Celebrating Women Who Choose to Challenge
March 10, 2021
To celebrate International Women's Month, we are shining a spotlight on our Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Thanh, with a Q&A session. This year the theme of International Women's Month is #Choose to Challenge, and we didn't need to look far to see how Thanh has challenged inequity and bias in her life to become the person she is today.
Thanh is the epitome of work hard, play hard. She was born in Vietnam and came to the US when she was 20 years old, determined to get her education and enter the business world.
Q. What makes you so determined?
A. There are so many factors… I grew up in a culture with traditional roles for men and women and in a culture where it was acceptable for husbands to beat their wives. I knew that I did not want to live that type of life where your husband could beat or hit his wife, and I had to find a different path. I took matters into my own hands at a young age; I hid from my parents and went to learn martial arts to protect myself! I would play with the boys, keep up with them in school work and rough and tumble games, fueling my competitiveness. I knew I could do the same things that the boys were doing, much to their surprise.
I also did not want to only cook, sew and serve my future husband whenever he decided to come home from his social life. I wanted to use my brain. My grandma, whose highest education was third grade, showed me how to be poor yet clean, lady-like yet not obedient, and always seeking education as she believed that's the key to life.
I attended a popular middle-school for the rich kids and the smart kids. My family was not wealthy, so the only way for me to be "equal" was to earn good grades. There were days my family ate only sweet potatoes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Did you know that there are white, purple, and light yellow sweet potatoes? Regardless of their colors and how many ways my mom tried to serve them to us, I did not want to eat sweet potatoes daily for the rest of my life. I knew that I needed to be financially independent and that my education would be the foundation I needed. I competed against over 400 candidates in Vietnam to be a product promoter for National (a sister brand of Panasonic) at 18 years old. My first salary was $175 per month.
Coming to the US at the age of 20 was exciting and challenging, especially since I needed to learn English before attending college. Everything was new! There were incidents where students or professors discounted my knowledge or my commitment to learning since English was not my primary language. Each time I faced discrimination or bias, it added fuel to my determination to get good grades and learn more about business.
Q. How did the challenges you faced help you become the person you are today?
A. Every challenge strengthens me, teaches me new skills, and enlarges my heart. I am stronger but also more compassionate. I understand what it is like to know nothing, have nothing, and be discounted or looked at like I don't belong. I did not get where I am today without kind-hearted people helping guide me, so I strongly believe in paying forward.
Q. While in college, you focused on business classes. Why did you choose accounting?
I have always dreamed of owning my own business. I decided to pursue an accounting career because accounting is the backbone of business. Without understanding accounting, businesses may not know why they fail nor know how to grow correctly. I love translating to business owners and executives what the numbers mean to their business and vision beyond the typical accounting and taxes you expect from your CPA.
I enjoy all aspects of business, and choosing to become a CPA allows me to expand my wings and learn about the demands in multiple industries. Working with companies of different sizes and industries energizes me to continue learning and bringing my clients the best possible outcomes.
Q. Accounting is a prestigious job, and working at a large firm is the goal of many CPAs. Why was it important for you to start your own firm?
A. Many reasons come to mind. Accounting firms and culture have traditionally been male-dominated. When you look around the board room table at the partners, there is a lack of diversity. While there has been some progress in the accounting profession in the last few years, accounting is generally known for having a conservative culture. Our industry has been slow to respond to the changes we see today in the business world.
I have seen many good people crushed by the demands of accounting and CPA firms, all in the name of getting ahead. Missing out on life events or even dinner most nights to ensure they make their billable hours. It breaks my heart to see professionals once so inspired to help clients question if they should continue in this profession.
Unfortunately, women in many professions, including accounting, feel penalized in their careers for having a family. Their job must always come first, and the work-life tradeoff can be too high a price to pay. I knew from my experience that you could do both in the right environment where your contributions are recognized and celebrated. I believe that you should not ignore the contributions of anyone who works hard because they don't fit into the traditional CPA mold.
My husband Lino and I looked at our priorities in our life and realized that we were not the only CPAs who wanted to do great work for our clients and have a family. Additionally, the business world is changing, and we knew we needed to challenge the long-established CPA mindset. I knew that we needed to create a company that didn't deny the opportunity for advancement to women who chose to have a family. It was also important to me that we could ensure we had equal pay for all employees, which is still a challenge in many companies and industries.
Q. What are some of the benefits you bring to your clients that may have been challenged in the past?
A. The traditional CPA approach of contacting your client once or twice a year doesn't work for many companies. That approach perpetuated the business owner's fear of contacting their CPA because the CPA would bring only bad news in terms of taxes owed and say no to new expenses. We believe in a more consultative approach and forming business partnerships with our clients. After all, who wants to work with someone who says no all the time?
We know our clients are passionate about their business, and we are passionate about helping our clients with their goals, planning, and how they can save money. We want to help our clients be successful. If the business community has learned anything the last year, relationships matter. Our team is here to advise and help our clients plan for the post-COVID-19 world, which requires us to invest time and energy to get to know about our client's business beyond the balance sheet. We want to understand what makes them get excited, their goals, and how we can help implement plans that secure their vision and build a legacy. You can't build deep relationships if you are talking to your CPA once a year at tax time.
Q. How do your values shape the Cambaliza McGee LLP team?
A. Our mission is to provide a strong work/life balance for everyone on our team, the highest level of expertise and respect for our clients, and to support those in need in our communities.
I knew it was essential to create an atmosphere where continued learning was a priority.
When you graduate from school, you have technical accounting skills, but you don't always understand the business world's nuances. I was fortunate to have professionals help me transition into the workforce, and now I want to take it a step further. I think it is essential to mentor upcoming talent. I love to see the spark when new team members learn to connect the dots between their formal education and client needs. One of the frequent discussions I have with our team is to continue to challenge themselves to grow and become mentors. Giving back to others professionally or supporting those in need in our community are values both Lino and I aspire to practice daily.
Q. What does "work hard, play hard" mean to your firm?
A. I think we offer a unique perspective since we have experience in larger, more traditional firms. Our firm is the bridge between conventional accounting jobs and understanding what is essential for our team to succeed. We know there is no hard line between your work life and home life anymore- that is the old way of thinking. The time demands in this industry can be a challenge, but we want to be as flexible as possible to attract talented people.
I look around at our employees and know they devote many hours each week to our business and clients, and I needed to create an environment where we recognize their talents and motivate them. We spend a lot of time in our offices, and we are all foodies, so many of our celebrations revolve around sharing snacks or a team lunch.
We spend the bulk of our days sitting in front of our computers, so we enjoy getting outside when possible. We love to organize beach days or hikes; it is important to our mental health to get outside and have fun together.
After all the challenges I have faced, coming to a new country, learning a new language, managing my career, and creating a beautiful family, I know I am blessed. It was essential to create a firm where people are respectful and kind to each other and know that we can work together to figure out problems even during our most challenging times. I am grateful that my determination to challenge the status quo has helped create our company.