Alumnae/i Feature

The Accidental CPA: How Communications Strengthened a Career in Accounting

Mary Dowling Marino '73 shares her journey, from majoring in Communications at Simmons to "accidentally" becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA).

"I only applied to women's colleges, and was accepted to all of them," recalls Mary Dowling Marino '73. "I wanted to be in a setting where I could relax and learn without worrying about the external pressures [of a coed campus] and I wanted to meet women who felt the same way."

Marino also craved anonymity in a city with diverse peoples and cultures. "I grew up in a small town where my father was a judge," she says. This notoriety, paired with her height of six feet, meant everyone knew her. "I loved Boston. It came down to Simmons and Skidmore, and I opted for the resources of city life."

Though she had earned stellar grades in high school, Marino wasn't sure what career she wanted to pursue when she came to Simmons. She spent her first two and a half years of undergraduate studies focusing on physical therapy and pre-med, though she took art history and English on the side. During her junior year, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Marino spoke to then-Dean Charlotte Morocco about the need to take a leave of absence or quit school altogether to help her mother and to relieve the immense pressure of keeping up with all the science courses.

"She was great," recalls Marino. "She just looked at me and said, 'What do you love to do?' I told her, 'I love to read and write.' She asked, 'why are you in pre-med?' I told her that I didn't know what kind of job I could get from reading and writing!"

After her mother's death during winter break, Marino returned to Simmons in the new year majoring in writing and journalism. She took extra courses during the summer before senior year so she could graduate with her class. " Professor Bob White's class changed me in ways I couldn't describe," she recalls. "Somehow, he saw me. I wasn't just another student." She took two courses with White, which bolstered her communication and writing skills. "I still have papers that he graded for me, with his comments."

A week after her graduation, Marino married a Harvard graduate and moved to Tucson, Arizona. Trying to get her foot in the door to start her career in journalism, she got a job answering phones at the only newspaper in town. After several months of boredom on the phones, she started looking around for other openings. The paper's credit department was managed by a woman, a rarity for the time period, and Marino requested a transfer to her department. "I was a math-phobic kid, but she taught me how to read a balance sheet," recalls Marino. "Money is finance, not math. It made sense to me in a way that calculus never did." In accounting, Marino saw a career on which she could rely. Following a divorce, she took accounting courses and eventually got an MBA while caring for her 18-month-old son.

"Going into public accounting in 1980 was very strange. I felt like a zebra in a herd of horses," she recalls. "At 29 years old, I was the only divorced woman in an office of 300 people. And I had a child! I faced a ton of skepticism from a bunch of old guys who were convinced I was going to fail. But I did not fail, I succeeded."

When Marino attended her ten-year Simmons reunion and told her peers she was a CPA, they thought she was joking.

"I had no desire to learn about finance or accounting while at Simmons," she recalls. "It involved numbers, so I thought, I must be bad at it. Discovering this career path was like opening a door in your house to a room you didn't know existed. I had an acumen for this I hadn't even realized."

Working at two of the "Big 8" firms — Arthur Andersen and Peat Marwick (now KPMG) — provided excellent training for Marino to progress quickly in her career. After seven years working in these firms, she learned about a rotational assignment that sent accountants to work with senior partners in the firm's national office in Washington, D.C. "This was an incredibly competitive program that took only ten people nationally and paid for all of their expenses during a two-year assignment. No one from the Phoenix office had ever done this program," says Marino. She got the call to be in D.C. the following day for an interview with a senior partner who formerly worked with the Treasury Department. "He requested I send him some technical articles," she says. "He called me at my hotel room at 10:30 p.m. the next night to say, 'you can write, this will do.' I thought, thank God for Bob White!"

It was 1986, and their project involved updating the firm's training and technical materials to incorporate all of the major changes in the tax code. Years later, she asked her boss why he chose her. "He told me that I was the only applicant who had an undergraduate degree in Communications. The job required someone who could write in a jargon-free way that business people could understand. He made me understand that you can be the smartest tax accountant in the world but if you can't communicate the concept to your audience, you're worth nothing."

That experience, she says, "really accelerated my professional visibility. When that rotation was over, I had my pick of offices in the firm." New York, Boston, Stamford, CT, New Jersey, and D.C. called her with interest, and from there things kept expanding.

After years of working with large public companies, Marino shifted later in her career to privately held companies at an accounting firm that specialized in entrepreneurs. Recruiting on college campuses in Seattle, Marino helped accounting and finance students write resumes and prepare for interviews. When the students asked what skills they needed aside from proficiency with technology, the answer was clear to Marino. "If you cannot communicate and write well, you're going to have a hard time. That's not a skill that people who are drawn to accounting usually possess. They tend to rely on technology and not on people skills."

For Marino, confidence increased with experience. "I didn't hit my stride, professionally, until I was 40," she says. "That's when I realized that I was good at this job, and I got into mentoring young women in the profession." As a mentor, Marino included younger staff into meetings to let them interact with the client directly and ask questions. Though more than half of college graduates in accounting are women, at that time, less than 10% of partners of the now Big 4 companies were women. Marino is proud to have been a disruptive force on their behalf over the years, pointing out salary discrepancies and helping women find the right workplace culture.

Visiting campus for her 50th Reunion sparked plenty of reflection for Marino. "I vividly remembered the person I was when I walked into 300 The Fenway the first time." She also remembered dorm life in Simmons Hall. "You had to yell 'flushing!' to warn someone in the shower that the cold water might disappear for a moment. I yelled in public bathrooms for a year after graduation."

The greatest impact on her career, however, is "the whole Simmons message," she says. "Piloting your own ship. That came back to me over and over again. From my perspective, we should encourage women to be the drivers [in their lives] — that's useful, no matter what they do. Simmons is a place to grow up and try on different personas. I started my growing up phase there, and it's still ongoing."

Photo courtesy of Mary Dowling Marino

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Alumnae/i Feature