At age 14, Anoosheh Oskouian persuaded her parents in Iran to allow her to move to the United States — alone — to attend high school and then college, where she studied chemical engineering.
Oskouian's tolerance for strategic risk would later lead her to drain her 401(k) to buy a Long Beach, Calif.-based sheet metal company. She has since converted it into a full-scale pollution abatement firm, Ship & Shore Environmental Inc., with $12 million in annual sales. Clients include plastics, chemicals, aerospace and printing companies across the U.S. and beyond.
As California debates the merits of its cap and trade program, Oskouian's company goes about cutting greenhouse gases in its own way, one that underscores its CEO's penchant for taking the road less traveled.
Q: What made you convert Ship & Shore to a pollution abatement company?
Oskouian: I used to work at Fluor Daniel, one of the top engineering firms in the country. I wanted to see where all of this engineering and design work goes — how the systems are built, assembled and installed. In the late '90s I stumbled across Ship & Shore, which was a sheet metal company and built parts, but nothing highly technical or sophisticated. They had no engineers in house.
I joined in 1996 as a sales engineer. I said to the owner, “How about if we take it up a notch and bring in a couple of engineers and, rather than be just installers, install our own equipment?”
I thought, what better opportunity than the environmental field? Because there was a lot of need for air pollution [solutions], with the Environmental Protection Agency wanting to clamp down and make sure the air we breathe is cleaner. And we were in California where the local agency is even stronger than the EPA.
Q: How did you become the owner of Ship & Shore?
Oskouian: I was with the company for about five years with different ownership and a different mindset. The gentleman eventually said, “I have no idea what you guys are up to,” because he was not an engineer. He said, “To continue, you need to buy the assets from me because I'm not interested in continuing the business as such.”
The entrepreneurial side of me and maybe a visionary side of me came out, with the underlying fact that there was not a woman in the [pollution abatement] industry and the implicit message that there's no way that a woman can come in and do this. People told me, “You'd better stick to being behind the desk.” I thought, maybe everything they say I can't do, maybe I really should do.
So I bought all of the assets and re-established the company. I have been CEO since June 2000.
Q: Were you nervous?
Oskouian: Nervous yet confident. It was a nerve-wracking time because I literally used every penny I had saved in my 401(k) from Fluor Daniel to come in and buy the assets. I was concerned whether this was the right thing. But you know that little voice inside — and I believe a lot of women have it, maybe stronger than some men at times — I believe in a woman's intuition. If we put our head and that little voice together, we can really conquer the world. That gave me the confidence, that this is the one time I have to do this and do it right.
I remember not sleeping for a few nights, but I'm happy about every challenge I've had and every move we've made.
Q: Fast-forward to today: What does Ship & Shore do now?
Oskouian: We help manufacturers to control the emissions they generate through their processes. And when I give examples, people say, “Oh, I had no idea these companies would have any emissions.” What comes off the process of making things, like paint, if you have any chemicals, making them or mixing them or making them into a new product, the volatile organic compounds, VOCs, or emissions, are produced, and they have to be released in order for a chemical compound to be formed, for bonding to occur.
A lot of companies have chimneys or smokestacks, or ducts, and release that polluted air into the atmosphere. Ship & Shore captures that polluted air coming from any size facility, and we take it into our equipment. Our system destroys the pollutants and you have clean air coming out the other side.
About 15 or 20 years ago, when people flew into LAX, there was so much smog that you really could barely see where you were landing; there was a yellow haze all across the area. Right now, if you fly into LAX, the quality of air is much better than many comparable size cities. The local agency as well as the EPA has really cleaned up the industry.
All you have to do is drive a little farther south to the border, to Mexico, and you literally can see the difference. And worse than that, fly to China. You go to a big city and you feel like you're breathing out of a chimney because there is this heavy air all of the time.
Q: How does what you do relate to cap and trade?
Oskouian: Cap and trade entails the measurement of your carbon footprint. What the nation is doing in many places is they are rating the carbon that any facility may be producing. So if there is a huge refinery where they are still putting out a lot more emissions than are allowed, they would have to buy emission credits. They basically pay in order to be able to operate, to create more pollution than others. Because in many cases they've done everything they can to reduce emissions but just can't get them down to the allowable amount.
Our company reduces everything by 98 to 99 percent so a facility does not need to buy emission credits.
Q: How do you turn polluted air into clean air?
Oskouian: We have a very strong engineering background in house and we have been able to organically create a lot of different solutions. One particular system is a regenerative thermal oxidizer. We treat all the polluted air inside this unit, and through very little natural gas consumption, we combust all the pollutants in the system. In addition, because there's a combustion process, heat is available, and we return it back to the plant so they can use it for plant heating or other processes. We take your emissions and turn them into assets.
Q: Are you the only company doing this?
Oskouian: I wish I could say we had a monopoly, but there are a few other companies that do this in the country. Some are much larger companies. The one thing that makes us unique is that we are the only company that does design, engineering, manufacturing and installation all under one roof. We don't have off-the-shelf systems to sell. We design around exactly what customers need.
Q: Is your business just in California?
Oskouian: We are nationwide as well as worldwide. A year and a half ago we were invited by China's equivalent of the EPA to go share our expertise. One reason that happened is, I serve on several boards, including one for the South Coast AQMD [Air Quality Management District], the toughest and most respected air quality agency in the country, and we have received a lot of recognition as a result.
China is not an easy country to walk into and feel comfortable about sharing technology, but we teamed up with a company in Shanghai that is very similar to ours in mindset as well as operation and manufacturing, in addition to being a woman-owned business. That is nice, very heart-warming for me. I go days and months and hardly ever come across a woman, and for her in China, it's the same. She also happens to be a chemical engineer. There are a lot of similarities, and maybe it was meant to be.
Q: Why do you think so few girls choose engineering?
Oskouian: I just think it's the same way as when I wanted to get into this. People said, “Don't think about getting into something so male-dominated.” The “natural” thing is that women should not be in particular fields, and that, on its own, puts doubt in a girl's mind. If they're skeptical to begin with, they go in a different direction. I have been an advocate, as much as I can, to encourage girls to take up technical fields and study engineering. We truly are in desperate need of good engineers to begin with. For a while, engineering schools didn't have enough applicants. That is a shame.
The U.S. is built upon having all types of industries. If we want to bring manufacturing back to this country, we should have the man and woman power to support it. There are a lot of positions that will never be filled by non-immigrants. The immigrants who work in this country work in positions that are beyond belief. It will never be completely filled by – I can't even call them “pure Americans” because everyone is a mix here!
Q: What surprises people to learn about you?
Oskouian: It surprises them when I tell them I immigrated here by myself as a 14-year-old girl, before the [Iranian] revolution. I was in love with the U.S. My parents finally agreed to let me move in with my cousins in Denver, who were much older, after much negotiation in which I promised to stay true to what my passion was, to study.
After nine months with my cousins, I realized I would not go anywhere if I stayed in that household that didn't have education and studying as a priority. I truly was committed to what I wanted to do and what I wanted to become. So after nine months, I moved out on my own. I was the only kid in high school who was living by herself. The news traveled, and my classmates said, “This is the best person to be friends with; we can party every night.” I imposed my own curfew; I kicked everyone out at 9 or 10 o' clock. I knew I couldn't afford to get in trouble because I didn't have anyone to look after me.
Looking back now, would I be willing to do that with my own son? Probably not. But I try to raise him very independent because you never know. The only time I give myself a little pat on the back is looking back at those days. I did OK by what I had promised to my parents; I stayed true to what I told them I was going to do. The challenges have made me who I am.