Celeste Ackert credits her parents’ careers as military officers for the discipline and hard work that have helped her career flourish. Both traits have been instrumental in her success, as has been her ability to recognize the value of unexpected opportunities and take advantage of them — even when that requires moving out of her comfort zone.
After graduating with a double major in industrial management and economics, Ackert started her career in operations and project management. An early opportunity led her out of operations and into finance, where she has since brought an FP&A focus to most of her work during a nearly 20-year finance career.
Before joining sourcing automation and technology provider Fairmarkit as its first CFO in 2022, Ackert was vice president of finance at a cloud-computing software company. Before that, she served in a range of finance positions from FP&A manager to director of finance and senior director for FP&A for software and technology companies of varying sizes.
- First CFO position: 2022
- Notable previous employers:
- Sumo Logic
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
SANDRA BECKWITH: What made you the ideal candidate for Fairmarkit’s first CFO?
CELESTE ACKERT: I think there were four factors, starting with my operations and FP&A background. Second, Fairmarkit is a young company, so my experience scaling startups is important. Third, I know how to partner with other leaders in a small organization so the finance team becomes viewed as a valuable resource rather than simply budget-keepers.
Finally, I wanted to be part of the Fairmarkit team because its product and value proposition were incredibly compelling. In a previous position with a large enterprise, I partnered with the chief procurement officer on several efficiency initiatives. That experience helped me understand the trade-offs and challenges purchasing professionals face, and how Fairmarkit can bring them tangible and immediate ROI.
ACKERT: While I was in operations at a small private company, my core role involved running analytics reporting for distribution center inventory. I loved the cross-functional nature of this work. After working closely with the CFO on a few projects involving process efficiencies and shipping costs, he asked me to join the finance department in a new role that included forecasting, reporting, and departmental budgeting.
I took a chance when I accepted, not knowing then that this was actually FP&A, even though my job title was something else. That decision ended up driving my career progression.
How does your background affect how you do the job and how might it differ from someone who came to that role with different experience?
ACKERT: Because of my operations background, I approach challenges with a more cross-functional and forward-looking lens. I'm big on operational and finance metrics and benchmarks, and I'm constantly thinking through how we can move the metrics meaningfully. That means I'm always challenging my team to move beyond simply copying and pasting a report to determining the finding, recommendation, or action coming out of those numbers.
Looking back, what do you think was your most pivotal career moment, or what “aha” has had a significant impact?
ACKERT: When I had the great fortune to join the finance team at VMware, I was matrixed out to partner with the general manager (GM) of a fast-growing business unit. It felt like working at a startup within a larger company. I next rotated into two other roles there before reconnecting with that GM, who had since left to join a startup as CEO.
He asked me to join his team as head of FP&A, but I was reluctant to do so because I really, really loved my role where I was. I made the move, though. While it felt risky (and it was), it was the opportunity I needed to become a more well-rounded finance professional.
I would encourage people to dream big and outside the box. Recognize those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and capitalize on them.
Was becoming CFO always the goal once you shifted into finance?
ACKERT: It wasn’t. I loved FP&A and thought leading an FP&A team at a larger company was going to be my track. I think the shift to a CFO path came right after I left VMware for what became my IPO scaling journey at Sumo Logic. As the team began working on the IPO documents, I realized there were many other facets of finance that I didn't know well.
It was a significant learning opportunity for me. That realization led me to tackle a bigger challenge as vice president of finance at an earlier-stage startup.
Would you recommend your path to others in finance hoping to become CFOs?
ACKERT: I would encourage people to dream big and outside the box. Recognize those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and capitalize on them. It's easy for me to shy away from the challenges and opportunities that seem too hard, and I’ve been uncomfortable when I’ve taken them on. But I'm really glad I have. I hope I have many more of those opportunities in the future, too.