Editor's Note: This month we introduce what we hope will become a regular print and multimedia series of personal viewpoints by CPAs from all corners of practice, reflecting what the profession means to them. We hope to include a wide variety of personalities and issues in this space; any readers who are interested in sharing their stories should contact the editors about contributing.
I grew up in Banqiao City, a then rural village near Taipei, Taiwan. My parents were farmers and we lived in a house with dirt floors, limited electricity and no plumbing, along with three generations of extended family members. I never imagined I would travel halfway around the world to live and work in a big city like New York 20 years later.
When I was young, my dream for the future was simple—have a job and earn enough money to put food on the table. In my father's generation, raising a girl was not a good investment, but I was very lucky that he still sent me to schools, where my eyes opened to a world of unlimited opportunities.
After high school, I was admitted to National Taiwan University, where I studied Foreign Languages and Literature. I chose this major simply because it was the hardest to get into, not because I really knew what I wanted to do at the age of 18. During my senior year, however, a business elective course I took led me to another journey that I found extremely exciting. My professor showed us how business was interrelated with all other subjects, in the same manner as some teachers incorporated geography with history or history with literature. He helped me discover what my true interest was. I liked my Shakespeare, but I was even more interested in how people found their “benjamins.” So, I decided to come to the United States to pursue my MBA degree after working one year in Taipei to save enough money for my trip.
I chose the University of Iowa because of its affordable tuition and because its small town environment reminded me of home. My major was marketing and finance, but I still needed to take some accounting courses. My first encounter with accounting was scary; I failed the first midterm exam in Introduction to Accounting. I was so lost with the debits and credits in the double-side entry system. But my professor gave me a second chance. He offered me a deal: In 10 days, I could take another midterm for a new grade, but it would be 10 times harder than the first. I took the offer and worked extremely hard over the next few days. I finally grasped the concept, and not only did I pass the exam, I excelled subsequently.
My professor showed us how business was interrelated with all other subjects. He helped me discover what my true interest was.
In my second year of the MBA program, I was hired as a marketing instructor at the undergraduate department. The job not only helped me pay my tuition, but also built up my confidence in public speaking. I tried to make boring subjects interesting by applying some real-life experiences. I also cared very much about my students and wanted to give them the same opportunity to improve themselves that my accounting professor gave me. I guess my students appreciated my efforts, because they voted me best teaching assistant of the year.
After graduation, I had the choice to move east or west. I decided to move to New York; the city's energy has always attracted me ever since my first visit during the summer after my first year of graduate school. I went to work for the French architect, Thierry W. Despont, who, among other great high-end design accomplishments, helped restore the Statue of Liberty and completed the interior design and installation of the home of a well-known American software entrepreneur. I began as a member of his small administration/accounting department, which only became smaller during the recession in the early 1990s. I applied myself constantly, always trying to anticipate and fulfill my boss's needs. To my surprise, when we went through a round of layoffs, the head of my department was let go and I was given his job.
As my responsibilities expanded, I decided to pursue my professional certificate in accounting and sit for the CPA exam. Unlike finance, accounting seemed more predictable, and it was always in demand in any economic cycle. Despont paid my tuition and allowed me to adjust my schedule to attend courses at New York University. With a job, school, and my young children to raise, my life at the time was very fulfilling.
When I completed my certificate and passed the CPA exam, I realized that I had to leave Despont in order to move up to the next level of my career. This Catch-22 is no doubt familiar to my fellow New York CPAs: The quickest way to get the necessary experience to become a CPA was to work in an accounting firm. I found it difficult, however, to find a firm willing to hire me, since I had no public accounting experience and, after seven years at an architecture firm, I was overqualified for an entry-level position!
Still, I wanted to be a CPA, even if it meant leaving my good job and a generous salary. Eventually, at a CPE seminar, I met a friend of the partners at Koch Group & Company. He offered to set up an interview, and advised me, “Don't tell them how much you're making. I don't want you to lie, but don't mention it.” That did the trick. I was hired at a basic starting salary, doing bookkeeping and bank reconciliations. My direct supervisor was two years out of undergraduate school. But I didn't care. I was on the next step to my goal.
I applied myself, just as I had at Despont, anticipating needs and then fulfilling them, always going the extra mile. “Is there anything else I can help you with? Is there anything else I can do?” That became my mantra. Eventually, the firm received a job with a senior citizen housing nonprofit in Brooklyn. Their books were a mess. They had more than 200 separate social programs, each with its own accounts and records, some with near-identical names, and hundreds of intercompany transactions. Other, more senior accountants were dispatched to sort things out; one after the other, they all came back defeated. Some of them quit. Finally, when they ran out of people, there I was, already staying late on my own doing work. “Why not send her?”
My career path was not typical or easy, but I think the lessons I've learned can be applied by anyone.
After three weeks on-site, I created my own entirely new numbering system to match with their programs and accounts. In the end, I returned with a completed report. After that, I started getting noticed. The founding partner, Stuart Koch, eventually put me on his team.
I continued to work on more nonprofits and went out on engagements with senior partners to court clients. The same passion and loyalty I developed at school and in my career helped me bring in more clients than some of the partners, so eventually, after eight years with the firm, I was made a partner myself.
In my work, I face the same challenges as many CPAs face today. As the profession becomes broader and more regulated, I've found that many CPAs succeed by finding a niche to specialize in, as I have with the housing and educational sectors. Beyond the repetitive bookkeeping tasks, accounting can be creative and fun. There are always stories behind the numbers. I am happy when I am able to help my clients solve their problems or when I see their buildings or schools put into service after many years of hard work.
My career path was not typical or easy, but I think the lessons I've learned can be applied by anyone. Accountants are always in demand, and anyone willing to put in the work can find a secure job somewhere. Even during busy season, I can manage my schedule by anticipating my future obligations and my clients' needs by doing the necessary prep work ahead of time. My loyalty and reliability made me invaluable to my clients and coworkers in a way that can't be replicated or taken away. My finance, marketing, and language backgrounds have also helped, giving me extra value and showing I'm not just an interchangeable tax return preparer or auditor. And most importantly, I am always working toward my goals, whatever they may be, by showing people just what this CPA can do.
This article is taken from a personal interview conducted by CPA Journal Editor-in-Chief Richard Kravitz.