CalCPA Womens Leadership Forum

By Martha Gustavson

I attended the 2019 CalCPA Women’s Leadership Forum on April 26th. I hope that this synopsis of the event can be both educational and spark an interest in some readers who might want to attend this event in the future.

After a relatively quick trip to the South San Francisco Conference Center in scenic San Mateo, CA, I had a quick breakfast and was ready to jump right in to the day after a welcome by the co-chairs of the event Meredith Johnson (Director, BPM) and Jessica Roster (Partner, Lindquist CPA).

The first panel discussion of the day was moderated by Amanda Knudsen, (Vice President, Litigation, Blue Shield of California). Kim Le (Founder & CEO, A2Q2) and Nanette Lee Miller (Partner, Marcum LLP) were the featured speakers. Nanette has over 40 years of experience in public accounting and was able to give interesting and humorous insight into how the industry has changed (and hasn’t) from the time she entered the profession. All three speakers went into detail on the barriers they had to break through to get to where they are today and to succeed in their careers.

The next portion of the event focused on data analytics and AI with Azalia Shamsaei (Product Manager, MindBridge Ai) and Andrea Schulz (Senior Manager, KPMG). Their presentation highlighted the innovation of AI and its use in auditing and accounting. AI is transforming our profession and more and more firms are embracing the technology. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners estimates that the financial loss due to human error or by intent has risen to approximately four trillion dollars and an auditor’s ability to find fraud without the help of AI is limited. It was exciting to hear about what technology can do to deliver greater value from an audit and how firms are innovating in this area. After the riveting AI session, we dove right into mentoring with a panel discussion moderated by Ginger Braun (Area Manager, WOMEN Unlimited, Inc.) with panelists Somya Chauhan (Financial Controller, Google), Amber Setter (Executive Leadership Coach, Intention Setter), and Jennifer DeBrincat (Finance Manager, Argo AI). This session started off with a discussion about the differences between a sponsor, a mentor, and a coach. There was a general consensus that a sponsor is someone who is aware of your work and will speak up on your behalf, even if you may not know that they exist. A coach is someone whose job it is to hold you accountable to help you achieve goals, but you as the coachee are the expert in where you are going and what you want to achieve. Lastly, a mentor is someone to bounce ideas off of, and someone from whom you may seek advice. Coaches and mentors take active roles while a sponsor will likely talk about you while you are not in the room. The top three things that I took away from this discussion were:

  1. Be a sponsor for someone–boost them and bring them along with you on your way.
  2. Make an effort in team meetings to recognize someone for something they did during the past week–this can help bring to light the positive things the group is doing and recognize what people are doing well.
  3. Make sure that feedback is given directly to a person before bringing it to a group–this might allow someone to address or work on the issue before it’s taken into consideration by a larger group with little context.

Overall, the panel discussion on mentoring was enlightening and made me think of things I could do to improve mentor relationships of my own. This discussion led me into my next session with Ash Seddeek, a consultant and coach, who spoke about how to get the most value from a mentoring relationship.

After an exciting morning of panels and a breakout session, we moved on to lunch and the 2019 Women to Watch Awards. It was fantastic to see so many women nominated by their firms and to hear from the winners in two categories–Emerging Leaders and Experienced Leaders. In addition, Donita Joseph of Windes (a CPA firm in Long Beach), won the Trailblazer Award and gave some great nuggets of advice from her years of experience in the profession during her acceptance speech.

After lunch, we gathered together to hear a presentation from Samantha Hobart, CFP (Financial Advisor, Morgan Stanley). Samantha’s topic was ‘Owning Your Personal Finances’ which is extremely relevant given that women are expected to hold $22 trillion in personal wealth in the US by 2020 (Market Watch, 2017). While most common topics like different retirement options and tax efficient strategies were touched on, Samantha also talked about the differences in investing for men and women based on life expectancy. She also had a chart of employee benefits to consider including FSAs, HSAs, and life insurance which she encouraged women to take part in depending on what their financial goals are. While most of us who are accounting professionals tend to be knowledgeable of these different tax-saving strategies, sometimes we do not think to use them ourselves. This can be especially true for women since so often financial advice is geared towards men. There was another panel discussion following the personal finance presentation which was moderated by Loretta Doon (CEO, CalCPA/CalCPA Education Foundation) with panelists Lynda Schauer (Principal, ZSS CPAs) and Bertha Minnihan (Partner, Moss Adams). This panel focused on building a personal network which, as it turns out, requires saying yes to as many opportunities as possible and working to build a personal brand. My takeaways from this were that I need to be able to articulate what my brand is including my personal values and what makes me interesting. This led to a particularly timely discussion on how women can get involved in networking now, in 2019, when for so many years women have been left out of events because they were held on the golf course, men’s clubs, or it was assumed that we might not be interested because of our personal commitments to family or children. This is an area where I think it is important for all of us to be conscious about asking people when it is convenient for them to go to networking events and also, to not assume that people are not interested in networking just because they may have family commitments.

Marianne Fleischer’s (Coach, Fleischer Communications) presentation entitled ‘Speaking Up At Work’ was a lesson in growing your circle of influence and the language of influence. She spoke using apologetic terms—something I do often. Women regularly use apologetic terms and qualifiers, but Marianne’s advice was to “speak, make a statement, and stand by it”. She also made the important point of not fearing “taking power”. This is a subject that sometimes gives me pause because while I agree that often women fear speaking up and taking power, it is also the responsibility of those around us with power to cede it to women and people of color in the room. I think that if both are done in unison, women’s voices could be heard in important conversations more often.

The last breakout session of the day that I attended was on Strategies for Getting Promoted, presented by Julia Holian (Julia Holian & Associates). Some key takeaways from this presentation for me included:

  1. Know yourself so that other people can see you the way you would like them to see you.
  2. Promote other people around you! “High tides raise all ships”.
  3. Do great work and own it (including mistakes).

The entire day at the 2019 CalCPA Women’s Leadership Forum was full of a variety of educational CPE from technical subjects to soft-skills, personal development to professional knowledge. Each of the speakers brought a different perspective as representatives from public accounting, industry, wealth management, and human resources. My hope is that, in the future, HW can attend with a larger presence and that we nominate women from the firm for the Women to Watch Awards since we have so many knowledgeable and multi-faceted women throughout all levels of the firm. I for one am excited to attend again next year!