only choice is to be optimistic,” Saidi says. “By staying optimistic it helped to tell the employees, ‘Let go of what you can’t control. Find what you can control.’”
She led by example, expanding SEPI’s staff while other firms were laying engineers off. “It was still hard to grow, but during those years I figured there were a lot of really talented engineers in the market,” she says. “I took a chance and hired them.” By betting big when others were forced to contract, she set the company up for expansion once the economy recovered.
She also repositioned SEPI to offer a wider range of engineering services. Today the company’s portfolio includes environmental planning and permitting, water resources, and inspection work. Its clients include state and federal agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers among them.
Maintaining a balance
After almost four decades in the U.S., Saidi’s accent retains the imprint of her native Iran. Her thick brown hair swings to her shoulders and her dark eyes are bright and steady. Something in her bearing recalls the confidence of the Allison Janney character C.J. from The West Wing—but with more style. That quality manifests itself in decisions large and small, from the intuitive way she has built her business to the large hoop earrings she wears with a beautifully tailored suit; the bright red accents that dot her Glenwood Avenue office; her choice of acclaimed modernist architect Frank Harmon to design her dream home.
Saidi says she surprised herself a bit with that choice.
“I had sort of a change in my taste,” she says. “I never thought about building a modern home, but after considering it, it started feeling so good to me that I would have a modern home—completely from scratch.”
The design process took a year, and construction began this spring.
Clearly, Saidi has learned to follow her own instincts.
But being an engineer, she says, that wasn’t always easy.
“I’m very motivated by reason—there’s an x and a y—everything is very rational,” she says. “As a business leader—or a leader at any level, there’s a real balance because so much of what we’re solving for is not rational.”
You have to learn to see that fuzzy area, she says. For her, that means leading with optimism, following her gut, but also preparing for loss if things don’t go according to plan.
“I try to get myself ready for it,” she says.
All of this Saidi has worked to impart to her children—her daughter Nakisa, 25, and her son, Bardia, 21—mostly, she says, by simply being herself.
“The way I look at it is, our children learn so much about how we look at the world from how we are—the conversations we have at the dinner table, the stories we tell,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of it is what they get exposed to just by watching us. If we just work on being naturally who we are, they just soak it up.”
She recalls a time her former husband was away, and there was a mouse in the house. No bigger fan of rodents than anyone else, she capably trapped it and disposed of it as her children looked on. Lesson: Conquer your fears. Of course there were many other days less remarkable, when her children came to her office and watched as she engaged in the work of building a business. Lesson: Show up and do your best.
Also: Bloom where you’re planted. Her children were born and raised here and her business started and thrived here, even though Raleigh was a universe away from the massive, multicultural city that was her native Tehran. When she graduated from N.C. State, she considered moving—Raleigh in the early 1980s was not the boomtown it is today—but then took a job with the state Department of Transportation when it came her way.
“One thing led to another, and it became the best choice I never made,” Saidi says. She found Raleigh’s manageable size and abundant amenities and academic opportunities for children made being a working parent easier than it might have been elsewhere. It also allowed her to get involved in the community in a myriad of ways.
Being involved boosted her business relationships, of course.
“It’s much easier to do business with people you already know,” she says. “It smooths out the bumps.”
But Saidi wishes that more of her peers were women.
“It’s so important for all businesses to think about the experience and value that women bring to boards, to understand the value of diversity,” she says.
Women in business should recognize their own value as well, she points out, and be proactive about getting and making opportunities for themselves. She has high hopes for the next generation of women in business. As with all else, Saidi remains optimistic.