20 to Watch: Women in HVAC - Layla Salehi
P.E., vice president of SEI
Name: Layla Salehi
Title: P.E., vice president of SEI
Educational Experience: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, UC San Diego.
Professional Credentials/Accreditations: P.E. in California.
Organizational Affiliations/Achievements/Awards: Rotary Youth Leadership Award, Young Woman’s Leadership Award, and ASHRAE Founding Member of UCSD chapter.
What caused you to/when did you fall in love with engineering?
I was fortunate enough to be born into an engineering family and spent many afternoons watching my mother design HVAC systems using AutoCAD. I quickly realized that if she could “draw” on the computer, I could too. Thus, at the ripe age of 9, I taught myself enough AutoCAD to draw the castles and cloudy skies I envisioned. As my collection of castles grew, so did my fascination with the ability to not only create but to share my visions. The idea that you could draw exactly what you envision, and those drawings could be built, captured the love and imagination of a young girl. This love continues to blossom upon my exposure to the diverse world of engineering, much like my portfolio of castles.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of working in the skilled trades?
Understanding that my work is appreciated is the most rewarding aspect of my job. I know that the seemingly simple lines and circles on my computer transform into a real-life functioning system — a system that someone, whether they’re a student in a classroom or a medical professional in her office, will enjoy.
Describe the proudest moment in your career.
My first instinct is to describe how I earned my P.E. license. After years of practice, studying, and hard work, the feeling of achieving that goal certainly qualifies as one of the proudest moments of my life. However, after giving it some thought, there is another moment that I am most proud of. During a meeting, I was asked to take the lead. As I presented, I felt a change. I was confident, professional, and in control. My words carried weight. I realized that I was no longer an apprentice. It was a realization that I would not just survive as an engineer, but I would thrive. This understanding has been monumental in my career ever since and is certainly a moment I will be proud of for the rest of my life.
What challenges do women face in this profession? Can you give a personal example?
I have a vivid memory of when I was running late to a new class. As I sat down, I immediately realized I had made a mistake. Looking around, I noticed there were too many women in the class. This could not be my engineering class. I realized the men in my classes would never feel uncomfortable. They were in a room filled with people just like them, taught by people like them, and were encouraged by people like them. They had a whole support system already built for them. While men are exposed to math and science and encouraged to pursue careers in engineering, women are often overlooked. I was lucky to have a mother in the field to show me the path. That is what is missing. We need to normalize the idea of women engineers. We need to praise these young women who show interest in math and science. We need to shine a light on the women who came before us and call out those who believe engineering is only for men. It will take time but great change always does.
What does your day-to-day job entail?
Running an engineering firm is like performing maintenance on a train while it is barreling down the tracks. I provide the support and resources our team needs while coordinating logistics with the project’s team. I also negotiate future projects while handling the accounting and legal aspects associated with running an engineering firm. I do all of this and still wear the engineer’s hat. No two days are alike; that’s what keeps this career interesting!
What drives/motivates you every day?
The process motivates me every day. Working with the entire team — each who are masters of their own fields — toward a common solution is an incredible experience. I get to see the whole picture, from concept to implementation, and add my own creative touch to the final product. I take pride in knowing I was part of this process, and there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of a job well done.
What remains on your engineering bucket list — what do you aspire to do that you haven’t accomplished yet?
It would be incredible to be a part of a team working on a project that goes beyond anything ever created. A novel project that pushes the boundaries of engineering. I’ll admit that I haven’t found it yet, but I will keep on looking. Someday, I will find an idea worthy to be included on my bucket list.
What’s one thing no one knows about you?
I have the travel bug and love exploring new countries. While others are admiring the beauty of the architecture, my thoughts are drawn to the feats of engineering needed to create these monuments. I marvel at the structures that took generations to build. I am in awe of the people who designed them knowing they would not live to see them completed. Passersbys may only see a young woman taking in the local culture but so much more is happening in my mind.
List any mentors who’ve helped you succeed and describe exactly how they’ve shaped your success.
Shahram Salehi, my uncle, has been a true mentor to me. As a young engineer starting out in the field, he took the time to support me in meetings and phone conferences. My uncle has consistently encouraged me to ask questions, even about his own work and reasoning, going so far as to shift the focus away from projects to explore these questions. He is my biggest supporter and fan. He helped me find my own voice, and I could not be more grateful working with him. Victor Neuman, though not technically related, is like family to me and an amazing mentor. From encouraging and helping me start the ASHRAE chapter at UCSD to sending me information on new seminars to attend to further my education, he has expanded my reach in engineering further than I could have imagined. He has been a constant supporter and has always provided me with the tools necessary to succeed. I will always appreciate his support and influence.
What advice do you have for prospective female engineers considering entering the field?
Make your voice heard. Engineering is a collaborative field, and part of engineering is finding new and creative methods to address problems. Speak up and share your creativity. Make it normal for a woman’s voice to resonate the halls of engineering. If you sit quietly in compliance, nothing will change, advances will be lost, and we will suffer for it. Help us build the support system we have gone without. Surround yourself with people who encourage you, and when you have made it, give back to the next generation.