Breaking the traditional accounting career path
Growing up in the small inland city of Bloemfontein in South Africa, Carla Venter (MBA 2021) didn’t have many professional female role models.
“I can distinctly remember being on a plane as an 18-year-old and being so impressed with the lady sitting next to me working on her laptop. She told me she ran her own business and in an instant I was inspired to do the same.”
Venter decided to qualify as a chartered accountant because she loved maths and entrepreneurship and wanted to be a ‘businesswoman’.
“On top of that, the chartered accountancy profession is one of the most highly regarded professions in South Africa, with many listed companies’ CEOs and CFOs having the qualification,” she explained. The profession comes with a set career path, with the most ambitious new accountants landing roles at the Big Four firms, where they work with large corporates and develop specialist skills in audit, tax and corporate finance.
Some become frustrated, however, by the lack of exposure to the inner workings of businesses, and feel they may be better placed to put their talent to work in industry start-ups or fast-growing scale-ups. But it’s often not clear to them how to break the traditional career path that’s been mapped out before them.
This was the case for Venter. After qualifying, she completed her three-year training contract at KPMG and went on to work at Deloitte.
“The chartered accountancy designation, along with Big Four experience, helped me become internationally mobile, work in four different countries, and understand the fundamentals of finance and tax, which I still use today,” she says.
“After nearly five years working for KPMG and Deloitte, I moved into industry in 2019, taking a role as a Finance Manager at a real estate development company: RE Capital, based in London. This was an opportunity to move out of a very structured working environment and into the ‘real world’. It was sink or swim and I embraced the challenge,” recalls Venter.
Although the role allowed her to work closely with senior executives and investors, it was ultimately still a back-office finance job and Venter still found herself wanting more exposure to the front-office, business development and deal-making side of the business.
An opportunity for personal development
Venter decided to take a break from her career to pursue a full-time MBA at IMD in 2021.
“I needed to take this opportunity because I felt stuck in my career. The biggest take-away for me from the MBA was the personal growth journey it took me on. It was an opportunity for me to really understand who I am as a person and what value I bring to a team beyond being ‘good with numbers’,” explains Venter.
After graduating from IMD, Venter’s dream of landing a role that would put her at the forefront of the fintech sector was realised when she secured a role as Head of Investments at Aperture. Aperture helps fintech companies and start-ups in Europe and the USA with their go-to-market and growth strategies, and alongside these services, invests in these companies. Venter runs the investment arm of the business and is in charge of the end-to-end investment process from deal sourcing to getting external investors on board in order to grow Aperture’s investment portfolio.
“It’s an exciting place to be. We work alongside the start-ups as if we were part of their team. It’s amazing to work with founders and to be a part of their growth journey,” says Venter, who was named as an MBA to watch in the Poets & Quants Class of 2022
Venter’s advice to young accounts graduates
“When you decide to become a CA, it can feel as though your career path is very quickly mapped out for you: you put your head down to pass exams, then complete the mandatory three-year training contract and then becoming a finance manager. The lesson I have learnt is that you need to take time out to focus on your own personal development. I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to do an MBA but even if you don’t, take time, at least every six months, to reflect on what you want out of your life and your career,” says Venter. “This will ensure you follow a career path that you are passionate about; passion shows and it pays off.”
She also emphasises the importance of identifying people that will help you realize your potential.
“Don’t underestimate the power of a network. Find a mentor and meet them often,” she advises. “There are such vastly different opportunities out there that you’ll never know about if you’re not exposed to them. If you surround yourself by people that discuss new ideas, new industries and different career paths, you’ll broaden your horizons and be encouraged to try something new.”
At this point in her career Venter is clear that success is not just about mastering the technical skills.
“When you become an accountant, you’re measured against your theoretical knowledge. But to be honest, knowing what your personal strengths are, identifying and improving on weaknesses, and optimising team dynamics are far more important than any theoretical knowledge. Read about, and listen to, the advice of great business leaders and you will discover that it’s the softer skills, like how you identify and develop others’ talent, that are far more important if you want to build an impactful and satisfying career,” she concludes.