Lisa Malek-Zadeh: Passionate About Service and Pushing for Change

Jim Force, Career Stories, Women in Water

Lisa Makel-Zadeh, General Manager, West County Wastewater District

Take a little bit of her family’s service business, combine it with a passion for public works, a bachelors degree from UCLA, an MBA from Golden State University, and an unending appetite for change and communication, and you’ll have Lisa Malek-Zadeh, general manager of West County Wastewater District in Richmond.

“I don’t see myself as a change agent,” she says, “but I recognize the need for changes in the way we do things, and I encourage it.”

West County is celebrating its 100th year of service to several areas within Contra Costa County. The district serves approximately 34,000 residences and 2,450 commercial and industrial accounts.

Malek-Zadeh joined the agency after a number of years in business and a stint in Berkeley, where she developed a familiarity with the crews in the field, the analytical laboratory, and the mission of keeping the water clean and a community healthy.

“I got to know all the employees and developed a passion for service and public works,” she says.

At West County, she quickly moved from director of administrative services to deputy general manager and became general manager three and a half years ago.

“While many managers come from the technical side, I think my strength is my years of business experience,” she says. “It’s knowing how to manage resources and meet our mission of keeping our community healthy.”

Fresh perspective; And manage change

“I think I’ve brought a fresh perspective to our organization,” says Malek-Zadeh. “Sometimes, there’s a mindset of firmly held beliefs. It’s not unique to our profession, but you have to move past that and embrace different ways of doing things.”

For example, she says one doesn’t have to be an engineer to hold important positions in the wastewater profession. “Education should not be the criteria in project management; rather, it should be your ability to manage resources,” she says. “By taking away restrictions on education requirements, more people can be brought to the table.”

She believes that’s made opportunities available to more people who may not have the license or certification but are able to oversee and manage resources.

“That’s yielded great success for our organization,” she says.

The same thinking applies to women in a field formerly dominated by men.

“I was the first woman in an executive position in 98 years at West County,” Malek-Zadeh says. “We used to have only two women professionals. Now we have 12.”

“This is a great field for women,” she adds. “And not just in clerical or scientific positions, but in project management, human resources, and more.”

She encourages women to apply for operator positions, as well.  “We need to make the profession more visible to women,” she says. “There’s a great opportunity here, but they just don’t know about it.”

Community access

Awareness of water and wastewater within the community at large is another of Malek-Zadeh’s passions. While West County is implementing some $70 million in capital projects on her watch and has embraced new technology in procurement, asset management, and GIS, she’s just as proud of improvements in communications. She feels many in the communities her district serves don’t know enough about wastewater treatment and the positive impact it has on the environment and economy of their community.

“We’ve improved in the ways we tell our story and interact with the public,” she says. “We’ve made our website more user-friendly and implemented a phone tree and online permitting to help improve community understanding and access to the district,” she says. “COVID really helped us fast-track opportunities.”

She’s also helped take the wastewater story into area schools and colleges, with the idea that students need to know about available careers. “It’s important that we get into the schools and start talking about the opportunities,” she says.  As an incentive, West County pays its Operator in Training participants.

So, with so much already accomplished, where does Malek-Zadeh see herself 10-15 years from now?

“I hope I’m still helping organizations and communities reach their goals,” she says. “Maybe as the general manager here, or some other organization, maybe even consulting.”

Wherever it is, you can bet she won’t be standing still, nor will those working for her or with her.

“There’s lots of opportunities for change and improvement in this profession,” she says. “I’m all in for that.”