Alison Staloch, CFO of Fundrise, has operated in corporate finance as both a regulator and now an executive. A former chief accountant at the Securities and Exchange Commission's division of investment management, Staloch left the public sector at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is the first female CFO and self-described executive "outsider" at Fundrise, an online real estate investment platform with 370,000 active users.
In an interview with CFO, Staloch discussed the steep learning curve her transition back to the private sector involved, the role of the SEC in the autonomy of accounting standard-setter FASB, the modern work environment, and the value of higher education.
- Notable previous companies:
- Securities and Exchange Commission
- KPMG U.S.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
ADAM ZAKI: After leaving the SEC for the CFO position at Fundrise, what adjustments did you make in your transition back to the private sector?
ALISON STALOCH: I was the first female and effectively the first “outsider” executive team member at the company, since our C-suite are effectively all founders and long-standing team members. I was intrigued by the idea of doing instead of judging. I had spent my entire career in audit or as a regulator and was excited by the idea of building a company and being an entrepreneur.
My expectations did not do justice to how challenging all of that would be. For example, I am building processes to comply with many of the regulations I helped create at the SEC, building a company with limited resources, and broadening my skillset to include the entire finance function. All of that continues to be complicated by the constantly-evolving demands of operating in a remote environment.
I am now building processes to comply with many of the regulations I helped create at the SEC.
While it’s been incredibly uncomfortable, trying, and challenging, it’s a gratifying professional experience to transition to something that will [help you grow in a different way. The learning curve when you shift jobs or responsibilities will always be high, especially when your function, perspective, or the stage of the company’s development is different. It has been exponential for me in this move, and I’m fortunate to work with a group of leaders who are emotionally aware of how challenging that can be.
Where are the most immediate impacts of fintech being felt in corporate finance? What parts of the job for both CPAs and CFOs would be best made easier or more efficient by technology?
STALOCH: Technology can improve any finance activity that relies on a massive [number] of data points. For us, and more from a product perspective, that’s capital raising or deployment activities. It can also improve work that requires concise, accurate, timely, but agile reporting, so FP&A is an obvious answer. Accounting systems still feel pretty archaic, but maybe a function focused on reporting historical actions will never truly feel dynamic. Reporting continues to improve but I think there’s a lot of white space out there within the finance function, activities ripe for disruption.
What are your thoughts on the SEC’s proper role with FASB and IASB? How has your career experience shaped your thoughts on how GAAP standards are determined and implemented?
STALOCH: Accounting standards are full of judgments. This isn’t an area where it’s easy to leverage technology or to be ahead of the curve. The standard-setting process can feel slow to outsiders in comparison to how the rest of the profession is trying to operate. The process works, and the involvement of multiple parties in the process, including the SEC, is important and appropriate. And in seeing that process unfold while I was at the commission, I became convinced that a standard-setting process built on thoughtful and deliberated action is necessary, even if it doesn’t always feel timely.
We have to acknowledge that accounting standards are meant to standardize while simultaneously respecting that they will require evolution as the world changes.
Standard setting is just not set up to be a particularly agile activity. We have to acknowledge that accounting standards are meant to standardize while simultaneously respecting that they will require evolution as the world changes.
Do you or your team work remotely? Do you plan on implementing changes to work environments?
STALOCH: We are effectively remote though we do have a headquarters in [Washington] D.C. and we use co-working spaces as needed. It would be hard with our current workforce to revert from that posture given how we’ve hired [all over the country] the last few years. That has been a competitive advantage for talent, including talent that has often been overlooked for whatever reason. But that’s not to say that working remotely is perfect.
I think there are still too many companies claiming it’s one or the other when the truth is that there is a trade-off to any kind of work environment mandate. We try to acknowledge that in planning how we’ll do our work together, in not creating a strict mandate for our team, while also remaining agile to adjust as our people and our work exhibit different needs. Long term, we intend to have a regular plan for retreats and on-sites as necessary for culture building, team connectivity, and learning.
When evaluating talent, what are your thoughts on the value of academic credentials from a prestigious university, earning an MBA, or even a CPA certification? Do you find these are becoming antiquated?
STALOCH: I think the CPA designation is important when we’re looking at financial reporting and technical accounting. For example, I need a subset of my team internally validating the financial statements and accounting to have the disciplined foundation of this certification and the ongoing education requirements.
The brand of your education isn’t the only signal for talent — we hire from backgrounds across a range of universities and have even focused on self-taught skills in some disciplines.
The way we think about academic credentials is undergoing a multi-year, maybe multi-decade, rebranding expedited by the pandemic. We certainly value a degree or an advanced degree like an MBA, and when it comes from a prestigious university that is often a signal of high discipline, talent, or intelligence. However, the brand of your education isn’t the only signal for talent — we hire from backgrounds across a range of universities and have even focused on self-taught skills in some disciplines. Work ethic, smarts, and humility are a combination that is foundational to our hiring approach.