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Episode #92: Women in Leadership, with Sepi Saidi

Grad Conn

March 8, 2021  •  21 min read

It’s International Women’s Day, which means it’s the perfect time for our two-part series with Sepi Saidi, visionary founder and CEO at SEPI Inc. Today we talk candidly about the challenges facing women in business today, the progress made to date, and the power of grit and mindset as you manage your career and personal life.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Grad 
All right. Welcome to this CXM Experience. And I’ve got a special guest today. So, we’ve actually been having a few more guests recently. It’s been awesome. And today’s guest is someone I actually met about a year and a half ago. And her name is Sepi Saidi, and she is the CEO of SEPI enterprises. It is a design and consulting engineering firm. It’s a civil engineering firm, although most people would say there are no civil engineers. Ha ha. That’s an old university joke. Sorry about that.

The circumstances where we met were kind of fun. So I was in North Carolina, it was November of 2019. And I was in North Carolina to do a speech at a really interesting gathering of business leaders in the Raleigh metropolitan area. It was a memorable time for me because I flew down. John Chambers was speaking as well. So I think I was before John. And then John did the session afterwards. So it was John Chambers, myself, and bunch of other interesting speakers from the area.

And then I met Sepi. We had dinner the night before. We sat at the table that day and got to know each other. We had really great connections. She’s really awesome. You’re gonna love this podcast today. And then I got on a plane and I flew 23 hours to Singapore, did a speech. Checked into the hotel in the morning, freshened up, and then went and did another speech in Singapore. Checked out of the hotel… I literally checked in the hotel at 10 o’clock, and left the hotel, nine hours later at seven o’clock at night. Went back to the airport, and then flew 21 hours to Toronto. My mom was having heart surgery. Got there in time to see her as she came out and take her home and all that good stuff. And then somehow I got a flight back from Toronto to New York. But I was essentially in the air most of the time for about three days. So Sepi, you were at the beginning of that journey, so welcome. Welcome to the show.

Sepi Saidi 
Well, thank you. Very good to be here, Grad. And I have to say you made a big impression on me at that visit. I thought, gosh, this guy is so creative. It’s so neat. And I remember your business cards and looking at all the colors and I said, can I have every color of them? So you gave me every color.

Grad 
I gave you the whole story, right? I put them all down on the table.

Sepi Saidi 
I loved it. And I took it back to our marketing department and said, gosh, I’ve met the neatest person, look at this. And maybe we can get a chance to get him over here to talk to you all… and then COVID happened, and everything changed. But it was fun. It was a great, great time.

Grad 
Well, I do Zoom calls.

Sepi Saidi 
We need to do that.

Grad 
I’m ready to go. Any time. Nothing that marketers like more than being told that another marketer does something cool. I love that.

Sepi Saidi 
They loved it.

Grad 
Did I get the name of your firm correct?

Sepi Saidi 
It’s actually SEPI Inc.

Grad 
SEPI Inc. Okay, sorry.

Sepi Saidi 
You made it sound even better.

Grad 
SEPI worldwide!

Grad 
What’s your URL? What’s your website address?

Sepi Saidi 
It’s sepiinc.com.

Grad 
Perfect. Awesome. All right. And do you have a social presence. Do you have a Facebook page or Twitter?

Sepi Saidi 
I don’t have Facebook, but I have Twitter account @sepisaidi. And I have Instagram. Again Sepi Saidi.

Grad 
Okay, great. Awesome. Okay, Sepi, welcome to the show. I’ll let the listeners in on a little bit of what we’ve been working on. One of my great friends I would say at this point, and also peers, is someone named Diane Adams. And Diane is the chief culture and talent officer at Sprinklr. Diane and I started about a week apart. And thank God she started a week before me so she was able to hire me and do my employment contract. So, Diane and I have been really heavily partnered from day one. And it’s been a really great collaboration between marketing and HR. And we’ve done a lot of really neat things around the advocacy side and branding and all that kind of stuff.

But Diane and Sepi have been talking about doing their own podcast, which is, I think, super cool. And so we’re giving them a little bit of the journey that we’ve been on. We’re approaching our 100th show. So that’s pretty cool. And so we’re sharing that process. And they’ve been thinking about doing that podcast about the challenges and the joys and the tips and tricks, etc, of being a successful and high-powered woman in business. And the challenges and inspiration for other women in business as well. So that’s where we’ve been going with it. And when that does get launched, I’ll be all over promoting it. Because I think it’ll be a great show and well needed. There aren’t too many like that.

So, Sepi, why don’t we talk about that for a minute. So what made you and Diane think about doing a show in that vein? What was it that it that makes you want to talk about it? What’s the need that you see out there for others?

Sepi Saidi 
That’s a great question, Grad. And Diane is a really close friend of mine, we’ve known each other for I think it’s coming up maybe 15 years or more. Met in the Raleigh business community, and then bonded individually as women, who like each other, really admire each other. And I certainly admire her. Just a phenomenal woman.

The reason we thought about the podcast was both of us have had a long history of working as professional women, the challenges and opportunities and so on. And we get quite a bit of asks from other women. Either the ones who are entering the workforce or have various challenges in their careers that they want to talk to us individually. And we meet with a lot of individual people. But it’s becoming harder to individually have that one-on-one conversation… to share our thoughts and our experiences. So one day I was talking to Diane, and I don’t know who whose idea it was. But if it goes great, I’ll say it was my idea. If it doesn’t it was Diane’s idea.

Grad 
Brilliant. You’re catching on very quickly. This is great.

Sepi Saidi 
So we talked about it. And we said, what if we do a podcast that shares those experiences. Because it’s becoming very difficult to have one-on-one meetings with people, right? And that’s the start of it. We are both extremely passionate about women in workforce and women in leadership. And we see a lot of opportunities to hopefully support women. To not have to go repeat what we did, or the steps, maybe missteps where we didn’t quite get it right 20 years ago. And to be able to share that with them. And so hopefully, they’ll have an easier journey for success.

Grad
Well, yeah, I think you and Diane have done very well. But I hear you. Let’s talk about some of those stories. I think one of the things that would be kind of fun today is for you to practice with me on how you and Diane will kick this off. So, let me ask you a couple questions to get the ball rolling. So as you think back over your career, which is very impressive. What would you say was a moment — if you feel comfortable, by the way. You can also say, I’m not going to answer that question. But what would be a moment where you would say you felt at a low point, or maybe at your lowest point. Where you maybe were questioning what you’re doing? How you’re doing it? Did you have one of those just like… and the follow up question, by the way, just so you know where I’m going next. It’ll be how you got through it. Okay? But talk to me about the lowest point for you.

Sepi Saidi 
You know, I think we have to think about how I define a low point. Because there were many points, there were many challenges, there were many times that I felt that I deserved a promotion, and I was being passed over and over and over again. Those were difficult times to where I felt like I wasn’t able to move up. I didn’t have the same network as the men did. And they felt comfortable with each other and they knew each other better. And I was totally an outsider.

So, getting that level of comfort in those circles was difficult. And  there were many low points in that. I think one of the toughest… there are many challenges for women in the workforce. It’s being seen for your skills and capabilities, and how you can contribute to the organization. Not as a man or a woman, not for your gender. That’s something that’s really important and very difficult. And the other part is, as women start having families, having a child and having to be working outside the house more. Because I think all moms are working moms. Some work inside the house, some work outside and inside. But having the child and feeling guilt towards. how am I going to be happy? Is my child taken care of while I’m going to work. And the expectations of the society… because my daughter just turned 30?

Grad 
Wow, seriously?

Sepi Saidi 
She did? Yeah.

Grad 
That’s crazy. You have a 30-year-old daughter?

Sepi Saidi 
I do.

Grad 
Okay, wow, that’s great.

Sepi Saidi 
Thank you. I had her when I was 10.

Grad 
Well, that’s what I was gonna say. I didn’t know where to go with that one. Is she an engineer as well?

Sepi Saidi 
No, actually, she’s in getting a PhD in clinical psychology.

Grad 
That’s cool. That’s awesome.

Sepi Saidi 
But back then the dynamic of the workplace was very different. You were still looked at as a female that your primary responsibility was taking care of your children. And so for me, that was a difficult decision. I was passionate about being an engineer, wanted to continue being an engineer. And then I felt the pressure about, am I making the right decision? There are many different aspects of my career personally that I would say, there were challenges. There were many low points. And how do you work through it? It’s all different.

Grad 
So yeah, so let’s roleplay for a second. There’s a new role, or a new job opening or promotion that’s coming up. You think you’re a lock. You’ve been killing it. Doing great work? And some schmuck who doesn’t even show up in the afternoons gets it instead. And you’re passed over. What do you do that night? And then what do you do the next day? And then what do you do the next week, what do you do the next month to manage through that kind of disappointment? How did you deal with that?

Sepi Saidi 
You know, initially it’s just like how you deal with any disappointment. You either go to the bathroom and cry a little bit, or go home and get mad at your cat, or if you have a pet. So it’s kind of emotional, it’s difficult. And I have to tell you, the most important part of it for anybody, and especially for women, is that when you get passed over numerous times, initially you think it’s you. That’s the toughest part. You feel that I am not capable enough, I am not qualified enough. And that really works on one person’s self esteem. You feel like, it’s me. It’s not that I was passed over for somebody who is not as qualified. You feel it’s you.

And after a while to get beyond that is the most important thing. To be able to say, I believe in my capabilities, I believe I have skills. I’m qualified. This promotion doesn’t represent who I am as a professional. And to feel that inside of you, to get that confidence to be able to stand up and say, okay, what does it require for me to get that promotion? That’s what I started doing. So what am I missing? I would ask my supervisor, what do I need to do? So I’m going to get more skills, and I need to learn more. I will do whatever it takes. But not to allow that to make you doubtful about who you are as a professional, is the most important thing. For me, after a while, I started thinking about this. And I said, I’m not going to let this define who I am as a person and my skills. I’m going to get better. And I’m going to learn more, and I’m going to do more.

But the point that I really think it’s important for Diana and I to talk about is, we don’t want women to have to deal with that anymore. We don’t want them to have to go through all of this self-doubt and constantly thinking that I’m not good enough and I have to push through it. It has to be easier than that. I just want it to be easier than that, for them to get more support and recognition and allow the doors to open a bit easier.

Grad 
Hmm, interesting. Yeah, it’s really tough. There’s a book called Mindset. I’m sure you’ve read it, by Carol Dweck, who’s a Stanford University psychologist. And she talks a lot about how your mindset affects your actions, and how to coach yourself up. Essentially to change your mindset. Because mindset tends to drive your behavior, and you see it all the time. We get stuck in mindsets constantly. In funny, simple ways, and then in more complex ways. But it is difficult, I think at times to have to coach yourself through your own mindset. Personally, I have found it easier when I’ve got someone trying to help me there. But I’m not sure that companies tend to have the resources for that. They have resources for crisis, right? For crisis, which is great. And many companies have great crisis counseling lines and things like that. And if you’re in a really, really difficult situation, you can often get help. But to the best of my knowledge, I’ve never seen a company have coaching for how to get over disappointment.

Sepi Saidi 
That’s true. But I think that one easy way, would be that in a very healthy culture… I know Diane is big on culture…

Grad 
She sure is.  She lives it every day.

Sepi Saidi 
So I think if we get the culture right in a company, if an individual does not get the promotion they believe they deserve, that’s where the culture helps. Because the hiring manager would have a very good, healthy, frank conversation with this person and explain to them what was the reasons that they were not chosen in this particular thing. And make them understand that you’re not defective, that these are the things you could enhance your skill. Or it was a particular match we were looking for. So if indeed, that promotion happens genuinely because this other person was a better fit, not because they were not in my club. There are two different things. When women face not being in the men’s club, and they get blocked, that’s a very hard thing to break through. But if it’s just a matter of not being the right fit for that job, then hopefully they hear it. They get it explained to them much easier to hear it, and then to hope they will be ready for the next one, they get stronger, they enhance their skills.

So I think the important key in the society today is to genuinely believe that we need more diversity in our workplaces. We really are committed to diversity. And when women are 50% of the population currently in the United States. To see that representation… if that representation is lacking in in companies, to take very serious steps towards enhancing that to improve that representation. And go away from cliques and clubs, and those cultures in some companies. That that that would be huge. To advance women.

Grad 
Actually 51% of the population. If it was an election, they’d win. So let’s talk about one more thing in mindset, which is interesting. Dr. Dweck talks about his concept of grit. And what she found was that grit was associated with success. In fact, the grittier you are, which is the the ability to get yourself through tough times… you’re more likely to be successful. So talk to me about the grit that you’ve had to have in your career, because you’ve obviously been successful.

You know, Diane is super gritty. Like she’s unbelievable actually. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone with as much grit as Diane. I jokingly told her after getting to know her for a while, probably at least a year into a pretty intense time at the company. We were spending a lot of time working together. I made a comment to her that her life reminded me of a country music song. You know like the old joke if they played a country music song backwards you would get back your dog you would get back your truck, and you would get back your spouse or whatever. And you know what I’m talking about. We’re not going to get into all of it, but Diane’s amazing.

Sepi Saidi 
Absolutely amazing.

Grad 
I almost feel like whenever she asks me how I’m doing I’m like, I got nothing. I’m doing great. I feel silly saying anything. And I do think that that’s a good example for the organization. So talk to me about grit in your life. Because I know you must have had a lot of it. Where did you have to show grit? How did you find it? And maybe give me examples of where you wish you’d had more grit and if you went back you would add some.

Sepi Saidi 
I had a lot of grit. A lot. A tremendous amount. And I would say I really got that from my upbringing. I was born in Tehran, Iran, in a family of very, very strong women. My mother, my grandmother, and great aunt had careers. And actually, both of my great aunts were lawyers, and one of them was the first female criminal lawyer in Iran. And they were very strong women, and they always would be talking about the importance of being tough. And solving problems, and having strength. and going through things.

And I think it began when I really watched my mom. My mom was very, very strong and lots of adversity. But just really was tough and would go through it and solve problems. To an extent that you could never get a pass for anything. She would say, if you were born without legs, if you don’t become the best runner in the world, it’s your fault. So it was like this extreme sense of your, it’s your life, you have to be in charge of it. And I think that that probably started that sense for me.

And then when we came to the United States, it was right before the Islamic Revolution in Iran. And it was not something we anticipated. I was a teenager, I had come here just to get an education and go back. We weren’t supposed to stay here. So all that upheaval and change that happened, I had to adapt. And find a community, find a home. When you have lost everything you’re familiar with, as an immigrant, and build a life. All of those were very, very challenging. And, you know, being in the south as a female immigrant, from a country in the world that is not necessarily the most popular country in the world back then. It was a lot of things where, for me, I had to be very self aware, very strong. And I really had to believe in myself, to be able to build a lot of relationships, and to be able to push through a field that is male dominated. Civil engineering is a male-dominated field. Getting into the construction and engineering work that I did. So, many obstacles along the ways.

But I think that you’re absolutely right, grit is everything. I think a lot of that you may have been fortunate like me to have been born in that environment where people gave you that strength, or you had role models to gain that strength. But I think at the end of the day, I always said, when some obstacle happens, or something really challenging or difficult that happens, I kind of look at and say, what are my choices? Do I just want to fall apart? That’s just not a choice, that’s not going to make my life better. I’m not going to learn from this, it’s not going to make me stronger. So that talking to yourself, like you were talking about having that self talk, having that awareness and looking at your life and saying, this is my life. I need to create this. This is not up to anybody else but me. So if I don’t make the right steps, or don’t be strong about it, and if I don’t achieve what I hope and want, the only person who’s going to be affected by it is me, and the people who are dependent on me or love me. So I think it’s important. And it’s something that resilience is really, really important. And somehow maybe some of us are maybe born more resilient than others. But it’s certainly something you can learn and you can get yourself stronger

Grad 
That’s a great way to put it. You know, I should actually correct myself as I was saying it, a little voice was going in the back of my mind that Grit is actually its own book. It’s not in Mindset, although it’s funny how I conjoined it, right? So Grit is actually a book by Angela Duckworth.

Sepi Saidi 
Yes, it is a book.

Grad 
Yeah, yeah. Sorry about that. So anyway, so at least I’m correcting myself here. But you’re right. What she basically shows is that anyone striving to succeed., the secret is not talent, but some special blend of passion and persistence that she calls grit. So, why engineering? What got you into the engineering field?

Sepi Saidi 
If you ask most immigrants, they would say that the family expectation is you should become an engineer, doctor, or lawyer. So pretty much as a family expectation they weren’t going to send me all over to the other side of the world to study what I actually wanted. And it happened that I really loved it. And I once I got into it, I enjoyed it very much. I really loved engineering. I love civil engineering, it’s a build environment, you could see it, you could completely impact the world. And I think it’s such a purposeful career for me. Every career is. But this directly was. I could see directly how it was impacting lives of people so that there’d be a lot of excitement and passion about it.

Grad 
This is one of my favorite conversations ever. I am loving this. I’m going to stop right now. And I’m going to pick this up tomorrow, if you don’t mind Sepi. We’ll keep going tomorrow. But I am loving where we’re going with this and let’s keep going. So for all of you, we’re going to cut it now and come back. There’ll be more of this. So for the CXM Experience, I am Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr, and I’ll see you next time.

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Grad Conn

Chief Experience Officer, Sprinklr

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