Accounting Graduate Helping to Eliminate Poverty

Feb. 18, 2020

 

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MISSOULA - University of Montana alumnae Elizabeth Atherton is passionate about ending extreme poverty. After testing the waters in corporate America, the UM College of Business graduate (Accounting 2005, MAcct 2006) decided to pursue her passions, and is now the Chief Financial Officer at Nuru International.

Nuru International is nonprofit organization, with projects in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, uniquely positioned at the nexus of security and development and focused on eradicating extreme poverty and building community resilience to violent extremism.

Prior to Nuru, she provided audit and advisory services to public companies, nonprofits and governmental organizations at KPMG. In addition, she taught auditing and pursued doctoral studies with a focus on Corporate Social Responsibility.

At Nuru, Atherton leads the Finance, HR, and Marketing & Development departments, serves as Chair of Nuru’s diversity initiative, and supports the organization’s advocacy efforts.

In 2016, Atherton was awarded the InsideNGO Excellence in Finance Award, which recognizes individuals in the international development and relief sector who are making outstanding contributions to their organizations.

Atherton was kind enough to answer the following questions about her influences, motivations and how she pursued her passion.

If you would like to support Nuru’s mission, please visit their website (https://give.nuruinternational.org/).


Can you tell us something about your upbringing that may have influenced your career trajectory?

I was fortunate enough to have parents who consistently told me I could accomplish anything and instilled in me a belief in my own power to shape my path. At the same time, they ingrained an appreciation for the importance of making logical choices and building stability for the future. With that solid understanding of the need for both wings and roots, when it came time for me to invest in my future and put myself through college, I chose a path that I felt would help me follow my passions and would also pay the rent.

What motivated your path of study as a college student?

My first semester in the business school, I took the intro level courses for both finance and accounting. Knowing that I had an interest and an aptitude for math, I figured those were my best bet. That first accounting course fit like a glove. It just made sense and I really enjoyed it. I knew that accounting was in high demand and, for some crazy reason, most people didn’t enjoy it. It was the wise economical decision, but it was also exactly what my puzzle-loving brain craved.

Why did you choose the University of Montana?

I had been visiting Missoula regularly since I was about 13, because my oldest sister and her two kids lived there. I fell completely in love with Missoula, like so many do. When it came time to decide where to go to school, my husband and I decided it was a great time to pick up and move from Savannah, Georgia to Missoula, Montana. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. We both graduated from the business school.

How did your experience at UM help prepare you for success in the accounting and finance industry?

When I first came to the business school, I only intended to complete my undergrad and then head out into the world. Fortunately, I had some great professors and mentors - Dr. Beed, Dr. Herron, Dr. Chaney, and Dr. Reider in particular - who took an interest in me and my career potential and encouraged me to stretch my thinking and push myself for more. I followed my undergrad degree with the MAcct program, which provided a deeper understanding of the field - both theoretically and practically - and set me up for success in passing my CPA exam that same year.

I also got a taste of how I could apply this knowledge to the social sector. Through Beta Alpha Psi, I had the opportunity to give back to the community. Both in my undergrad and masters, I volunteered with the VITA program and helped prepare tax returns for free for members of the community. That experience provided a clear lesson in how I could apply what I had learned and use it in service to others. 

How did you end up at Nuru International?

My first job after the MAcct program was with KPMG in Anchorage, Alaska. After putting in a few years and many long hours at KPMG, I spent a couple of years in a PhD program before realizing it wasn’t the path for me. In the years following my time at UM, I had started to read about and deepen my understanding of the grave injustices existing in the world. First, I had read “Banker to The Poor” by Mohammed Yunus and later his follow up “Creating a World Without Poverty.” But a real turning point came when I read “Half the Sky” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. I read their stories of women who had lived through more that I could have previously imagined, and had come out the other side and dedicated their lives to lifting up others. I knew that I would never see the world the same way again. Reading that book was like turning on the lights. I could see clearly what I wanted to do. I withdrew from the PhD program and started searching for the right position and organization. That search eventually led me to an open position with a small organization I’d never heard of – Nuru International. It sounded too good to be true, but after some research, including watching several videos on their website about the mission, I was hooked. I started out at Nuru in 2013 as the accounting manager and made my first visit to Africa that year. Now, seven years later, it is still the dream job.

What do you enjoy most about working with a team dedicated to such a great cause?

It’s hard to put into words the difference it makes to love what you’re doing and the people you’re in the fight with. At Nuru, we’ve been able to recruit brilliant minds from a wide range of backgrounds, from special operations military veterans and Peace Corps alumni to business school grads and agricultural experts. The common thread is that each of those people have chosen Nuru because of a deep belief in our shared mission and values.  In our country projects, we work with teams of amazing and passionate Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Nigerians to build locally-led solutions to lift their communities out of poverty. Working side by side with these local leaders has been a high point in my career. They inspire me and keep me focused on the goal.

What advice do you have for current business students beginning to launch their careers?

Starting out my career at a big-four firm laid an incredibly strong foundation for my career. Even though I didn’t aspire for a long-term career at KPMG, the early years I spent there were critical to taking what I had learned in school and solidifying my ability to apply it in practice. I would encourage students to find a really challenging position, reach out of their comfort zone, and invest in that for a few years to really hone their skills. It’s a foundation that will pay dividends throughout your career. And for the accounting students - I would encourage you to complete the MAcct course and then take the CPA exam as quickly as possible, prior to starting your job. You’ll never be more prepared for the exam than immediately after the intense year of the MAcct program. And for the women - read “Lean In,” stretch your goals beyond what you think is possible, and find a mentor or two who will help you navigate the path.