If there's one thing that Cullen College of Engineering graduate Mona Setoodeh would stress to the young women entering the workforce, it would be for them to not shy away from advocating for themselves.
“Know what you're worth, and ask for it. People, especially women in my experience, are too often hesitant to ask, or to even give themselves credit for that matter” she said. “Everything is negotiable. When I was offered my first job, I was so happy for just having received an offer, I didn't even think of negotiating.”
Setoodeh is now the president of CH-IV International, a global engineering and consulting firm that provides full spectrum solutions to asset developers, regulators, owners, operators and lenders across the energy, infrastructure and resources industries. Mona started with the firm in 2007, shortly after earning her doctorate in Chemical Engineering from UH.
As part of that, Setoodeh noted that she had to very quickly learn the skills to resolve complex challenges of her clients, and to be able to present the solutions effectively to her peers and clients. This was also the time that she learned how to deal with refutation and conflict. .
Early into her career, and despite having spent eight years in engineering school, she recognized that management was her preferred path.
“The earlier you can figure out what really motivates you and aligns with your core strengths, goals and values, the happier you're going to be long-term,” she said. “At the end of the day, there are going to be a lot of people who tell you that you can't do it, no matter what path you take. You have to look at criticism objectively, know your goals, learn the skills you need, and ignore the noise. Once you realize most of people’s responses and reactions are about themselves and not you, the easier it becomes to keep proceeding as you have set your mind to.”
She added, “As long as you're honest with yourself and know your ‘why’, you need to go for it. And if you fail in your attempts, re-evaluate, adjust, and give it another shot.”
Setoodeh started her studies at the University of Houston in the early 2000s, after earning her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Shiraz University in Iran. The diversity of the area and the college, as well as having relatives that lived in the city, were the primary factors in her decision to select UH. The strength of the program and its national ranking were the reasons for her to stay and complete her degree here.
“The diversity in particular was a huge factor, both in Houston and on campus, as well as the reputation of the Chemical Engineering Department at the time,” she said. “When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, we were a class of about 60, and only four of us were women. That alone was a huge difference between the two institutes. I don't know the exact numbers, but I saw a lot more women around the department and on campus at UH. It really helped me feel at home, along with the foreign student population from across the globe. I never felt out of place.”
Her advisor was Dan Luss, and Setoodeh said he set a rigorous standard and example that he expected his students to match.
“He had a great impact because he was very tough on us,” she said. “It helped us build resilience and character. Most days he was at school before we would get there, Saturdays included. We knew he practiced the same discipline that he expected from his students and highly respected him for that. You’d better make it in before he made his rounds through the labs, or you were going to hear about it. He did us all a great favor by setting high standards.”
Once she started her career in the industry with CH-IV, Setoodeh identified Michael Diemert as one of her significant mentors.
“He took me under his wing,” she said. “His philosophy was 'sink or swim,' but he would be there, just an arm-reach away in case you needed it. He was a great part of why I got as far as I did in a fairly short amount of time, compared to the norms of our industry.”
When asked about her long tenure with the company, Setoodeh also noted that the collaborative culture at CH-IV, and the fact that they offered flexibility and work-life balance.
“A lot of companies tell you that they care about their people but their actions show the opposite; CH-IV really cares.” she said. “When I joined the company, I had a very young family, and they gave me a lot of flexibility on my working hours. I never let a client or my boss down, and I did what I needed to do to get the job done, but I didn't have to worry about getting to the office 10 minutes late and having someone look down on me for it. If I needed to take that extra hour at the beginning of the day to get my kids to school, I was more than happy to give the company three more in return at the end of the day.”
Setoodeh noted that small allowances like this can have a huge effect on employee productivity, job satisfaction and happiness.
“That's a huge deal, and it's one of the lessons I learned,” she said. “My job isn't to look after projects, my job is to look after the people who run the projects. If you genuinely value people , and don’t add unnecessary stress to their days, they will perform at a higher level. When you feel valued and have that work-life balance, it makes you want to stay.”
As part of giving back and guiding the next generation of engineers, Setoodeh is now a member of the Industrial Advisory Board for the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.
“I've had multiple conversations already with the department chairman Lakis Mountziaris and Fred Wasden [advisory board chairman, Managing Member of OptilytiX and formerly of Shell],but the first formal IAB meeting I'll attend is in December. Some of the challenges are quite close to my heart, and if I could be of any help, I'd love to do that.”
Setoodeh is especially passionate about empowering young women, noting that it’s something she has spearheaded at her own company.
“As part of the company I work with, we have launched a group called HERStory Makers, part of its objective being helping members grow their careers in a more effective and intentional manner” she said. “I had many struggles building my career up in Houston’s energy industry; in many ways, it is still largely a male-dominant industry. If I can help others succeed, I'd love to be able to help. I had great mentors along the way, and would be humbled to support our next generation of graduates and workforce.”