insight magazine

A Toast to Your Evolution

When it comes to evolving professionally and personally, you need to drink up every opportunity you get. By Derrick Lilly | Spring 2017


“In wine, there’s truth.”

So said Pliny the Elder. And for Alpana Singh, there’s a ring of familiarity to that.

Singh will be keynoting this year’s Young Professionals Leadership Conference, dubbed EVOLVE, set to take place on June 2 at Revel Fulton Market in Chicago’s West Loop. This conference is all about finding the right ingredients to create a recipe for success—your success. It’s about making the transition from student to young pro, from young pro to seasoned pro, and from seasoned pro to the ultimate business leader. How you mix the necessary ingredients is up to you. But, without a doubt, they need to—and will—come together. You as a person, and you as a professional, will evolve.

When we talk about evolution, we’re really talking about bending, not breaking. We’re talking about not just fitting into the future, but shaping it. We’re talking about empowering yourself to create the career and the life you want.

Here we share the wise words of three of our EVOLVE speakers and panelists—Alpana Singh, Jackie Rosenfeldt, CPA and Curt Mastio, CPA—to prep you for this inspiring event, and help to launch your own personal growth.

A Taste For the Future

Born and raised in Monterey, Calif., Alpana Singh started out working in her family’s ethnic grocery store. Later, while waiting tables in college, Singh fell in love with wine and how it blended her interests in traveling, history and food. At 19, she pursued a path in the business with a job as a wine sales clerk, and by 23, she had landed a sommelier position at Chicago’s renowned Everest Restaurant. Three years later, Singh became the youngest woman to pass the final level of the Master Sommelier exam.

This distinguished accomplishment opened new opportunities, landing her as the host of the Emmy Award-winning restaurant review television show, "Check, Please!" Singh now owns and operates three of her own Chicagoland wine and restaurant concepts, The Boarding House in River North, Seven Lions on Michigan Avenue and Terra & Vine in Evanston, Ill.

“There’s a fluidity that’s needed in entrepreneurship. It’s a combination of intuition—you know, following that gut feeling—and then working and tweaking it until you form that future that’s right,” Singh explains.

“I don’t put timelines on things. I never had a master plan. Whenever I have ended something, it’s because it doesn’t have the same excitement it once had, it doesn’t hold the same joy that it used to,” she says. “If you wake up one day and you don’t find what you’re doing as joyful as it used to be, if it’s just part of the grind, that means it’s time to find something else.”

The point she’s making is a simple and strong one: You can either go along just fitting into the future that unfolds for you, or you can take action to shape the future you want.

“Everyone knows what it’s like to feel stuck. As a young professional you have to find a beacon. You have to find people that you admire. You have to find role models and mentors, and you have to find the person that you want to become,” she stresses. “It’s about putting yourself in positions to make opportunities. This is your time to make connections, build networks and absorb knowledge. It’s not about the big payday yet—that comes later. This is about acquiring the skill sets and experience and network that will set you up for the big pay day.”

One of the best ways to set yourself up for the opportunities you want is to volunteer for everything related to them, whether that means extra work on the job, board service, community activities or helping with fundraising events. “You just have to make yourself available. Any opportunity to get yourself out there is an opportunity to connect with people and diversify your portfolio,” Singh explains. “And don’t ever become too comfortable. The only thing you’re entitled to is opportunity. Always look for the next challenge and the next goal. Don’t assume that your talents will be recognized; make them known.

“I think we all know our true calling; we just choose not to listen to it because we think it’s too crazy or too impossible. We edit ourselves,” says Singh. “But it will keep coming back; it will keep showing up. It will get louder and louder. Instead of thinking, ‘Why me?’ start thinking, ‘Why not me?’”

Bending Not Breaking

Arthur Andersen was the place to be in the 1990s for a young accounting graduate. For three years Jackie Rosenfeldt, CPA plugged away in the firm’s audit department, gaining new skills and building a strong professional network. Then something hit her, an inkling that maybe public accounting and auditing weren’t the end all be all. So she took the turn that so many CPAs past and present take, and joined the corporate accounting world. Five years later, however, Rosenfeldt found herself at an unusual crossroads—yearning for the variety of work and experience that only public accounting offered. Leveraging the strong network she built back at Arthur Andersen, she rejoined the firm and continued along her successful career path. Then 2002 happened, and a scandal-ridden Arthur Andersen shuttered its doors—a bump in Rosenfeldt’s road, but not the end of it. Rosenfeldt and her audit team were strategically scooped up by Grant Thornton, where she became a partner only a few years later and remains a key leader of the firm’s audit services practice in Chicago.

Making Rosenfeldt’s 15-year career with Grant Thornton all the more remarkable is the fact that she accomplished much of her ascent while working a flex schedule. In other words, Rosenfeldt rose from an audit manager to a practice partner while working about 80 percent of a “typical” workload so that she could raise her family. In the minds of many, this isn’t possible.

“As long as I kept working hard and focused, it all seemed to work out,” Rosenfeldt says of her career. “You have to embrace change. You might be fearful, but you have to ride that risk versus ignoring the change that’s happening around you.”

Rosenfeldt’s story exemplifies what we mean by bending not breaking. Despite life changes and company collapses, she took each turn in stride as they occurred.

“Part of evolving is taking the time to see what’s going on around you. You have to be aware that some of the challenges and opportunities that come at you can accelerate your personal and professional growth,” Rosenfeldt explains, stressing the importance of staying curious.

“If you lose that curiosity, it’s time to think of finding a different career. I see too many folks that hesitate to jump into something new because they’re just comfortable where they’re at,” she adds. “But what if someone came and said that you might be able to earn a promotion earlier if you moved to the Detroit office? Would you do it?

“I always say that if you feel like there’s something better out there, try it. Trying corporate accounting was the best thing that happened to me. There’s something about knowing the things that you like that you need to acknowledge. You have to listen to the voice that’s in your head.”

That’s not always easy though, especially if you’re just starting out and trying to decide exactly which employer or career path is “right” for you. “Early on, you want to work and volunteer as much as you can,” says Rosenfeldt. “You want to be present so people learn about you and trust you. You want to be learning and absorbing as much information and knowledge as you can. Then, set some goals. You’ll meander without them.

“And always keep your eyes open,” she adds. “Sometimes you’re not going to like change, but usually you’ll find out on the other side that you learned a lot from it and you’re better because of it.”

And that’s evolution.

Making the Turns

“I never really wanted to follow a, quote-on-quote, traditional career path. At large organizations, there’s a lot of structure and defined paths to progress along; there isn’t always the flexibility to make a huge leap like I was hoping to make,” says Curt Mastio, CPA.

Mastio started his young career in Deloitte’s forensics practice, an interesting field, but one constrained by the structure of a large firm. “I had a good job on paper, but it wasn’t ultimately what I was looking for,” says Mastio. “At some point you need to start making moves to get you to where you want to be.”

In other words, making the turns instead of just taking the turns. For Mastio, that meant leaving the safety of his Big Four forensics gig to pursue a passion for startups.

“I was frustrated for a while in my role, and at some point I finally realized that I was either going to sit there and keep being frustrated every day or I was going to have to take the leap. I had taken an interest in startups through working with one founded by a friend. When they hit a growth milestone, they offered me the opportunity to come on in a part-time CFO manner that also let me focus on establishing my own startup clients. That was the break I needed to finally make my leap,” Mastio explains.

“My initial vision was anything but clear. I knew I wanted to head my own company, but how I got there was entirely up in the air,” he continues. “As accountants, we’re trained to be risk averse; we have to remember that we have good backgrounds, good degrees, and good in-demand skill sets that we can always fall back on. Finally, last summer I fully broke off on my own, launching my firm Founder’s CPA.”

Founder’s CPA is a Chicago-based accounting, tax and outsourced CFO services firm, specializing in serving small businesses and startups. “As in business, you need to find a way to stand out and differentiate yourself,” says Mastio. “Whether you’re in a firm, a company, or out on your own, you don’t want to be expendable at the end of the day—you want to be the person that your employer or client can’t afford to lose.”

This is especially true when you consider that the CPA role is rapidly changing, from being a numbers-cruncher to being a strategic business advisor, tech consultant, Big Data guru, and so much more. There’s also a lot of talk—and fear—about tech and artificial intelligence replacing future generations of CPAs. While Mastio certainly sees that as a possibility for some of the more basic accounting tasks, he isn’t panicked at the thought. Instead, he sees that the next generation of CPAs simply needs to use technology to its own advantage.

“I try to use every technology that I can to provide better services for my clients. You can’t be stuck in your ways. Not evolving, not learning, not growing—it’s not an option anymore. Part of professional evolution is being uncomfortable and figuring out how to do something you didn’t know how to do. Every time I talk to a client I look to learn what their pain points are, then I try to seek out better solutions. This drives my continued learning and evolution,” he explains. “If you’re sitting in your comfort zone, you’re doing yourself a disservice. If you’re completely ignoring your weaknesses, you’re not doing everything you can to evolve.”

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