At 23, Tepolak Seth embodies inspiration, blending her Cambodian heritage with Silicon Valley innovations at Tesla. A Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) graduate with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in civil engineering, her journey reflects resilience, determination and an unwavering pursuit of excellence.
She says her Cambodian background has a subtle influence on her work but significantly shapes her demeanour.
“Tesla is very diverse but everyone is also their own person. I can be myself at Tesla and I am supported and respected.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that my whole identity is being Cambodian. I am many things; being Cambodian is just one of them. It doesn’t impact my work as much but I guess it impacts how I carry myself.
“Those who have never met a Cambodian before meeting me means that I essentially represent my people. So being a good Cambodian person will matter when it comes to first impressions,” she says.
Embarking on a transformative journey at 15, Tepolak relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, for her education at the Lovett School. Navigating the shift from Cambodia’s rich tapestry to the energetic corridors of American academia, she displayed remarkable grace and tenacity, excelling academically and laying the foundation for her future.
Her academic excellence brought her to Georgia Tech, where she delved into civil engineering with enthusiasm and dedication. Graduating in 2022 and achieving another degree a year later, the young woman’s accomplishments earned her a place in a graduation ceremony video presentation, a selection assessed by the school committee based on academic merit and social contributions.
Despite occasional imposter syndrome, doubting her intelligence in comparison to her peers, Tepolak says she found support from friends and professors who encouraged her along the way.
“All of these people told me, ‘You got this’. My parents also believed in and supported me. So, I wanted my [graduation] speech to show people that although we may sometimes feel like an imposter, that doesn’t mean we are one.
“I am forever grateful for the people who believed in me,” she says.
Tepolak’s journey transcends academic achievements; it encompasses breaking barriers and defying stereotypes.
“Cultural challenges include linguistic barriers and, in some areas, minor discrimination. Luckily, I haven’t had many bad experiences with discrimination, but it does exist. There is a presence or a suspicion that people are looking at you in a weird way that makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I’m inferior.
“Overtime, I gained the confidence to enjoy myself without caring too much about what others thought. They don’t know me personally; therefore, their judgements shouldn’t matter too much. I decided that I wasn’t going to let that affect me,” she adds.
Initially grappling with a sense of inferiority, Tepolak later cultivated confidence, disregarding external opinions. She emphasises that judgments from those lacking a personal connection do not significantly influence her self-perception.
Addressing the language barrier, she notes the importance of adapting language use to diverse contexts. Expanding her vocabulary proves beneficial, recognising the demand for different sets of words in various settings.
Additionally, her natural inclination towards listening enhances her understanding of communication dynamics and shapes her presentation style.
Navigating a field largely dominated by individuals of European descent, as a woman of Cambodian heritage, she acknowledges encountering distinct challenges.
From manoeuvring job interviews to gaining respect in the industry, Tepolak confronts adversity head-on, drawing strength from her cultural heritage and unwavering determination.
“It’s hard being a minority [Asian] and a woman in a field in the US that is typically white and male dominated. I faced challenges here and there such as being at a disadvantage when it came to job applications.” she says.
“Although I am proud of my name, I sometimes think that it can be a disadvantage,” Tepolak tells The Post
An inherent stigma exists, yet she believes that companies are striving for improvement. Grateful for working with companies that value and respect her perspective, she acknowledges the opportunities despite the challenges.
In her role as a design engineer, working with construction workers presents an additional challenge, necessitating her presence in the field to verify compliance with design specifications.
Occasional tensions arise between design and construction, particularly when the latter clings to traditional methods, resisting change. Design consistently seeks more efficient approaches.
“Being a woman makes it harder for them to trust my abilities and designs,” she says.
Tepolak, as a civil engineer, offers insight on how her Cambodian background enriches the technical skills she gained at Georgia Tech, influencing her role at Tesla.
While her Cambodian identity doesn’t directly impact the technical aspects of her job, she underscores its profound influence on her soft skills, shaping her demeanour, respect for others and values as an employee.
“My culture taught me about respect, but at the same time, I’ll respect those who respect me. It has to be a two-way stream. I do believe in being respectful until others prove to me that they aren’t worthy of it, so the default is to respect,” she says.
Supported by her family, Tepolak’s journey has been enriched by a trio of mentors shaping her perspective and fuelling her ambition. Joe, a steadfast supporter in civil engineering, and trailblazers Malory and Thuy exemplify resilience, courage and kindness, she says, mentioning the trio only by their first name.
Tepolak acknowledges Joe as an incredible mentor, someone who has always believed in her, even during moments when her self-belief falters.
“Joe, a civil engineer, introduced me to the field and has supported me throughout my college career. He has been an incredible mentor . . . I tend to consult him before making career decisions,” she says.
Malory, co-founder of a Georgia-based structural engineering firm, imparts lessons on self-advocacy and risk-taking. Tepolak says she draws daily inspiration from Malory, finding her efforts in supporting female engineers truly admirable.
“Her selflessness and passion encouraged me to be brave and work hard, but also be kind. Standing up for myself doesn’t necessarily mean that I need to use words of anger, but the right words and attitude helps tremendously,” Tepolak says.
Thuy, co-founder of an engineering firm in California, guided her young mentee on balancing life and work as a female engineer.
“Her courage and care for others leaves me in awe and I’m so happy to have her in my network,” she says.
Innovative impact focus
As Tepolak enters a new phase in her career, her focus remains on utilising her expertise to drive innovation and create a meaningful impact. In Tesla’s civil engineering design team, she is ready to tackle a variety of projects, ranging from transportation initiatives to utility infrastructure.
During her master’s programme, she started the internship application process at the tech giant, a four-month journey culminating in multiple interview invitations. She ultimately accepted the position. Upon being offered the internship, she wisely requested a delayed start date until after her graduation.
While navigating this, she also pursued a job opportunity at the firm, but transitioning to a full-time role proved to be a challenging endeavour. Assigned the crucial responsibility of managing the building’s drip system in response to climate change, she faced an exhaustive aptitude test and endured numerous hours of interviews.
“I’m thrilled to kick off my full-time role at Tesla in early February,” she shares.
She’ll be contributing to various projects, including utility, transportation and erosion as a part of the company’s civil engineering design team.
She says that being at Tesla has accelerated her professional goals, with the fast-paced environment pushing her out of her comfort zone frequently, fostering substantial personal and professional growth.
“Not only am I working towards becoming a better engineer but I’m also developing soft skills like communication, work ethic, leadership, time management and others,” she tells The Post.
Regarding work-life balance, she expresses gratitude for having a manager who prioritises both her professional contributions and overall well-being. Despite demanding workloads and tight deadlines, her team values her health, recognising that wellness is fundamental to productivity at work.
“I would love nothing more than to see an increase of women in engineering or in STEM overall. It brings me so much joy seeing other women succeed in fields that were male-dominated. It reminds me of the ‘We Can Do It!’ poster by J. Howard Miller that illustrates the strength of women and boosts their morale,” she says.
“At Tesla, there’s a group called Women in Tesla that brings women together to grow and share knowledge and experience. I hope to be a part of the organisation and help out in any way that I can,” she says.
She notes that, for the foreseeable future, her primary work location will be California, specifically at the Tesla facility in Fremont. She remains uncertain about the timing of any potential return to Southeast Asia.
Future contribution goals
Tepolak’s journey from Cambodia to the US reflects resilience and determination, influenced by her academic experiences in Georgia. Despite encountering significant challenges upon arriving in the 10th grade, she attributes her educational growth to these institutions and their supportive educators. Adapting to the intense pace and high expectations, the teenager had to revamp her learning methods and embrace adaptability to excel in her studies.
She says that her tenure at Georgia Tech, a research institute known for intense academic competition, further refined her skills and equipped her for the professional world.
Looking forward, she intends to accumulate more experience under a professional engineer, aspiring to become a licensed professional engineer. Acknowledging the sacrifices involved, she is set to dedicate months to exam preparation, temporarily putting a pause on recreation.
“I will have to pause my social life and travel to set aside months to study for the exam. I will also likely continue working as a civil engineer for a while and then see where life takes me,” Tepolak says.
She envisions leveraging the knowledge and experience gained at Tesla and in her engineering profession to potentially contribute to technological or environmental advancements in Cambodia down the line.
“I would love to help my country if the time is right, the opportunity is right and it supports my life. I would be more than happy to share my knowledge and experiences to help the country later in life if that is where my path lies,” she says.