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INCPAS Member Case Study: From Belarus to Indiana — A CPA/CFO Story of Success & Support

Apr 5, 2023
Olga Chaikouskaya, CPA

I moved from Belarus to Indiana with my 3-year-old son in 2001, right before the September 11 tragedy. As a single mother who couldn’t speak a word of English, I was daunted but still determined to set up a new life for us here.

Hard work was never anything I shied away from — I had majored in business back in Belarus. But succeeding here in America…that took more than hard work. It also took connecting with the many amazing people I’ve met along the way.

Everyone was so compassionate with me, especially the first year we were here. I had a thick accent and growing but very limited English vocabulary — I would say, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English very well. Can you please talk slowly?” And they would. I was so appreciative and grateful for their empathy and patience.

Photo of Olga's Badge from MarshOne day, I was trying to order fish at the Marsh seafood department and the young man behind the counter couldn’t understand what I was saying. He pulled out his cell phone — I didn’t have one back then — and called someone. I was worried it might be the police, but it was one of his friends who spoke Russian. She helped translate my order and, in talking during this 3-way call, also communicated to him that I was looking for a job if he knew of any. He connected me to the head of the Marsh deli department who had an opening and took a chance on hiring me. Within the year, I was the assistant deli manager! I still have my name badge as a memento.

This was the very beginning of understanding how connections and a support network are so crucial. Whether you work below, above or side-by-side with someone — you never know how you may be impacting their life, whether it’s in the immediate, short- or long-term.

Here are the people who helped shape my career path each step of the way.

1) My Friends & Predecessors

Photo of Olga and her son Yaugen

My friends who immigrated to the U.S. before me are not only the ones who told me the CPA role and license existed as an option for me, but they’re also the ones who told me a career was an option for me.

Having moved here for my son, Yaugen, I knew he would grow up speaking native English. But as an immigrant, I didn’t know the language — I figured I would be a laborer who made just enough to support him in his life and future success. My self-confidence was very low, and I thought I would be doing dishes, cleaning houses or working in a manufacturing plant.

But my friends said, “Olga, you’re still very young, and your business degree will be accepted here in some capacity. You still have time to realize yourself on a professional level.”

"My friends who immigrated to the U.S. before me are not only the ones who told me the CPA role and license existed as an option for me, but they’re also the ones who told me a career was an option for me."

Once I understood my business education background could transfer, I started to consider my options. I’ve always loved math (and numbers were certainly easier to work with at this time than words!), problem-solving puzzles, logic and thinking of outside-of-the-box solutions.

When I learned more about the CPA license, I decided to pursue it and secure a competitive advantage in the hiring market.

2) My Accounting Classes & Professor

The biggest decision I had to make was putting money aside to invest in education, hoping it would pay off.

In the Marsh deli department, I was making $267 a week and paying $165 for daycare so I could work to cover our rent in an apartment with a mattress and no furniture. I had two more cleaning jobs on the side so I could cover our food, utilities and other bills. Then, even at the most affordable college I could find — Ivy Tech — it was $250 just to take one class, and it was on-site.

That’s a lot of money and time to put in when you’re pursuing a career for which you essentially only understand the words “debits” and “credits” — two words which thankfully have the same meaning in Russian.

But I signed up and took one class per semester to learn more about accounting. For three years, the first thing I did in the morning was wake up early to study before going to work, then study again after work and/or classes until I couldn’t stay awake anymore. In between, I kept flashcards on me to learn both accounting concepts and English.

Keep in mind, I still had a language barrier. I studied hard but didn’t speak up in class discussions. I saved my own little library of terms I heard or read and really liked — I called it my “CPA” (Copy, Paste, Attach). I would then use these words, sentences or messages in my own communications later, which was my way of learning and replicating English.

When I didn’t know anyone I could use as a referral for my first accounting job, I listed my accounting professor. I did terrible during the interview process because, although I tried to memorize my answers, I couldn’t express them authentically or clearly under that level of stress. The hiring manager still called my professor to check my reference, and he said, “She’s always on time, she’s always prepared, she always sits in the front row, and she gets straight As in my class. I don’t know how she does it — she may not speak English very well, but she definitely knows accounting. Hire her, and you’ll have no regrets.” And they hired me!

3) A CPA Exam Coach & Review Course

One of my childhood friends from Belarus immigrated to the U.S. years before I did and was living in New York. We connected on social media and started talking about what we were up to, and it turns out he, too, had chosen to pursue the CPA profession.

Since he had immigrated as a teenager, he already spoke perfect English and had just completed the CPA Exam. He was very motivated and inspiring. He said, “I know you’re scared, that this is intimidating and hard, but — with the right mindset and strategy — passing the CPA Exam is possible.”

He recommended Becker as a great preparation tool and then also shared his recent Exam experiences, strategies and preparation with me. And timing — a crucial part of the planning, both for scheduling your Exams and taking your Exams.

The Becker course did indeed turn out to be a phenomenal resource for getting me prepared and focusing on the right material for the Exam. American textbooks in general are excellent. They are very logical — Chapter 1 puts you in a better position for Chapter 2, and so on. It gave me a solid understanding of the concepts that needed to be understood before moving forward.

Of all four Exam sections, I only failed one and it was the first one, the first time. Despite my practice, multiple-choice computer-based exams were still a brand-new concept to me, and I ran out of time. For the next ones, my test-taking strategy was if I didn’t know the answer — move on.

4) My Family

Photo of Olga's childrenAt the time I was considering taking the CPA Exam, my family had grown and now consisted of my son and husband. I already had a demanding job at a fast-growing start-up company, and the Exam would require even more study and preparation with Becker classes after work from 6 to 10 p.m. twice a week. To do it the right way, it required a commitment — I wanted to work hard and do it once, but I needed help.

It’s important to have this conversation with your significant other(s) in advance so it doesn’t harm your relationships. So I said: for two years of my life, I will not be 100% mom and I will not be 100% wife. Are you willing to support me?

They WERE willing and DID support me. My husband covered meals and picked up Yaugen, and he turned off the light and covered me with a blanket after I had fallen asleep on my books again. Yaugen, meanwhile, learned to be independent and self-sufficient, handling his own homework and activities, and they both cheered me up when I needed it.

Olga Inc 5000When I became pregnant with our second child, my husband didn’t say I needed to stop — he said, “let’s get this done.” To this day, I think our second son should get a CPA license for all the Becker classes we sat through together. He was kicking as hard physically during my last Exam as I was mentally.

My final Exam scores came by mail the day I went into labor, and my husband ran interference to make sure I didn’t see the results until after I had delivered. Because if I hadn’t passed, I didn’t want to think about retaking a section with a newborn. When he opened it, I had passed — I was done! I now had the three magic letters behind my name where, even if I spoke with an accent, people would always know I had credibility in this field.

5) Myself

Sometimes your success comes from connecting with and challenging yourself when an opportunity is presented.

In 2009, I received a call from a founder asking me to leave my accounting supervisor position to start a new venture. This was in the middle of the economic housing market crisis and automotive industry crashes, so the job market wasn’t stable and career shifts felt risky.

Photo of Olga and Stratosphere Quality ColleaguesHowever, I took a chance and accepted the role. The company, Stratosphere Quality, started very small. I was the sole person in the accounting/finance “department,” so I rolled up my sleeves and registered the business, established banking, set up ERP systems and more.

"Sometimes your success comes from connecting with and challenging yourself when an opportunity is presented."

In our first year, we made $8 million in revenue. Within two years, we were making half of our first year’s revenue in just one month. Stratosphere had been on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest-growing private companies for five consecutive years. Our initial payroll was for 23 people, which quickly grew to 300+, and later to 2,000+. We expanded our services to many U.S. states, and my team grew from just me to a full spectrum of support center functions such as accounting, billing, collection, HR, payroll, purchasing and travel departments.

In 2010, we opened operations in Canada. In 2014, more in Mexico. In 2016, I delved into mergers and acquisitions as we sold the company to Japanese-owned entities in 2017.

I learned so much in my time at this startup, and it never would have happened if the founder hadn’t reached out to me…and if I hadn’t been willing to take a professional risk.

6) My Colleagues & Business Partners

I have been fortunate to meet so many great people here in U.S., and I am blessed with the support and trust they put in me to work for and with them.

This has only been possible by being open to making connections. Technical knowledge is a must have, but building relationships with your team is what helps ensure you’re not afraid to ask for advice, support and ideas. One day, when you may have the chance to build your own team, you can use what you’ve learned to find the right talent, build them up and put them in the right environment so they can realize their full potential.

"It's important to be willing to understand people's stories and ideas, and to recognize what all they have to offer — and what you can offer them."

Giving Back

Reflecting on my journey to becoming a CFO, I believe it’s important to give back to others in our profession. It’s important to share our experiences and serve as mentors, especially for the younger generations or those on a nontraditional path to CPA. It’s important to do so with a willingness to understand their stories and ideas, and to recognize what all they have to offer — and what you can offer them.

Author’s Note: I am so proud to share my son, Yaugen, is now 25 years old and a senior auditor at the EY San Francisco office. He is a world traveler, INCPAS Scholars alumni, previous INCPAS accounting intern, and has already started a couple of business ventures. Our second son, Ivan, is 13 years old and has a passion for swimming. Our daughter, Anna, is 10 years old and has a passion for rhythmic gymnastics and cooking. Finally, a special thanks to my husband, Mike, for all his support and being an awesome dad.

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