“We need to incorporate sound financial training early in a child’s education” with Tyler Gallagher & Sonia Webb

I believe we need to incorporate sound financial training early in a child’s education, teaching basic financial literacy the same way we do other necessary life skills. Some say that this should be taught in the home, but statistics show that too many families lack these skills themselves. As a part of my series about […]

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I believe we need to incorporate sound financial training early in a child’s education, teaching basic financial literacy the same way we do other necessary life skills. Some say that this should be taught in the home, but statistics show that too many families lack these skills themselves.

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonia Webb, Chief Financial Officer at Avanade.

As Chief Financial Officer, Sonia Webb is responsible for Avanade’s global investment strategy and management, as well as its financial operations, including accounting, budgeting, tax, internal audit, financial planning and treasury.

Sonia joined Avanade in July 2019 as Global Finance Lead bringing 25+ years of experience, including 22 years with Accenture. At Accenture she most recently had served as Finance Director, North America, where she drove strategic financial priorities across the company’s largest market. Previously she was Finance Director for Accenture’s Communications, Media & Technology business in North America and earlier, a member of the Corporate Development Transaction Services team, where she provided critical financial deal shaping guidance across a variety of industries and offerings.

Sonia holds an MBA in finance and accounting and a degree in economics. An avid horseback rider, when she isn’t working, you’ll find her out in nature with her family.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?

You know, when I was growing up, my family had very little money. I worked through high school and college. I was a waitress, I tutored calculus. I was a resident advisor, I worked in the library. I hustled all through college!

Because I was so busy working, I chose my college major based on the subject that came easiest to me, economics. Still, I wrote my senior honors thesis on participatory democracy and women in the workforce, and I planned to attend Cornell University to pursue a masters’ degree in industrial labor relations.

Fate, however, had different plans for me. About a month before graduating, one of my friends said, “A bunch of us are going to New York to interview with several finance firms. Would you like to come along?” As I had never been to New York and this was an offer of a free ride, I whipped up a quick resume and joined them.

I sailed through a series of interviews and to this day believe that the fact that I didn’t actually want any of the jobs eliminated any nerves and helped boost my confidence. I received four job offers! Suddenly I had to make a decision: continue on to Cornell to pursue a masters’ degree, but also add to my student debt, or grab what seemed like a chance of a lifetime and start a career on Wall Street. Much to my honors adviser’s disappointment, I chose Wall Street and worked there for four years before joining Accenture. During those years, I also completed my MBA at NYU Stern School of Business.

In retrospect, I have no regrets about the path I chose. I think the combination of my academic focus and hustle helped get me where I am today. And because I have incorporated both aspects of my academic interests into my work as a finance leader, I consider myself a CFO with Human Resources DNA. There are times when my academic background has allowed me to focus on the human side of things, giving me a more well-rounded perspective. As I tell our board, if we do the right thing for our people, they will do the right thing for our clients. If we do the right thing for our clients, we won’t have to worry about revenue or growth, because we will have more business. It’s circular. Our financials start with our people.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

Particularly in finance, I think it is easy to get buried in detail. You can dive into a spreadsheet of numbers and get lost for hours. That isn’t always a good thing.

About five years into my career, I was working on a financial model. I didn’t check my work carefully enough before sending it to the firm’s partner, who immediately found a mistake. It was embarrassing and frustrating, but I had been so deep into the details that I had missed it. As soon as someone with fresh eyes looked at the model, my mistake stood out like a blinking red light.

That experience taught me the importance of balancing the precision and accuracy required in the field of finance with a corresponding imperative to step back and take a fresh look to make sure I am seeing the bigger picture.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Right now we are deep into budgeting for our next fiscal year. That is hard core finance. But with that responsibility comes enormous opportunity. Our CEO Pam Maynard and our entire leadership team are committed to our company purpose, which is to make a genuine human impact. As a technology company, that means using our global workforce of Microsoft professionals to personally and as a company partner with our clients on initiatives that make a difference in the lives of others, something that is more important than ever today.

One recent example of making a human impact is our work with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. Its collaboration platform, NHSmail, delivers email and collaboration capability to approximately 1.2 million users across 16,000 separate NHS organizations. As you might imagine, the Covid-19 crisis placed significant demands within NHS to keep care teams connected from remote locations. In response to this demand, Avanade, Accenture and Microsoft worked collaboratively with the NHS to rapidly implement Microsoft Teams for all 1.2 million users. I had a chance to speak with a couple of the Avanade team members supporting this project, and I was so inspired as they described the profound impact it had for clinicians and patients, who are now able to use the platform to securely send instant messages, complete audio and video calls and host virtual meetings between users across England.

At Avanade, we make our corporate citizenship initiatives central to who we are and what we do. Even in this uncertain economy, our CEO has committed to maintaining our ability to bring the power of our technology to non-profits and social service organizations that would not otherwise be able to afford them.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

For me, it is Avanade’s collaborative culture. Avanade people truly look out for one another. Our leadership team has set the standard to make sure Avanade employees feel inspired, confident and cared for. Here again, this couldn’t be more important than it is today. All levels of the company have come together to support one another as we wrestle with the effects of this global pandemic in our personal and work lives. Avanade leaders at all levels are taking concrete steps every day to support Avanade employees and their families.

For example, as part of Avanade’s corporate citizenship commitment, every employee at Avanade has eight paid hours a year they can use to volunteer to support a cause or organization of their choice. To reflect the greater needs in our communities at present, Avanade has lifted that eight-hour cap through the end of the year, making it possible for technologists on the bench or others with a few spare hours to join a team helping others. I have been personally inspired by the stories of Avanade teams working on projects that support our communities and frontline workers.

Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

In terms of gender diversity, I do think things have changed, especially in corporate finance. Of course, it’s certainly not where it needs to be yet, but there has been progress. For example, our internal finance team at Avanade is more than 50% women.

On the corporate side, there’s a lot of pressure now, rightly so, for corporations to be more diverse and inclusive. And while it is incredibly important to have a diverse leadership team, it is equally important to build inclusivity from the bottom up. This takes time but is the only way to drive sustainable change across an organization. In finance, we need to do what other fields have done: actively recruit diverse classes of new employees the entry level and then nurture, coach and provide support as these young careers progress.

At Avanade, we have a strong culture of mentoring and coaching, with specific programs for college STEM scholars and women at the company who will be the next generation of leaders. I would love to see that happen across our industry, so that as more young women see finance at the heart of every business decision and not simply a back office support function, they select finance careers and are given the support they need to thrive along their career journey.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

My three recommendations are related:

  • Become an active advocate and ally. Look for opportunities to step up and advocate for programs that directly support a pipeline of women leaders.
  • Encourage mentoring, coaching and teaching. We all can learn from the experts in our field and we benefit from having champions who will talk through the challenges we face and, when appropriate, help open doors.
  • Don’t be afraid to coach someone — and don’t pass up the benefits that come from working with a coach. Personally, I benefit both from working with a coach and being a coach.

Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

I believe we need to incorporate sound financial training early in a child’s education, teaching basic financial literacy the same way we do other necessary life skills. Some say that this should be taught in the home, but statistics show that too many families lack these skills themselves.

To do this, I would:

  • Add a Budgeting 101 course early, by middle school at the latest, that introduces personal finance best practices with examples appropriate for that age group. My 15-year-old son is growing up learning how to budget his allowance, earn more through chores and we even practice the concept of credit. If he wants to spend more than he has today I charge him the family interest rate!
  • Continue that education at the high school level, introducing personal finance best practices and concepts with real-world examples to incentivize savings and show how compound interest works. For example, you can’t just say it is good to save money. You have to demonstrate the benefits with real-world examples that catch students’ attention.
  • Teach how to avoid predatory lending. At some point in our lives, many of us have been susceptible to get-rich-quick schemes, no-money-down scams and lending rip-offs. Learning early about unscrupulous schemes and how to spot someone who is trying to take advantage of you is something that could benefit many students in the long run.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

  • Don’t assume that because you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t need a financial plan. When I was 16, I knew I was going to have to save for my first car. I saved two summers’ worth of babysitting money and, for $700, bought my first car, a pea green 1970 Chevy Malibu.
  • Getting a credit card offer in the mail doesn’t mean you need to start spending beyond your means! I learned this lesson the hard way in college.
  • Make sure you understand every single one of your company’s benefits, especially any 401K match and employee stock purchase programs. These can be fantastic ways to build wealth. I began contributing to my 401K in my first year out of college.
  • Read the fine print of any financing agreement before you decide to proceed. All too often people are drawn in by a deal that turns out to be too good to be true.
  • No money down is not always in your best interest, as typically comes with high interest rates and onerous penalties. I’ll reiterate my point above — always read the fine print and if it sounds too good to be true, if often is!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ll share some fabulous advice I got from Accenture CEO Julie Sweet when she was Accenture’s North America CEO and we were preparing for our semi-annual business review. Those were — and still are — important occasions at Accenture. Our audience included the entire Accenture C-suite.

As we were rehearsing and I was walking her through the two or three slides I would be covering, she stopped me and gave me real time coaching. She said, “Sonia, you know your numbers, the audience can read what’s on the slide, don’t recite what is there. Bring the numbers to life, draw the audience in with key insights, tell the story.” Overnight, I completely changed how I approached my business reviews and continue to hone my storytelling skills every day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” — Dr. Seuss

Our world is facing an unprecedented set of challenges simultaneously: the pandemic, climate change, economic uncertainty and the extremely urgent need to address systemic racism. It can seem overwhelming. It is overwhelming, but I think each of us can have a profound impact and it starts with caring.

That’s why I am so proud that our company has committed to making a genuine human impact. Earlier this year, we told the story of how we are working with Answer ALS to support a worldwide open-source medical research initiative that is pioneering a new way to search for treatment options for ALS patients. We provide full scholarships for women scholars entering STEM careers and have already hired some of our first graduates. As a signature partner with Junior Achievement, we help students get the digital skills they will need as the enter the workforce. Each of these is a chance for us to “care a whole awful lot” and do something about it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

As we talked about earlier, I would advocate for financial literacy for all, across the board, because of how it could change the fortunes of generations of families and communities for the better.

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