Fewer young people are pursuing careers in corporate finance. For various reasons, a career in finance, particularly in accounting, has become unattractive, daunting, and undesirable for people entering the workforce. Despite the rewards a leadership position like a CFO role can bring, the journey can be accompanied by many long hours and high tuition bills, things many young people aren’t interested in.
But there’s hope. Whether through entrepreneurship, pursuing work experience, or just trying to provide value, young people interested in business are finding ways to showcase the upside they can bring to an organization.
Despite contrary beliefs, young people not avoiding finance may not be a generational problem or even an institutional problem for finance but rather a marketing problem — careers in finance have been mostly labeled as uncreative, boring, and unattractive.
Learning From Experience
Fraternities and sororities, which earn roughly $3 billion a year across the United States, need financial leadership to function. These positions, typically held by business-minded members, balance budgets for events and fundraisers, coordinate payments on house leases, collect dues, and more.
But the experience outside the job description that the CFO role demands nowadays, things like FP&A, data communication, and decision-making, are equally important in a role that relies on college kids holding up their end of the bargain.
“I was pretty much the CFO of my fraternity,” said John Legler, a junior at Iowa State University and former vice president of finance at the campus’s Alpha Sigma Phi chapter. “Previously there had been a lot of financial mismanagement, lots of outstanding dues and late rent payments, so it was my job to step in and clean up the books a bit,” Legler said. “We had to build a financial strategy for the future, which started with collecting over $40,000 in outstanding dues, and building a strategy and budget to ensure we were in a position to save money for the future.”
Legler, who credits the organization's shift to his classmates and other fraternity leaders, says this experience allowed him to see how a finance leader’s impact can be more significant than just the books.
“I enjoy showcasing my experience, my knowledge, my passion for finance, and how I can provide value to an organization,” he said. “I couldn’t believe some of the things that were taking place financially at the fraternity, and I knew that someone needed to take action and make those financial improvements for the betterment of our organization.”
Victoria Sonza, who up until 2021 served as director of finance for Purdue Panhellenic, the overseeing body of all 21 sororities across campus at Purdue University, saw herself pursuing a business career until COVID-19 impacted her college experience. Sonza registered for classes at Purdue but remained remote nearly her entire time there. According to her, this impacted her financial leadership experience, her views of corporate finance, and her career aspirations.
“We had to be flexible regarding lease and due payments because people weren’t living on campus and dropping all the time,” Sonza said. “While a lot of my job was balancing budgets and making sure events were budgeted properly and that charges and invoices were being paid on time, we had restricted recruitment and restricted living, and it all impacted the finances.”
Career Path Aspirations
Both Legler and Sonza, who say they did well in and enjoyed their accounting and finance academic work, agree that their career paths and those of their peers don’t exactly align with the traditional finance trajectory. “I don’t think people are interested in those types of [traditional accounting] roles,” Sonza said, “I think they’re sick of the standard nine to five, and people my age with the skills to be great business leaders are pursuing entrepreneurship over an entry-level role to start their careers.”
Now a vintage curator for home estate sales in Florida, Sonza spent time traveling through Asia and helping to manage Airbnb rentals after she left Purdue. While studying online at Valencia College, Sonza has used her business and finance skills to start a niche business. Sonza is learning business and finance on the front lines, hoping to combine her entrepreneurship and finance experience.
Legler’s aspirations are a bit more traditional but equally ambitious. “I just want to get as much work experience as possible,” Legler said. “I’m aware that if I want to be a CFO one day, I need to have experience in all areas without being a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ type of thing,” he said.
Just before switching his major from accounting to finance, Legler turned down an opportunity that could’ve kicked off his career in the traditional sense. “I had a Big Four offer, but I didn’t want to go into accounting because it didn’t give me the creative freedom to grow a company or provide value. I don’t want to be just an auditor or an accountant. I want to provide value and help take businesses to the next level.”
“In my experience, [accounting] curriculum was so regimented and demanding that it didn’t let me explore other areas of finance through electives. For me, the switch [to finance] and turning down that offer made sense because I want to make my own path in how I learn finance instead of being guided down one.”
The Value of Education
With the rising price of education, young people pursuing careers in finance have an enlightened perspective on the impacts of student loans hindering one’s ability to grow. “It’s going to take a big effort for me to pay off my student loans, but I think it’ll be a big return on investment for myself later in my career,” said Legler.
However, he does believe some of his peers’ understanding of money needs to be improved. “I think financial literacy among my peers is poor, and there needs to be a big effort from middle schools and high schools to teach basic financial concepts like how credit cards and interest rates work. Some students need an understanding of these sorts of things so [that] when they go to college, they can survive without putting themselves in a financial hole.”
For Sonza, who says everyone wishes the price of education would be a bit less, the value of her time at Purdue came with her work experience, not necessarily the classroom. “I think the price of higher education is overvalued, but I will say, had I not gone to Purdue, I would not have gotten the experience I did in both leadership and finance,” she said.
As a business owner, Sonza wakes up early on the weekends to get in line to go through estates searching for diamonds in the rough, literally. Then, she flips what she finds online for a profit. To her, this is the type of work ethic worth striving for.
“Office culture is outdated in my opinion, and something I have no interest in at the moment,” Sonza continued. “Technology moves so fast, especially in the way social media has [affected how] my generation looks at life; it’s also changed how we want to work.”
Solving the Problem
For CFOs, talent issues are nothing new. However, highlighting finance’s marketing problem is seldom mentioned. Yoana Land, CFO of L’Oreal Transformation, believes finance leaders must do a better job using their platforms to make their jobs attractive to young people.
“I don’t think we are doing a good job marketing our industry,” said Land. “When I tell people I am a CFO, they automatically think I am an accountant, or I work in tax, or something like that. I was talking to my head of treasury about how interesting our jobs are and how interesting the details are that involve how all the money moves around between banks. Part of our jobs as CFOs and finance leaders are secretly fascinating.”
Land, who has worked many different leadership positions within L’Oreal, says excitement and interest are what keeps her in her current role. “I get to be a mini CEO,” she said. “I know where the money is, I know where our efficiencies are, I know where the company wants to go, and I can help choose what areas to invest in long term. There’s so much positive influence I have in my position, and it’s so rewarding to be able to do it.”
When it comes to the work environment, for young graduates it seems to be different strokes for different folks. Legler is okay with moving to a big city and working full-time in an office, while Sonza wants no part in that. Andrew Roth, founder of the Gen Z research and consulting firm dcdx, believes younger professionals have the potential to rejuvenate corporate finance with their emergence. According to him, the changing priorities that younger people have around work will make the workplace a more inviting and attractive place.
“For ages, stability and safety have been workplace priorities,” said Roth. “And yet for young workers today, entering a world where technology has fundamentally changed both the accessibility of work and the experience at work, the priority has shifted.”
“Now more than ever Gen Z workers, particularly in careers where automation and [artificial intelligence] are having significant impacts, are choosing and prioritizing meaning and connection,” Roth continued. “Young people today want to work where they not only have an impact on the work but where their work has an impact.”