Lessons learned from a career of defying expectations.
Engineer, business development wizard, operations manager, board member— Afsaneh “Sunnie” House has done it all—and done it well. So, few were surprised when she declared that she would next open a consultancy, Sunnie House Strategies in San Diego, California. But one strategic objective for her own business did raise a few eyebrows.
“I’m not looking to bring on employees and grow my firm,” House explains. “I’m in the later stages of my career and I want to advise clients. I have great skills, and I’ve gained a lot of experience in managing, growing, and developing business, in leading, coaching, and mentoring a lot of people. I help clients in a variety of ways, including business operations and financial management, strategic planning, coaching, advising their board/CEO/ partners, business development, and accountability. So, this is another way I can give back to my industry.”
For most, not growing their own business is counterintuitive. But House’s career is riddled with contradictions where she defies stereotypes and comes out on top. She’s an Iranian American woman who succeeded as an engineer. The only woman in a 50+ person meeting at one of the largest architecture/engineering firms in the world, she stood up and told that room full of men to trust her to bring in business—she landed over $50 million in new contracts for the local market sector. As a junior engineer at a state department of transportation, she endured a senior engineer’s harangue about how, “a woman’s place is in the home, barefoot and pregnant.” Little did he know that she was pregnant when she overheard him. And she succeeded in that highly selective program. But that incident—and many incidents like it—only motivated her more. For her, the key is simple—fearlessly press on.
“I’ve never been afraid of seizing opportunities. And I’ve always had a seat at the table, because I always pulled out the chair and just sat down. That’s because of my upbringing. My mom and dad were not traditional. My father always told me that women can do anything. He was out to prove that, because he had four daughters. My mom also insisted we get an education so that we could stand on our own feet and not have to depend on men. And that’s what we did.” House sees another element as integral to her success—networking. True to form, though, she approaches it differently than most.
“I worked really hard to create and maintain my professional relationships by engaging in organizations like the Women’s Transportation Seminar (she was international president), the California Transportation Foundation (former board chair), and many more. I’ve been active for 30 years serving on nonprofit boards and organizations. And that has helped me build a reputation as a trusted and recognized industry leader. That’s the foundation of my business.”
Of course, once COVID-19 hit, her business must have been affected, yes? Well, it was affected, but not how you might think.
“Right before the pandemic, I signed a very nice contract. And I’ve picked up more clients since,” she shares. “In fact, I’m busier now than before the pandemic. That’s because I still network. I call. I Zoom. I stay active online. Throughout my career, whenever people or events set up hurdles, I go over them and just keep moving forward. Yes, I’ve had hard times, but I’ve also been very fortunate. But staying positive and working hard brings about that luck.”
Evidently, her clients agree. According to Annie Aguilar, president/CEO at San Dieguito Engineering, “As a female CEO and former business executive with consulting engineering firms, Sunnie understands the challenges I face. She’s successfully navigated the decisions to plan and organize our firm to grow, to make informed decisions moving forward. She’s a great sounding board for major decisions and provides invaluable input to our board of directors.”
Sunnie House has done it all. Now, through Sunnie House Strategies, she wants to help others learn how to do it all as well as she did.