Meenal Agarwal grew up listening to her father talk about managing business activities, operations and finances for the transportation and logistics company he built from scratch in Mumbai, India. These daily conversations between Meenal’s parents, younger brother and herself were intriguing.
“I belong to a business family,” Meenal explains, “and my dad would always talk about how the business was going, the new deals he managed to crack, any issues being faced by the business, et cetera. He was always very quick with numbers and analysis.
“Being creative by nature, I always liked how my dad found new, creative ways to tackle issues, how he would find ways to manage finance and funds for business additions, how he would go about creating profit margins.”
So it’s no surprise that Meenal pursued a bachelor’s degree in business and finance from University of Mumbai.
“I knew I wanted to do something like my dad where I am managing the operations and finances of a company, and eventually even become a business owner.”
Slight Turbulence on Her Career Path
As Meenal can attest, though, life circumstances sometimes derail your well-thought-out plans.
“I got married very soon after I earned my undergraduate degree,” she says. “I was 21 and we moved from India to San José, California. But because I was on a dependent visa, I could not work at that point, and by the time my green card was processed, I was a mother of two kids.”
Meenal soon realized that her business skills needed to be updated, and she began to take courses to prepare for her entry into the U.S. workforce. Then she hit another roadblock as her family circumstances changed once again.
“I decided it was time for me to work and enrolled in some refresher finance courses in a community college nearby,” Meenal relates. “However, unable to get support from my now ex-husband, I was not able to work at that time. In the meantime, I spent time volunteering at my children's school; I even took courses in childhood development and had wanted to eventually open my own school. However, that did not work out either due to the time commitment required and family pressures.”
But in 2018, the time appeared to be right for our Certificate Program in Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A).
“I kept researching to find the right path for me and found the financial planning and analysis certificate,” she says. “A friend of mine who was an engineer wanted to transition into finance and was thinking of enrolling in this certificate; they suggested it to me, as well. I reviewed the certificate details, the courses involved and the testimonials from students. The certificate courses focused on refreshing accounting skills, as well as understanding and analyzing financial statements of a company, which form the basis for understanding the financial health of a company.
“In addition, the certificate included knowledge areas like corporate finance, international finance, financial modeling and analysis,” Meenal continues. “It would impart skills to understand the financial workings of an organization and to be able to make recommendations based on a well-informed and well-laid-out financial model with accurate assumptions.”
Building Knowledge and Connections
“One of the courses that stands out for me is Corporate Financial Analysis and Modeling,” Meenal recalls, “which I took with instructor Ehab Saad.
“This course went in depth to help us analyze the financial statements of companies and understand their financial standing and investment strategy. After thorough analysis, we were required to make recommendations for the company's path forward. We chose real companies and then created a project based on the analysis of their financial statements and their future prospects in the market.
“Another course that stood out was the Basic Corporate Finance course,” she adds. “We were assigned a group project where we had to choose a company; create a complete analysis report and present it in front of the class; share whether we would recommend the students buy stocks in this company; and provide the future prospects of the company in the markets based on their investments, revenue and profit-margin graph.”
And how did her experience with fellow students aid her educational goal?
“Everyone was driven to learn and to gain the knowledge from real-life scenarios,” Meenal says. “As I was not working when I started this program, it was great to hear the questions posed by my fellow students regarding real-world issues that they faced while working. This gave me an understanding of the issues faced by other financial analysts, the mindset of the employees and company leadership and management, expectations from the employees and the general culture of companies.
“I also connected with a lot of people and learned from their experiences during class presentations. During brainstorming sessions, it was great to see the innovative and creative ideas that students came up with to solve problems.”
The certificate program gave Meenal the boost she needed to enter the field she wanted—including providing her with a new network.
“Soon after I started my coursework at UC Berkeley Extension, I started looking for a job,” she says. “And during my job search, I reached out to some of the students with whom I connected during the courses.”
It didn’t take Meenal long to get a foot in the door as a financial analyst for Illumio, a cybersecurity company.
“I was absolutely new, had no experience, but I was driven and wanted to start working and create value for the company and the team with my work,” Meenal says. “Soon enough, I was called for a junior-level financial analyst interview—and I cracked it! The lessons learned from my courses at UC Berkeley Extension greatly helped me.”
But it was more than just the connections with fellow students that Meenal benefited from. The certificate coursework played a big part of her on-the-job career growth.
“Illumio was an eight-year-old startup at the time I joined,” she explains. “The finance team was small, and as a result I was able to wear multiple hats and learn a lot—from accounting work, like vendor management and posting invoices, to creating profit and loss (P&L) statements based on sales and expense trends for past quarters, plus analyzing the business outlook of the company for the future.
“The Financial Accounting and Managerial Accounting courses helped with the accounting work. I believe it is essential to understand the basics of finance before you can make predictions about the financial health of a company. Furthermore, the experience and lessons learned during the coursework for the certificate helped me with forecasting and preparing reports.
“These courses gave me the confidence that I could understand and analyze the financial statements of a company and make recommendations,” she continues. “They most definitely prepared me for my role as a financial analyst, which required me to analyze financial statements and reports and derive data points, which I then used to create a forecast for the upcoming quarters and years. By studying the data of the P&L report and the general ledger (GL) report, I gather trends and data regarding the sales pattern of the company and its expenditure habits, and put together a complete forecast for the upcoming year.”
Analyzing Her Own Past, Present and Future
With the confidence Meenal had gained working at Illumio, she was ready to be part of a company and a team where she could work solely in financial planning and analysis.
“I got a wonderful opportunity at VMware!” enthuses Meenal. “I began in the bookings and sales divisions of FP&A and was given the responsibility of putting together weekly, monthly and quarterly forecasts for the bookings, sales and revenue of our business unit, which had several products in its portfolio.”
Meenal tapped into the knowledge gained from the certificate to succeed in analyzing data from multiple reports and deriving findings to make detailed forecasts.
“In that expanded role, I was given more responsibility and was the owner of multiple deliverables,” she says. “As I gained more experience, I moved to the expenditure budget management role within FP&A. I was responsible for headcount management, which is budget management of the entire business unit, putting together monthly and quarterly forecast reports and presenting in front of management.”
After working in that role for about a year, Meenal made another internal career step up to become a senior financial and operations analyst.
“I am now in charge of complete budget management,” she says. “That includes headcount management, working with the business folks—engineering, product, product management and product marketing teams—to make sure the company is equipped with resources to meet their product roadmap deliverables and objectives and key results (OKRs); doing in-depth analysis to understand the expenditure and find avenues for optimization; creating an annual operating plan and communicating with the product VPs and to make sure it aligns with their goals for the year; managing the projects expenditure of the business unit; and working with finance to get approvals for business needs and requirements.”
Along with everything she did before as a financial analyst and a business operations analyst, Meenal continues to grow in her skills and career.
“My role is not only to prepare a more accurate and realistic forecast for the business unit, but also to make sure the business has the resources that they need to deliver on the product features that they promised in the beginning of the year,” she says. “I have to create a balance between making optimizations but also making sure the company is able to deliver to the customers outstanding products to increase booking and revenue. I am the go-to person for all teams if they are facing any issues or need resources from finance. I analyze the requirements based on their importance for the company, then create forecasts to see how I can manage the monies for these requirements within the budget given. I work cross-functionally—budget management is not possible without a thorough knowledge of the finance of the company.”
And Meenal is not stopping the climb as she works toward her ultimate career goal in the financial planning and analysis field. “I am working to gain more knowledge in the financial planning and analysis area and to become a subject-matter expert—even a director of the business unit.”
“I highly recommend this certificate,” Meenal tells me. “The program at UC Berkeley Extension has helped in every way possible: from understanding the financials of the company to putting together a forecast, creating a financial model and presenting ideas in front of top management.
“Not only have I gained a ton of knowledge from the courses, but I have also made contacts with and gained insights from fellow students and their work and experience. Additionally, the instructors are also very helpful and are always open to answering questions and discussions. The certificate courses are geared to help you get the knowledge required to work in real-world case scenarios, and the projects and presentations help boost your confidence and connect with other students.
“UC Berkeley is well respected and a certificate from this university definitely is a highlight on your résumé. It has been a very positive experience getting this certificate, and it has set me on a path to success and to achieving my goals in life!”