Hard at times but also rewarding: A CPA’s career leap to India

Hosted by Neil Amato

Sandi Matthews, CPA, CGMA, was ready for a new adventure when she was hired in 2018 as an accounting manager for not-for-profit Khan Academy. It was not just a new job she accepted — it was a role in a faraway location.

Matthews helped to establish Khan Academy's subsidiary in India in its early days. She's now head of finance, and in this podcast episode, Matthews discusses the barriers she faced moving from North Carolina to New Delhi, advice for others considering an international assignment, and why she recommends visiting a new country as a resident instead of as a tourist.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • The TV show that introduced Matthews to her current employer.
  • Why following U.S. GAAP and Indian GAAP was not all that difficult compared with some software implementations.
  • Why Matthews says "you have what it takes" to accountants who may be considering a similar move.
  • The reasons she recommends thinking about logistics early and communicating regularly with an overseas employer.
  • A quote from Norman Vincent Peale that is meaningful to Matthews.
  • Why Matthews says she gave herself permission to fail.



— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at
Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.

Transcript:                                                            

Neil Amato: Hello. You are listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. If you are finding us for the first time or you're a regular, we're glad to have you here for this episode. I'm Neil Amato with the Journal of Accountancy. Today we are featuring a conversation with a finance leader on taking an international assignment for work. It involves more than having your suitcase packed and a valid passport. You'll hear that right after this word from our sponsor.

Amato: Welcome back to the podcast. Joining me for this segment is Sandi Matthews. Sandi Matthews is a former colleague of mine, in fact. She is a CPA who holds the CGMA designation. Almost four years ago, Sandi took a job as an accounting manager at the India subsidiary of Khan Academy. Now, Sandi is head of finance, and we're going to talk some about her professional journey.

Sandi, first, how did you become interested in working for Khan Academy, and have you worked for them only in India, or did you work for them some in the United States first?

Sandi Matthews: Well, first on how I became interested in working for Khan Academy. Do you watch the program 60 Minutes on CBS?

Amato: I'm certainly aware of it.

Matthews: Sunday evening?

Amato: Yes.

Matthews: Yeah. I still watch that every week and just to stay up to date on what's happening in the world. Way back in 2012, Khan Academy was on 60 Minutes, and that was the first time I heard of the organization, but it really piqued my interest.

I believe that education is a human right for every person in the world, and education is really unlocking opportunities in modern society. I was intrigued by this 60 Minutes segment when here you have this young entrepreneur, Sal Khan, starting a not-for-profit with this big hairy audacious goal of providing a free education to anybody anywhere in the world.

Anybody with a device that can connect to the internet can access all the content on our website absolutely free of charge. Everything covering from pre-K to early college courses, everything from algebra to chemistry, we're known for the math and science content, but we also have a lot of humanities courses.

Basically, if you name a topic you studied in school, [NA1] chances are we have that content on our platform with videos and exercises and practice exams. All of this can be accessed online by learners who can learn at their own pace.

When I saw this on 60 Minutes, I immediately went and liked their Facebook page and I told my nephews who were in high school at the time, hey, here's a resource to check out to help them in passing some of their high school math classes.

Then in 2018, I came across a job opportunity to come and work for Khan Academy. To answer your second question, yes, it has always been working for the Indian subsidiary.

I just happened to be looking to move to India at the time and came across this opportunity to really come and set up a new nonprofit subsidiary for Khan Academy here in India.

The purpose of this organization out here is to develop content that aligns to the Indian school curriculum and localize that into the many languages that are spoken here in India, so I just jumped at the opportunity, and that's how I got started out here.

Amato: What are some of the barriers that you face? You mentioned so many languages in India. I don't know if language has been a barrier for you, but maybe that's something you could discuss along with other barriers that you faced.

Matthews: Actually, the language barrier hasn't been so much of an issue here because at Khan Academy, we are speaking English day-to-day, and all of my co-workers are also speaking English.

I am trying to learn Hindi a little here and there, but it's touch and go. But majority of folks that are living in urban areas of India or folks that have gone through college and university know enough English to get by, so even just practically the living out here, language barrier hasn't been so difficult.

I can usually find an English speaker if I need help translating. But there's also Google translate, so some of the Hindi has come together a little bit. But there are local languages that are spoken all around.

For Khan Academy's content, we're trying to reach particularly the underserved communities, the lower-income, the rural, the students in government schools where the primary medium for teaching is not English, but is the local, either Hindi or one of the local dialects or local languages.

It hasn't been a barrier at all for me out here, thankfully. I had a lot of challenges, particularly early on in my first year out here, but that wasn't an obstacle. One was, well — it's big. It's big to just pack everything up and I put a few things in storage at my parents' home and just leave what I knew in North Carolina, pick up and move out here.

I got interested in minimalism back, I guess in early 2010, '11 or so, and then I got familiar with The Minimalists podcast, one of my favorite podcasts[NA2] , and so I had already really thought intentionally about the belongings that I had and really how much I wanted and had really downsized even before I figured out how to fit all my belongings into four suitcases and pack up and move, but I'm already very minimal.

That it can be a barrier for many is just like what to do with all the stuff.

Amato: Sure. Yeah. It's good you had a head start on that, so you were naturally decluttering before you went to India.

Matthews: Right.

Amato: What advice would you give people considering an international assignment?

Matthews: I would say that if you have a dream like I did to travel and see the world and work abroad to that person thinking, should I do this or not, I will say you can do this. To all of you who are listening to this podcast, you have what it takes.

You have passed the CPA Exam or gotten your CGMA or you have a degree in finance or accounting, you know how to work hard if you have achieved that. I would say you really can do it, but you have to be willing to put in the hard work. It's not going to be easy. I would say you have to have the sense of adventure to do this and realize that there will be times where it's going to get hard, but it's rewarding, too, because you get to really broaden your experience and see and do things that you ordinarily wouldn't maybe get a chance to do.

I would advise folks, if they're interested, to start doing networking, get acquainted with somebody in your industry that's in your target geography, and start asking for advice.

I found my position at Khan Academy through LinkedIn of all places[NA3] , so the networking piece is really big.

Amato: What are some of the things that someone needs to think about, in addition to, "Gosh, "how's this stuff going to fit in my suitcases?" before they pursue such an opportunity? It's one thing to say, I would love to work in Italy or I would love to work in England, or I would love to work in Southeast Asia.

There's more to it than just, well, let me go, let me go do that.

Matthews: Here's what I would definitely suggest, that you visit the location before you move there and not just as a tourist, so just because you had a honeymoon in Paris, and you're thinking, wow, I'd love to live there, wait a minute.

I would just say go back there. Really, I would suggest stay at an Airbnb in a residential neighborhood and talk to your host. The hosts on Airbnb have a review, so you can figure out which ones are talkative and friendly, will take you around, talk to your host, talk to the neighbors. Do that networking, get acquainted with somebody in the area.

I am fortunate that I first visited India way back in 2008, and I went with a group of friends to visit my friend's fiancé's family, and we stayed at their family's home and we did some visiting, we did some sightseeing also, but I got a much more realistic impression by doing a homestay rather than staying at the Hilton. That will help you prepare for the cultural immersion and go about that with an open mind.

Amato: Was that visit in New Delhi or was it another part of India?

Matthews: We flew in first to New Delhi. We were here for a couple of days, and then we traveled farther south and we went to Surat, which is the town for my friend's fiancé's family. We visited with them for a few days. It was like a three-week trip, and then we did some more traveling all around.

Amato: What considerations are there related to working internationally such as needing a work visa or something similar? What do you have to know on that front?

Matthews: In most countries you're going to need an employment visa, and you really have to plan ahead. In my case, Khan Academy wrote a letter to the embassy regarding my background and education qualifications. Again, really in order to make a case for my employment and in order to sponsor me as an employer. I still have to go get this visa renewed every single year. So you've got to get your ducks in a row.

I would suggest that if you've applied for a job abroad and you're in the interview process, it's very important that you bring up this subject early on in the interview process, that you need them to sponsor you for a visa, because otherwise you may be wasting your time and theirs because the visa process can take months. In my case, it took six weeks. This was with me really pushing.

I was calling the Indian Embassy, and after multiple attempts, I got in my car, I drove up to Washington, D.C., without an appointment, went into the Indian Embassy, asked to see somebody, sat there, waited until I finally got in front of somebody. I had all of my paperwork in front of me, and I was able to make the case.

I think because I spoke to a live person, I was able to get my application moved up to the top of the stack because I was determined to push it. I would suggest if you're having an obstacle like that, try. The other piece is it's really important to understand the tax rules in the country that is hosting you. So I had to apply for a tax ID number in India.

I do pay income taxes in India with normal payroll withholdings, and I file an Indian income tax return as well, plus I file a U.S. tax return. Depending on the country, there may be income tax treaties between the U.S. and your host country, that will address things like possible double taxation and compliances.

In my case, I qualify for the earned income tax exclusion in the U.S. and avoid the double taxation. I only pay the taxes in India on my India income. But this can get very complicated pretty quickly, and it differs depending upon your host country. So getting that visa approved and then understanding the tax law, once you're farther[NA4]  in the process, is important.

Then the third thing I would say is the relocation costs can be significant. I was really fortunate, Khan Academy helped me out on the relocation costs, so my flights, the fees for my baggage at the airport, the hotel. I stayed in a hotel for two weeks while I was looking for an apartment. That got covered very generously by Khan Academy.

So as you get closer in the interview process and talking about your compensation and benefits, you can bring up the topic about the relocation aspects as well.

Amato: This is something as a nonaccountant I truly don't know, but I have to imagine, how is the actual accounting part different if maybe you were used to some U.S. standards and now you're accounting for a subsidiary in India?

Matthews: Yeah, it was a learning curve. We maintain our books in both U.S. GAAP as well as Indian GAAP — U.S. GAAP because we consolidate our financials with our U.S. headquarters and also Indian GAAP because we are subject to a local statutory audit in India every year.

To give some context here, though, when I joined in 2018, it was early days for us. We were a startup. I was brought on to set up accounting operations. Basically, I had to build the plane and fly it at the same time. The reality on the ground when I joined was our annual budget was only about a million U.S. dollars in our very first year.

We had two funders in India that had provided multiyear grants to get us started. So I had just two MOUs to analyze, and understanding the revenue recognition was a big piece of it to get my arms around early on.

And on the expense side, we have routine expenses like payroll and consulting services, rent, office supplies, equipment, travel expenses. So what I'm getting at is that there weren't really a whole lot of complex transactions early on. The accounting under both U.S. GAAP and I GAAP [NA5] for these routine expenses is mostly the same. Both are an accrual basis of accounting. And so that part wasn't terribly cumbersome. There was a local chartered accounting firm here in India providing bookkeeping services and advising us on every stop along the way.

What was actually more challenging than the actual application of GAAP under two frameworks was the software implementation. When I joined, we were doing everything on spreadsheets. We did a consolidation with our U.S. entity on this massive Google sheet, and the payroll was kept on spreadsheets. So one of my early projects was to implement Sage Intacct accounting software, which helped automate that consolidation. And shortly thereafter, we implemented ADP payroll.

So, from the accounting perspective, the systems implementations — which my colleagues in the U.S., who I work with very closely, helped lead that effort — it was more on the practical side of the operational accounting and setting up shop. As I said, every step along the way of four years is a learning journey. Our budget has now tripled since I joined. We have 23 employees right now. We're aiming to hire 12 more this year.

We're still a small not-for-profit, but the growth that we're seeing here has been amazing. That's what makes this job so rewarding and why I really like working for a startup in the not-for-profit space. It's fun, challenging, you can build something, and then see the outcome from those efforts as time goes by.

Amato: Yeah, you definitely take it as a learning opportunity. Clearly, you are interested in learning, I mean, Khan Academy, what says learning more than that? You also in your job, I said earlier, we were colleagues. We actually got to collaborate on an article together.

So you were passing on the knowledge that way as a writer way back when, and now you're passing on the knowledge in another role. Sandi, how big of a team do you manage in India?

Matthews: Team finance operations is three right now, and we're going to have a position opening up this summer. We're growing quickly.

Amato: Sandi, thank you so much for sharing about this topic. Is there anything you'd like to add in closing?

Matthews: Thank you again for having me, Neil. I've really enjoyed it. It's been good catching up. I would just say again to your audience that this is really doable. There's a big world out there. I have a favorite quote that I really like. It's the American author Norman Vincent Peale. He said, "Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you'll land among the stars."

I had this in my childhood bedroom, and I always thought of that. When I moved out here, I thought of that, and that really informed my whole thinking and outlook in my first year here. I said, I'm going to move, and I'm going to give this one year, and I'm going to give myself permission to fail. If I fail, that's OK, but I'm going to try it.

It's uncertain, and it can be scary, but I'm not going to let that get in my way at all. I'm going to give it a good year, and I'm going to recognize that it may be tough, and I'm not going to quit. After one year if I don't like it or if it's not working out, then I'll move on, and it'll be OK. I gave myself permission to fail, and I think that really helped.

Through the initial move, the transition, getting myself settled here, and then just getting up to speed on what I needed to know to do my job, as we were talking about learning the specific accounting standards that apply for India. It's all very doable, though, if you have the right mindset. I just have to say I've known several other folks that have done international assignments, and some that it was a shorter assignment.

I know someone that moved their whole family out, and was back in the U.S. after a year. It wasn't for them. But they didn't regret that they took the opportunity, their network expanded, and you just you learn a lot and you grow a lot through the process.

Amato: Again, that was CPA Sandi Matthews. We appreciate her joining us on the show. Coming up later in the week, we'll have news on tax and other topics. Be sure to subscribe, share, rate, and review the Journal of Accountancy podcast. Thank you for listening..