SDE CEO Annie Aguilar’s unique formula for success.
If it’s possible to define a person’s life in two themes, San Dieguito Engineering (SDE) President/CEO Annie Aguilar’s life could be expressed by how two remarkable themes converge. She integrates an unyielding, boundless curiosity with a preternatural, tireless ability to overcome whatever obstacle is put before her.
“I never thought I’d end up being CEO/co-owner of such a successful engineering firm, but like everything else that’s happened in my life, it was a series of small events that added up to my being here. Now we’re known by the architecture/engineering community—including the large global firms—as a strong engineering firm in our specialty areas. It’s been a fantastic experience and despite the pandemic, we’re positioning ourselves to grow even more.”
Founded in 1974 and specializing in civil engineering, surveying, and mapping, land-use planning, and subsurface utility engineering, SDE is an award-winning, certified DBE, WMBE, WOSB, SBE/Micro, and SLBE firm (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, Women- and Minority-Owned Business Enterprise, Woman-Owned Small Business, Small Business Enterprise/Microbusiness, and Small Local Business Enterprise). Blessed with an esteemed reputation, SDE has been an integral part of San Diego’s spectacular growth. Aguilar joined the firm in 2000. But like many of her life decisions, this one had a practical impetus behind it.
“Our youngest daughter was 9 years old and I was commuting to Mission Valley, a two-to-three hour commute. I’m a workaholic and I love what I do. But I would come home so late that I hardly saw either of my daughters. And my youngest daughter really needed me at that time. Then I saw an ad in the paper for SDE and their office was only 10 minutes away from my house! It wasn’t a bold career move, but it would get me closer to home. And now I’m the CEO.”
Though an unusual arc for many, success in that way recurs throughout Aguilar’s career. She takes a situation as it presents itself and then works determinedly to succeed. Take how she became a civil engineer, for example.
“When I was in high school, I loved physics, I loved problem solving, I knew I wanted to become an engineer and go to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. But my dad rejected that, ‘Too far away.’ I was raised in a Filipino household—very strict. And my dad was former military, submarines in the Navy. When I told them I wanted to go away for school, they said, ‘No.’ They rejected my other college choices for different reasons until I suggested UC San Diego. My dad said, ‘That’s a great choice!’ So that’s where I went, but they didn’t have civil engineering, only structural. So, I learned to be a structural engineer.”
Aguilar excelled. Gaining an internship with construction company Hensel Phelps, she was fielding job offers before graduation. She took one at structural engineering firm John A. Martin & Associates in Los Angeles. But something nagged at her. And she knew why.
“My college minors were urban planning and philosophy. And I chose philosophy for a very specific reason. One day when my whole family was dropping off a cousin in Chicago, a robber approached my mom for her money and her purse. My dad intervened, but the robber pulled out a gun and shot him. He was paralyzed. After that, he went back to school for his MBA, but he always read philosophy. And I loved the quotes and the wise perspectives he would offer on what he was reading. So, I chose philosophy and it’s really helped me throughout my career in knowing what’s important.”
That’s not rhetoric. While working as a structural engineer, Aguilar realized she was not fulfilled. She loved engineering, but something was missing. So, she quit and did the unexpected.
“I was watching TV when I saw a commercial for John Garamendi; he was running for California Insurance Commissioner. One of his accolades was being a Peace Corps volunteer. I had wanted to join the Peace Corps after college, but I had too many job offers. After working for three years, I realized it was now or never.”
Aguilar became a Peace Corps water/sanitation engineer working for Save the Children in rural Honduras. It was a life-changing experience. Wanting to learn Spanish and experience life in a developing country, she flourished. “Engineers have a gift, and you see how they get to use it in places like that where there’s no running water or reliable electricity or other basic infrastructure. You can make a very real difference in people’s lives. This was by far the most fulfilling experience I ever had.”
Aguilar credits her overall success to her ability to stay focused and be practical, while digging deep within for honest self-reflection. “Any success I have is attributable to what I learned growing up, which is to always be learning and communicate well.” She also cites her devout religious beliefs and her love of singing for helping her through tough times, particularly the pandemic. Honing her curiosity and determination, and combining lessons learned from her many life experiences, Aguilar has developed her own unique formula for personal and professional success.