Avani Desai, as she proudly proclaims in her Twitter bio, is a true juggler of responsibilities. She effortlessly navigates between the roles of a dedicated mother, caring for her three beloved children, a passionate philanthropist actively involved with various organizations dedicated to women’s career empowerment in the technology sector, and the visionary leader at Schellman, a prestigious CPA firm.
Avani’s journey began with a computer science degree, focusing on information security. In 2002, she embarked on her career at KPMG, one of the Big 4 accounting firms. Over the next decade, she progressively assumed leadership roles, overseeing IT Risk Management and Privacy across national service lines, starting from an associate position and rising to become a Manager and Director of Risk. In 2012, motherhood presented her with a difficult decision: continue her career or devote herself to raising her son. Refusing to compromise, she chose to leave her job rather than entrust her child’s care to someone else.
However, Avani’s determination to pursue her dual dreams of a fulfilling career and motherhood never waned. A pivotal moment arrived when Chris Schellman, the Founder and CEO of Schellman, offered her an opportunity to contribute to his company’s vision. The job offered her the flexibility to dedicate herself to fulfilling her responsibilities both at work and at home. Intrigued by the prospect, she joined the firm as EVP, subsequently obtaining her CPA certification and eventually ascending to the role of President. Following Chris Schellman’s retirement, she assumed the mantle of CEO. Simultaneously, in 2017, Avani launched MyCryptoAlert, an app designed to provide push notifications and portfolio management for cryptocurrency, where she also serves as CEO.
Avani’s exceptional ability to balance her personal and professional life is matched by her commitment to philanthropy. She actively participates in the Executive Women’s Forum’s mentorship program, which aims to elevate women in the accounting profession to management positions. Additionally, she co-chairs 100 Women Strong, a female-exclusive, venture capital-based initiative that employs data analytics to address community challenges affecting women and children. Avani also holds board positions with several organizations, including the Arnold Palmer Medical Center, Philanos, and the Central Florida Foundation, where she serves as Audit Committee Chairwoman.
Despite her numerous professional achievements, Avani considers her greatest accomplishment to be her role as a devoted mother to her 12-year-old son, 9-year-old daughter, and 1-year-old son.
Today, Avani stands as a mentor, sponsor, and role model, with an extraordinary ability to inspire those around her to thrive and excel. It is an honor to present the inspiring journey of one of the foremost women leaders in the tech industry.
Describe your career progression from the start to where you are and what pivotal decisions, moves you made, circumstances, and other facts that facilitated your growth.
Though my career has also been shaped by pivotal decisions and relevant circumstances, my progress has always gone back to the unwavering support of my parents. Growing up in an immigrant family, I witnessed firsthand the sacrifices my parents made to provide my sisters and me with opportunities in America. Their courage and belief in education fueled—and continues to fuel—my drive to succeed.
Then in college, while typical stereotypes may have pointed someone like me towards a career in medicine or engineering, I instead became passionate about the intersection of technology and business. And when information security became my focus, it led me to unexpected opportunities, including working for an accounting firm where I discovered my love for problem-solving, data analysis, and fostering collaboration.
My tenure at that Big 4 firm was transformative—the mentors, sponsors, education opportunities, and lifelong friendships I gained were invaluable. But in 2012, when I became a mother, I sought greater flexibility and a firm where I could thrive more both professionally and personally, and that’s when I joined Schellman. Though I initially assisted with business development and marketing, I took on additional responsibilities over time and eventually became President after passing my CPA exam.
In 2021, I was serving as President when we embarked on a Private Equity Deal with Lightyear Capital—an opportunity that aligned perfectly with our growth aspirations and desire to innovate with a firm that recognized our company’s reputation and was developing an investment thesis in our space. Because the timing allowed our founder, Chris, to retire ahead of schedule, I then assumed the role of CEO and President.
Throughout my journey to this point, I’ve learned the importance of seizing “unlooked opportunities,” building strategic partnerships, and aligning with organizations that share our vision. It is these factors—coupled with my unwavering support at home and a passion for making Schellman a disrupter in our profession—that have propelled and positioned me for this leadership role.
What are the key skills and qualifications that aspiring tech executives in the tech industry should focus on developing to enhance their career prospects?
While strong technical skills are undoubtedly important, I think it’s essential to recognize that these skills have become table stakes. To truly enhance your career prospects and succeed as a tech executive, aspiring professionals should prioritize the development of other critical core skills such as communication, collaboration, and empathy.
Effective communication skills are vital for conveying ideas, strategies, and technical concepts to diverse audiences, both within and outside the organization—the ability to articulate complex information clearly and concisely is key to building relationships, inspiring teams, and driving successful outcomes. In the same way, the ability to work seamlessly with cross-functional teams, leveraging diverse perspectives, and fostering a culture of collaboration can lead to innovative solutions and drive organizational success.
And though perhaps overlooked sometimes, empathy, too, plays a crucial role in today’s tech landscape because it allows executives to see beyond code and algorithms and ensure that technology aligns with human needs and aspirations. Empathy also further bolsters communication and collaboration as well since understanding and empathizing with end-users, customers, and colleagues nurtures better relationships between all and enables the creation of user-centric solutions.
Those are the big three skills to cultivate, in my view, though I think adaptability, leadership, strategic thinking, and a continuous learning mindset are also useful, as are staying updated with industry trends, embracing new technologies, and proactively seeking professional development opportunities.
What key milestones or achievements should tech executives aim for at various career stages to demonstrate their growth and readiness for higher-level roles?
Key milestones and achievements can vary depending on an individual’s specific career path and unique aspirations, but a common thread for all aspiring tech executives should be a continual focus on learning and development—that includes actively seeking out opportunities to expand technical knowledge, as well as developing critical soft skills such as the aforementioned communication, empathy, and collaboration.
While the specific milestones may differ for each individual, a commitment to personal and professional growth through learning is a powerful way for tech executives to become adaptable while also cultivating leadership qualities, better strategic thinking, and top-tier business acumen—all of which will enhance their readiness for higher-level roles in the ever-evolving tech industry.
How important is it for tech executives to actively seek out mentorship or coaching opportunities to advance their careers? What benefits can they derive from such relationships?
If you want to advance your career, it’s crucial to actively seek out mentorship or coaching opportunities. Tapping into the expertise of coaches and the experiences of mentors, you can gain valuable insights, enhance your skills, expand your network, and receive objective feedback and support. You’ll also be able to work on your weaknesses if you seek out individuals who excel in those areas and learn from them.
Ultimately, mentorship and coaching will foster your ongoing development, helping you stay adaptable and continuously improve—something that will continue to help you even as you climb higher in your career.
In your experience, what role does professional networking play in the career progression of tech executives? How can tech executives effectively build and leverage their networks?
Given the strong correlation between what I do and the importance of trust, building and leveraging networks has been instrumental in establishing my personal credibility and that of my firm as we work to earn the trust of clients and industry peers.
Through professional networking, I have been able to connect with cybersecurity experts, thought leaders, and professionals across various domains, and these interactions yielded valuable insights through these knowledge-sharing opportunities, further strengthening my expertise while helping me to stay at the forefront of the rapidly evolving cybersecurity landscape. Some of these people have even become my mentors, and their guidance has helped me navigate complex challenges, hone my skills, and expand my professional horizons.
Through networking, I’ve also helped my firm, having forged more lasting partnerships and collaborations with trusted professionals and organizations—the joint projects, shared resources, and collaborative problem-solving have ultimately benefitted our clients and enhanced the overall quality of our services.
Are there any specific certifications, advanced degrees, or executive education programs that can significantly enhance the career prospects of tech executives in the tech industry? Which ones would you recommend?
In my world, I’d recommend:
- CISA (Certified Information Systems Auditor): Validates of your expertise in information systems auditing, control, and security.
- CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional): Globally recognized certification in information security management.
- CIA (Certified Internal Auditor): Proves your proficiency in internal auditing, risk assessment, and governance processes.
- CCSK (Certificate of Cloud Security Knowledge): Endorses your expertise in cloud security and understanding of cloud-related risks.
Can you share any examples of notable tech executives who have successfully transitioned from one role (e.g., CIO) to another (e.g., CEO) within the same organization or industry? What factors contributed to their success?
Throughout my own journey from a cybersecurity assessor to CEO, I looked to several other female technologists who also became CEOs.
First, there was Ginni Rometty, who served as the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of IBM before becoming the CEO of the company. Her successful transition was attributed to her strategic thinking, strong leadership skills, and ability to drive transformational change within the organization.
Safra Catz started her career at Oracle as the company’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and later transitioned to Co-CEO. Her financial expertise, business acumen, and ability to navigate complex technology landscapes contributed to her success in leading the organization.
Diane Greene’s technical expertise, entrepreneurial mindset, and vision for cloud computing saw her co-found VMware and later serve as the company’s CEO before transitioning to become a prominent executive at Google Cloud.
How important is it for tech executives to cultivate a personal brand and establish thought leadership within the industry? What are some effective ways for tech executives to showcase their expertise and gain visibility?
Personal brand is absolutely crucial for tech executives— showcasing your expertise and industry contributions builds trust, enhances credibility, and opens doors to new opportunities. That thought leadership, together with networking, increases your visibility, which should allow you to help shape industry trends, drive positive change, and advance your career.
Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring tech executives who are looking to accelerate their career progression and make a lasting impact in the tech industry?
You’ll need to cultivate a strong network, develop leadership skills, prioritize ethics, and leverage diversity, but my advice truly is to stay creative. Continuous learning and a growth mindset with help with that, but creativity is what drives innovation, and by nurturing yours, you’re more likely to both accelerate your career progression and make a lasting impact in the tech industry.
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