Dream, Believe & Achieve Meet Shellman & Company President, Avani Desai
Q: When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
AD: I wanted to be a doctor.
Q: After you graduated from the University of Florida, did you pursue the career path you thought you would?
AD: Not. I never thought I would go into computer science and then somehow segue that in to working for an accounting firm. However, when I think back, everything that I considered exciting and attractive in a potential job – solving problems, data analysis, encouraging collaboration for decision making – is what I’ve found. I’m so happy as to how it’s all worked out.
Q: I noticed you’re the only minority female leader of a top 100 CPA firm … this is great news! First, why do you feel it’s taken so long for a woman to be recognized and second, what advice do you have for young women graduating from college going into your profession that want to pursue an executive position someday?
AD: Reading that written out gives me somewhat of emotional whiplash—first I was proud, then discouraged. It’s almost hard to say why it’s “taken so long,” because in our day and age, women have seemingly made large strides in terms of progress. The starkness of the actual reality—hearing that I’m the only one—just makes me want to get out there and start encouraging every woman and little girl I see. I do think we need to start earlier when it comes to helping our fellow women—we need to talk to girls beginning in elementary school and encourage them to tinker, to explore, to build. The first step is lifting the veil of past societal boundaries so they aren’t discouraged—we must open up the possibilities of what they can do from an early age, so they chase more and more as they grow up.
But to those young women who are grown and just wetting their feet in the workforce, I’d encourage them to try and consider everything a learning experience. There are always going to be obstacles that get in your way, whether it’s health, family, a difficult boss, a difficult coworker, kids, relationships, or just life. However, there’s something helpful and positive to be gleaned from every difficulty—you just have to look for it and remind yourself that, each time, you are growing personally and professionally. It is easy to quit during an uphill battle, but remember that for every obstacle you, yourself, overcome, you are putting a crack in the glass ceiling above us all–those who are working alongside you, as well as those women to follow.
Q: I see we have one thing in common … a passion to support nonprofits. Can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve been a part of?
AD: I am the co-chair of a female-only venture philanthropic group called 100 Women Strong, an initiative under the Central Florida Foundation. We are a group of women who collectively pool our funds together to solve a source problem that affects women and children in our community. To be clear, we don’t just write the checks and send them off for the communities to disperse and use—we spend eight months of the year talking to experts, reviewing research, and identifying viable solutions to problems using the data and evidence yielded from our findings.
One of my favorite projects we did was the Circle of Security, during which we identified that children between the ages of 0-5, in Pine Hills – an area in Orlando—were expelled from daycare more than any other area or age group in the U.S. It was a shock to learn, but we immediately began looking for a pilot program we could implement in two day care centers to try and affect positive change. The one we found and settled on had never been implemented in a day care setting with caregivers – it had been previously reserved for parents. But because children can spend up to or over 10 hours in a daycare, we thought to break the mold and were confident it would work well. Happily, we were right—the affected children soon began managing their behavior because they felt more secure. They were playing collaboratively and learning, with the added bonus of decreased stress levels among the caregivers. It was a significant moment for our giving circle to eliminate what had been crippling anxiety for these kids, changing their lives for the better by helping them feel safe.
Q: What's the greatest fear you've had to overcome to get where you are today?
AD: It’s a common, constant fear for many, but I myself always feared failure. I wouldn’t say that I’ve overcome it, necessarily—rather, in the last 5 years, I have started embracing failure. It no longer carries a negative connotation in my brain because I now believe failure is necessary. It helps us to not only appreciate successes when they come, but to be innovative and forge new fixes when they don’t.
Q: Can you share with our audience one of your most memorable moments in your career?
AD: Being promoted to President of Schellman & Company is definitely up there. That was memorable, not because of the hard work and dedication it took to get here, but because of the proud look in my parents’ eyes. My family never cared how much I money I made, or how much recognition I gained—they only cared that I committed to better myself and those around me in a field I found satisfying. They cared that I worked to push myself to the forefront, craved innovation, and chose to be a leader. My father and grandfather would say, “a family dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge will always be wealthier than those dedicated to the pursuit of profit. Money will come and go, but knowledge can never be taken.” Still, having immigrated to the U.S in the 1970s, they never anticipated that they would see one of their daughters take on this role.
It was also memorable for my children. I always worry that my responsibilities and the attached time away hurt them, but having reached this point, I know my work sets a positive example for them. I want my daughter, Sareena, to know that her opportunities are limitless, and for my son Sahil to never underestimate women’s capabilities.
Q: What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you can share with our audience?
AD: Don’t ever become stagnant, even if you remain in the same industry, company, or job. It’s easy to become complacent, but because everything changes so quickly, you must be capable of reinventing yourself every 10 years, so you don’t become obsolete. Constantly challenging yourself helps.
Q: Which woman inspires you and why?
AD: My mom has always inspired me. She came to the United States in her 20s with $50 in her pocket and two young daughters, having left a familiar and more comfortable life. When they settled here, she worked long hours of manual labor to make sure her family had food on the table while serving as an unfailing pillar of reassurance, insisting to my dad that they’d made the right decision. I always look back in awe of the sacrifice my mother made and the strength she displayed. She, and the other immigrant women who have done the same, braving the seemingly impossible to change the destiny of their children’s lives, live as constant motivation for me.
Q: What are some of the challenges you feel women face today?
AD: One definite challenge is the “mental load” that working women have. It’s a running joke in my family that I am always doing multiple things--my husband can’t understand how I can have 20 windows open in my browser, listen to a conference call, order dinner, and ask my children if their homework is done, all in the same moment. I know some call it the “third shift”—the planning, scheduling, negotiating, and problem-solving work that goes into running the business of your family, and regardless of the name, we all know that women have been penciled in the caregiver role since the beginning of time. But between working a regular shift at work and then taking on the “third shift” at home, something needs adjusting. Obviously, it’ll take time, but I think society should move toward a new division of tasks among the nuclear family in order to help spread the mental load.
Q: What advice would you give to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
AD: It takes hard work, dedication, and a certain tenacity. Nothing of value in life comes easy, so be prepared for a journey – that means the ups and the downs. But remember, the view at the top will certainly be worth it.
Q: What's your advice for women in male-dominated fields?
AD: Never try to change yourself to fit in. Your ideas are worth the same as everyone else’s.
Four Things About Avani Desai
1. How do you release stress?
Before the sun comes out and the family wakes up, I meet a friend at my local OrangeTheory gym. It is the perfect way to start the day and helps keep my stress levels down.
2. If you were a superhero, what would your special powers be?
The Power of Understanding Others. I may not be able to read minds or tell the future, but I can read when someone needs a break, a friend to listen to, or a pep talk. I value compassion, empathy, and sympathy, and a little of each can go an unexpectedly long way sometimes.
3. What app can’t you live without?
Wunderlist. I am a naturally chaotic person who has learned the art of organization through the assistance of technology. Task lists are a must for me to manage both work and my personal life.
4. What’s your favorite food to cook?
This reminds me of a funny story. It was around Mother’s Day 2019, and my daughter, age five, put together a poster called “All About My Mom” while at school. The poster featured all sorts of questions that she answered about me, as all the other students did while thinking of their mothers. All the moms were invited in to hear the teacher read out different posters, and it was our job to guess who the mom was from the answers each student had written. Well, one of the first questions was, “what does your mom like to cook?” My daughter’s answer was a dead giveaway--“my mom doesn’t cook, only my grandma cooks.” That is the absolute truth. My mother enjoys cooking for the extended family, and we’re very blessed to have her.