Martha Ruiz: Oscars Balloting Co-Leader, PricewaterhouseCoopers

While you’re sitting down to read this interview between work emails and cups of coffee, Martha Ruiz is in Southern California memorizing the names of this Sunday’s Academy Award winners. Along with her Oscars balloting co-leader, Brian Cullinan, the two will be the only souls who will know the answer to the fill-in-the-blank statement: And the award goes to …

This is Martha’s second year in the prestigious position at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the well-known audit and assurance, consulting and tax services firm. PwC, which has had a relationship with the Academy for 88 years, announced Martha’s position just last year. She’s the second woman and first Latina woman to have this role. Now, with one Oscars ceremony under her belt, Martha is prepping to represent the firm again this year for the prestigious engagement.

“It goes without saying that it’s a privilege,” Martha says. “When I think about the small group of partners we’ve had in this role – only 13 others during the 82 years we’ve been doing the tabulation process, that’s a pretty small group. It’s exciting to be on of the partners that has this responsibility.”

Read on to hear more about the Oscar’s balloting process, how Martha has risen through the ranks at PwC and more on that famous briefcase she’ll carry to the awards show on Sunday.

What was your first job out of college?

PwC was actually my first career job! I did have an accounting job when I was going through school for my undergrad. Once I graduated I studied for my CPA exam as I knew I wanted to work in accounting. I wanted to join firms and make sure I had my credentials, which is that second part once you obtain your accounting degree.

I got through the exam, and wanted to join of the Big 6 firms at the time – PwC being one of them. But, I then realized I wanted to go to grad school and at that point became a full-time student. I focused my interest in specializing in tax. Once I wrapped up graduate school I interviewed with all the big firms and decided to go with PwC. I’ve now been with the Firm for 19 years.

What are some of the career steps you took that led to your current position as the Oscars balloting co-leader?

It’s a combination of things, and there might be some luck thrown in there, too! But kidding aside, my client base is in entertainment and media. I work within “the industry” because many of my clients are entertainment and media clients. So, having that as a backdrop, I clearly knew PricewaterhouseCoopers did work for the Academy.

I became involved in some of the tax work for the Academy and through that relationships were built with the organization. Some of the partners I worked with who mentored me, made recommendations when there was an opportunity to have someone join the Oscars balloting team.

I joined the team about 13 years ago and was able to prove myself and demonstrate the things we need for this engagement with one of our marquee clients. We’ve had a relationship with the Academy for 88 years as their audit firm, and we’ve been doing the balloting for the past 82 years.

With all this in mind, we make sure there is a focus on this relationship and our confidentiality, as well as what it stands for and the tradition. All of these things – the discretion, the confidentiality, the integrity, the process – has a high degree of responsibility. For as much as we know, there is virtually nothing we can say about it, and we know that.

What did it mean to you to be the first Latina woman to hold this job?

Personally, I think it’s a privilege to be asked to take on this role – period. But, certainly representing the firm as a female, and as a Latina, is great. It demonstrates the inclusion of PwC. The company is about providing diverse experiences, about incorporating and including everyone, and this is no exception. It’s an exciting moment that I’m privileged to be a part of. It’s a significant role, and one that I don’t take lightly.

martha ruiz holding envelope

What is it like to work at PricewaterhouseCoopers? What is the culture like?

The average age for our firm is 27 years old. We definitely have a young group of really bright, passionate people who you can tell are very energetic about what they do. I’ve been here for several years, and I’ve seen various degrees of generations come in, and each brings something new – different views and perspectives. I’m privileged to be a part of an organization that focuses on that – bringing the best and the brightest.

Do you have other clients in addition to the Academy, or do they have your full-time focus?

Someone asked me just yesterday what the week is going to look like as we head closer to the day of the show. I walked through a series of events that will take place, but then I had to interject and say, “Well, we also have some additional client work.” So yes, I do!

I spend a lot of time on this engagement, but I do have other client commitments, and I equally spend my time with them. It’s different work; my focus is taxes, so I do a lot of consulting and planning in the entertainment and media space. The Academy is a client that right now is what I’ll call my “day job” for a second. It takes me out of our tax technical world, and it allows me to kind of do things in a different way.

The fascinating part is when I realize in the days leading up to the show that myself, and my co-leader, Brian, will be the only two who ultimately know something that the whole world is waiting to find out. I won’t lie; that was a fascinating phase in the process last year when I did it for the first time.

What is a typical ‘day in your life’ as you’re prepping for the Oscars? What does the process involve?

It’s an interesting process. Members can vote until 5 p.m. Tuesday prior to the Oscars. Once the polls close, Brian and myself will begin the counting process. Then, beginning Wednesday Brian and I will start with a category, find out who the winner will be for that category, and then we begin memorizing who those individuals are and what their achievements are for their specific category.

Once we reach the end of the week, we’ve completed the entire process. At this point, we sit down and make sure we have the entire winner list memorized. We don’t write anything down. There are no flashcards. We want to make sure we keep everything clean and confirmed.

At some point on Friday we will begin quizzing each other. And that may even lead into Saturday, depending on how timing goes. At that point, an interesting step takes place.

People will often say, “You know you need to have the envelopes and cards prepared, so surely the printer who creates the cards must know who the winners are.” But, what many people don’t know is that there is a printer who creates the cards and the envelopes with really nice paper, but what they actually print out is a card for each of the nominees.

So, when we get to the end of the week, Brian and I have completed our count and memorization, and we will then start selecting the right card and will include that card in the envelope. We then officially seal the envelope, and when we’re done we have 24 envelopes that are ready to go on Sunday!

We read that you and Brian actually take separate vehicles with the locked briefcases and then take separate routes to get to the award show. Is this correct?

That’s right. We each have someone from the LAPD who will escort us, take us to our undisclosed location that will have the envelopes and briefcases safeguarded in the safe locked up. Security will ensure that they are protecting the briefcase. The security isn’t necessarily to protect us, per se, but rather the briefcase with its envelopes inside. Their job is to assure they get to the show.

Once we head to the theater, Brian and I will be in separate cars with our security taking separate routes. That is to ensure that if something were to happen to one person – or even if traffic is encountered by one person – the other person can still get there and arrive on time.

When you arrive on site, do you get the opportunity to walk the red carpet?

We do. We actually arrive at the same location everybody else does and with our briefcase in our hands. Contrary to what many people think, they are not handcuffed to our hands! We carry them, and we have our security right next to us watching it at all times.

The opportunity to walk the red carpet is very surreal. It’s an exciting opportunity, fun to watch and be a part of, and I like experiencing it from a different lens – being there in person.

What is your role during the ceremony?

The briefcases with the envelopes inside are in our hands at all times. Brian and I each have a complete set of the 24 envelopes. During the ceremony I am positioned on one side of the stage, and Brian is on the other. Depending on who the presenters are and on what side they are coming out of to walk on stage, we take care to deliver the right envelopes to them.

It requires you to stay focused on what category is next, what presenter is coming in from your side, and then you double and triple check. Redundancy is not a problem for us when we’re back there. It’s better to duplicate and make sure everything goes off without a hitch.

Martha Ruiz quote

As someone who has worked on a team and risen through the ranks at the Firm, what skills would you advise our readers to hone to be a kind of employee that a boss wants to promote and place on their team?

That’s a great question.

As I think about many of our students that are coming in and starting their first year with PwC – or even interning here – I notice those who are very passionate about what they do and who are bold enough to express that. I look for someone who has that energy and that drive to want to do things – as big or as small as they may be. Having that energy goes a long way; it’s contagious. You want people like that on your team.

This whole concept of work/life balance has been talked about so much in the media. Do you believe in it?

I definitely believe in work/life balance, and I think it means something different for every individual. For me, I realize that it can’t all happen at the same time. I recognize the peaks and valleys with my time, and I mentally prepare myself. I have two kids and a family. I work to keep that communication open with them. They realize the peak times too, and through those times we work together to kind of create our own sense of communication about how we are going to be dealing with things that are going on as a family, in school, etc.

When work isn’t so busy, I try to take advantage of spending time at home. I take some time off with family. I try to take two different vacations a year – one with my kids and one without my kids for just my husband and I. It’s a way to recharge

It’s a delicate balance.

Your kids must be so proud of you!

They’re at a fun age. I have an 11-year-old and a 7-year-old. They definitely know what I do for work. If we go to watch a movie, I’ll tell her, “Mommy does work for this client.” They have that frame of reference.

A couple of years ago there was a conference I was going to speak that was being held at the Disneyland Resort. I decided to make a weekend out of it, and my husband and I thought it would be fun to surprise the kids. So, I told them, “Mom has to work this weekend, but I was thinking maybe you guys may want to come with me.” They were glad to go, so we took them along. When we arrived and they saw we were at Disneyland, my youngest daughter said, “Wow, Mom! You work at a roller coaster? Wow!” And I said, “Ya, you might say my work is a roller coaster at Disneyland.”

It was the funniest thing, and it makes me laugh to this day. The way she phrased it was like, “Wow, if you’re coming home late from work it’s because you were on a roller coaster at Disneyland!” It helped me put things in perspective. When you have kids, if you can share what you do at work at their level, then it’s fun because they get engaged and say the funniest things! If helps you appreciate that, in their own way, they’re listening and watching you and staying connected with what’s going on with you – and vice-versa.

Any hints on who you’re wearing, or is that sealed in a locked box?

That’s sealed in a locked box, too!

After Hours graphic

I’d Love To Grab Coffee With:

Andy Garcia

You’ll Find These Three Things On My Desk:

Sanitizer for my hands, wipes for my laptop, and my cell phone

My Go-To Office Outfit Is:

A sports coat. I always have it with me.

My Favorite Place To Eat Lunch Is:

I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but my most frequent is Starbucks.

I Can’t Live Without:

Hot tea

My Favorite Way To Unwind Is:

By watching Shark Tank!

I Feel My Best When:

I see my kids – especially after a stressful day.

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