SEPI Engineering Group, Inc.

May 2005 » Business
According to a 2004 National Science Foundation (NSF) report - Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering - women earned about 23 percent of the bachelor's degrees in civil engineering granted in the United States in 2001. However, they comprise only about 10 percent of employed civil engineers.

Employee and community focus contribute to growth of woman-owned firm

BY BOB DRAKE

According to a 2004 National Science Foundation (NSF) report - Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering - women earned about 23 percent of the bachelor's degrees in civil engineering granted in the United States in 2001. However, they comprise only about 10 percent of employed civil engineers.

(Interestingly, slightly more women than men earned bachelor's degrees in all science and engineering fields in 2001, according to the NSF.) It's not surprising, therefore, that women-owned civil engineering firms are rare entities.

One of those rare firms is SEPI Engineering Group, Inc., Raleigh, N.C., which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this month. Sepi S. Asefnia, P.E., president, started the firm as a home-based business in May 2001. Today, SEPI Engineering is a certified Women Business Enterprise in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland; has 30 employees; and has completed more than 50 projects, including two of North Carolina's largest design/build highway projects. Services to the public and private sectors include transportation and environmental planning, traffic engineering, noise analysis, civil and structural design, construction management, and stream restoration.

Asefnia, who earned bachelor's degrees in biological and agricultural engineering and civil engineering from North Carolina State University, is a licensed Professional Engineer in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. In recognition of her focus on professional and community involvement, she has, in a short time, received numerous local business awards and honors, been appointed to the board of directors of the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, and, recently, was named Employer of the Year by the North Carolina Chapter of the Women's Transportation Seminar, a national organization dedicated to advancing women in the transportation industry.

Undoubtedly, the employer-of-the-year recognition is based in part on Asefnia's emphasis on employee development, which includes mentoring, tuition reimbursement, and support for participation in local professional organizations. In addition, SEPI Engineering offers flex time to help accommodate family responsibilities.

“It is our goal to provide a challenging and fulfilling career for all employees,” said Asefnia, “along with a working environment that fosters creativity, ingenuity, and growth.” Following is a brief interview conducted with Asefnia regarding her career, business philosophy, and her young firm.

Additional information about SEPI Engineering is available on the company's website at www.sepiengineering.com.

CE News: What attracted you to civil engineering as a profession? Asefnia: Before entering college, my passion was related to the engineering field.

I have remained committed to studying engineering, and my entire professional career has been spent working in the transportation engineering industry, where I wanted to contribute to the built environment and enhancing life for people. I saw civil engineering as an important foundation for a strong economy and strong communities.

CE News: Why did you want to establish your own firm? Asefnia: I started my business because I believed in my unique vision for an engineering firm and wanted to turn that vision into reality. I believed in my leadership abilities and I was not able to find the culture I wanted in any other firm. Most of all, starting my own firm was my ultimate personal and professional challenge.

CE News: What have been some of the challenges and benefits of establishing and operating a woman-owned firm? Asefnia: The biggest challenge is to keep my life in perspective. I have had to learn that owning a business is just part of my life, not my entire life, and to enjoy all of the little accomplishments and the small steps it takes to move toward my goals. I address it by reminding myself continually that I made the decision to start a business because I wanted to enhance my life. I keep my priorities in perspective by spending plenty of time with my children and volunteering for their school, and by replacing some business lunches with lunch with my kids. The benefits of owning my own firm are seeing myself and the employees in my firm grow and gain confidence and experience. It is very important to be able to inspire other women to go after leadership roles in their firms or to start their own company.

CE News: What are some specific aspects of SEPI Engineering Group that have contributed significantly to its success and growth, and have helped attract and retain qualified staff? Asefnia: Our culture has contributed to our success. We truly are people oriented, not profit oriented. I strongly believe in creating a work environment for our staff where people feel respected, challenged, and cared for. I have invested in providing good benefits - such as health insurance, dental, and a retirement plan - and we attend to the little things such as monthly lunches, daily soda and snacks, and yearly Christmas parties. I share as much information as possible with the employees, including backlog, financials, and other information. I have an open-door policy (actually my office doesn't have a door).

Overall, I treat and compensate everyone fairly, and I know the success of SEPI depends on our people.

We have the same philosophy toward our clients - hard work, honesty, and integrity. There are no shortcuts with us.

Those principles are what everyone sees when they come into contact with me or my employees - it really shows.

CE News: Do you think being a womanowned business played a part in this growth? Asefnia: Being a woman-owned business has contributed, but it has only been a small part of the reason we have grown.

Our culture, work environment, and the other reasons I discussed previously have been the major contributors to our growth.

CE News: What advice do you have for others who are starting their own firms? Asefnia: It is vital in the beginning that you set personal and professional goals for yourself. Once you have established your goals, set a path for yourself and stay on that path. In the beginning, you will not have all the answers, and you will make some mistakes, but as long as you can stay focused and work hard, you can learn what you lack while you are building your business.

CE News: Explain the flex schedule implemented at SEPI Engineering Group and how it affects employee retention and morale, as well as how it impacts project work flow.

Asefnia: Our employees have the option of working [anytime] from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Each individual decides on their own particular schedule. I also allow employees to take half-hour lunches if they choose. If employees choose to work a half hour extra everyday, they can leave early on Fridays.

We also offer the option of carrying over the paid vacation to the next year. Although I encourage everyone to take time off, I recognize that there are occasions, due to workload, when some employees are not able to take time off, and I do not want them to lose that time.

CE News: How can civil engineering firms, not just woman-owned firms, increase involvement and development of women and other minorities in the industry? Asefnia: It has to go back to high schools and universities. These organizations need to establish mentoring programs and get girls interested and involved in the field of engineering, as well as offer leadership training courses specifically targeted for women and minorities.

CE News: Do you think the governmentsponsored advantages for women- and minority- owned businesses are necessary? Asefnia: The government goals for including women and minorities in contracts is very important. Women and minorities have not historically had a strong network of influence in the business community and the MWBE [Minorityand Women-Owned Business Enterprise] goals provide opportunities, which otherwise may not exist. Women bring a fresh new perspective to the business community, and it is essential to support and include them in the future of the business community.


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