Sometimes the name for a company is simply a perfect fit. Such a case can be made for the company High Energy Inc. (HEI), a Denver, Colorado, U.S.-based electric power infrastructure consultancy founded and headed by the high-energy Irina Merson. And while the company has been producing high-energy consulting for the past 14 years, Merson's personal dynamism led to her to emigrate from the former Soviet Union 32 years ago, saw her through a challenging introduction to the U.S., and has helped her build a thriving woman-owned business in a male-dominated field.
Merson's personal story starts in a small village in the Ukraine. Born to a chemical engineer mother and electrical engineer father in the shadows of an old power plant, Merson jokes that she was “born into power engineering.”
She graduated from the Belorussian Polytechnic Institute in Minsk, as her parents had, and went straight to work in the engineering arm of the Soviet Union's power administration. Merson specialized in high-voltage transmission lines that brought power from scarcely populated but resource-rich (and power generation-rich) Siberia to the more populated western parts of the Soviet Union. In her 20s, she also married her husband, Michael, a senior editor with a large, influential local newspaper. The couple decided to emigrate to the U.S. in the late 1970s, a time fraught with political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“We were pioneers from our family,” Merson offers. “We did not know anybody here [in the U.S.]. We were allowed to take two suitcases per person and $104 per person, but it was a great big adventure.”
That ‘great big adventure’ was complicated by the fact that her husband's position in the local press caused delays in processing his papers and resulted in hardship for the rest of the family left behind in Belarus. “My father was fired from his job because he could not make a good Soviet citizen of his daughter,” Merson recalls.
Merson and her husband, in fact, were forced to wait for a year and a half before being allowed to leave, and even then were released only because an international soccer match scheduled for Minsk spooked officials into letting potential émigré's go so they wouldn't speak badly about the Soviet Union to the foreign press. The year was 1980 — the same year in which the U.S. boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow in protest over the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
Merson and her husband spent the summer of 1980 in Austria and Italy, where Merson said she “washed many dishes illegally” to collect enough money to get to the U.S. Dishwashing cash plus the $208 the couple had from Minsk was barely enough to land them in Los Angeles, California, later that year.
“We came to Los Angeles with $500. We lived with close friends who came to America right before we did,” Merson recalls. “I was fortunate to find an English for Engineers school in Los Angeles. They paid us $3.50 per hour for several hours per day as a stipend. I had to do some drawings to show I was somebody technical. I would clean houses for cash for months.”
Merson says she always knew she made the right move to the U.S. “The moment I stepped on the ground at JFK, I felt the energy of this great country. I made very quick decisions right then, I am not looking back. I have arrived and this is my home. I always felt I came to the right place.”
In Los Angeles, Merson worked as a production and design engineer for a couple of years, then moved to Denver when Michael found a listing for a senior engineer for a consultant.
“Michael sent the résumé without even telling me,” Merson notes. “The interview was very funny. My English was not good. The guy asked me, ‘Do you have experience with electromechanical relays or digital relays?’ I said, ‘If I knew what that was I would tell you.’” Nevertheless, the firm offered Merson a senior substation design engineer job, though she had never designed a substation. “They said no problem, you will learn quickly.”
Merson learned quickly for the next 15 years, working on substation and transmission projects throughout the Western and Midwestern U.S. In 1997, she formed HEI.
HEI has its headquarters in Denver, but its 28 employees are from all parts of the country. “I stole our model from the IT industry,” Merson admits. “They have been allowing people to work where they want to live for some time, but it is unusual in our conservative industry. I do not want to run a kindergarten. I want people who are self-disciplined and can manage their own time.”
Merson's own comments about starting HEI tell one all they need to know about how this determined and high-energy woman always has and always will look at life.
“I was terrified,” Merson begins, when describing the decision to start HEI. “I never went to school in the U.S. I have an accent, and I am a woman in the particularly male-dominated power industry in the U.S. But I did it. If you have to survive, you will.”