Don’t give up on your dreams, but also don’t be so inflexible that you aren’t willing to pivot when it makes sense.
A long time ago, I was a young girl who dreamt of being a diplomat like my idol, Mike Mansfield, the longest-serving U.S. ambassador to Japan. As a product of an international marriage between an American father and a Japanese mother, I knew the importance of the skills needed for effective diplomacy to keep a relationship strong, especially among people who don’t share the same native language and culture. Born and raised in Japan but attending school in English on American military bases, I translated for my parents in case of disagreements, and I aspired to be an ambassador of peace to avoid the horrors of war, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki the top-of-mind examples.
Although that dream seems idealistic now, I worked hard in school to achieve it. I became the first person in my family to attend college and graduate school, earning degrees at top international relations programs in the United States. I was on track to enter the field of foreign service until the second year of graduate studies when I realized that the chance of being assigned to a diplomatic position in Japan, let alone becoming an ambassador, was slim to none. I decided to pivot to the management accounting and finance profession.
Finding Passion in Finance
To pay for schooling, I had a part-time bookkeeping job at a nonprofit association that worked with pharmaceutical companies. That was my first experience working in finance and the healthcare industry. I decided to concentrate my job search on pharmaceutical companies with the eventual goal of being transferred to Japan. It was still my dream to use my language skills and work in my childhood home.
Upon graduation, I landed in the management trainee program at the headquarters of Sandoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical company, in Basel, Switzerland. It was a two-year program at the main office followed by a rotation to Japan. During my training, however, Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy and became Novartis. Instead of moving to Japan, I found myself immersed in the merger, measuring cost synergies and assessing headcount reductions. I moved up the corporate ladder working in the finance department at Novartis and then transferred to MSD, the Swiss affiliate of Merck & Co., Inc. I loved my work and passionately presented forecasts to senior executives and supported business partners to achieve the company’s strategic plans.
A supervisor told me that I’d need to obtain an accounting certification if I wanted to continue to progress up the ranks at the company. I searched the internet and found the CMA® (Certified Management Accountant) program. It was perfect for me because it aligned with everything I was doing as a financial planning and analysis (FP&A) manager; it didn’t require prior accounting credits; and the exams could be taken in Switzerland. I joined the program and started studying.
At the time, the CMA exam consisted of four parts, and I needed four years to pass it while working full-time and starting a family. I took three out of the four parts of the exam while pregnant, first with my son and then with my daughter. As I went in to take the last part of the exam, my colleagues and family joked, “We don’t care if you pass; just don’t give birth in the Prometric center!” At that time, there was no essay, and your exam results were given immediately. I was overjoyed at passing, and five days later, I safely gave birth to my daughter.
Life Throws You Curveballs
With the CMA in hand, my responsibilities increased, and I became a financial controller with a small team reporting to me. As a mother with young children, I campaigned for MSD leadership to create a job-sharing role, which was unheard of at that time. The managing director agreed, and thereafter I worked three days a week in the office and spent the rest of the time with family. Through this arrangement, I was able to teach my kids Japanese and expose them to Japanese culture. It felt like I had achieved true work-life balance.
One year later, my position was eliminated in a company-wide restructuring. In hindsight, it was no surprise that a job-sharing position would be the first to go. With a large merger and patent expirations on the horizon, the company needed to trim expenses across the board. I knew it had nothing to do with my performance; my managing director fought hard in an ultimately futile effort to keep me.
I started my own business in finance consultancy and volunteered at IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants). While setting up IMA’s Switzerland Chapter, I got to know IMA senior executives, including Jeff Thomson, president and CEO, and Jim Gurowka, senior vice president of global business development, who asked me to work for IMA in Europe as a consultant. This opportunity allowed me to remain in the finance world and interact with FP&A managers, controllers, and CFOs. I still intended to go back to finance once my children were older.
Eight years into that Europe role, I suffered a serious stroke. Neither my family nor I realized the gravity of what was happening. Fortunately, a first responder recognized the signs and immediately sent me to the closest stroke unit. Every minute counts when someone is suffering a stroke, as the brain is literally dying from insufficient oxygen-carrying blood. Later I found out that the likely cause of my stroke was a previously undiagnosed patent foramen ovale (PFO), a small hole in the upper chambers of my heart. Millions of people live with this condition, often without problems. I chose to have surgery to close the hole with a medical device to prevent a recurrence of a stroke.
Today, I have no visible aftereffects, but one invisible impairment persists: intermittent dyscalculia, which causes difficulties working with numbers and makes people more prone to making mistakes in mathematical calculations. Every once in a while, I will misstate numbers; for example, I will say 4,000 when I mean 40, or “twice a year” when I mean “twice a month.” It was hard to accept the loss of my accounting and financial abilities. I joked with Jeff that “I’m a CMA but can’t talk about numbers anymore.”
More than four years later, I’ve come to terms with my condition. I’m grateful that Jeff and Jim and IMA leadership still sees value in my work despite my disability. Although I may no longer aspire to be a CFO, I can still do business development to engage IMA’s target audience of CFOs, controllers, FP&A managers, and other finance professionals, as well as students. I work part-time remotely from Switzerland to spread awareness of IMA and the CMA in Japan and Korea, two countries that didn’t have dedicated support previously. Finally, I can apply my Japanese language skills to my job. I’m also gaining knowledge about the Korean culture and market, which my half-Korean husband appreciates.
In addition, I’m a member of two not-for-profit stroke associations. I’ve had other stroke survivors reach out to me and tell me about their insecurities when faced with sharing this information with their employers. I truly believe in bringing your whole self to work and that also means sharing vulnerabilities such as health conditions. As IMA leadership shows, a good organization will support people with disabilities, especially considering the importance of diversity, equality, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives.
Today, I’m living my childhood dream of being an ambassador, just in a different way than I’d imagined. With IMA, I’m growing a professional network in Japan and Korea and encouraging people to obtain their CMA certification. Within the stroke community, I’m advocating for other stroke survivors and raising awareness for faster recognition and treatment. In retrospect, it was fortunate that I didn’t join the foreign service. It’s far more interesting being an ambassador for several causes, rather than representing just one country.
Life works in mysterious ways. My advice is to persevere despite unexpected events and hardships, which will inevitably happen over time. Keep your options open and diversify by maintaining hobbies, joining professional networks, and volunteering your time. Never stop dreaming, either. Your path might be windy with unexpected twists, like mine, but one day you’ll find yourself living in ways that might be even better than what you initially set out to do.