Like many first-generation Canadians, Zahra Hirani (BMath’94) viewed higher education as a likely path to success after a rocky beginning. Born in Uganda to a family of Asian heritage, she and her parents and sister were forced to flee to Canada as refugees in 1974. “Growing up in Ottawa, it was really tough for us to get settled,” she remembered. Her parents emphasized education and she opted to study accounting at the Waterloo Faculty of Mathematics, in large part because its co-op program would provide financial support in addition to relevant work experience.
After a difficult high school experience, Hirani found a welcoming community at Waterloo. “In high school, I experienced endless bullying,” she acknowledged. “Kids were always calling me names and pushing books off my desk. At Waterloo, I didn’t experience an ounce of racism. It was so freeing.” Hirani savoured the opportunity to befriend students from all over the globe, several of whom have gone on to become lifelong friends.
Like she hoped, Hirani’s co-op experience at Waterloo set the stage for a successful accounting career after graduation. She found that she enjoyed leveraging her skills in quantitative analysis and business strategy to solve problems in the field. “Public accounting was a backstage pass to a wide variety of industries,” she reflected. A series of successful management roles with BDO USA, LLP, a global accounting firm, led Hirani to settle down in Seattle, where she was recruited by Boeing in 2003 to fill a senior internal auditing role.
Over the next two decades, Hirani climbed through the ranks to become the Chief Financial Officer for Boeing Capital Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing, and a Senior Director for the larger organization. “I’ve enjoyed working in an industry that’s full of fascinating twists and turns across business cycles and environments,” she reflected. After changing positions twice during the pandemic, she has learned to be “comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
As Hirani navigates the uncertainty of managing a team and driving financial strategy in a historically challenging time for the aviation industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she appreciates the foundation laid at Waterloo. “I didn’t know that earning a math degree would give me so much thinking power to work through different problems,” she said. “The technical skills I gained at Waterloo, along with the practical experience of co-op, still help me in my everyday work.”
The best advice Hirani can offer to upcoming graduates is to prepare for seismic shifts in the business landscape. As automation technology revolutionizes the field of accounting, tomorrow’s leaders can’t afford to get stuck in a mindset of doings things the way they have been done before. “Stay open-minded, and develop whatever technological background you can,” she affirmed. “Most of all, build resiliency and don’t let your past define you. As a leader, staying resilient is the essence of the job.”