Nilgun is the president and founder of NY Engineering, the only woman-led structural engineering company based in San Francisco, serving in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Projects of NY Engineering include commercial structures, seismic upgrades, new constructions, residential multi-family units, and soft story. She has engineered projects totaling over seven million square feet.
In 2018, she received the Bala award for “The Remodel of the Year.”
To further explore NY Engineering and its achievements, you can check the website www.nyengineering.net.
Beyond her career as an entrepreneur and engineer, Nilgun has a very active social life! She spends her free time dancing and participating in dance competitions in Ballroom Dancing, specializing in the Argentine Tango. She also likes downhill skiing and marathon running. In fact, she recently competed in the San Francisco marathon in 2020!
How did you start NY Engineering? What motivated you?
I started N.Y. Engineering in the spring of 2004, but the story of it goes way back. When I immigrated to the U.S. in 1999, I was looking for jobs. In my first interview for a structural engineering entry-level job, the company owner asked me whether or not I knew the California Building Code. I honestly answered that I didn’t, but if given 6 months, I would learn it. I learned the code, studying hard every day in the local library while my son was reading children’s books. Not only did I learn the code and pass the professional licensing exams, but I was also made manager of the company within a year. I realized that I had to work hard to learn many new things about my profession to excel in the U.S.
Two things motivated me to become an entrepreneur. The first was fulfilling my promise to my father. Before leaving my country, my father asked me what my dream was. I said that I wanted to start my own structural engineering company in the United States. A year later, my father succumbed to cancer, but he had the pleasure to know I had started my company. He told me then that he always knew I would do it, and that if he had left me a desert I would have made that desert livable.
The second motivating reason for me was being financially independent. When I started my first job in San Francisco, I witnessed a lot of people getting laid off. In the U.S. it is very easy to lose your job, and it puts a certain pressure on you. I wanted to have my own business and eliminate this risk. And also, as a mother, I wanted to support my son for college. To ensure that financially, building my company seemed like a reasonable thing to do.
What does success mean to you?
Success is about competing with yourself and challenging yourself to become better in every way and finding out who you really are. It is achieving small victories along the way. When you set a more challenging goal every single time along the way, you achieve great things. Whether it involves competing in a dance contest, running a marathon, or starting a company, this technique helped me to stay motivated while raising the bar each time. Don’t make yourself upset by setting very high goals initially. Breakdown your goals to achievable ones!
In all things in life, success means being brave enough to try to achieve your goals whether or not you get all the way there, and that even if you fall, having the gumption to pick yourself up and struggle forward. As an example, part of my dream of company ownership included having my own space to work comfortably with my staff. I was recently able to purchase my own office building in San Francisco a couple of blocks from a beautiful beach in San Francisco.
Did you attend any type of entrepreneurial training?
I didn’t get any entrepreneurial training. At the very beginning, I was learning everything by myself, for example, I learned company management, accounting, bookkeeping. However, once the company started to grow, it became very complicated to do everything by myself. So, I hired people for all the administrative things such as bookkeeping and financial advisory. This enabled me to focus full time on sourcing contracts for the company.
I still keep learning about my own profession. I take webinars every week and continue studying and taking exams to get new professional certifications in my field. I will keep learning until I die!
There are multiple reasons why a company fails such as running out of cash or problems within the team. Which one did you have the most difficulty?
Finding the right team is very difficult. It is all about trust… I had an instance where one of my employees stole data from the company. It is a serious crime, but I did not sue her because she was so young. I wanted to give her a chance, so I just let her go. Forming a team that you can trust and count on is truly one of the biggest challenges.
I think there is another challenge that is ahead of us; the impact of Covid 19. A lot of companies will have difficulties surviving it. When I see a problem coming, I try to prepare myself ahead of time. I took it really seriously to prepare for the impacts of Covid 19. I made backup plans and went through all the possible government support plans. If you run your own business, always have a contingency plan for two-three months to support yourself and your team!
Did you have any particular difficulty because you are a woman entrepreneur?
I think right now, it is mostly uneducated people who still discriminate and undermine you because of your gender. I sometimes have difficulties with the construction workers when I go to inspect the buildings. They sometimes don’t take me seriously, but then I don’t give up. I change their minds with my work.
How did you build credibility? How do you fight against “legitimacy doubt”?
The best way to build credibility is by being knowledgable in your area. For example, I can not talk about engineering with a construction worker, they don’t listen. You have to speak the language of the people with whom you want to build credibility. They begin to understand that I am knowledgeable, and this fosters respect. I show them it is possible to reduce their labor with a smart move and make things move more efficiently. At this point, they stop focussing on my gender any more and start to see results.
I don’t think women and men are different. I try not to bring up my “woman identity” in every struggle I have. I am an engineer in my work above everything. It is all about being knowledgable in your field, and credibility comes with it!
Is there anything you would do differently, knowing what you know now?
When I started NY engineering, I was still a manager at another private company, and it was my side job. Knowing what I know now, I would have stopped working for a private company, which was my first engineering job in the US.
Out of a sense of loyalty and need for financial security while a single mother, I believe I remained there too long. When I met my second husband, Alexander Pierre Wolpe (a professor of French and Spanish), he encouraged me to take the plunge by totally going out on my own and putting all my energy into my own company. After I started working on my company full-time, the company started growing extremely fast. Since then, my company has grown twenty-fold.
What are the habits that helped your success?
Having hobbies and being disciplined helped me to be successful. I am very energetic, and I try to channel this energy with my dancing classes.
I also love running and skiing! For example, I ran my first half marathon in 2020. My goal was just finishing my first race. In these races, there is what’s called a “sweeper bus,” which picks up the runners who are taking too long to finish the race, removing them from the competition. I was looking for that bus all the time when I was running and telling myself, “finish before the bus takes you!”. I could have competed with the people who were racing at the same time as I did, but it would not have been fair to me. Instead, I set my own goal to finish the race and beat the bus, and I am proud of myself for that! After all that, I ended up placing in the fastest group in my age category.
Setting personal goals that are not related to your work helps your success. Life is not only about work, and success is not only about achieving great things at work. Success is sometimes “not being picked up by a bus”!
Whatever type of success you are aiming for in any case, you need to be disciplined and work for your goals! For example, I dance Argentine Tango professionally, and I go to training after work from 9pm to 11pm. Also, during the weekends, I go to the dance studio from 8am to 10am when my family is sleeping. If you love doing something, you need to work for it!
Is there a woman who inspires you?
I met Leyla Janah 5 years ago, and I am truly inspired by her. She founded two companies to end global poverty by giving work to people in need. She was helping a lot of people, and she had this big ambition to work for an important cause. She liked helping people, and she was also a dancer and surfer. She was a person with very different interests and ambitions. We recently lost Leyla to cancer. We need those kind of brave and socially conscious people in this world and she will be missed.
Can you recommend a resource, it can be a book/podcast/movie, to the women entrepreneurs who are going to read this interview?
They should read “Becoming” by Michelle Obama and “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro “Mona Lisa Smile” and “The Intern”.
Imagine at this moment, you can send a message to all the women entrepreneurs who are trying to build their companies, what would you tell them?
Don’t give up and keep trying. Not trying is the biggest reason that most of the people are not successful. Set goals and then break down those goals and achieve them one by one. Don’t compete with anyone else, and just keep pushing your limits in every aspect of life.
Don’t focus only on your professional life. Try to find who you are by trying the things that you are naturally attracted to. The point is being happy, and when you are happy, you make the people around you happy too. Not taking a risk is taking too big of a risk.