‘Own your narrative’ and other advice from a Starbucks executive

Hosted by Neil Amato

For Tiffany Willis, CPA, the role as vice president and head of investor relations at Starbucks is "an overwhelming honor." She wasn't always certain she would end up in such a role, and in reflecting on her life, she said that her proudest moment was "just never giving up."

Willis also explains how finance professionals can "own their narrative" and why it's important to be open about goals and dreams.

Also, get caught up on two news items: the IRS announcement of increased per diem standard rates for business travel and its reaffirming that the deadline for late-filing penalty relief for 2019 and 2020 tax returns is Friday, Sept. 30.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • The unusual thing that happened after Willis gave a recent graduation speech.
  • Why she focused on "own your narrative" and "be relentless" in that speech.
  • What Willis means by the phrase "speak it to believe it."
  • The career goals Willis still has for herself.

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: Welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is Neil Amato. Today's topic is a focus on career journey and more with Tiffany Willis, a CPA and an executive at Starbucks, who's taking time out of her busy schedule to join us on the podcast. You'll hear that conversation right after this word from our sponsor.

Amato: As I said in the intro, Tiffany Willis of Starbucks is joining us. Tiffany, first, welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.

Tiffany Willis: Thank you, and thank you so much for having me.

Amato: We're happy to have you. To start, I want to ask about your role at Starbucks. You serve as vice president, head of investor relations. That's a big role. How are you enjoying the role and your opportunity to make an impact with such an iconic company?

Willis: I'm thoroughly enjoying the role. I love what I'm doing. I love who I do it for. I'm with this company, as you mentioned, an iconic company, Starbucks, and I just have the pleasure of working with not only an iconic company, but the iconic founder, Mr. Howard Schultz. It is an overwhelming honor to be able to represent this company, a company that is focused on inspiring and nurturing the human spirit, one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.

Amato: Now, I could ask if you've ever dreamed of holding such a role, but based on some research we've done, a recent commencement speech, I'd say it's fairly obvious you're a dreamer. Your speech at Duquesne's Palumbo-Donahue School of Business, the school where you received your first accounting degree, drew a standing ovation. As graduation speeches go, most graduates are just like, yeah, get it over with, but this one drew a standing ovation, which was a first in school history, according to my sources. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about what you shared in that speech, because it clearly was impactful?

Willis: Thank you for commenting on it. It was definitely a highlight of my year. That speech took place earlier this year. Yes, I was told as well it was the first standing ovation at a commencement speech at the school, which I could not believe because I graduated from that school over 20 some years ago and just would have assumed by now that they would have had a standing ovation for a commencement speaker. My focus and going back and giving that speech was really about what can I pour into others that will make a difference, and what can I say to them that they weren't remember, not just me, but their graduation day 20-some years later? For me, it was almost a letter to my younger self. What did I wish someone would have told me on that particular day as I set out to sail in my career?

The theme of my speech, which I got a little bit of the inspiration actually from my boss, the CFO, Ms. Rachel Ruggeri at Starbucks, which was owning my narrative. She said, "Tiffany, you have a great story to tell, where you've been, where you're at, and where you're going. Share it with them." That really helped craft the story line of the importance of owning your narrative. I shared with all of the graduates where I've been, which was being raised in an all-American family, and my father was in the military and in Air Force, and my mother was all about community service, and how I really grew up in this white-picket-fence household until everything changed when I found myself at 14, in ninth grade, pregnant, and that led to me being a dropout. Then I took them through that journey of what that's like of being a high school dropout, being homeless, living in shelters, all the way to then where I was at that point, which was standing in front of them as the head of investor relations for Starbucks, managing $100 billion in market cap. The thread of that story was all about the importance of owning your narrative.

Amato: You've touched on some of the details of your story, but could we go into some details a little bit more about the parts of it that maybe you're most proud of?

Willis: Absolutely. When I think about my story and what I'm most proud of, I've never probably had to answer that question before, so that's an interesting one. I look back, and I probably think about it as I just had to get through each chapter of my life, because sometimes when you're in the midst of something, there's nowhere to go but up. I don't necessarily think of the word "proud" when I look back as far as one particular moment. I just did what I had to do. I guess my proudest moment if I had to pick one was just never giving up. I think too often people feel like they are in a dark chapter of their lives and they may not feel like there's an option or a path that's very clear for them to navigate. For me, I just never thought that way. It was always put one foot in front of the other. If I had to pick a part of what am I most proud about, it would probably be just not giving up.

Amato: I think that's a good lesson. We've all had moments where we just maybe wanted to give up. You didn't and hear you are. Now, you mentioned that phrase, "own your narrative" as one that you used as a theme in the speech. Another one was "be relentless." You want to explain a little more about those phrases and what they mean to you?

Willis: Yeah. The own your narrative as head of investor relations, one of the things that I do is I am a ghost writer for my executives, you're a ghostwriter for the CEO, CFO, and crafting a story line, a script for Wall Street, and managing the messaging for Wall Street. The "owning your narrative" was a little bit of play on my actual job is what I do as a ghostwriter, but the other part of that and why it resonated with me so much is the importance of owning your narrative is so often we allow others, our parents, our community, our educators, our friends, our family to tell you what you're good at and tell you what you're not good at and tell you where you should go and how you should go about it. Owning your own narrative is really about you controlling your destiny, and you finding what works for you, and you staying focused on that, and then doing whatever you have to do to capture it, to realize it. That was part of the own your narrative. If I would have listened to all the voices and all the influences in my life at that pivotal point of being a ninth-grade dropout, I would not be where I am today because I would've allowed others to own my narrative, which in a way, thinking back was not much positive feedback at that time in my life. That's why I really hold on to that "own your narrative."

Then be relentless. If there's a will, there's a way, and when someone wants something, they'll do what's convenient, but when you're committed to something, you'll do whatever it takes, and to me that's be relentless. I, myself, have these big, lofty dreams and goals, and I've always been a dreamer. Years ago people would tell me that some of my dreams are unrealistic and perhaps don't even share some of the dreams because it's just so far-fetched. Then here I am, I've realized some of those goals and some of those dreams, and then I still have dreams to realize. Even today some people will say, "Wow, those are some big lofty, dreams," but one day I'm going to realize them, and I'm going to look back and say, "I remember when they said these are big, lofty dreams." That's that crutch of be relentless. You just have to go for what you really want in your heart and your soul, and you just don't take no for an answer. That's how I've been living my life and how I continue to live my life.

Amato: Do you want to share any of those dreams, and where I'm going with that, too, is it important to maybe state them to help them come to fruition?

Willis: Absolutely. I always say you got to speak it to believe it. And if you're not willing to speak it and put it out in the universe, if you're too shy to say what your dreams are, then you don't believe them, and if you don't believe them, how will you actually action them, and how will others believe them? Some of my goals, I wanted to be a commencement speaker, and then there I was, I realized that goal. I also want to write a book and be an author. I want to be a motivational speaker. I have said that I want to be the female version of The Pursuit of Happyness. I always thought, well, Will Smith played him, so maybe Jada Smith could play me. I always thought about being in that movie, featured on myself, and just telling my background and my story to try and get some inspiration to other young adults and the youth that may have had a hurdle in their life, and may just be trying to navigate and say "can I make it," I want to give them that reinforcement and encouragement that if I can do it, you can do it, too.

I also have a dream of being the CEO of a thriving business. Many people say, well, you can be a CEO, just open up your own business. No, not my own business, a thriving business, like Fortune 500. Again, it may sound like this big, lofty goal, but I tell people if you want it, you got to dream it, you got to go secure it. I have no problem speaking my dreams into the earth and the atmosphere because, when you speak it, you believe it, and that's how you action it.

Amato: You've been giving advice to recent graduates, so what I'd like to ask is what other advice would you give for accounting graduates and, in particular, or even those already in the accounting profession who may be struggling to find their niche, may need a lift?

Willis: I would say those that are in the accounting profession or recent accounting graduates, you have to discover what you enjoy. I think too often, especially when I think about accounting students and when I speak to recent graduates, there's this already formed notion of what their profession will be, what their title will be, you're a CPA, you should go this route. And here I am as a CPA, and I'm in finance and investor relations, which naturally is not tied to being a CPA, but that's because I was very open and fluid and took on additional projects and took on additional responsibilities to really just develop my craft and to find what I really enjoyed. I would just say for those students, although you're graduating with this accounting degree, although you may be pursuing your CPA, there's great professions, great roles, great titles in that arena, but also, just pursue your passion. If something leads you a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right, definitely do not turn your blind eye to it because it could actually be the profession that gives you the most fulfillment, such as what I've found in investor relations.

Amato: Tiffany, these have been some good lessons, good discussion points today. Anything you'd like to add as a closing thought?

Willis: I totally enjoyed my time with you today, Neil. I would say as a closing thought, there is nothing more important than owning your narrative. I would encourage everyone, whether they're recent graduates , they're even seasoned professionals and adults, that it's never too late to own your narrative, and so I encourage everyone to do that in whatever way that fits their lifestyle and fits some of the decisions that are on the horizon for them.

Amato: Tiffany, thanks for being on the Journal of Accountancy podcast.

Willis: Thank you, Neil.

Amato: Again, that was Tiffany Willis. We appreciate her joining the show.

This is the episode for Thursday, Sept. 29, and we have some news to pass on. First, the IRS late last week reaffirmed that the deadline for late-filing penalty relief for 2019 and 2020 tax returns is tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 30.

An IRS statement said that it understood the concerns being raised by the tax community and others about the Sept. 30 penalty relief deadline, but it didn't extend the deadline. Over the summer, the AICPA had twice asked the IRS to extend the penalty relief deadline to the end of the year.

Also, the IRS announced a slight increase in per diem standard rates for business travel. Paul Bonner is writing about Notice 2022-44, which says that the high-low method rates will be slightly higher and the list of high-cost localities in the continental United States is being revised, both effective on Saturday, which is Oct. 1.

You can find those articles in this episode's show notes. Visit journalofaccountancy.com for more news. This is Neil Amato with the JofA. Thank you for listening to the Journal of Accountancy podcast.