Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities, a chat with Anoosheh Oskouian
In this episode of “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities,” Tyrus Miller, dean of the School of Humanities at UCI, interviews Anoosheh Oskouian, president and CEO of Ship and Shore Environmental, Inc. about her career and why she believes it’s important to preserve Persian culture.
Tyrus Miller (0:07–0:14): Welcome to “Over Coffee: Leaders Talking Humanities.” I’ve got my coffee, I know you have your tea, Anoosheh.
Anoosheh Oskouian (0:14–0:15): I do.
Miller (0:16–0:40): I’m Tyrus Miller, Dean of the UCI School of Humanities and I’m so pleased to be joined by Anoosheh Oskouian for our inaugural conversation. Anoosheh is President and Chief Executive Officer of Ship & Shore Environmental, Inc., a Southern California based company, that makes pollution reducing equipment for industrial companies. Thanks for joining me Anoosheh.
Oskouian (0:41–0:57): Thank you Tyrus, it is a great pleasure to be able to have this conversation over tea and coffee with you and the opportunity of being able to share perhaps a few of my point of views regarding all that there is for you to ask.
Miller (0:57–1:23): Wonderful to have a conversation albeit virtual, but wonderful to have you here today. I wanna start at the beginning because your story is both unique and in certain ways, universal at the same time. You came to the United States from Iran at age 14. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about that journey about that trajectory that you had.
Oskouian (1:23–2:54): As a young girl, I was always fascinated, which was very common in Iran, to travel abroad for education. And I really did not want to waste any time and started pressuring my father or persuading my father to send me out. Despite the fact that I had started school a couple of years younger than most of the kids in my class, due to the fact that I also persuaded him to change my birth certificate years ago and start school young. When I came here at the age of 14, I went to high school directly. And even though my father was very adamant about trying to go to a boarding school in Europe, England, Switzerland were always among some of the schools that were recommended or a lot of cousins and relatives have gone to.
The dream of coming to America, was just something that I would not forgo and I did come to U.S. at the age of 14 and mind you, at that time by myself, and my parents were supposed to eventually come for a visit, which then the situation turned and we had the revolution about a year or so after that. So, I stayed here and they stayed in Iran.
Miller (2:54–3:27): Well, it sounds like you had both a strong will and a clear vision already as a young person. You’ve been very, very successful. I think that success can sometimes obscure some of the difficulties and the risk along the way and coming at 14 clearly is a risk. Can you tell us about a time that either you faced a kind of obstacle or difficulty or you had to kind of take a leap of faith to be able to continue on your paths?
Oskouian (3:28–5:01): There have been number of them, naturally as a young girl coming abroad to study and then staying separated from your family and not being able to visit with them for a while, you constantly encounter risks, encounter situations and circumstances that are very hard to control, and you have to have that leap of faith in order to be able to move forward.
And I think one of the most important ones perhaps was when I decided and realized that I did no longer want to work for a company. I was doing all my engineering at Fluor Daniel and wanted to become an entrepreneur and experiment with going to work for a company and eventually joined the company.
And that led me to one day having the opportunity of purchasing the stocks or purchasing the company, the assets of the company and literally emptying out all of my 401K and all the savings that I had. And going for it was a deep dive to see whether we were going to be able to make this or not. And it’s interesting that you and I are having a conversation in October 2020, which marks 20 years of Ship & Shore Environmental being around.
Miller (5:01–5:31): You took that on and made a new start and you have really led in spaces that have typically been and still continue to be dominated by men. What’s your advice for students who similarly want to lead in disciplines or industries or areas where their identity, their person, is underrepresented in those fields.
Oskouian (5:32–7:31): I’m so happy to see that women are no longer boxed into a particular profession or major of studies any longer. I just, as a matter of fact, had a conversation with a young lady from high school that was trying to make a decision as to whether this would be a good field of study to continue. I have always been a big advocate of trusting your intuition, trusting what your gut tells you, especially as women, we’re somewhat more blessed perhaps, to have that a little bit stronger than men. And if you do have a good head on your shoulder, and are able to think just as good as a man does in any field of studies or a profession, trust the intuition as well. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, and don’t ever take no for an answer, and don’t ever let someone change your mind just because you’re a woman, just because you’re a girl, you cannot do it. That was one of the comments that I heard over and over growing up, especially going to the field of studies that I did.
And eventually even being in the field that I am, I can probably confidently say, I’m probably one of the only women CEOs that I know. And most often they mistaken me when I go to meetings, without them knowing who I am along with my engineers, they always think I must be one of the staff members or one of the people that is there to guide the rest till they see my business card and become aware.
Miller (7:34–7:35): Big mistake for them.
Oskouian (7:37–7:50): Yes, but I always tell, I always and always, as I do a lot of talks, with youngers who are trying to make decisions I always tell them, “Trust yourself, trust your head, and trust your heart and move forward.”
Miller (7:50–7:53): That self-confidence is really so important.
Oskouian (7:53–7:54): That’s right.
Miller (7:55–8:23): The current situation, the COVID-19 pandemic has really changed so much about our everyday life, our world. Perhaps in permanent ways, perhaps in ways that certain things will never be quite the same as before the pandemic. How has the COVID-19 affected your business and how are you adapting to meet the challenges of this difficult moment?
Oskouian (8:25–11:08): Naturally, getting over the initial shock and hearing the news and the fact that it was going to be affecting so many of us in our everyday lives. I never forget mid-March where everything came to a total halt and stop. After the initial thoughts as to how are we going to move forward? Because we do provide services to a lot of essential businesses. And naturally, as a result, we became an essential business because of the fact that a lot of the industrial facilities and manufacturers that were putting out a lot of the packaging for various types of industries — food, pharmaceutical, chemical — all had some orders that needed to be fulfilled, and for our services to support them. We tried to work with our engineering team remotely for a while, and then started working on making the place comfortable because we could never do our manufacturing remotely. We had to be here, so we took all necessary measures. And eventually this also led us to design and come up with a system that we strongly believe is going to combat the not only this virus, but a lot of the pollutants and pollutants as such by designing systems around utilization of ozone which has been used for years and years in our industry. To clean the air, the incoming air to any enclosed space, as well as being able to perhaps use it for cleaning surfaces without use of chemicals. And naturally, our goal has always been to reduce the overuse of chemicals and try to find an alternate mode of operation.
I’m very happy to say that everybody is working in the office now. We have all our team back; we have even hired a few new ones because there is an increase now. And all the services we need to provide as well as a lot of the companies that had that type of manufacturing are now expanding tremendously to respond to the need out there. So, there’s the silver lining in having COVID and having to work with it, but I do really hope that we will come back to some sort of normalcy in our everyday lives and operation.
Miller (11:08–11:48): We’re all hoping for that. I’d like to take a step back and discuss the STEM focus of your career — science, technology, engineering, mathematics. You always wanted to be a chemical engineer and you’ve led engineering and technology focused companies. And you’re a leader yourself in innovation and entrepreneurship. You’re also invested in the humanities and especially the study and appreciation of Persian history and culture. I’d like to ask you how you see those parts of yourself connecting the STEM part, the STEM element, and the humanities connecting in your professional and personal life.
Oskouian (11:49–13:32): Well, I believe my professional life has always been around the STEM, the science, the technology, and naturally, still do a lot of math at times that I have to really put my head into a project. And it’s a been a side of me that was always intrigued by the science of it. However, I have to say that I do find the arts, the music, philosophy, literature, which I call them the finer things in life at times. And that to bring about a sense of completion to one’s character. I really don’t think I could be whereI am without having been in touch with the side of me that needs to be fulfilled by exploring into the arts and the culture.
And I highly recommend for people that are very heavily involved in the scientific field to do the same. And I have always been drawn to it because my normal everyday life keeps me very focused on the scientific side. And I guess my after hours and some of the voluntary activities as I have or some of the board activities that I have, are mostly around the humanities as we refer to in our conversation.
Miller (13:33–14:21): It’s a very important thing I think in terms of making whole the pursuit that we have of truth and meaning, and that has many different dimensions. And I think you’re pointing to the way in which, we don’t simply have one form of bread that we wanna eat every meal, every day, and that’s really important.
I also wanted to ask you about your commitments to UCI, you’re not an alumna of UCI, but you’re very involved with the university, with the Chief Executive Roundtable and also with the Jordan Center for Persian Studies. What’s driving your involvement with UCI and what fuels your connection?
Oskouian (14:22–16:48): Ever since I lived in Orange County and moved to California which was years ago, I knew of UCI but I had never been as involved as I am nowadays. I have been involved with the UCI Executive Roundtable. As a result, I had the opportunity of getting to know a lot of the deans from various schools and really realizing what a jewel we have in our own backyard. I had never known the extent that the university was involved with and actually being more involved and listening to Mr. Gilman, I’ve learned so much more about all the various fields that the school is involved with.
I had a chance to work with Ken Janda, who was the previous Physical Sciences Dean, and now hopefully with Mr. Bullock a little bit more and being involved within that group and the School of Engineering. I did do a series of mentorship with a lot of young women that were beginning to decide as to which fields to go into when Dean Washington was still at UCI and naturally as a result of, I do remember the day that the gift for the Jordan Center was presented, which was about I think 11 years ago. And I was one of the first groups that had heard about it when Mr. Maseeh was thinking of doing this.
Recent involvement more so made me realize what a wonderful school it is and all that it offers and I as a resident, as well as a professional, that have been engaged with them have definitely benefited from interviewing students to hire, having interns that have worked here with us a few summers, mentoring some of the young ladies and naturally, the jewel in the crown perhaps the Humanities and the Jordan Center, which I have attended a number of lectures as well as getting to know you.
Miller (16:48–17:22): I’m sure everyone that has engaged with you have really appreciated your participation, in things. I’d like to focus a little bit on the Jordan Center for Persian Studies, which you mentioned. Do you know we have one of the largest, most active centers in the country? And I’d like to ask what your experience has been with the Jordan Center? And maybe a little bit also fundamentally, why do you think it’s important to have a center dedicated to Iranian culture right here in Orange County and on the UCI campus?
Oskouian (17:23–20:26): I’m truly grateful to have been involved with the center, with some of the various people that I’ve met over at the center throughout the years and actually knowing Touraj Daryaee has been a great honor. And every time I see him, I learn more and more from him. But on a personal note I believe all of the people that left Iran with the hope of coming here for education and never went back like myself, really as Iranian Americans, love to preserve the arts and the culture, the music and the language as much as possible. And I am so thrilled to see that the center has embraced bringing on more lecture series from old ancient studies to language series to cinema to even food that we’ve had a lecture on. I truly wish sometimes I had nothing to do and just attend every single one of them and it’s unfortunate that I cannot.
So going back to the original idea that it is up to us to preserve all that there was because who knows, none of us perhaps are at a position to go back and our children are here and we would like to have a legacy of what this old ancient heritage and culture was all about. And I truly I’m grateful to see the Jordan Center as well as the School of Humanities embrace it, offer degrees towards the Persian studies and constantly inviting and having lecturers from all over the world to come in.
Naturally, right now it’s very difficult because of the COVID, but I truly do hope that it is picked back up again, and if nothing else, just virtually for a while. I personally think it is a duty for every single one of the Iranian Americans that are in this area, in Southern California, to really take a look at this Center in a very serious manner and try to be more engaged, try to support it, as I have as well. Not only personally, but through other organizations like Farhang Foundation, which I’m very involved with, have done so in the past, it is our duty to preserve it all. And that’s why I wanted to make sure I stay on the course and do as much as I possibly can.
Miller (20:26–21:14): Thank you, and we would very much welcome that support and participation and attendance at our vast range of scholarly and student related and public events, that the Jordan Center does in promoting Persian Culture. I would like to conclude ’cause we’re getting towards the end of our time with a few more spontaneous personal questions and you can choose to answer or not, nothing too indiscreet.
But I’d like to know if you have for instance, favorite artist or work of art or genre of art that is particularly your signature.
Oskouian (21:14–22:40): I have to say that I have recently in the last few years, more so than ever before, started paying more attention to a lot of the Iranian artists and have made a decision of investing in more Iranian artists’ work and body of work than not. And I know a number of them are perhaps still in Iran and having their work sent out, a number of them are here. So, there are quite a few of them, I can send you a list of a few that I have acquired recently. A wonderful sculpture I got from Kamran Sharif, which was I believe among one of the pieces that was submitted for the Cyrus Cylinder competition that we had at Farhang Foundation. I’m happy to say that I’m the proud owner of that.
And it just helps me stay connected with all that there was, with the artists that we’ve had recently be recognized as prominent artists to really be looked at and not overlooked.
Miller (22:41–23:09): I think it’s great that you’re supporting those artists. In my own connection with you I know that you are a big traveler, you have to travel for business and probably for pleasure as well. Obviously, all of us are restricted in our travel right now, but if you were able to go exactly where you wanted at this time, where would you be headed for travel?
Oskouian (23:11–23:46): Naturally, I do travel abroad, as well as in the U.S., for business quite often. And I believe last year when I was able to travel, I must’ve spent about 200 nights away. I really miss being in Europe, I loved being in Italy last year about this time and the year prior to that, Spain is another favorite spot. I love being in Barcelona, one of my most favorite cities right now.
Miller (23:47–23:55): Those sound like wonderful places to go. One last question, what are you reading now?
Oskouian (23:55–25:27): It’s amazing. I do have a few books that I have on my nightstand and I often refer back to them that is always there and I pick it up as a Holy book I won’t mention which one, but one of them is Power vs. Force and the other one is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I think those are some good books to live by and more than just reading it once, constantly try to practice. And so those are the two that comes to me.
And one last thing I also would like to mention if I may, and this is truly something I believe and I think it’s a duty, for whoever that may see these series to get involved and try to contribute any which way they can. And no help is too small and no involvement is too little and try to make sure that we keep this all alive and share it with friends and our next generation, as I have and hope that we will all come together and celebrate our diversity and our culture and heritage with the community at large.
Miller (25:27–25:51): And I’m gonna second your message of involvement and support, it’s really a very heartening thing for you to say. I’d like to thank you again Anoosheh for taking the time to share your story with our viewers. And I’d like to thank our viewers for tuning in. I hope that you will join us coffee cup in hand or teacup is fine as well
Oskouian (25:5–25:52): That’s right.
Miller (25:52–25:57): For our next episode of “Over Coffee.” Thank you, Anoosheh.
Oskouian (25:27–26:01): Thank you and thank you so much for the opportunity to have my voice be heard.
Miller (26:01–26:02): Thanks.
Oskouian (26:02–26:03): Thank you.