Accounting and finance runs in the family for these two SAF grads

By Patty Mah

Cousins break the mould of traditional accounting and finance (A&F) roles

Photo of Michelle LamCousins Michelle Lam (BA ’01, MAcc ’01, pictured first) and Elaine Lee (BA ’03, pictured second) spent their university days together. Both were accepted into the Accounting and Financial Management (AFM) program and became roommates, supporting one other through their studies and university life. SAF caught up with the two to reminisce about their academic and career paths.

Choosing accounting and finance at Waterloo was strategic for both women. “I remember choosing the accounting program because our entire family had such high regard for the University of Waterloo and I remember the CPA designation at the time was described as a passport to the world. I knew I wanted that,” recalls Lam.

Photo of Elaine Lee“I wanted to be in the world doing as many interesting things as possible throughout my life… coming to Waterloo felt like a great first step.” Lam attributes Waterloo’s cross-disciplinary culture in providing opportunities for her and Lee to explore and participate in innovative projects both inside and outside of the SAF. These experiences eventually enabled both cousins to break the mould of traditional accounting and finance (A&F) roles.

“Michelle is the reason why I went to Waterloo. She made a compelling speech to my mom. Our grandfather said that [the family] had enough doctors, dentists, lawyers, and pharmacists but needed accountants.” So, Lee pivoted her science focused courses to business to come to Waterloo.

Breaking the A&F mould

Like many AFM and Master of Accounting (MAcc) grads, Lam and Lee leveraged their degrees and experiences to take their careers in directions that are neither accounting nor finance focused. After a conversation with her CAO where Lee expressed her desire to leverage her creative skills, Lee pivoted her 14-year career in financial management with the LCBO and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission (AGCO), to lead Change Management for the AGCO.

Lam didn’t have a set career plan but rather reflected on her value system each time a career opportunity arose, leading her to take on roles in technology, venture capital, and to found a successful entrepreneurial venture.

Breaking the mould of a traditional accounting and finance role came easy for Lee but was surprising for her colleagues. “People thought of me as finance. Going back to my CPA, my education and my co-op experiences, like communications and project management skills, are hugely beneficial. It made the transition more natural.” recalls Lee.

Excited to build and grow her leadership role in change management, Lee is grateful for the flexibility. “I sit on all the different transformation projects across the organization. I have the freedom to design and to create a framework from a strategic perspective, dealing directly with the C-suite.”

For Lam, her career included a lot of firsts. “After working for so many wonderful corporate brands, like BCG, Microsoft and Bain Capital Ventures, I wanted to do something completely different and new on my own, something for women.” With that goal in mind, Lam founded and launched the direct-to-consumer intimates brand True & Co in 2012, and sold the business to PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, where she served as the brand’s President for the next 3 years.

Lam is currently contemplating her next step. “I re-evaluated my value system again. One thing that came out was how I could better serve the global community, and that’s what I want to keep doing. Living an interesting life, means always learning. The price of failure is quite small. If you’re from SAF, then you’re already setup for success.”

Memories and milestones are what makes one’s university and career journey unique, and the pathways that both Lam and Lee took, are truly empowering for aspiring professionals, regardless of gender. The SAF is keen to follow these two women as they embark on the next chapter of already very successful careers.