Editor’s Note: The following is an extended version of an article originally published in the February 2018 print issue.
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 saw whole cities in my head, complete with luxury apartment buildings, movie theaters, swimming pools, parks, highways, and train stations. I envisioned the happy residents of those cities generating rental income and giving back to the investors their share of happiness 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. “What have you been reading?” he demanded. “Fairy tales? My dear, dear child, this is a Soviet Socialist republic where you live, where you can not only never leave, but not even go on vacation! So you can forget about your dream of speaking English and living somewhere to practice it. And what nonsense with the building of a city? Real estate developments? Taking contributions, investments to generate dividends? You not only cannot do this here, 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 entered America with open arms, extreme enthusiasm, and literally a quarter in our pockets. 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. But I still had my dream.
School was a new reality, far from my dreams. As it turned out, my new school was one of the worst schools in the country, with not only the highest dropout rates but also a high death rate due to killings, suicides, and overdoses. It was so overcrowded and understaffed, it took two principals to manage. Like many students, I survived by fitting in: wearing the camouflage of the crowd, speaking and acting like everyone else. Unfortunately, that also meant cutting school, because being a good student was seen as a weakness rather than a strength. By my senior year, I had changed schools three times.
Looking for a way out of the vicious cycle my classmates were in, I decided to do an internship so I could avoid school altogether. The company, however, was like something out of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” with drugs, sex, selective professionalism, and questionable ethics. I saw it all: rude and authoritarian management, depressed coworkers, rooms full of cigarette smoke, the foul smells of the after-parties, the huge egos, and the power of money. Just like at school, I felt small and insignificant, and was intimidated by “eat-or-be-eaten” environment.
When I graduated high school, I had limited choices due to my weak academic performance. Forced to attend community college while my friends went off to SUNY and CUNY schools, I once again felt small and insignificant. But I was tired of it. “This small and insignificant person is not me,” I said to myself. “I am tired of being that. I want to be noticed, respected, and appreciated. I want my existence to bring about positive changes. I want to build cities, bridge gaps, bring people together, and make people happy. I want to add value.”
Remembering my internship, I resolved to return to that company as a manager, where I would be the authority, and my voice would be heard and respected. 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 for most of my life. 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 solid four-year school.
There, I decided that I had found my calling and changed my major to accounting (with a double minor in economics/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 chaired various programs, wrote for the school magazine, volunteered, and made my name known both on and off campus. I attended various schools’ career days, sharing my experiences, which at the time already included internships at New York City’s Department of Investigation, Arthur Andersen, and Price Waterhouse. As I added these accomplishments to my resume, I smiled at the thought of my high school internship company’s management seeing who I had become become.
Climbing the Ladder
After school, I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers’s financial and real estate audit services department. Working at a large firm was great experience; we were constantly told that we were the brightest and the best, working with the biggest clients, and making a difference to the country’s GDP. We were given the best resources to learn, and learn we did, with the second steepest learning curve I have ever seen (the first being my immigration experience). We worked alongside the smartest people in the profession and learned invaluable skills, both soft and technical, that cannot be learned in any other environment. 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. 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 whole, appreciated, and confident, but not enough. I wanted to feel like I was adding value, like my contribution was shaping the world, and being a second- year audit staffer at PricewaterhouseCoopers felt more like being a very small fish in a very large ocean. That’s when I started paying attention to the recruiter calls.
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 adding significant value to the company doing more than just accounting. The job entailed not only the financial audit, but also making sure every aspect of the business made sense. Nothing I had done before paralleled the sense of accomplishment I felt in this job: I was monitoring system access and security for every employee at an office in Poland and designing controls to ensure the system could not be compromised; making surprise visits to various branches in Moscow and St. Petersburg to count revenues and inventories, and overseeing the automated processes at the largest manufacturing plant in Europe and providing recommendations to enhance process completion, security controls, product quality, human resources, and more.
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. Here I started out as an international accountant for three foreign offices: London, Tokyo, and Singapore. Among my experiences were 1) stopping a major criminal activity in London and 2) reestablishing and maintaining a severed relationship with a Tokyo-based CPA firm.
For many years, a Nigerian gang had infiltrated the London postal service, intercepting corporate vendor payments and using modern technology to modify the payee information. Part of my daily duties included clearing checks with the live banking feed, first thing in the morning; when I recognized a disparity with a check that I was processing, I acted quickly. I contacted the bank in London, identifying the discrepancy as the check was being presented. The perpetrator was arrested on site, all because I did my job quickly and accurately. Let this stand as a lesson about paying attention to details.
The other event happened after I was promoted out of my international role and into revenue analysis. A Japanese-based CPA firm that supported our books in local GAAP and dealt directly with me fired us a week after I moved to my new role; the CFO asked me to contact them to see why. When we spoke, the firm said they did not like dealing with my “American colleagues,” but preferred to only deal with me. They misinterpreted American firmness and directness as aggressiveness and rudeness, and identified my personality traits as being much more relatable to their own. Just like that, I became the sole contact for that account and continued being responsible for that company long after being promoted to a new role. Because of the time difference, I had to be available at night, answering questions on my kitchen phone so as not to wake up my family, then going back to work in the morning and working into the evening, only to come home to stay up another night to do more Tokyo-related audit work.
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 searched for ways out and came across Edward Torres, at the time a Chair of the NYSSCPA’s Queens Chapter tax committee. I joined his committee and asked 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. “I’ve lost three of my staff,” he said, “and with busy season being a couple of weeks off, I could definitely use your help.” So I went to work for him, assisting at his tax practice during the night and working at the Concepts hedge fund during the day. Then I went one step further, founding a Young CPAs of Queens Committee and becoming the media liaison for the NYSSCPA’s Queens and Brooklyn chapters, covering the events and news in The Trusted Professional.
The Young CPAs Committee was a major platform for sharing my experience with young people who were eager to learn. The classwork included resume writing and interviewing, establishing networking relationships with recruiting firms, and learning markets from the financial gurus that I invited through my numerous connections. One homework assignment was to interview and share with the rest of the committee someone who had the student’s dream job. Some students ended up receiving internships and job offers due to this assignment, as it gave their interviewees a chance to get to know them in a nontraditional setting. All students gained invaluable insight into the jobs they aspired to and were able to make more informed decisions, but the greatest benefit was an opportunity to hone their interpersonal, communication, and public speaking skills. I helped the students get jobs, tutored them, and provided guidance on passing the CPA exam.
Being busy with the Young CPAs, my media liaison role, Ed’s business, and my family helped me take my mind off my daily challenges at the hedge fund, but with the arrival of my third child, my priorities shifted. I wanted tranquility and to spend more time at home. Trying to meet my challenges rather than escape from them, I continued working at the hedge fund, and was given another interesting opportunity during my maternity leave: to write a series of advertisements and represent Russian television in America for Dish Network. As I nursed my little one in my home office, I called into eight radio stations all over United States and delivered more than 64 comical programs on air, as well as worked with Russian celebrities overseas, writing scripts and short ad programs. This left me very satisfied, and I longed to do more.
When I returned to work, a drastic change took place. Our CFO stepped down, and I was promoted to run the New York office with the assistance of a U.K. expatriate. In addition, the unprofessional accountants were finally terminated and I was at liberty to bring in my own staff. I was finally free and 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 the company was headed for a disaster. All of the financial and nonfinancial data told me that the company was a sinking ship, and those at its helm had no clue. 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. We will survive again.”
Knowing it was only a matter of time before the expanding overhead, drain of talent and clients, and lack of foresight and leadership in upper management took their toll, I told them I would be looking for another job. They asked me for six months to turn things around. When six months passed and the company was now 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?” That was the moment: I was finally back at my high school internship company, but this time as someone who mattered. 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 felt bad for the chairman and others who faced the challenges of winding down the business, 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. In this capacity I have pretty much worn every hat, from lawyer to fraud deputy to charity operator to even general contractor (long story). At the same time I also began to get involved with the music industry, composing 10 songs for an album. I invested good money into this venture and began to look for a singer to sing my songs. Unfortunately, no one was able to be deliver the performance I wanted, and so took singing lessons and recorded the songs myself.
At the same time, I sought videographers to record my music videos and traveled to Belarus to record two songs with my husband. I made a lot of friends there, and they contacted me in November of 2016 to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest. When I went there, my song became an instant hit and I, under the stage name JEKA, became an overnight celebrity. I was invited onto the Russian version of “The X Factor;” my episode aired in February 2017. Later, my performance of 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 and my writing of several books, 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. And 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 my life was spinning and making me feel small and insignificant. It allowed me to travel, fight crime, and work with the world’s most intelligent people and with most up-to-date resources and technology. It gives me a chance to add value, which I cherish even more now that I have a more direct CPA-to-client relationship. Most of all, it gave me a chance to have a sense of self-worth and self-confidence.