I was born in Uzbekistan during the Soviet era. Growing up, I spoke Russian and Uzbek, and lived a very simple, modest life. But I dreamed about speaking English and building a city. I envisioned the happy residents generating rental income and giving back to the investors in the form of dividends.
When I shared this dream with my father, however, he stopped me dead in my tracks. “Are you crazy?” he whispered. “This is a Soviet socialist republic! Real estate developments? Taking contributions, investments to generate dividends? You’ll go to prison for speaking this out loud! Don’t you dare repeat this, ever!”
He wasn’t being unrealistic, but neither was I. In the fall of 1989, a few months after my talk with my dad, we came to America. We had no way back, no home, no relatives, no friends, no food, no money, and no knowledge of what to expect in our new country.
School was a new reality, far from my dreams. As it turned out, my new school was one of the worst in the country, so overcrowded and understaffed that it took two principals to manage. By my senior year, I had changed schools three times; looking for an alternative, I decided to do an internship. The company, however, was like something out of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” complete with toxic behavior, selective professionalism, and questionable ethics. I felt small and insignificant, a feeling that continued after I graduated high school and was forced to attend community college because of my weak academic performance. But I refused to let that feeling define me. “This small and insignificant person is not me,” I said to myself. “I want to be noticed, respected, and appreciated. I want to add value.”
To accomplish this, I chose a major in business management and jumped in headfirst. One of my first classes was accounting, which I quickly fell in love with. The double-entry system gave me a feeling of consistency and control that I had lacked since coming to the United States, and I took pride in understanding the complex principles and being able to explain them to others. I quickly became a tutor in all accounting subjects and a teacher’s assistant in several. I was becoming recognized as one of the most dedicated students and the best tutor on campus, and this continued after I switched to a four-year school. There, I decided that I had found my calling and changed my major to accounting (with a double minor in economics and business and liberal arts). I kept up a 3.7 GPA while holding three part-time jobs and maintaining active involvement in every organization, club, and society I could find. I also took internships at New York City’s Department of Investigation, Arthur Andersen, and Price Waterhouse.
Climbing the Ladder
After school, I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers’s financial and real estate audit services department. Working at a large firm was a great experience; we were given the best resources, worked alongside the smartest people in the profession, and learned invaluable skills. We were bombarded with recruiter calls, reminding us that we were the hottest commodity on the market, with the doors open in every industry, field, or company. After two years, I passed all four parts of the CPA exam and felt like I was on the top of the world. I finally began to feel appreciated and confident, but I wanted more. Being a second year audit staffer at PricewaterhouseCoopers felt like being a very small fish in a very large ocean.
Eventually, I took an internal audit job at a Fortune 500 cosmetics company. It was the heavy travel that sold me on the position, as I saw the world while wearing hundreds of different hats and doing more than just accounting. The job entailed not only the financial audit, but also making sure every aspect of the business made sense. After sating my desire to travel and work overseas—and giving birth to two daughters—I moved into private accounting at a fixed-income asset manager in New York City. Among my experiences was reestablishing a relationship with a Tokyo-based CPA firm. It turned out that the firm preferred to deal only with me; just like that, I became the sole contact for that account and continued being responsible long after being promoted to a new role.
Burning the Candle at Three Ends
My next job was at a hedge fund in 2005, supporting the CFO and a group of unprofessional and unqualified accountants. I was given the responsibility to manage, but no authority. Disappointed, I called up Edward Torres, who was chair of the NYSSCPA’s Queens Chapter’s tax committee, to ask if he had any use for me in his business. Little did I know that he was about to call me to ask the same thing! So I went to work for him, assisting at his tax practice during the night and working at the hedge fund during the day. I also founded a Young CPAs of Queens Committee and became the media liaison for the NYSSCPA’s Queens and Brooklyn chapters, covering the events and news in The Trusted Professional.
Shortly after I had my third child, the hedge fund’s CFO stepped down, and I was promoted to co-manage the New York office. I was finally able to make my own decisions, add value, and take the company forward, but almost immediately I hit another wall. Now privy to more information, I realized that all of the financial and nonfinancial data pointed to one thing: the company was a sinking ship. I met with the chairman and vice-chairman to share my concerns, but they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Genie, we’ve been through times like this before. We survived.”
Six months later, as the company was terminating most of its employees, switching to the cheapest office supplies, and getting rid of its saltwater fish tank (among other indulgences), the chairman asked me, “How did you know this would happen?” I answered, “Because I am an accountant, and accounting is the most important function of a company’s business, because it provides the warning signs when the company is not doing so well.”
I have built the city I dreamed of when I was younger, whether through small real estate developments or through the city of knowledge that I built through my involvement with the State Society.
I felt bad for everyone at the company, but remained positive in my own outlook. I moved on, to a family office for one of the world’s largest hedge funds, providing accounting, financial, and tax services for two chairmen. At the same time, I got involved with the music industry, composing and (after some singing lessons) recording 10 songs for an album. When I traveled to Belarus to record two songs with my husband, I made a lot of friends, and in November 2016 they asked me to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest. Under the stage name JEKA, I became an overnight celebrity; I was invited onto the Russian version of “The X Factor.” Later, my English-language rap song “The Awakening,” all about my career path and never giving up on my dream, led to attention from a U.S. record label and a Russian talent agent, as well as opportunities in comedy and writing.
To make myself more flexible for this new side gig, I quit my job at the family office and opened my own bookkeeping, taxation, consulting, payroll, and accounting business that I run from home. I also have another business in resume, interview, and personal statement preparation. I host parties, recently began building a house, and manage real estate investments with my husband.
I have built the city I dreamed of when I was younger, whether through small real estate developments or through the city of knowledge that I built through my involvement with the State Society. I speak my favorite language on a daily basis, and now even sing in it. I am very happy I chose accounting as my tool to get where I am today. It provided me with a solid, durable foundation that gave me safety, security, and control when I needed it most. It gives me a chance to add value, which I cherish even more now that I have a direct CPA-to-client relationship. Most of all, it gave me a chance to have a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.