Avani Desai | Spirit of Progress

In just two years’ time, the deficit of jobs in the cybersecurity industry is projected to hit 2 million. Despite the promising uptick in programs aimed at engaging young women to tackle technology, the projected demographics for those jobs is a shocking one: Only 6 percent of these positions are set to be filled by women. Avani Desai recites these statistics with defiance because she has not resigned herself to them.

Desai has good reason to be hopeful about the future. When she was announced as president of Schellman & Company in May 2018, it marked not only her own personal and professional achievement, but the shattering of a glass ceiling. Desai is now the only minority leader of a top 100 CPA firm, as well as one of the only female presidents in her profession.

“What’s even more exciting,” she said, “is that young women, and young minority women, hopefully can look up and say, ‘This is something I can do.’”

The former University of Florida computer science major has always had a passion for the constantly evolving field of technology but never considered its role in the world of finance and accounting until a career fair in 2002. KPMG Information Risk Management group was looking for candidates familiar with the latest advances in technology to help the firm’s financial auditors.

A lot changed in her life in the decade she spent working with KPMG. She married, then gave birth to her first son, and something didn’t feel right. “I realized I was traveling five days a week and trying to do it all,” she said.

Desai decided to leave KPMG, but in her last few days at the firm she received an unexpected phone call from Chris Schellman, founder of Schellman & Company in Tampa. He had heard Desai was “on the market,” and he asked her to meet with him and discuss a position as chief marketing officer — someone who could tell the firm’s story with a thorough understanding of the technical perspective.

“I was like, ‘No way, it’s not happening. I’ve made my mind up. I’m going to spend some time with my family, I’m going to take my son to swim lessons, I’m going to have brunch with my girlfriends — I’m very excited about it,’” Desai laughed.

Ultimately, curiosity got the best of her and she met Schellman to hear him out. “He told me about his strategic vision, and about where he wanted to take the company next,” she said. “It was just so exciting that I couldn’t pass it up and I knew I wanted to be part of this unique organization that was setting the pace of compliance.”

She started 12 weeks later, after spending the summer with her family. Two years later, she became executive vice president. Last year she was named president.

The path that led her to where she is today wasn’t always easy, but it was formative for Desai. “It shaped the values I wanted as a working mom,” she said. “Now I can really understand and empathize that careers aren’t always a straight line from A to B.”

Her approach to her own progress has served as a mirror image of her approach to progress on a broader scale. While she is passionate about the dynamic technology that’s moving her profession and others forward, she feels the true spirit of progress can only be found in qualities that are uniquely human.

“People have something technology doesn’t: passion and creativity and the desire to learn,” she said. “Humans possess unique traits of creativity, emotion and inspiration that are boundless and don’t require rules or structure — that’s why we can write persuasive arguments, diagnose a new disease, provide personal and empathetic customer service or dream up an invention. I hope I can pass on that thinking to the next generation.”

Desai has made it her philanthropic mission to help the community solve source problems, from getting more women into technology to increasing literacy in third-graders.

She serves on the boards of the Arnold Palmer Medical Center, the Central Florida Foundation, the Orlando Technology Association and The Women’s Collective Giving Network (now called Catalist), and as co-chair of Central Florida’s 100 Women Strong.

She encourages people to keep moving forward. “You can tinker and you can break and you can fail,” she said, “and when you fail, know that humans have kickstarted and dreamed up every new milestone society has marked. So we can’t stop dreaming. We must push past the norm because progress doesn’t stop. Change is constant, and we must work hard to push ourselves and our ideas forward.”

About the author

Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham is a writer and communications manager for i4 Business magazine. A Florida native who graduated from UCF with her BA in English literature in 2017, she looks forward to more opportunities to share the stories of those shaping Central Florida.

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