Azita Yazdani, Founder and CEO of Exergy Systems, Inc.
In this edition of the WLI Entrepreneurial Blog, we had the pleasure of talking to Azita Yazdani, Founder and CEO of Exergy, a company deploying advanced technologies for circular manufacturing. Her passion regarding clean tech and environmental technology is truly inspiring!
Q: Tell us about your background and why you joined the industry.
I was born and raised in Iran. My parents were both in the medical field – my dad was a surgeon and my mom a nurse. Funny enough, I realized at a very young age that medicine was not for me and I was not destined to follow in their footsteps. Math was my savior, and I was fascinated by how things are made and manufactured, so I set my sights on becoming a chemical engineer.
I moved to the United States to go to college right around the time of the Iranian revolution. After college, most of the job opportunities were in the environmental sector so I began my career working for the government. As a foreigner, this experience really helped me understand U.S. government regulations and laws in the industry and I found that the environment was my passion.
Azita & mom at her graduation | UC Berkeley College of Chemistry
After that, I began work in public research on a study focusing on a class of solvents called chlorinated solvents. This particular class of solvents were used throughout many industrial sectors, including semiconductor. We looked at how phase out of these substances can help industrials sustain manufacturing while achieving the same operational results. This was a great experience for me to see a global perspective on how chemicals have impacted advances in science and technology, while deeply impacting global health and environment. In the past 50 -100 years, chemicals have contributed to human wellbeing and the betterment of our lives but at the same time, there have been negative impacts on the environment. I realize in order to stop, especially where manufacturers use large volumes of chemicals and resources such as water, we need to modify manufacturing practices so we can have zero and low-impact facilities globally. Pollution management and compliance do not eliminate any of our problems, they simply manage it by standards set that may change tomorrow.
I then started in a space that was called “pollution prevention”. Today, this is referred to as “sustainability”. Environmental compliance is one thing but really going beyond that is what I found to be my passion and taking that one step further into technology.
While in public research, I began teaching a certification course focused on environmental technologies at UCLA. I truly came to believe that technologies are our way out of the world’s environmental problems. I started an engineering consulting practice to help manufacturing customers minimize and eliminate waste and pollution generation, helping modify plants, processes and operations by integrating solutions, process changes, technologies, and substitute materials that can eliminate pollution from the outset.
Q: Tell us about your vision for Exergy Systems and what led you to start a company.
After many years in consulting, I realized that instead of just talking about how companies can change, I can help build the solutions to the problem. I wanted to bring the solutions to my industrial customers where I felt we can really make an impact. Not just talk or recommend, but by offering technology products that can truly make a change. My desire was to be the change-maker! That is what led me to start Exergy. In the beginning, our focus was not specifically just on high tech. It was primarily “wet-process manufacturing” because we felt that water was a resource and a big contributor to pollution problems we have. Many of the manufacturing sites are continuously grappling with managing this problem.
Some of the Exergy team in San Jose
Although Exergy’s focus is on water, we will be offering future technology products that can recover process materials such as acids. The ultimate goal is to make the idea of “circular manufacturing” a reality. Today’s manufacturing industries use large volumes of raw materials, such as water and minerals to make products that run the world today. From semiconductor chips in our computers, to solar panels, batteries for electric vehicles, and even the jeans we wear, water is a ubiquitous resource that is continually taken-used-disposed. Exergy is here to help our customers shift their manufacturing practices from linear to circular, accelerating their production footprint to that of a green production, minimizing the global impact and shifting the economic opportunity worth millions of dollars to their bottom lines.
We have found that these decisions on water and waste management must come from top management. We need to re-engineer our factories and production lines to maximize the use of resources and minimize waste and pollution. As climate change becomes more prevalent in many parts of the world, we will be required to look at our production impacts and global resource footprint. If we care about keeping production running smoothly, and want to continue having and growing amazing and improved products, we have to also think about what it takes to make them and if we can save the resources operating high volumes of production. Recycling and recovery in process is the cheapest and smartest approach for manufacturers to reduce dependencies in natural resources, while reducing costs and expanding production.
Q: What excites you about being an entrepreneur?
I think one of the most exciting things is that I am constantly learning. I have to be open to ideas and be adaptive. It’s important to be open to changing directions and be able to respond to whatever comes your way. An entrepreneur never has a boring life! Sometimes, I actually miss that. With all the things that come at you, it makes you agile. My work is my path, my passion. This is why I am an entrepreneur and it is critical for anyone choosing this path.
Q: What were/are the challenges of being a female entrepreneur?
I actually never realized until a few years ago that being a woman in business would be so complicated. As a woman entrepreneur offering a hardware technology product, the world of manufacturing can be challenging. There are not many women who actually make hardware machinery. I began my journey without considering this and then once you get into it, you realize that the doors do not always open. Because of this, I believe women are led to think, “is there something wrong with me?” and “have I done something wrong?” It’s not their fault, it’s the system.
Furthermore, Hardware/deep tech funding has been challenging for funding in the United States. Part of it is that most of the manufacturing base has moved outside of the U.S. I believe for the U.S. to be competitive, we need to be sustainable; we have to engrain this thinking in our manufacturing. For fabs to come back to the U.S., we need to ensure that they are sustainable.
It is a tough journey as a woman to sell this change. This is a male-dominated industry and they do not necessarily feel comfortable with the changes or do not want to change. However, my advice is to not let it get to you or stop you. If you are passionate about something, just keep at it.
It’s time for change. The U.S. should build the first “Factory/Fab of the Future” that has zero impact on the planet. Today, our fabs are large consumers of water and other materials/chemicals.
USAID team at a Temple in India. They worked on Industrial Pollution Prevention-P3 project, advising the Government of India on pollution prevention strategies
At Exergy, we are planning to deploy educational seminars and training programs for management and engineers on how factories can think differently about this in the future.
Q: What advice do you have for young women who would like to become entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurial journeys do not have immediate payback and may take a long time. We hear of entrepreneurs getting in and out quickly and making a lot of money in a short time. I believe that in most cases that is not a true image of what may be going on. We need to prepare people for entrepreneurship as a journey – not a quick win or lose. Additionally, as a woman it is challenging enough to build a company and run a family. Factoring in home and children makes our role even more difficult as an entrepreneur. This is especially true at the beginning, before the company is fully funded and mature with a management team to support you.
Q: What do you think we can do to make the semiconductor industry more attractive and retain women?
The encouraging thing is that many companies have already implemented many progressive programs for women, addressing the challenges women face – like balancing work/family life, flexible and adaptable schedules, and helping women stay on their career path. I believe this work needs to be continued and expanded to help more women build a path to the C-suite of these companies.
I believe women can really bring a lot to the industry. Their perspective is very valuable and their way of thinking is different than the tradition, and the industry will need this in the coming decades. I believe women can balance and fill the missing gaps, which is what the industry needs today. Women are very adaptable and resourceful, which is a valuable asset to any company.
It is also very important that companies implement programs to attract more women to STEM and to the industry; programs like sustainability are important to women.
Q: How do you encourage men to become allies in gender equality?
First of all, a lot of men are already allies. I cannot imagine doing what I’ve done without men…most of the people around me are men. Fundamentally, we need the support of men to get us where we are. I think most men have gone beyond gender and are happy to work with women.
I should mention that Exergy started out in Southern California, focused on the aerospace industry. We transitioned to tech and Silicon Valley because I believed the tech industry is progressive in their thinking – to embrace women suppliers, as well as their willingness to adapt to new approaches and solutions.
Azita and her family
Q: How do you imagine the world will change in the next 10-30 years? Where do you think you’ll be then?
I think the world will change A LOT! This is because of the challenges that humanity is living today – from a pandemic, to floods and fires. Everybody is living these extremes in some way. The impact of humans on the environment is something that we will have to address sooner than later, as it is impacting all of these fronts.
The world is saying we have 10 years to fix things, but even if we have 20 years to address these issues, we need to begin. The changes are inevitably coming, and the young people especially want us to see that our generation addresses this. It is our responsibility to handoff a better, more livable world to them. I hope the semiconductor industry leads this change. It is time to begin!
In terms of where I will be, I hope that Exergy will be successful and maybe I will be retired! I hope to see these technologies come to fruition because I think it will help our customers and the world.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
I have lots of advice for my younger self. I would say the biggest advice would be to listen to what comes from within. When I look back, I feel that I have always basically done this. I have and will continue to live out my beliefs and act on what I am committed to accomplish in my journey.
Q: The most important question of all…outside of your laptop and phone, what’s the most important thing you have with you?
Yoga and meditation keep me going. It has helped me to find myself and be comfortable in my own skin. When you are on a challenging path like I have been, and if you want to change the world, you need all the tools you can get. It is important to take care of yourself and exercise. An entrepreneur’s journey is a long one and life tools like these can help prepare and provide you with the endurance needed.
Thank you, Azita, for taking the time to talk to us and offer great advice to women engineers and entrepreneurs. We enjoyed our lively conversation and especially your passion about creating more sustainability in the semiconductor industry. In addition to Exergy, you can find Azita participating on our GSA Women’s Leadership Initiative Entrepreneurial Program committee. To learn more about GSA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative and get involved, please visit https://www.gsaglobal.org/womens-leadership/.
Azita is Founder and CEO of Exergy and a seasoned environmental executive with more than 25 years of environmental industry experience. She has national and international recognition in the environmental industry and technologies and has led Exergy since its founding where she directed product, IP development, sales.
Ms. Yazdani has served as technical advisor on the EPA Sustainable Industry Project and President Clinton’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Protection and Technology (NACEPT). She has implemented extensive water recycling and material recovery projects and conducted a large number of industrial pollution prevention assessments in the U.S. and abroad. Her experience spans over a large array of industries including, but not limited to electronics, aerospace, metal finishing, food, textiles, and pharmaceuticals.
She earned her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and an Entrepreneurial Management Certificate from UCLA Anderson School. She is a registered chemical engineer in California.