Mom, Entrepreneur, Changemaker: CEO of Paxon Energy Breaks Through the Glass Ceiling
Paxon Energy CEO, Nooshin Behroyan, and TWA Editor, Mrigya Fogat, discuss diversity in the industry, environmental concerns, and advice for future generations in this interview.
Nooshin Behroyan is the founder of Paxon Energy & Infrastructure. She's a mom, an entrepreneur, and a true changemaker. Behroyan is a civil and environmental engineer who began working with Pacific Gas and Electric after graduating from the University of California (UC)-Davis.
Later, she went on to establish her own company called Paxon Energy & Infrastructure, an environmental, social, and governance-driven oil, gas, and utility startup. It is primarily driven by the vision that future generations should have an environmentally sound energy infrastructure.
Paxon was named the ninth-fastest growing company in the US in 2021 by Inc. Magazine. Besides commendable professional achievements, she has an incredible personal story. She is an Iranian immigrant and a mother of two who has overcome many societal barriers and has made a mark in an industry that has historically had limited female representation.
Mrigya: Today, it is truly an honour to be interviewing you. You are an inspiration, not just to me, but to so many other women and energy professionals out there. So, thank you for taking out the time. And I think we can get started with the questions now.
Nooshin: That sounds good. Thanks for that kind bio.
Mrigya: So, Nooshin is an accomplished energy professional. She’s an entrepreneur who has excelled and overcome so many odds, like I said in my introduction. Through all of these tribulations, what has been your underlying driving force and purpose?
Nooshin: That's a multifaceted question—the underlying force and purpose. I remember when I used to be an architecture student at UC Berkeley, and one of the things that we learned was that anytime you're designing a building, you're making a mark on the planet. We can see the buildings living through that with me. Later on, when I became an environmental engineer, it was all about how we can create an environment so that the mark that we are leaving on the planet is bettering the planet, whether it's through our work or whether it's within the companies that we're working for or collaborating with.
When I started Paxon, the whole notion was what are we creating in the oil and gas sector that is going to benefit the environment and the future generations. My whole idea with Paxon when it started was that I sat down with a California utility executive and questioned whether or not we knew how much methane was being emitted, and if we didn't know the exact output as a result of our operation and as a result of new construction, we needed to know that number because it was going to affect how the future generations are going to have access to the same kind of elements that we're using and operating under and more importantly, how is it affecting our environment. And that's how the idea of Paxon was born.
Mrigya: So basically, your underlying purpose was to create something just like a building that has a permanent impact, and it's a living structure. You wanted to create a company that had that message through and through passed to the community.
Nooshin: A positive impact and whether it was building structures that were going to have a positive impact beyond its living ages, or whether you're looking at energy infrastructure and that energy infrastructure having a better impact on the planet.
Mrigya: Nooshin, from what I read about you, you've had a very complex personal life. And on top of that you had a lot of familial pressure to abide by the orthodox definition of a woman's role in society. From there you went on to break into an industry that has had limited female representation. It is one thing to get things done professionally, but there is another one to have a personal barrier in executing a professional career when your own family is doubting you, when an industry has limited female representation. What was your mindset through all of this?
Nooshin: There is light at the end of the tunnel. There has to be light at the end of the tunnel. I mean when you're in the midst of a lot of things, and historically I have and continue to be in the midst of a lot of things; there is cultural expectation, there's societal expectation, and then on top of that there is your family expectation and the culture that you're living within. It doesn't matter that, the mere fact that I live in the US, I am from Iran, and I married into an Iranian family. The cultural expectation of women just bearing a child and being in the kitchen, it was just not fair.
I mean, in plain honesty, and I think as women, we're very hardworking, we're very talented, and there's certain things that although we're often pushing against glass ceilings—and I want to say glass cliffs actually—we're trying to climb a glass cliff that at any time, you're falling back and yet you have to continue to persevere. If nobody believes in you, you have to believe in yourself, and I think, for me, failure wasn't an option, and I just had to keep pushing forward.
As I said, I truly always believe that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, and as you're going through these things, it's really all the barriers, all the pushbacks—you are developing a certain skill set.
As for entrepreneurs, just looking at the world of business and the world of entrepreneurship, if we didn't believe in ourselves, and if we didn't believe in the idea that things were going to work out, , a lot of companies will not have been created because even most people and most VCs [venture capitalists] didn't believe in them, right?
It starts with some very basic understanding of who we are and what we stand for. Whenever your mission is much greater than the society, it's a much greater force. You're drawn to it. Maybe that's something that entrepreneurs share is that there is a higher purpose. When you're looking at conscious companies, that it's not just about reaching a bottom line—I'm not just here to do the work exactly like it's been done 50 years ago, 100 years ago.
There are companies that are doing it in the oil and gas sector and they have become very successful for it, but my head was in a different space, and I was on a different path. As long as you're aware that the challenges coming your way are plenty because people are not comfortable with change, people do not invite change, and there will be a lot of pushbacks. But so be it because it's believing in that higher purpose that you're going for. I would say it could be a good guiding path.
Mrigya: You were leading with a belief in your mind that you have a greater purpose than all of these challenges. But the people who are outside have a hard time sharing the same vision with you, right? Be it VCs, your colleagues, or your own family. In such an environment, how did you overcome so many barriers? What was your approach to getting things done even when others did not believe in you?
Nooshin: You better become a really good salesperson. I'm joking, but I think to answer your question, there are always people that do not believe in you, and you don't need all of them to believe in you. You just need one. You need one person to believe in you. You can get rejection 30, 40 times. You just need that one acceptance.
That is in the art of pursuing your purpose, right? Or the path or the idea that you have or the organization that you want to create, and eventually people will come around. One thing that’s clear is that as you're going through all of these changes, you're also in the ring every day. As much as you're getting all the noes, you're equally making progress. You may be taking a few steps back, but every step ahead mattered, and you celebrate every milestone. You celebrate every change that you're making. I think the wins are great enough of a driving force that would fuel the fire to help you keep moving forward.
But the mere fact of giving up—that's why some companies exist and some don't exist. Yes, there is a lot of trial and error. Yes, there is a lot of pushback, but so be it. Failure is a data point. People who are pushing back are basically guiding you to find other ways.
You don't need 100 yeses, you only need one. I think when I was building the company and I was going after the idea that initially was starting the company, I did get that one yes, and that's all that mattered. That is a starting point. That is not a finish line, nor is the journey. It is a given starting point.
You must be okay with smaller wins, and eventually you find your voice; eventually people start believing in you, and frankly, as a woman at every single table, you have to prove your credibility. Your credibility is not a given and you either get frustrated by it and you want to complain, or you just take on the challenge, and that’s why I call it ‘the glass cliff.’ You're going up, but you're basically climbing glass. Eventually you're on the actual mountain and you can just go up with no problem because you encounter so many challenges along the way, and it helps you build the skin.
Mrigya: In your previous answer, you did mention having a purpose that is greater than all of the challenges. You mentioned that you transitioned from a bachelor’s in architecture to a master's in civil and environmental engineering, and at such a young age, you had that clarity to know that architecture was not something you wanted to do but move into environmental and civil engineering. Why did you want to pursue that and how did you come to that realization?
Nooshin: I think clarity comes to all of us at various stages, and there are moments when you know certain things. But as long as you execute on it, it becomes clarity. When you don't execute on it, it feels like you're bouncing around.
I want to do this, or I want to become that, or this and that. I have always had great appreciation for development. Call it beautiful things above ground, hence architecture. Or things that are below ground, or that a lot of people don't typically think about, and that would be energy infrastructure, right?
I remember I was working on a project and I got into a disagreement with the structural engineer. I felt like the building was being over-designed, and over-scheduled. At the time, I was told that I was the architect, and it was up to the structural engineer to make that call.
I was like, you know what, I'm going to go become a structural engineer because I don't need to be an engineer to know when something is not being done correctly.
That's something that we do at Paxon. Safety is so important that anybody, any given person that walks to a job whether they carry a certain title or not, they have an ability to stop the project. Because if you identify something is not safe, everybody is empowered as such.
I actually applied and I got into UC Berkeley for structural engineering, civil and environmental engineering for structure specifically for my master's, but at the time the market had crashed and when I attended the first job fair, nobody wanted to hire a structural engineer and I remember I was like, ‘wow, well, I'm an architect and if I wanted to work in an infrastructure engineering office, I could find a practice that had both and I can eventually learn the two, right?’
I quickly pivoted and thought since I live in California, I’m always surrounded by a lot of environmental-related matters and it’s very important. California is one of the leading states, not just in the US, but in the world, on their environmental initiatives. For job security purposes, I actually sat down with the dean and said, ‘You know what, I think I want to become an environmental engineer,’ and that's how the change came about.
Mrigya: Okay, interesting. Straight out of your graduation, you joined Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E)?
Nooshin: I did research with California Department of Oil and Gas under my thesis through the research department for UC-Davis, studying oil and gas injection wells. I applied to a company, and I was a consultant for utilities, including PG&E. I was in office there for about 5 years, and it was at the time where PG&E was improving their pipeline safety enhancement program as a result of the rupture that had happened in San Francisco.
I got into the emergency response department, helping set up different work streams, and then I was part of this major expenditure for a pipeline safety enhancement program.I was actually one of the very few females that got added. I was hired as a project coordinator, and I remember when I started that job, I was fascinated by the industry. I was just so drawn into all aspects of it because for each project you have to work with 27 to 30 different departments, call it engineering, environmental, permitting materials, procurement, etc.
The fascination was ‘why?’ Why does it have to be this way? Why do we build this way? Why is the process that way? And surely enough, as I went through my career as a consultant, I was still very entrepreneurial. I started three to four different programs that didn't necessarily exist in the industry.
I'm a lifelong long learner in any field that I go into because it's not so much of an outcome for me. It's okay getting this project done, but it was more of a question of why is it getting done this way? And how else could we do it differently?
Obviously, as a project coordinator, you don't have a lot of voice, but I made sure that I became the most valuable person on any given project, that anybody along the value chain can call me and ask a question and I would have that answer vs. pawning off.
That created a level of trust, and that level of trust allowed me to raise the question. I remember within the first 6 months, I did the first combined hydrostatic testing and inline session at the same time. That was never done before, first of its own industry, bringing the technologies and searching which technology is applicable, and really honing down on understanding what are the ramifications.
I think stakeholder buy-ins are so important, and that buy-in does not come easy. There must be credibility, there has to be trust. The mere fact that very early on they understood that I was always going the extra mile, so when I was questioning, that did not result in them pushing back either.
Eventually, they would come around and say maybe there was merit to that question, and all you have to do is ask the question. The reality is I probably wasn't experienced to know the answer, and even for the experienced people I created the curiosity.
Mrigya: Awesome. You were creating this own space for yourself in the companies that you were working at and gaining all this credibility, leading some really important projects, and still had a purpose of making these processes better. Why was it in some ways easier to fulfil that purpose by starting your own company rather than driving change from within the company that you were working at?
Nooshin: Excellent question. I started my company because at the time, the company that I was working with, or the industry, didn't entirely agree. There were very few women and there was a pay gap. At the time, I probably had over 75 direct reports. I'd done over 400 interviews. I had a pretty good understanding of how hard it was to recruit women. I had a pretty good understanding of the stuff that had happened to me as a female in the industry.
Those things weren't happening to my male colleagues, they were happening to me. I wanted to create a company that would advocate for women engineers, female inspectors, and veterans. How do you create a company that would freely be able to ask those questions and not be like this is not what we do at this company?
What Paxon has afforded me is that tomorrow, if we want to go pursue a certain type of technology, because we believe based on our expertise or subject matter knowledge that this is the right way the industry needs to go, I don't need to wait for everybody's permission. Again, I only need one client to say yes to make it work.
This is something that we've done successfully. If you look at California, the wildfires that were happening and how it was affecting all of us, I lived here and I didn't have power for 4 or 5 days. Why? How can we make that difference?
You have other emergency responses such as earthquakes happening in other parts of the country. And not just in the US, we've gone overseas and asked the same why. Having a company like Paxon affords me this, and trust me when I say this, we have folks that have 25 years-plus experience in their field, and they believe things need to be done a certain way and this is the better way of doing it, and we nurture that talent. I nurture that talent because there is value in change, there is value in being different.
My message is, yes, we may all have been doing the same thing for a long time, but each one of you has the power to make a change, to make a difference. I want you to understand the project that you're doing today, although it seems similar to the project we did maybe 5 or 6 years ago, it will make a difference.
We have a say and impact in maintaining the current infrastructure of today that is going to secure how our energy is being provided for the next generation, that's why excellence is important.
Mrigya: Despite being driven by your passion, your purpose in starting a company is a mammoth task. It's a huge responsibility. There are so many things that are at stake when you start your own company. How did you decide that you were ready to take this step? Why did you think that this time and this opportunity were the exact right cross section for you to make this move?
Nooshin: You're right. I now very well understand the effort that it truly takes to build an organization, a culture, and a company that is at a national level and frankly, every month or every 6 months, things become a magnitude harder. As long as you're growing in your role and you're learning and you're open to that, I think that makes all the difference. But you asked me why I started it. To be perfectly honest, when I first started it, I probably didn't understand the magnitude of work that it takes.
I knew that I wanted to do things differently, and I had tried as part of other companies and that wasn't necessarily happening. You will be stuck by a company's bureaucracy, policies, and all those things. For me, when I first started the company, I had no idea it was becoming the company that it has become today, that we would have eight offices across the US, and staff in different states trying to do international work. None of that was something that I sat down and planned, and this is where I'm going. That's the beauty of the journey that you start; you start with a focus that's bigger than you.
You don't start a company because you really need to have one and your reputation is attached to it. You start a company that is ready to be born. I think that's the juncture I was at. The company was ready to be created. It is a lot of work. It's not for everybody. It takes a certain personality; you have to be a realist, an optimist, and pessimist— all at once, because all of these things happen pretty much at once, and you have to be okay with that, and some people are not.
You have to believe in the value that you're creating. I was perhaps running similar programs as some of my colleagues; they didn't see the purpose, they didn't see the value of what was being created.
But I think what I saw then was a way ahead for what was being created and the impact that it was having and how different that was going to be. I just couldn't wait to start my company. Two weeks after my divorce was finalized, my company was incorporated.
Mrigya: Awesome. That's so exciting. You require those kinds of people who know that things have been done like this for the past 20 or 25 years, but now there’s an opportunity through your company to do it in a way that is better. Your company has expanded to eight offices in the US. You are doing international projects. There are so many verticals now. How do you ensure that the culture is maintained? How do you ensure that everybody is aligned with your vision and your culture?
Nooshin: Trust. You trust the people. Trust is so important that if we're hiring you because you're saying you have this passion or you're saying you have this wide experience, we trust that. You're going to do what you're saying. More often than not, people do want to do a great job regardless of the challenges of pandemic, working remote—all of those things. It starts with the first block, trust, and we have a tremendous amount of trust in our management and leadership and every individual. The second thing is empowering individuals.
I gave you an earlier example that I was talking to our staff, saying that I know you've been doing it longer than I have been in the industry, right? It may seem like the same thing day in, day out. You empower individuals to have a say in the process, but more importantly, to understand what they're creating. What is it that they're doing? The project that maybe they're doing today vs. 5 years ago may be very similar or the same. The impact that they're making today, and if they understand the impact, the driving factor is different. We don't just want people coming to work and go home and do the same thing day in, day out.
A lot of us do that, and a lot of the roles are similar to that. But if you're understanding that you are making a difference for that organization, for that company, in a given state, or in a bigger picture, in a given country that is empowering individuals to really hone their skills, to do the best possible services as allowed, and also to better themselves.
I'm also a big fan of multidisciplinary cross training. We've had people that we've trained on gas and then we put them on electrical. And then you challenge that. I say, ‘Look, you're an expert in this field, what would you say if you were to learn this?’ This creates that sense of curiosity, training, empowerment. Before all of that, trust in themselves, trust in their management, trust in leadership, and trusting the company and the path and where we're headed.
Mrigya: Do you have any specific company cultures or ways to check this, or are there some special practices that you follow?
Nooshin: I think one thing we've all learned out of the COVID-19 pandemic is employee interaction. I want to say we run an organization that's more democratic than hierarchical. That is elevating every person's voice, creating transparency. The way you understand that, and you hear that, is you have to have a very strong culture in the things that you believe in, which is the trust, the safety integrity, and the excellence with which you provide your services to your client. Every single person is an ambassador of Paxon, and you would hear that from the client.
I think having the right people in the right seat is very important. Anytime somebody is in management it's a privilege and an honor of serving the people that report to you. If it is set up the other way, meaning that everybody that's a director is in service of me, then that hierarchy is set up wrong and it may not entirely work.
I often say, if you hired on with us and you take on a job with another company at a much higher role, a different role, then I know we've done our job right in training you. If you hire on with us, the goal is you retire with us. So, all these things go hand in hand with empowering people—that they have a voice, regardless of where they fall in the hierarchy.
Mrigya: Awesome. Paxon has had an incredible impact on methane mitigation, related to the environment, and has also been very instrumental in providing oil and gas infrastructure that is environmentally sound, right? But we are at the forefront of an energy transition. How does Paxon see itself growing in that direction or playing a role in the same?
Nooshin: I often say we're at such an exciting juncture. I want to say we're at the eras of dot-com because the energy industry is finally open and has come to an understanding that it's time for change. For the longest time we've been focused on production and things that have been done the way they've been done for possibly upwards of 50 years.
As much as there is pushback, there's also a sense of acceptance, there's a sense of urgency. We're not an environmental firm. I'm an environmental engineer, and our job as engineers is to come up with different technologies, tools, and systems within that toolbox that we can provide our clients and the changes that we make.
What we do is focus on existing infrastructure and how to optimize that existing infrastructure, not just from a production standpoint, but from a footprint standpoint, and those two are equally as important. Our research and development department went after technologies that recover methane emissions at mass scale for the oil and gas sector. So, when in the field, where there is flaring or venting when they release the natural gas into the atmosphere, we recover it at 100% and we put it back into the system.
The mere fact of eliminating a waste of energy is a win for the industry. That is a different way of doing things.
Mrigya: Through this entire personal and professional journey that you've had, what do you think have been the most critical skills that you have acquired, or realized are the most important skills that you already had or had to develop that others should focus on?
Nooshin: That's a tough question. I think remaining agile and fluid is incredibly important. Your organization changes, your environment changes, the projects change. So, if I could give one piece of advice, that would be to be open to change, welcome change, and be fluid enough.
That is a personality trait that I have, because I moved here when I was shy of 19 years old, and as an immigrant you have to evolve into a different culture. You have to change your old ways and fit in into this new community that you're in.
Mrigya: The Way Ahead is a publication specifically for the young professionals in the energy industry. Before we end this interview, any last words for the future generation of the energy industry?
Nooshin: What I love about the future generation, and I think millennials are prime examples of it, is that I'm a millennial and now I'm looking at Gen Zs. Historically you would have to stay in an industry and climb the hierarchy and the ladder of the typical structures that are accepted within the corporate world or society or culture. We no longer need that. We have the world of information at our fingertips, and that allows the future generation to be that much quicker to respond, that much quicker to change, and maybe that's a good thing or not a good thing. I think that's what I admire for our future generation—that if the curiosity is there, the information is at their fingertips.
However, that is both a blessing and a curse because there's so much information coming at you at at once that sometimes you're lost. How do they organize all this information that's out there and what do you create? Because certainly they don't have to work in an industry 20, 30 years to learn a lot of things, they don't have to be part of a research program of a school to be able to research.
Mrigya: That was really insightful. It has been such a pleasure just listening to your answers. It was so inspiring and at the same time so profound. Thank you so much for your time today.
Nooshin: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.