Learning to balance all the hats in her wardrobe

May 01, 2019
Aoife Owens, Manager in FS Audit in KPMG, qualified as a Chartered Accountant and then decided to put her skills to good use outside of Ireland.

Tell us about your work abroad.

I took on a pro bono assignment with Everything’s Gonna Be OK (EGBOK) Mission in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2018. EGBOK operates as a hospitality training school for local, underprivileged teenagers as well as operating a restaurant, the profits of which are used substantially to meet the cost of operating the mission. My role was to provide general financial advice to the management team which involved inter alia advising on the impact of new tax laws for the restaurant and appropriately restructuring the business. I also developed internal processes and controls around the financial management of the mission, and formalised reporting to the board.

What inspired you to put your career on hold to pursue this?

I had recently finished my training contract, and had no idea what direction I wanted to go in from there. I had always wanted to volunteer abroad in some capacity. I toyed with the idea of completing a TEFL course, but as I was researching vacancies for English teachers in Asia, I found there to be so many charities and not-for-profits looking for accountants, on both short and long term assignments. I thought, why can’t I give back in some way by using my qualification? Through Accounting for International Development, I was partnered with EGBOK.

What did you take away from your experience with EGBOK?

It opened my eyes as to how fortunate we are to have the education and career opportunities that we do. The people I worked with and the friends I made in Cambodia have a yearning to learn, and were eager for me to impart as much knowledge on them as I could. They didn’t have the same access to education and professional qualification opportunities that I did, and this was a way to break the cycle. My priorities toward people issues in our organisations here in Ireland have shifted because of my time in Cambodia.

What advice would you give to others wanting to volunteer their time to organisations abroad?

If there is a part of you that thinks you would like to do something like this, whether on a pro bono or paid basis, my advice would be to just do it! Assignments can be of any duration in length, with a wide variety of partner organisations. The learning curve is steep, but the reward is tenfold. I came back to Ireland (and KPMG) refocused and re-energised. It’s also a great talking point with colleagues and peers.

Did becoming a Chartered Accountant help you during your time volunteering?

My volunteering drew heavily on the professional disciplines I learned while training in KPMG. When tasked with understanding the impact of changing tax legislation on the mission’s primary source of income, I had to take a deep breath, stand back and look at the whole picture. Being alone and without colleagues to lean on, I was forced to dig deep, think outside the box to formulate a solution and advise the team in EGBOK on the best way forward. 

In my opinion, being a Chartered Accountant means having a lot of hats in your wardrobe – the strategic hat, the leadership hat, the technical proficiency hat and, of course, the ethical hat. The trick is learning how to balance them on your head 
all at once.