Anna Kovalenko

[Editor’s Note: Join us this week as we celebrate the Women of PwC. Today’s article is the final interview in a series of five.]

As a burgeoning senior associate in PwC’s Tax practice, Anna Kovalenko specializes in provision and compliance for multinational clients. She also helped launch the Milwaukee office’s Green Team, championing sustainability both inside the walls of the office and outside in a local elementary school. And, as a firm believer in the power of a team, she wants every non-accountant type out there to know that the old perception of an individual crunching numbers alone on a computer is so passé.

“I feel there’s an assumption with accounting that we all work individually, but it’s not like that,” Anna says. “We work in teams and are often on multiple teams at the same time. One of the things I love about the culture at PwC is that we believe in flexibility and try to be there for each other.

With this team-first mentality, it should come as no surprise that beyond the working walls, Anna dedicates herself to her passion of helping children learn financial literacy and financial stewardship through the aforementioned Green Team. She’s a big believer in these projects. As a first-generation American who was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved to the U.S. at 10 years old without knowing any English, she credits programs similar to these that helped her as a kid. Anna’s experience from childhood to woman making-it-happen is proof positive that the team-first is an approach worth investing in.

Those who aren’t familiar with the industry might not understand that accounting is a team effort.

What was your first job and what is a lesson it taught you that sticks with you today?

I started very accidentally working at a restaurant during my freshman year of high school. My friend who worked there went to pick up her paycheck, and I went with her. She couldn’t work one day, and I said that I could, so I was hired on the spot! I remember being very shy at the time, and the boss I had there helped break me out of my shell. I remember being terrified to talk to tables of customers and big parties. She would send me over to the tables, and put me in a position where I had no choice but to deal with the customers.

I am so thankful that she came into my life and that she had this sense for looking at people and instantly knowing what they needed. She was a very wise person. I was very grateful that she was there, as what she taught me has stuck with me my whole life!

Did you always know you wanted to work in the tax industry?

While I knew I was going to be in the business school at the University of Wisconsin, I didn’t know this was where I was going to end up. The funny part is that my mom was an accountant, and growing up I didn’t really think that I was going to be an accountant. I wound up having a wonderful accounting professor who has his own tax practice, which offered me insight into the profession. He was a strong influence on so many who took his class. I actually ended up teaching for his class as a TA in grad school. We had TA orientation where all of the TA’s would be asked to say why they joined accounting, and literally every single person in the accounting department named this professor as the reason.

He was one of these charismatic professors that made accounting and tax accounting fun. When you think about the stereotypes of an accountant, you certainly don’t think of a very fun individual. (At least I didn’t going into it!) He turned accounting concepts into a game and it made myself, and my classmates, want to learn more.

What was your next step after graduating with both of your degrees?

There’s a traditional path in terms of how you can get from college to one of the big four firms—which includes PwC. It goes like this: You do your undergraduate accounting program, get an internship your senior year, try things out and hopefully get an offer to come back full time next year. Then, you go back for your grad year and you get your CPA. Finally, you come back to the firm full time. It’s really nice knowing you have a job before you graduate. PwC is open to other paths as well, but I followed a mostly prescribed path.

What does your work life look like on a day-to-day basis?

As much as I love to plan—and try to plan—I’ve learned that things just happen and I flow with the priorities of whatever needs to get done. In this job, it’s important to be comfortable with an element of things coming out of nowhere. It’s also a very project-dependent role.

There’s this assumption with accounting that we all work individually, but it’s not like that. We work in teams and are often on multiple teams at the same time! It’s key to try to make sure all of your projects are going well. One of the things I love about the office and our culture at PwC is that we believe in flexibility and try to be there for each other.

On that topic, what has mentorship looked like for you at PwC, and what are some things your mentors at the company have taught you?

There have been so many mentors that I’ve had at PwC, which really also changed my perspective of the company. Coming here as an intern—and I think this is very common—I had this assumption that in a public firm I was going to be expected to work a lot and only focus on my career. I thought I wouldn’t have time for a personal life. These were all assumptions I developed through school and recruiting, but the truth is, until you get to a firm you don’t know what it’s going to be like.

The first time that I met [fellow ‘Women at PwC Week’ Leading Ladies] Natasha [Granholm] and Barb [Bukovac] was at an intern event where all female interns in our market were pulled together. We sat down in groups to speak with PwC female leaders – like Natasha and Barb. I remember speaking to Natasha and hearing her share her story of her career path. I remember loving that she has flexibility at PwC and was able to have a family life. More incredible yet, there were so many other women in the room just like her.

Meeting women who were able to achieve these things themselves, and seeing that, made everything just feel more real. It broke the assumption that I only had to work and could never ask for free time or flexibility to also focus on other things that were important to me. It gave me the courage to know that I could speak up and ask for what I need. It was a very powerful moment for me early on in my career.

What has been your approach to standing out at PwC?

At PwC you’re given many opportunities, it’s up to you to take the initiative to take them and do a good job. If you’re willing to do that, then people will recognize you for your work. I feel like the greatest thing PwC offers is the opportunity to do all sorts of things. My approach has always been to go after what I want and to do that to the best of my abilities. I don’t want to be the type of person to do things halfway.

Additionally, PwC lets you follow your passions. For example, I started a Green Team in our office because it’s something I’m really passionate about. I noticed that PwC nationally had a Green Team initiative (which creates environmentally friendly opportunities within the firm) that could be joined. I asked for a meeting with the lead partner in our office and he accepted it! I came with an agenda outlining what the Green Team would do and why it would be good for the office. He listened to me and said, “Okay. Do it.” Right on the spot. He gave me a budget to get started. Going into it, I didn’t think that the company would be so responsive and let me do these types of things. I’m actually in awe of the fact that PwC lets us do this.

What types of opportunities do you have as a Green Team member?

As I mentioned, the Green Team was started by the national office. So, to start our office’s chapter, there was an outline sent to me with some ideas of what others in the company were doing with this initiative. We started with things like recycling our coffee packets and now we’re composting our coffee grounds. We took it one step at a time to make the office a better place.

We actually went quite a bit further, as PwC does extensive financial literacy training through corporate social responsibility programs. Now we go to schools and teach children about recycling and composting and merge this environmental component with a financial literacy component. We did this by creating an environmental business simulation where we go into a school and teach kids what a creditor or an investor is. Then, they pick whether they want PwC to invest or give them a loan.

It’s been so powerful to see kids as young as first and second grade understand what a dividend is and the concept of saving. They get SO excited about it. I love everything about it, and I love that the firm gives us time to develop this and also have the opportunity to volunteer with these kids on a workday. To me, that’s a firm that I want to be a part of.

What is something about your job you think others might not realize?

Other people who aren’t familiar with the industry might not understand that it’s really a team effort. When I go recruiting, I notice how often people think that tax is very individual-based. It’s not. It’s definitely a culture and a team environment. I am very happy to be in the environment that we do have with the mentorship and leadership in the company. I’m constantly impressed with the people I’m working with.

What advice do you have for the next generation of female professionals?

Learn to listen to yourself. It took me a while to do it, but I’ve learned that whenever I have that feeling inside my stomach, I should always follow up on it. It’s something I wish I would have understood earlier on. I have a pact with myself now that if I ever have that feeling, I will follow up on it.

What advice would you give to someone who wants your job?

To get into PwC specifically, the traditional path would be going to an accounting program for your undergrad, make sure you’re connecting with the firms early on, get your internship your senior year, do your internship, go to grad school, get your CPA and go back to full-time. Certainly, however, lots of people came to PwC not following that path, but it would be the most standard way to get here.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The top leadership at PwC is incredible, and they’ve implemented all sorts of initiatives. One was to have Sheryl Sandberg come in and hold a town hall meeting about her book Lean In a while back. It was interesting, because here in our market, a couple of people bought the book and passed it around. I was one of the people who her book was passed to. I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh wow, I do this.” It had me re-evaluate how I behave. Initially, the part that I found even more interesting is that some of the senior male leaders, who are already wonderful and intuitive, also watched the town hall. My coworkers and I discussed that after this, we began to see a shift in how some leaders understood the differences in communication styles between males and females. I remember having a conversation with somebody who really forced me to go outside that traditional role and take a stronger position than I would have done myself. He understood what females were really going through. It was the supportive nudge that it’s okay to go speak and be more out there.

I’d love to grab coffee with: My grandmother, because I miss her so much. I’m actually going to Ukraine soon to visit her!
My favorite quote is: “Someone is sitting under the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
If I could tell my younger self one thing it would be: Listen to yourself and just go for it!
My favorite show to binge-watch is: Modern Family.
I can’t live without: The people I care for.
My favorite way to unwind is: Yoga and running.
I feel my best when: I can get in sleep and a workout!

Learn More: Follow PwC on TwitterInstagram and Snapchat. Plus, don’t miss yesterday’s installment in ‘Women at PwC Week’ featuring U.S. Tax Diversity Leader Margie Dhunjishah.