Avani Desai, CPA, doesn't trace her journey to becoming the CEO of a top firm to her youth — she goes back to before her birth, to the emphasis her grandparents put on education in the 1940s in India.
In keeping with the "starting early" theme, Desai believes that, instead of talking to students about accounting in their third year of college, the profession needs to reach out to students in the third grade. And she lived that example recently, visiting her daughter's elementary school classroom.
In the latest episode of the JofA podcast, Desai talks about her career journey, how she found friends during a secondment in New York City, and how she juggles work and life.
What you'll learn from this episode:
- A look back at how the Florida firm Schellman approached service offerings.
- The decisions and sacrifices her parents made that were critical to Desai's opportunities.
- Desai's path from working in the Big Four to becoming a firm CEO.
- Why Desai says that she stops working each day at 6 p.m.
- What the video game Roblox has to do with IT audits.
Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:
— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Neil Amato: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is your host, Neil Amato. For this episode, we're going to have a conversation with the CEO of a large niche cybersecurity assessment firm based in Tampa, Florida. The CEO is Avani Desai. She is a CPA, and we are happy to have her on the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Avani, welcome.
Avani Desai: Thanks, Neil. It's wonderful to be here.
Amato: Thank you. We met first in person in December. I was introduced to you by current AICPA Chair Anoop Mehta. I was told that you were the CEO of a major firm, and as I learn more about the firm, Schellman, I find out it has a niche that is most definitely not traditional accounting firm services. Tell me some first about Schellman's focus areas.
Desai: Sure. As you mentioned, we are a major firm and actually one of the only firms on that list that has this specialized service of just cybersecurity audit. Schellman started in 2002 and at that time, we had one service, which was SAS 70 reports, which is now called a SOC report. But through our years, through the 20 years, we really listened to our clients, and we've always really stayed in our line of what services do we want to add onto that. It's always been around security and privacy. What we do is we provide third-party attestations or third-party certifications for business-to-business, so major organizations or even startups, that want to build trust with their customers based on their security and privacy infrastructure.
Amato: You have not always been a CPA. I don't think that was maybe your first career path. Maybe you could tell me some about that journey to now CEO of Schellman.
Desai: Well, I'm actually going to go back to before I was born. They say your journey is written in your stars, so bear with me. My parents were both born in India in the 1940s. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents believed that education would always be your ticket to success, which if you think about it in India in the 1940s, that was a very progressive mindset, and that mentality would be passed on to their kids, who ended up getting married and had two daughters. Those are my two older sisters.
At that point, they were still in India, but they knew for my sisters to be successful, they will have to leave the only life they knew, the only language they knew, the only religion they knew, the only people they knew with the hope that America would give my sisters future opportunities, and that would really be worth that sacrifice. When I tell you my family's story is the prototypical immigrant story, you can likely imagine where this is going.
My parents arrived here in the United States. They actually came to New York, but it was unfortunate because their college degrees did not convert over. My dad mopped floors, and my mom made belts, and by that point I was actually born, and I was aware throughout my entire childhood how much my parents gave up for my chance to have more, and they always insisted that despite setbacks, which they had a lot of, you have to think about it, coming, they're Ph.D.s coming from India, came to the U.S. mopping floors.
But always they were happy because they saw a country that would allow their children to thrive. That attitude, the way they were so determined and really unfazed, that's where I get my drive, and that would carry me through college, where being from an Indian family, the stereotypes are probably predestined to say that you're a doctor or an engineer. It was true.
I always enjoyed tinkering even at a young age. I became more intrigued about how technology, though, intersected with business. In college, I focused on computer science, and I decided my real love was information security. And my kids ask me, "How did you know that you loved information security?" But I knew that I loved data and I loved tinkering, and I wanted to make sure that my data stayed safe. That's how I say I loved the information security. But I somehow segued that into working for an accounting firm, and it wasn't all how I predicted things to go and, when I think back about it, everything that I considered exciting and attractive and a potential job — I talked about solving problems, data analysis, collaboration, decision-making — that's really where I found working for a Big Four. I spent 10 years of my life there.
It was an amazing experience to be at a firm like that. The mentors, the sponsors, the educational opportunities, friends that I made. I absolutely credit my time there as pivotal for me to have my future success. But it wasn't the only thing going on in my life. In 2012, I became a mother. That was a huge shift created and a new need for more flexibility, and I needed a firm where I could choose between being a partner and a mother, and that's how I found Schellman.
The founder, Chris Schellman, reached out to me and asked me to help him with business development, marketing, scaling the firm. We started in 2002, this was about 2012, so 10 years into it, and I didn't really know a lot about that space. I knew about information security, I knew about SOC reporting, I knew what clients wanted, but I wasn't a brand person or a marketing person.
But I took all that stuff that I learned at the Big Four, and I helped Chris at Schellman to increase our presence and brand. I came on board in 2012, and then after years passed, I would continue to take more and more off of Chris's plate. First it was service delivery, then people and talent, and then finance, and so on and so on. Then in 2018, I was now ready to be a partner at a CPA firm, and, Chris said, if you want to continue on this route and from being a successor, it was time for you to take the CPA Exam. So just imagine that. I'm a computer scientist, but many years at an audit firm. In 2018, I sat for and passed my CPA Exam. I took a nontraditional route into the industry, and I became president of the firm, and Chris was the CEO at that time.
But then this journey continues in 2021. We partnered with a private-equity firm. Though we hadn't been actively exploring the possibilities, we recognized and realized that we had a mindset of growth, innovation, but you can see from our beginning. We were the only CPA firm focusing on SAS 70s at the time. But we needed something else, we needed to grow, and it's been 20 years, so we needed a strategic partnership with the right organization.
That's when we were reached out to by Lightyear Capital, who we had known, and they became aware of our firm and our reputation through their portfolio companies, where we were actually performing cybersecurity compliance. They were interested in including as part of their investment thesis for companies. It was a bit serendipitous timing. At that time, Lightyear expressed interest in stepping in. Chris already had plans to retire by 2027, so we completed our thorough due diligence. We moved forward, and Chris was able to step out and retire six years ahead of schedule, and that's when I took over as CEO and president of the firm.
Amato: Wow, so that was now about two years ago.
Desai: Sixteen months today, yes.
Amato: Wow, and we're recording January 31, early 2023. Quite the journey and certainly not the traditional one as you say, but a great story. I really appreciate that. I think it's clear you're passionate about security, privacy, keeping that information secure, as you said. I guess that ties in pretty well to some of the firm's focus areas.
Desai: That's right. I talked about it before. I've always been interested in technology's intersection capabilities. At Schellman, that's what our entire business is based on — the junction of technology with security and privacy. I think I was fortunate to land here because I spent 10 years of my career elsewhere and focused on this same security and privacy assessment. But I had never come across a place that was just focused on this only. That's why I say we're one of the only, if not the only, cybersecurity auditors on that Major Firms list.
When I discovered Schellman, it was definitely a case of the right place at the right time. I knew it was a perfect fit for me because here's a firm that actually specializes in technology assessment. Schellman doesn't and never did your traditional tax, audit, or advisory work. It's something that you and I talked about when we met. We focused solely on technology assessments. That's how our founder, Chris, wanted it. He had this vision for a firm and a singular focus area to become a disruptor in the industry.
That was 20 years ago. In 2002, we want it to be a disruptor in the CPA accounting firm industry of only focusing on technology because we knew all these emerging technologies were coming out, so 20 years later we've proven and have done that. It's been great success. Not only are we the youngest on that top 100 firm list, but we actually ranked 55 in 2022. I really believe that's our unique focus, it's going to continue to allow us, hopefully, fingers crossed, to climb up those ranks but also have a positive impact on our profession.
Amato: Let's talk some about your approach for outreach to potential CPAs. Why is it something you're passionate about, and how is it perhaps nontraditional in keeping with the theme of this conversation so far?
Desai: Well, you heard my story, the nontraditional route. I am an advocate for the accounting profession. I spend a lot of time reaching out to potential CPAs, encouraging them to consider this field as a viable career option. But my approach is to find the unconventional student. I focused on identifying and targeting individuals who may not have traditionally considered a career in accounting like me, but they have the skills and knowledge needed to excel in the industry. What am I talking about here? Inherent or softer skills. I hate calling it softer skills, that really should be critical-thinking skills or critical skills, but critical-thinking ability, communication.
Creativity is really important in what we do, especially in some of our really technical things like [penetration] testing and vulnerability assessments, problem-solving. The other one that I think is really important is proficiency in difficult conversations. You've probably noticed, I didn't mention anything about technical auditing skills because I am a strong believer that those can be learned through training. How do we find these candidates that have all these other critical skills? I know that these different candidates can be successful because I was one once upon a time with my background in computer science and only becoming a CPA six years ago.
If we can continue to target nontraditional students like that, we can attract individuals with technical skills and knowledge needed to fill what I think, and I'm not biased here, but there's a huge skills gap in technology auditing. What we've done at Schellman is we're really branching out into our recruiting. We're looking to attract more students from underrepresented groups and making our profession more diverse and inclusive. There's actually studies out there, when you talk about technology compliance, technology auditing, technology attestation, by 2025 there's going to be a 2 million gap in professionals.
There's no way we can continue doing the same thing that we've always done, especially because it is an emerging skill set, to be able to fill that gap. But I'll be honest with you, it has not been an easy sell. I've seen it firsthand how the perception of lack of work/life balance has been in the accounting profession. That's really leading to a decrease in the number of students interested in accounting. Trust me, I said the stories, you've probably heard those stories. The horror stories about 60-hour workweeks, 2,000 billable hours. This I think were requisites once. They were requisites when I started 20 years ago.
But one thing I have learned, and I've learned it through the Major Firms Group talking to other CEOs and leaders, more and more firms are realizing to be successfu,l we have to be agile when it comes to our workforce. Not only do we need to leave these archaic ways in the past so it does become and stay a misconception, but we also need to highlight the various opportunities that this profession has offered to attract a diverse range of individuals. While we work on that, we also need to move towards a more comprehensive approach. If we want to truly move the needle in terms of attracting a diverse range of individuals to the accounting profession, we need to start reaching out to students at all levels.
Even us at Schellman historically for the last decade, we've always gone to college campuses. We have asked our professor at the colleges we have relationships with, can we teach an auditing course? Can we talk about that? But I think we got to go two steps below that. We have to go to elementary schools. The best way I've found to engage with such students is to connect the concepts and principles of their interests and hobbies.
I'll tell you — me, I have three kids. I have a 12-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 1-year-old. My 9-year-old asked me if I would be a mystery guest to her elementary school class. Though I did discuss my profession and the importance of IT assessments, what I did was I related it to popular games that she enjoys. She loves Roblox. It's this online game you can play on your laptop, your phone, your iPad. But I connected the concepts of security controls and password protections in the game to the work that IT auditors do.
I'm going to tell you, it was phenomenal. I was able to capture the interest and imagination of those students. Really, their curiosity about the profession started there. It's not only about connecting with kids on the level they understand. It's showing them this is the true impact that our profession has on their daily lives, on the stock market, on investors, even the environment and sustainability. That's probably a whole topic that you and I can talk about later.
But what I was able to do at that level, elementary students, 9- and 10-year-olds, was give them a glimpse of this far-reaching profession or what they think is a far-reaching profession. But the impact that they have and can inspire them to consider accounting as a viable career option where they can make a difference to the world, and I know it's far-reaching, but when you see the kids' eyes light up, you knew you're getting to them.
Amato: Yes, so instead of talking to someone in their fourth year in college, you're talking to third- and fourth-graders.
Desai: That's right. Yeah.
Amato: It is a different approach, and I don't think that many people think of it as far as going that early. This has been a passionate discussion so far. Let's talk a little bit more about some of the other things in life that you are passionate about.
Desai: I'm passionate about privacy and security, but I'm really also deeply committed to increasing diversity, inclusion in the fields of accounting but also technology. One thing that you and I talked about was, I believe I'm only one of a handful of women who run a major firm group, and I might be the only one who is a female minority.
I firmly believe that empowering women and people of color to succeed in this profession and technology industries can have a ripple effect on future generations. I've already talked about it. We have an issue with getting people into the accounting profession. We have an issue from an IT audit perspective. We have a gap, maybe of 2 million positions by 2025. How are you going to fill that if we don't go to a broader group? That is women and people of color. I've seen it firsthand in my own life when I watch my mother find success and financial stability. When she came from India, she learned a new trade after immigrating here, and she was the reason that we were actually able to continue staying here while my dad looked for a job.
I've seen it firsthand. When I saw my mother able to find success and financial stability. We were able to stay in a country, and she was able to help my dad raise a family. I aim to create environment where both men and women can have a fulfilling professional and personal lives, and I mean to do that in both at my firm and the greater profession. I mentioned, I'm a mother of three young kids. That is my greatest source of inspiration. My family is the ultimate motivation. They give me the drive. They allow me to want to strive for success both professionally and personally, and it took me a while to find that balance that worked for them and me, and I didn't do it right for the first decade of my life.
But these days, when the clock hits 6 p.m., I make it a point to stop working, and I spend quality time with my children, and I engage in activities that we all enjoy – watching movies, we just started a new puzzle yesterday, we visit theme parks, we enjoy pool time, we love Disney. But it's not without hiccups, though. I know that there are other working mothers out there that struggle with similar challenges, and I don't call it work/life balance. It really is work/life integration, and especially the last two years with COVID, we're working from home, working remotely. We don't go to the office. We go to the office. It is true integration.
Every day, I'm fine-tuning my own balance, and I want to use what I've learned, the mistakes that I've made, the challenges that I've had, the struggles that I've had to bring positive change to our profession and our firm. I believe mothers and fathers should not have to ever choose between their personal and professional lives. That is so important to me. How do we get women, people of color, mothers and fathers to be able to be really great at both? I'll be the first person to tell you, Monday through Friday, 8 to 6, I am really good at leading a firm, and then from 6 to 8 and on weekends, I'm a really good mother. But there are days I cannot do both. I will be bad at both if I tried to balance both of them.
That's why I say it's an integration and that you can be good at one of them, and then sometimes you have mistakes, and I get called to come pick up my kids from school because they're sick and I have to cancel a meeting. But you can do it, but it's fine-tuning day in and day out. That's one part of it.
The other thing you and I talked about is I have a love of running and that was actually sparked when I moved to New York. I ended up doing, with the Big Four, I ended up doing a secondment in New York City. So I left Florida, moved to New York City, I was newly married, didn't know anyone, and I needed a way to meet more people, so I joined the Nike Run Club.
Back then, it was a way for me to explore the city and meet new friends. I couldn't even run a mile. I hated running. I don't even think, my husband would laugh at me because I didn't have a really good pair of running shoes, but what I found was it was a wonderful stress relief. It was great, and now based in Florida, I'm in Orlando, I developed a special fondness for running Disney races. Their opportunity to run and explore while having fun and meeting new people, and it's really a carefree setting. To most people, running more than 13 miles can sound really challenging. But I'll tell you, it's worth it when you can stop and take a picture with Lilo & Stitch and Cinderella right in front of her castle.
Amato: That's great. I think I'm understanding a little bit more about why in your Twitter bio, along with some of your passion areas that we just discussed, is the word juggler. You're probably not an actual juggler, but you are clearly balancing a lot of different things.
Desai: That's right. I have tried to learn juggling. I have, I promise. I've watched a lot of YouTube videos with my kids because I think it's pretty phenomenal. We actually just went to a Cirque Du Soleil show in Orlando where one of the participants of the show was able to juggle, I think it was 17 balls, and I was just in awe. No, I wish I was a juggler. Just juggling life, that's what I'm doing.
Amato: Exactly. Well, it sounds like you understand, you have an awareness that maybe you don't do that well every day, but you're striving to do it well and can with a good plan. So let's tie it back to the firm a little bit for a closing question. We mentioned Schellman is a major firm. What do you look forward to most with the regular meetings that you attend with the Major Firms Group?
Desai: We just joined the Major Firms Group at the beginning of 2022, and I've been able to attend regular meetings online, but then also they've had two in-person meetings, and let me tell you it holds a special place in my heart. Even though it's been two meetings that we've gone to, I've found that they provide opportunities to connect with like-minded leaders who share a passion for the profession. There's this camaraderie and a sense of community among our group that is really unique. It's just inspiring.
In these meetings, we leave our competitive nature at the door, and we become a group of colleagues, and we have a shared mission. How do we make this profession better? How do we help our clients build trust with their customers? How do we mentor and grow the next generation of leaders? All of that is to make our profession better. I look forward to sharing knowledge, I look forward to sharing our best practices. We do things a little differently, and other firms do things a little differently. Every time I leave that Major Firms Group meeting, one of the conversations that takes place in the room is informative, it's thought-provoking, and it's insightful.
I've taken so much back to our leadership team, and we've implemented things. A great example is, I heard one of the CEOs of one of the firms say, we're going to do a summer shutdown. Summer is a great time to pause and reflect, and we're doing that now. We're shutting down the week of July 4, and we call it our summer shutdown, and that's because of something that I heard from the Major Firms Group. It's so nice that we're working together towards a brighter future for the accounting profession, and I believe the connections formed and the collective wisdom we share is going to play a huge part in how we're going to see the future of our profession.
Amato: Avani, thank you very much. This has been excellent. I appreciate having you on the podcast.
Desai: Thanks, Neil. It's been great talking with you.