Melyssa Brown, Kara Stevens Named Women to Watch by MSCPA
Making Their Time Count
Kara Stevens says she likes to keep busy.
That’s good, because attaining that state certainly hasn’t been an issue lately — and it probably won’t be for probably the next 20 or 30 years.
Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest, Stevens was mentally putting some finishing touches on the final exam she’ll give students in one of the undergraduate accounting classes she teaches at Bay Path University, which she serves as director of Accounting Programs and associate professor. She was also preparing lesson plans for the graduate class she teaches (those students are on a different schedule and won’t see their course work wrap up for another few months).
Meanwhile, she’s been hard at work on her own studies — she’s pursuing a doctorate in accounting, with the main focus of her research being financial-literacy programs and how to make them more effective. She has a strong base of knowledge with which to start, having worked with Junior Achievement (JA) on that endeavor for some time, and joining the agency’s board last year.
Then there’s her work with the Mass. Society of CPAs — she was named to that board earlier this year, and has been actively involved with its Western Mass. chapter. And she’s the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, and is expecting another child later this year.
As mentioned earlier, it’s a good thing she likes to be busy. And that full slate, crowded as it is with a combination of professional achievements, work in the community, personal and professional development initiatives, and more clearly resonated with the judges selecting the MSCPA’s Women to Watch in the so-called ‘Leaders Category.’
As did Melyssa Brown’s application, which is equally studded with achievements and community work that would make it clear that she also makes full and effective use of the 24 hours in each day.
Indeed, Brown currently serves as senior manager of the Audit and Accounting Department at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, and recently began serving as a so-called accounting mentor to area startups involved in programming created by Valley Venture Mentors. In that capacity, she’s providing key financial advice — and words of wisdom on many other aspects of running a business — to entrepreneurs at critical stages in the development of their companies.
“Often, I’m helping people at VVM with questions about finance because that’s what I specialize in,” she said about her role as a mentor at the monthly sessions. “But you can help people in all kinds of ways, and it’s been great — I learn as much as they do.”
Brown is also a key contributor to Girls Inc., a Holyoke-based nonprofit that focuses on empowering young girls across the region. An alumna of that organization, her involvement has grown steadily over the years, serving on the executive, finance, and strategic planning committees, and also as treasurer, vice president of the board (her current role), and, perhaps most importantly, as a role model for the girls in the program.
For this issue and its focus on Banking & Financial Services, BusinessWest profiles these two women to watch — who have much in common, right down to their status as BusinessWest 40 Under Forty winners (Brown in 2013, Stevens with the recently named class of 2016) — as a way to shine a spotlight on the emerging talent in this important sector of the local economy.
Contributions That Add Up
At its core, Brown told BusinessWest, Girls Inc. wants those who participate in its programs to be strong, smart, and bold. She believes she possesses all three qualities, and gives the organization ample credit in that regard.
“That’s what they teach, and that really encompasses it all — mind, body, and spirit,” she explained, crediting the organization with helping her develop perhaps the most important trait needed to succeed in business today: confidence.
And now, she’s trying to help the next generation of young women do the same, through a variety of programs, and her participation with the organization is just one of the many professional and community-oriented activities that fills her calendar.
As is the case with Stevens, Brown’s story begins in college (in this case Elms), which she entered not knowing exactly what she wanted to do with her career other than “something in business.” A strong aptitude for math and accounting helped sharpen her focus and put her on a path toward becoming a CPA.
She started at Downey, Sweeny, Fitzgerald & Co. in Springfield, and eventually came to Meyers Brothers Kalicka in 2004, where she soon became the youngest senior manager in the 65-year history of the company.
She said there are many aspects to her work in auditing, and noted that comes down to working with people more than working with numbers. She came back repeatedly to the notion of herself as adviser and problem solver.
“Clients will often run into something and call us and say, ‘how do I handle this?’ or ‘what do I do with this?’” she said, adding that she enjoys helping clients through what can often be a difficult process.
In many ways, that notion of working with others to solve problems also applies to her work with VVM and Girls Inc.
At VVM, she said, entrepreneurs come to the group with imaginative ideas and usually need guidance and direction about how to convert those ideas into successful ventures.
“They have a passion for something, but often don’t know how to turn it into a business — or a viable business,” she said, adding that her work is rewarding on a number of levels.
“I learn so much from it; you surround yourself with other smart people — it’s inspiring,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s a learning experience for me as much as it is for them.”
As for Girls Inc., which is the only board she sits on, Brown says she has a passion for its multi-faceted mission, especially programs aimed at steering women toward careers in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. Actually, she noted, an ‘a’ has in many cases been added to the acronym, which stands for ‘art.’
One program she helped conceptualize is known as Eureka!, which buses cohorts of girls to UMass Amherst for four weeks in the summer, where they receive training in STEM fields from professors at the university.
As she talked about the final exam she was readying for her undergraduate students, those taking an intermediate course in accounting, Stevens said it would obviously go heavy on technical material.
“Debits and credits … technical stuff like that,” she explained. “It’s tough; it’s cumulative, so there’s lots to remember. It’s a lot like the financial-accounting part of the CPA exam, which I like to say is a mile long and inch thick, meaning there’s lots and lots and lots of information that adds up.”
It was just that kind of material for which Stevens showed an aptitude — and an affinity — at Springfield Technical Community College a decade and a half ago. She developed so much of each that her indecisiveness about what to major in was over.
Fast-forwarding a little, she majored in accounting at UMass and eventually went to work at Wolf & Co. But her career took a rather unexpected turn when she started doing some adjunct teaching at West State University.
She discovered she enjoyed teaching accounting at least as much as doing it herself, and joined the faculty at Bay Path on a full-time basis. Not long after doing so, she blueprinted the school’s master’s-degree program in accounting, one of many it has added over the past several years.
And while she enjoys her work in the classroom and is proud of how the school’s accounting programs have grown, she’s perhaps most excited about her work in the community, much of which falls into that category of financial literacy, an important focus of JA.
And she’s been able to blend the various aspects of her professional life by getting many of her students at Bay Path involved in the critical work of helping young people understand money and how to better manage it — for a lifetime.
“My students will visit (Springfield’s) Central High, where they’re teaching the first-year students, the freshmen, about financial literacy,” she said, adding that the experience benefits those on both sides of the equation.
She’s become so involved, and so fascinated, by these efforts to promote and create financial literacy — and make them ever-more effective — that she made this the focus of her doctoral work; she’s in year two of a five-year program she actually hopes to complete in four.
“The effort to make this community more financially literate is a real passion of mine,” she told BusinessWest. “Through Junior Achievement and the research I’m doing, I’m trying to help create ways to increase what we’re doing. We need more volunteers —people on the professional level — to be out there educating young people.
“Studies have shown that these efforts help the community as a whole,” she went on. “If you teach the high-school students to be more financially literate, they’re going into their homes and potentially teaching the parents.”
She said one of her specific points of focus moving forward, from a research perspective, is women.
“Research is showing that, overall, girls in high school are just not as confident in being financially literate,” she explained. “But after these programs, we’re seeing a big increase, compared with the males, when it comes to being more comfortable with these topics. Hopefully, the end result will be that, in their adulthood, they’re making smarter financial decisions.”
Beyond the Numbers
Staying busy. That’s just one of the many things Brown and Stevens have in common.
They’re making their time count — in every sense of that word — in ways that are benefiting their employers, their own careers, and, most importantly, the Western Mass. community.
And that’s why they’re not just busy — they’re women to watch. Closely.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]