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Women’s Leadership Forum Speakers Share Lessons from Journey to the C-Suite

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 22, 2019
WLF C-Suite-Madho-Gagnon-Cedono-Kogan copy

Speaking at the Foundation for Accounting Education’s Women’s Leadership Forum on Jan. 18, a group of top women executives discussed their journeys on their way to the C-suite, as well as the challenges and pitfalls they overcame to get there. While the conversation—moderated by Kimberly G. Johnson, a partner at KPMG—was wide-ranging, several themes began emerging throughout the course of the talk.

One was the need to get out of one’s comfort zone and take risks. Panelist Ramona Cedeno, the founder and CEO of FiBrick Financial Services, Inc., understood this principle from the age of 19, when she decided that she would move from the Dominican Republic to New York City to study accounting at Baruch College. At this point, she was already married and expecting her first baby. Her drive to take risks also factored in when she decided to start her company.

“I left my company on a whim,” she said. “I went home and said, ‘I’ll take a month off,’ … and the idea of starting my business just evolved.”

Despite having years of experience in the accounting field, some savings to live off while she got the business off the ground, and a very supportive husband, she described the experience as “really, really scary.” Yet, as soon as she registered her company, someone she knew offered her a CFO position. She said she wasn’t looking for a job, but could work as a consultant, “and that was my first customer, and the others came from referrals.”

Another panelist, Holly Gagnon, president and CEO of Seneca Gaming Corp., said, “A lot of my positions came from being a risk taker and going where no man wanted to go.” These places included Philadelphia, Miss., and Shreveport, La., at a time when most people in the gaming industry did everything they could do to work in either Las Vegas or Atlantic City. She also noted that she wasn’t afraid to “do a lot of zigging,” noting that she also spent two years as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, worked in information technology, and performed both CFO and HR roles at a company. She conceded that accountants tend to be risk averse by nature, but said that real success requires leaps of faith, which sometimes involve making mistakes. People should not let this discourage them.

“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not making enough decisions,” she said.  “Playing it safe does not yield big wins.”

The panel also talked about the importance of mentorship, which can take many different forms. Andrea Madho, the co-founder and CEO of Lab141 Inc., an on-demand manufacturer of luxury clothes, said she used to work in finance on the mid-1990s, at which time she said “it was Wolf of Wall Street, it was all that.” While not pointing to a formal mentoring experience at that time, she said she gained a lot from watching what other women did in the industry. Madho talked about one woman in particular, who taught her a lot just by showing her how she navigated the company and how she treated clients.

At the same time, Madho said, she is also part of an advisory program for aspiring female entrepreneurs, and while she acknowledged that it was a cliché, she said “I get more back from them; they have given me such faith in younger women.”

Gagnon made a similar point, saying that she regularly sits with her employees at lunch, which allows her to find out how the workers are experiencing the organization and what issues might not be bubbling up to her level. For instance, she said she hadn’t known that the building didn’t have heating or air conditioning on the weekend, when some people were working, and so she hadn’t been able to fix the problem until her employees raised the issue with her.

She also said that she is a strong believer in peer mentorship, observing that she knows two other female executives in the gaming industry—there are not a lot of them—who are “my little peer group, or board of directors.” Gagnon said that she can hash issues out with this group, as “they know my industry, so I can say it can be peer to peer and get that mentorship at a certain level.”

Katelyn N. Kogan, a senior manager in the real estate services group at Mazars USA LLP, noted that mentors can also be found outside one’s firm, such as at the NYSSCPA. She said that, early on, she was very excited about the real estate industry, so she worked to get into that industry practice area, went to industry events and accompanied partners when they would visit real estate clients. Eventually, she got a master’s degree in real estate. When she joined the Society’s Real Estate Committee, she said that she found men there who became good mentors for her and encouraged her to get more involved. This encouragement eventually led her to become the current committee chair. She said it was important to play to one’s strengths and passions.

“If I’m passionate about something, I want to get as involved as I can,” Kogan said.

The panelists did concede that work-life balance, despite what one might read in the business journals, is very difficult. Gagnon advised people not to put too much pressure on themselves to maintain a perfect balance and achieve an impossible standard. It does not do oneself or one’s loved ones any good. She said that she was fortunate enough to have worked in companies that gave a lot of flexibility in family matters, but observed that it was still difficult for her, particularly when her two daughters were young. Yet she said that the quality of the time one spends with family is more important than the quantity, observing, “If it’s an hour, make it a great hour.” She told the audience to have faith that their kids are more resilient than they think.

“The relationship I have with [my daughters,] now [that they are in their 20s,] is so incredible, and they respect me for having my own identity and my own life,” Gagnon said. “If you choose to work, you should be proud of it and your decisions, and you will figure it out.”

One message the panelists conveyed was not to feel guilty about asking for help—not just in business, but in life. Cedeno said this was a lesson she had to learn over the years.

“My son is my bookkeeper, my brother is my IT guy, and my son’s friends check and sort my mail. I work a lot and I ask for help. ... I don’t mind asking for help,” she said.

This post has been revised.

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