Mary Beth Kreissler – CFO & SVP of Finance, Startup Advisor
Mary Beth Kreissler has served as the Chief Financial Officer and Senior Vice President of Finance at various startups and high-growth companies in San Francisco and Washington DC. After earning her MBA at Columbia University, she has taken on clients across a range of industries, helping them to establish sound financial and accounting leadership at the highest levels. Some of the companies she’s assisted include Quatalyst Partners (investment bank in tech), Voxer (smartphone messaging), and TCHO Chocolates.
Ms. Kreissler graciously agreed to a 30-minute telephone interview in May 2017. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] Thank you for your time today. I’d like to know how you got into finance, and then we can talk a little bit about the demographics of the industry. Is it predominantly men that you work with and if so, are there any unique challenges to that end? Ultimately I’d like to learn any advice that you have for women who are aspiring to achieve professional success in financial leadership as you have. How does that sound?
[Ms. Kreissler] Sure, sounds good. Should I just jump into how I got into finance, and why I went to school for it? Does that work?
[Ms. Kreissler] From what I’ve seen, there are a lot more women in accounting, but when you talk about finance—Wall Street, investment banking, consulting, high finance, things like that—[the field] definitely involves a lot more men. I decided on an accounting degree as an undergrad, but I didn’t really know if I’d be doing that for an occupation. Like a lot of kids in high school, I didn’t have a lot of experience beyond my high school friends and teachers. I actually had an AP teacher that I admired—a fantastic older gentleman who was about to retire. He made us really enjoy the class.
Also, I was lucky enough to have the best college in the country for accounting in my backyard, the University of Illinois, which is consistently ranked number one or number two. It’s an hour or so outside of Chicago where I lived. I was kind of surprised I got in since my grades weren’t that great, but I finished their very tough undergrad program. I left thinking I wouldn’t be in accounting for too long, but it’s a solid, broad-based focus. At the University of Illinois, they made sure students were cross-disciplined in business, commerce, marketing, economics, finance, et cetera.
Coming out of the University of Illinois, you’re encouraged to go into public auditing and public accounting, which I highly recommend for anyone getting a degree in accounting. It’s not the most fun occupation in the world, but you do it for a couple of years to get your CPA license.
I eventually went into what were known as ‘The Big Six’—six major firms back then that did public accounting. They were KPMG, Ernst & Young, Coopers & Lybrand, Pricewaterhouse, Arthur Andersen and Deloitte & Touche. They soon became The Big Four, as they’re known now. I recommend for anyone coming out of school—especially with an accounting degree—to get into a very big firm early. You learn the fundamentals and the right way to do things. You also get exposed to a lot of different types of clients in manufacturing, financial services, high technology, retail, and other areas. At that stage of your career, a lot of people still don’t know what they want to do.
So I worked for a couple of years at Coopers & Lybrand, which later became PwC, (PricewaterhouseCoopers). During my time, I performed an internal audit for a large international manufacturing company called RR Donnelley based in Chicago, and worked there for a couple of years. This gave me the fundamentals of accounting and finance, and I could be more flexible with a better career-life balance. Working internally for a company is very different than being in public accounting where your life is not your own, working 80- to 100-hour weeks.
[OnlineEducation.com] How did you make the transition out of auditing and accounting?
[Ms. Kreissler] I was still in Chicago and I didn’t enjoy auditing and accounting. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I went to a temp agency. They placed me at my very first startup ever, Law.com, as a consultant for about a month, and then I came on full-time. It was 1999—during first tech boom—so it was getting tons of funding. We did a lot of acquisitions and I had a team of three or four accountants. I was around 26-years old and I was the controller, the top person in finance. A lot of us were thrown into these positions that we weren’t ready for. We just learned really fast on-the-job. We eventually moved that company and three others we acquired out to San Francisco. And then I moved on to other startups when the crash hit, eventually making my way to QuinStreet and later becoming an independent consultant.
Over those periods, I always tried to get the broadest experience possible. I never wanted to be stuck in one small department of accounting or finance. I wanted to see everything, so I tried to work my way up as quickly as possible. This is one reason I’ve stayed in accounting and finance my whole career: we get to see the entire company. If you’re in R&D, software development, or something more specialized, you typically get to see just that one area.
[OnlineEducation.com] It sounds like you have broad-based value since you became involved in so many different initiatives at big companies.
[Ms. Kreissler] A key strength of mine is that I’m able to learn very quickly. I’m able to pick up new industries, new products, and new management teams, working with new people very easily. And I like change, even if many people see it as a point of stress.
[OnlineEducation.com] I can see how your early experience at Law.com, building your wings on the way down the cliffside, makes you crave challenges, too.
[Ms. Kreissler] Exactly. Before we had this call, I thought about something I wanted to tell you. About five months ago, I realized that all five of the CEOs I was helping were female.
[Ms. Kreissler] I wasn’t actively seeking female CEOs! It just happened I was working with three different NEA portfolio companies and they all had female CEOs. The last two companies I’d picked up through contacts from QuinStreet.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a female CFO my entire career. My past supervisors were never female, whether they were my accounting manager, my director of finance, my VP, my CFO—they were all men. And just kind of all of a sudden, I got these five female clients.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think they feel more comfortable working with you or it just happened that way?
[Ms. Kreissler] Yeah, that’s interesting. Has there just been a change in the past ten years? Possibly. But also I do think they feel more comfortable working with me. A lot of clients I work with are CEOs of tech startups and they’ve never been CEOs before. They may be hesitant to ask their Board or VCs some basic questions about finance or accounting, but they can ask me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or because I try to not make them feel ignorant. Everyone has a different base of experience.
[OnlineEducation.com] It’s interesting bring that up. Do you think that being a woman makes you more approachable to some of these CEOs?
[Ms. Kreissler] I don’t want to assume what it is, but it could definitely be. I don’t know.
[OnlineEducation.com] Let me ask you this: has it ever been a challenge being a woman in finance—and especially consulting—among mainly male CEOs?
[Ms. Kreissler] I’ve never felt that and I may be naive. Maybe I should have felt challenged. I hear these women complaining about the pay gap and unfair treatment, but I have never felt that I’ve been slighted, mistreated, paid poorly, or disrespected.
I keep my head down; I don’t complain much; I don’t make excuses; and I don’t play the victim…I just work hard. Some women see things differently and it can limit them. Complaining or whining makes people shy away from working with them. That’s always been my philosophy so I’ve never felt held back. I thought about this last night…well this isn’t what she wants to hear for this article!
[Ms. Kreissler] But I’ve got to be honest! I feel like being a woman has not limited me, but I think it’s because I’ve never thought about it. I’ve never felt like it could limit me.
During election season, people talked about the first female president. Some said the idea didn’t really resonate with the younger generation because they’d never thought there couldn’t be a female president. They didn’t think that it was a big deal. Similarly, I never felt that being a woman would hold me back and therefore, it never did.
[OnlineEducation.com] I think your great attitude certainly contributes to your success, but here’s my question: it’s a fact that women occupy a smaller share of leadership positions and jobs in finance. Do you think there’s a reason for that? Are women making these choices themselves or are there external factors at play?
[Ms. Kreissler] I think early in our lives we gravitate towards people like us. Whether it’s our same economic status, our same gender. This happens first in school and afterward, people keep a lot of those same friends; men often gravitate toward men, women gravitate toward women. Say you’re starting a company. You’re likely going to reach out to people you know and trust.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s a fair point.
[Ms. Kreissler] Or let’s say you’re looking for a banker to take your company public; you’re going to reach out to those people that you knew in college or that you’ve worked with in the past. I think that’s a big contributing factor—the fact that the men started out with the power. Women are catching up with education and having the ability to work full-time while raising a family. Women are getting higher positions, but there’s still that impulse to reach out to the people you know and trust, those you’ve worked with for years. The men who have been in power for years have that advantage.
[OnlineEducation.com] I could see how the advantage is entrenched.
[Ms. Kreissler] I don’t think it’s purposely to the detriment of women or a conscious effort. I certainly don’t deny that gender bias is out there, but women now have the opportunities. For example, it’s tough for Silicon Valley companies to find good talent. They’re realizing they need to offer fantastic benefits such as family leave; this is giving women more opportunities to have a family and be in a leadership role.
[OnlineEducation.com] Can you think of any other government- or corporate-level policies that might encourage more women to enter either finance or leadership positions?
[Ms. Kreissler] I’d have to think about that. Families are the bedrock of this nation and having a good strong upbringing; feeling safe in your home and at school; getting a good education…anything to promote these ideals is important. It’s similar with minorities; giving them a good foundation can help them become productive members of the society. Anything that governments or companies can do will help.
I would call myself a Libertarian—not a Democrat or Republican—and I don’t want government getting too involved in anything businesses do. I do think it’s to a business’s own advantage if they enact policies or they contribute their charity dollars each year towards something that helps children and families.
[OnlineEducation.com] Can you think of any other advice for women who want to achieve success in finance?
[Ms. Kreissler] Like I said before, just own your own destiny. Don’t blame someone for holding you down. Expect to achieve it yourself. Don’t expect anyone to give you anything.
Also, something I wish I had done earlier in my career is to hold on to my network of accounting and finance professionals. As I’ve seen in Silicon Valley, something new is always going to be thrown at you.
A CEO is going to ask whether something is in compliance with the IRS tax code or have another question. You waste a lot of time researching these situations. Inevitably, there’s someone out there who’s done it before and thought about it before. And as much as you can keep your network, you can quickly get answers from people you trust—as opposed to reading through the garbage in your Google search or paying expensive consultants to help you with a particular topic.
I’ve also seen a ton of ‘recreating the wheel’ in Silicon Valley. I’m working with my fourth or fifth company now who’s creating a basic e-commerce system. They start from scratch and they research all the e-commerce shopping carts, credit card processing, sales tax systems, and everything else. All of this should be very turnkey at this point. There are a lot of people out there who have done what you’re trying to do; keeping a network you can easily tap with questions helps a ton.
[OnlineEducation.com] Do you think that’s unique to startups? As you mentioned, there are a lot of first-time CEOs.
[Ms. Kreissler] That’s exactly right. Some companies want to operate in stealth mode for a long time, so they don’t reach out to tell others what they’re doing. This isn’t a male or female thing, but rather some career advice for anyone: keep close those people who you think can be valuable. Keep your resources near you.