A Conversation With Hadassah Baum: Executive Director of Beta Alpha Psi

Some people let barriers - like glass ceilings - determine their career paths. Then there is Hadassah (Dassie) Baum who meets a hurdle, revs her engine a little higher, and finds a way around. She started college when the country was full of contradictions. Campuses were the scene of riots as well as peace demonstrations, and women's lib was in full bloom, yet career opportunities for women were limited. Her career path has been long and winding, starting with not getting hired by the Big Eight firms of the early 70s to her present position as Executive Director of Beta Alpha Psi, and she has a future that is bound to be interesting.

Raised by two parents who were both professionals, she was groomed to become a professional herself, though neither parent encouraged her to follow in their respective field. At the time Baum was in college, there were very few teaching opportunities so she didn't consider following in the footsteps of her mother, an educator. Her father was a CPA, and that also was not a woman-friendly profession. But for Baum who had grown up handling the books for her parents' rental apartments, working with numbers seemed like an attractive choice.

Back then, she says, accounting was different. It was done on clunky adding machines and bulky ledgers instead of on computers, assisted by technology like handheld scanners and client portals. But from her first college class, the professors emphasized the professional side of accounting: the CPA exam, membership in the AICPA, opportunities for becoming an entrepreneur. Taking the CPA exam in New York meant sitting for the first three parts, and assuming you passed, waiting to sit for the fourth part till you had two years of auditing experience. It took Baum only one try to pass sections one through three. But part four would have to wait, since in the tight, not-so-woman-friendly job market, there were no tantalizing job offers forthcoming.

Never one to be defeated, she went around that obstacle by teaching college economics by day at Brooklyn College and pursuing a master's degree by night, at New York University. Two years later, with an MBA in hand, she was hired by BDO Seidman (then, known as Seidman & Seidman), and soon was able to take and pass the final part of the CPA exam. By age 24 she was an MBA, a licensed CPA at a prestigious firm, and had gotten married for the first time.

A path with many curves

Eventually, BDO Seidman offered her the chance to become their resident expert on what was then an important new law - ERISA. It was called a promotion, but since it meant she would no longer be working with clients, she saw it as a step back. So after learning all she could about ERISA and setting up her own retirement fund in her twenties - a decision that she says has served her well – she left to explore other options.

First she spent three years as the general accounting supervisor for Boehringer Ingelheim, a large multinational pharmaceutical company, and then moved on around another curve in her professional life. This time she headed in a direction that combined the influences of both her parents when she began teaching accounting at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. While there, she continued her own education by enrolling in a new program through the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). In two years, she added Certified Management Accountant (CMA) to her list of achievements, and then accepted a job with the IMA as the Director of Academic Development, promoting careers in management accounting to students and faculty. That was followed by eight years as the technical manager for the AICPA's New Finance Team.

Looking back, she says, the long and winding career path she took was all part of the preparation for her current position, Executive Director of Beta Alpha Psi (BAP). Two and a half years ago when BAP moved its headquarters out of New York, Baum chose to make the move along with them… a good indication that she feels at home in her role with BAP.

Currently, Beta Alpha Psi is installing its 280th chapter. Last year, they opened a chapter in Australia and this summer a new one will start in New Zealand. Membership is up, and she expects it will grow even stronger and the participants will grow more professional. In a weakened economy, the need for leadership skills is becoming more apparent, and students know they can develop those skills in BAP, says Baum. Many of the members, faculty, and advisors are heavily involved in volunteerism, which just proves her claim that, "They are a wonderful bunch of people."

"Accounting has traditionally been a good field even in a bad economy," she says. Baum feels confident that most graduates this year will find jobs, though she tells them to be flexible and if necessary consider jobs that are not specifically accounting. On the national level, she worries that companies will move some functions offshore. "Outsourcing of accounting hasn't been that successful, but the world is becoming more global. Businesses are working now to make outsourcing more seamless, as people on the other end get more education and more language skills."

What advice does she have for aspiring accountants?

  • No matter how high you go, don't neglect your continuing education. Within a year of taking the reins at BAP, she added Certified Association Executive to her list of credentials.
  • Don't be afraid to reinvent yourself. Baum says she has reinvented herself several times, whether or not she did it consciously. When something new attracts her attention, she gets a book or enrolls in classes and does whatever is necessary to learn it.
  • Keep up relationships with people from college and those you work with. You never know where opportunities will come from, she says. "I've reconnected with people I went to college with, and I've never been shy about reaching out to those who can help me or those I can help," she says. "Not that you generally get back as much as you give, but you do as much give-and-take as possible."
  • "Set goals for yourself. You should have someplace you want to go."
  • "Keep up with what is going on in your field and in the world. Pursue your interests, but keep your family and personal life going as well. Don't put your personal life on hold," she says, adding that many women of her generation neglected their personal lives to focus on their careers, and they still hit glass ceilings.

Baum is a good example of someone who has a substantial career as well as a rich personal life. For her, that includes being a "gym nut" and an avid reader of good spy or mystery novels. And most significant – she is also a happy newlywed. She and her new husband met last year - while he lived in California - and married just a few months ago. Now they make their home in Raleigh, North Carolina, the headquarters for BAP.

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