When you start working at a startup, you may find yourself wearing multiple hats. It’s just the nature of the beast. You have to be adaptable, Agile.
That’s exactly the position Accounting certificate graduate Molly Isenbarger found herself in. Hired as the Director of Programming at nonprofit startup Generation Citizen—right after earning a B.A. in Sociology from Brown University—Molly’s initial focus was on curriculum development.
But, as it happens at startups, “I ended up having to take on the financial management of the organization unexpectedly with zero training,” Molly recalls with a knowing smile. “I had taken one accounting basics course during my senior year. My mom told me it was a good life skill to have. [Laughs]”
But instead of being overwhelmed by this expanded position, Molly dug in and got to work. She learned by trial and error. She figured out how to run the organization’s finances, build accounting systems and fulfill the nonprofit’s GAAP requirements.
This opportunity also set in motion a self-discovery of her career trajectory. She loved the nonprofit space. She also—unexpectedly—found satisfaction and a pull toward accounting as a career.
“So when I left that nonprofit and was looking for my next role, I contacted the accounting firm that I actually work for now, Halpert CPAs, and said I was really interested in supporting other nonprofits benefit from strong accounting, to have more support, to have better financial transparency—all of which might help those organizations in the way accounting systems and guidance helped us. “
Eight years later, she’s moved up the ranks at Halpert CPAs, most recently gaining a promotion to Managing Director. This firm works exclusively with U.S.-based 501(c)3 organizations. As Managing Director, Molly oversees various areas, including:
- developing educational structures to train nonprofits on financial topics and understanding their own finances
- training non-accountant employees at these nonprofits to do bookkeeping, understand critical reports and make strategic decisions
- building accounting systems from the ground up
But in order to better support the firm and her clients, Molly knew she needed the breadth and depth of accounting knowledge and skills that our certificate provides. And that’s where we come in.
I knew I wanted to learn more and complement a lot of my on-the-job learning with a formal education.
What drew you to completing our Accounting certificate?
I knew I wanted to learn more and complement a lot of my on-the-job learning with a formal education. I wanted it to be structured and based around a certificate program so that I could ensure that I was capturing all the needed knowledge. After my first class, I already knew I wanted to pursue the CPA later on. It was a growing love every time: Every time I got to know a little more about the accounting world, I got more hooked on it.
I moved to Indianapolis when I started the certificate and did all my courses from a different time zone. [Laughs] I’m originally from California, so the UC system is near-and-dear to me. I was looking for a program that was reputable, no matter where I was living, and Berkeley obviously has that clear reputation.
Why choose a certificate as opposed to getting a master’s degree?
I wanted to balance getting enough focused education to be useful in my role without giving up my job to do a full-time student workload. I also had my first son at the time, so real life dictated the best choice for me.
The length and requirements of the certificate was a great fit where I knew I would get so much learning from it, but didn’t need to commit to a full graduate degree. Especially in the accounting world, the CPA is the ultimate credential.
I was able to pick the electives that I knew would let me have the most impact at my role.
You were working near full time while taking classes. Were you able to put lessons learned from class to work?
Yes, definitely, because you’re focusing on something different in each class of the certificate. I was able to pick the electives that I knew would let me have the most impact at my role.
My employer was extremely supportive of this pursuit because they wanted me to take on more responsibilities at the firm. I now have the educational background to do that. I’m at the point where I can build systems and educational materials for nonprofits because of the breadth and depth of knowledge that I got from the certificate—certainly more than just what I could learn on the job. I have that facility of language, the depth of topical understanding, the vocabulary—all of those pieces. This all came from the courses that I took.
What was learning online like for you?
It was an excellent experience. Having an asynchronous program was a must-have for me. I needed to be able to keep up with my job and be able to do the coursework from a different time zone.
That’s what made it so great: During those weeks where I would have a heavy workload, I could do my homework in advance. I could be the master of my own fate, schedule my study time, plan around exams, let my employer know, et cetera.
By creating a routine during the first couple of courses and then sticking with it, I got that habit back and that made a huge difference.
Working full time, personal commitments and staying dedicated to your studies, it can be easy to procrastinate. Any tips?
I’m the type of person who looks at the syllabus for my next class before my current class ends. I’m always checking in advance so that I can get a sense of how the instructor structures his or her class. It really helps you plan your life. “Oh, this class has readings every week.” So I would bake reading time into my day-to-day life.
Because online learning is so much about you reading the material and digesting it with the support of the instructor’s lectures or assignments, you know that reading or watching videos is going to be a part of your world. I usually did the readings right at the beginning of my day, right after I dropped my son off at childcare and before I got into the meat of my work day. That helped me not lose track of it.
So, my advice is to build it into your week and get into a routine. Not unlike others, I hadn’t been in a class for a while. I hadn’t done “studying” and my own academic habits in a number of years. By creating that routine during the first couple of courses and then sticking with it, I got that habit back and that made a huge difference.
Did you find community or networking opportunities in the online format?
Sometimes you’re doing a lot of interactive dialogue through discussion boards. That piece really helped me because it exposed me to all the different types of students in the class. They come from widely different backgrounds and are taking the class for widely different reasons. That’s helpful, because you want to have people push you to consider the topics outside of your own industry or “silo”—especially if you want to go into public accounting, where you’ll be exposed to tons of different kinds of businesses, different personalities, different priorities.
We would talk about ethical issues, current events and in-class topics—all of those things came to life in the classes, usually through these discussion boards.
The certificate translated to my work but also inspired future aspirations that I didn’t have before.
What does earning the certificate mean to you?
The certificate solidified this career choice. It gave me the basis to legitimize what I knew from working on the job. But now I can put that certificate on my résumé, I can talk about the accounting topics with much more fluidity with my clients, and it gave me the opportunity to move into a director role, which had been my goal and now I have that!
As soon as I got that first taste of structured accounting learning, I knew I wanted to pursue a CPA. I’ve continued my studies and will be sitting for the exam in 2022. It’ll be the culmination of many years of work.
Of course, the accounting certificate was the big foundational leap of getting closer to that CPA goal—knowing what you need to know and having the credits to sit for it. The certificate translated to my work but also inspired future aspirations that I didn’t have before.