Nearly 25 years ago, 16-year-old Natalia Sephton left her home in Moscow to start her career in Los Angeles.
“I like adventure,” she says with a bit of understatement. “I like trying new things.”
The bold move paid off.
From starting in community college to climbing the corporate ladder, Sephton has a storied path that led her to acquire Orange-based M&R Engineering Inc. in 2018.
Sephton was one of five honored at the Business Journal’s 21st annual Excellence in Entrepreneurship Awards held on May 26 at the Irvine Marriott.
“I came here as a student with one suitcase. I didn’t know anybody, I was 16 at the time,” she told the audience after accepting her award. “Now I own a successful aerospace and manufacturing company.”
Climbing the Ladder
Sephton transferred to the University of Southern California where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in industrial and systems engineering before getting her MBA, also from USC.
Sephton started her career in the consulting industry in 2002 with a focus on supply chain optimization.
She then spent over 13 years running various sized businesses for Alcoa Fastening Systems, always in “hardcore manufacturing” and at some points having 900 employees reporting to her.
In 2014, she was appointed regional president of the company’s diversity initiative, the Alcoa Women’s Network, where she tripled participation by introducing a leadership development program.
Sephton joined M&R Engineering as chief operating officer in 2016.
Two years later, she bought the firm, which specializes in high-precision machined metal and plastic parts. She is now the M&R president and CEO.
In technical terms, the company says it has “the expertise to tackle the most difficult technical challenges in CNC Lathe, CNC Swiss, CNC Mill and Multispindle Davenport machines.”
Projects include an involvement in the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope in Mauna Kea, Hawaii.
M&R was the 39th-largest woman-owned business in Orange County last year with revenue of $10.8 million for the 12 months ended Dec. 31, 2020, according to Business Journal rankings. The company currently has 65 employees.
Sephton acknowledges the risks involved in jumping into ownership, but she was determined to succeed.
“I never thought, ‘oh my God, what happens if I lose everything?’ Failure is never an option in my mind,” she said.
The company is growing, with nine job openings as it looks to better utilize technology and invest in new equipment.
Southern California weather was in part responsible for drawing Sephton away from Russia, as well as the opportunities the country has to offer.
“My dad came with me and helped me register in community college and found an apartment, which was a challenge. They don’t really rent out places to 16-year-olds.”
Her parents have since immigrated to the U.S.
She prefers not to talk about Russia’s war in Ukraine, referring to it as “really heartbreaking.”
Her decision to leave for the U.S. wasn’t based on politics, it was based on opportunity, Sephton said.
“My mom specifically had a lot of foresight to say ‘hey, Russia is never going to be stable. If you really want to have a great career, you need to look outside,’” Sephton said. “She was right.”
Sephton had already started learning English in middle school, which made things easier once she got to Los Angeles.
Back then, she and her schoolmates had to choose between English and French for their second language, and the competition for English was fierce.
“We had to literally pull straws. Whoever got the shorter one got French and the longer straws got English.”
Starting or buying a company in the U.S. is “fairly easy” in comparison to other countries, Sephton said.
“If I was in Russia, I would not have been able to achieve what I achieved here.”
The U.S. is very much the land of opportunity in her view.
“If you work hard, if you take risks in the right places, if you have a good head on your shoulders, you will succeed.”