MS in Accounting Blog

Key Communicator: Q&A with Lily Hakim (M.S. in Accounting ’08/Ernst & Young Program) of Pfizer

Alum Lily Hakim discusses her career path, accounting, teaching, and the challenges in the financial management of vaccine R&D.

Lily Hakim

Lily Hakim says that her time at McIntire wasn’t planned in a traditional sense, but she counts herself as extremely fortunate that her path led her to UVA.

Having already decided by her senior year of high school that she would pursue her CPA license, she was accepted into Cornell’s highly regarded Applied Economics and Management program (now the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management), which, at the time, didn’t offer all of the courses necessary to satisfy licensing requirements and sit for the exams.

But after graduating from Cornell, she landed a role in the assurance practice at Ernst & Young (EY) in New York; it was that position that indirectly brought her to Grounds.

“The role was a part of a master’s program they offered for non-Accounting majors. It was through their partnership with UVA that I had the opportunity to complete my CPA license course requirements and make memories of a lifetime with an incredible group of people at McIntire,” Hakim says. “Having my undergraduate experience with a foundation in applied economics and business added dimension and context to my M.S. in Accounting.”

She points to both the people she learned with and the people she learned from as instrumental in making her Comm School experience an overwhelmingly positive one.

“We had a great cohort in our M.S. Accounting Program. We were in it together and willing to help through the hours of exam prep, intense course assignments, and capstone presentations. Many of us went on to work together at our respective Ernst & Young offices, and years later, friendships have remained intact. The educators were equally a part of our story. Each was so giving to the educational process and took true interest in our successes.”

Hakim has had an impressive career defined by roles in which her wide-ranging accounting skill set allowed her to tackle responsibilities for organizations that have been as varied as they have been consequential: Her most recent work as Director of Executive Operations, Office of the CEO for Pfizer has proven this even more so.

We spoke to Hakim about the work that she’s doing now, her professional life, and her ongoing commitment to her craft as a CPA as well as an educator.

What led you to your current position with Pfizer? What defined the steps along your career path thus far?
My career starts out with my CPA path. I love being a CPA. I think there’s so much breadth and depth to what we do that it sometimes surprises people. My first role after college and while at UVA was in the assurance practice of Ernst & Young (EY). I learned so much in those few years, working with everything from small, not-for-profit entities to large, multinational SEC filers.

After a personal move, I landed a compliance role at a Fortune 100 defense contractor in Southeastern Connecticut, a subsidiary of General Dynamics. It was an eye-opening experience living in a new environment (as a native Long Islander), and I was in a community with which I had essentially no experience. The company was built with incredible pride—fathers, sons, and even grandfathers working side by side. Many from military families, something with which I was not personally familiar. I couldn’t believe the number of employees who reached their 50th anniversary every year. It was inspiring to see this company pride and career tenure. A significant turning point came when on a small assignment, I provided some material for our CFO that he found particularly helpful. I began to work on an increasing number of assignments related to his space and eventually shifted into a role supporting him full time. To this day, he and I are still in contact. The work dynamic I forged with him set the tone for the next few years. He allowed an environment that permitted open conversation and outside-the-box thinking. It made the work fascinating and enjoyable.

It was with a heavy heart that I left that role, but I wanted to be back in New York. Then came the second career-defining step for me—waiting for the right position—and that’s when I accepted a role in Pfizer’s R&D Finance division.

What takeaways did you learn from the financial management of Vaccines R&D, including the initial COVID clinical trial?
First, and quite simply, there were no egos. The individuals I find are the most respected are often the most confident and approachable. They are the ones rolling up their sleeves alongside you. They are the ones in whose presence you feel comfortable raising a question, thought, concern, or recommendation. They’re the ones, who despite their title, will ask you what you think. These are the people I was and continue to be surrounded by. The trust, respect, and efficiency that this creates in the workplace are magnetic. Before the COVID-19 clinical trial and during it, this is the environment in which I operated, sitting beside colleagues in a matrixed environment, business partners in other organizations, and my own senior leaders.

Second, communication is key. In this context, I mean business communication. Something I pride myself in doing is explaining detailed financial information in a concise manner, including to non-financial audiences. Knowing all the details is necessary, but the ability to convey the detailed information at a level that is appropriate for conversation and the audience is equally important. Conversation around the finances of the COVID-19 trial were no different. Delving into detail and pulling back up to have comprehensive discussions were continuously necessary. The people who spoke concisely were the ones I found to be the most effective and compelling.

Finally, as an impatient perfectionist, I’ve adopted the personal mantra of “Do it once; do it right.” Undoubtedly, sometimes things will need to be reworked, but the quality of my work while working efficiently is imperative. I tie quality to my personal brand and reputation. If my name is in a document, email, or PowerPoint deck, I ensure it is of the highest caliber. And this held equally true when I placed my name on the budget submission for our COVID-19 clinical trial. I made sure I knew where every number came from, and if I didn’t, I asked for an explanation and noted it directly in the document.

What have you enjoyed most about your new responsibilities as Director of Executive Operations, Office of the CEO?
I’ve loved each stage of my career more than the last. Being a CPA has allowed me to work in different places and different industries and to employ skill sets that extend beyond the numbers. It’s this variety that keeps me so excited. The stereotype of accountants staring at a computer screen with no human interaction has never held true for a single day in my career. Every day is new and exciting and pushes me to draw from the best of myself.

Working at Pfizer has also afforded opportunities to pursue patient advocacy for alopecia areata, a condition I’ve lived with since childhood, for which there’s no FDA-approved treatment. I’ve been able to offer my perspective in interviews and sit on panels beyond my day-to-day work. It’s one of the many areas in which Pfizer is creating awareness, and I am hopeful that patients like me will see progress in this area.

You’ve taught accounting and other subjects as well. How has teaching enhanced your own understanding?
I view accounting as the language of business. If you want to know what a company is doing, you need to dive into their financials. Each SEC filing I read fascinates me. The numbers show the story, but the color is in the words that accompany them. Some filings I’ve worked with were to dissect, interpret, and predict competitor results; others were during my tenure at Ernst & Young in the course of audits and reviews; and some were for the companies I worked at to proofread and tie-out data. In teaching accounting, I’ve been able to see how corporate reporting has evolved to reflect changes in GAAP, corporate culture, and management priorities.

I’ve also worked with students on presentation and speech skills, and it’s one of my favorite things to teach along with business writing—especially as it ties into finance. There are many brilliant people, some in high-level roles, who are terrified of numbers. I love finding ways to simplify information and convey what they need to know in a way that makes them comfortable. Having this skill set in the workplace has been useful and appreciated by others.

Lastly, the most humbling and important lesson I’ve learned in working with students is that the definition of “success” only holds true for yourself. Your path is your own. Your metrics are your own. And that definition will evolve during your career journey. No one but you can dictate what your path should be or what is most right for you.

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