Avani Desai

The unpredictable road to becoming CEO

How a seemingly wrong turn took Avani Desai (BS-ISOM '02) on a journey to becoming CEO of Schellman Compliance, LLC.

Career fairs can be scary. Attendees have just 60 seconds to impress recruiters from hundreds of companies with their resumes and elevator pitches. But if Avani Desai (BS-ISOM ’02) hadn’t gone, she wouldn’t have started down the career path that led to her current role: CEO of Schellman Compliance, LLC.

When she enrolled at the University of Florida, Desai thought she’d end up coding or working with hardware or software. A computer science track made sense: Desai has always been interested in tinkering with technology, ever since she was five years old and her father found her taking apart TV remotes on their living room floor. In the Bachelor of Science in Information Sciences and Operations Management program at the Warrington College of Business, though, she started studying the ways computer science and technology intersect with business and discovered a new interest in information security.

“For me, the most compelling aspect of technology is the constant need for reinvention,” she said. “And I am a firm believer that today we’re in such a fast-paced world that if you don’t consistently reinvent yourself, you’re going to become obsolete.”

At the Warrington Career Fair, Desai’s technical experience gave her an edge. Although KPMG wasn’t originally on her list, she met the company’s recruiters and was offered her first job in information security.

“I wasn’t even thinking about going to work for an accounting firm,” she said. “I was a technologist; I was looking at the IBMs and the Intels and the Googles of the world, [but] I just realized the value that a big four accounting firm could give me was allowing me to take my business knowledge and my technical knowledge and marry the two of them. And that’s still what I do today.”

Her drive to go far in her career comes from her parents, Desai says. Born in India in the 1940’s, Desai’s parents immigrated to the United States to pursue the American dream for their children. Earning a college education as a woman in India was difficult, Desai’s mother knew firsthand, so their family left the only language, religion and people they knew to give their daughters access to better opportunities.

Desai family. After working with KPMG for 10 years, Desai was anticipating becoming a mother to the first of her three children and started looking for a new work opportunity, which led her to accept her first role at Schellman as executive vice president. A few classes in accounting back at UF helped her earn her CPA, which enabled her to become the company’s president and, eventually, its CEO.

Desai’s work at Schellman has spanned many company changes. One of her first tasks was to take over business development and marketing. She tackled ways to improve the company both for their clients and employees, reinventing it to become a “destination workplace.”

“I’ve really enjoyed the culture that we have here,” she said. “Culture holds immense significance for me. I sometimes say that my job is being the guarder of our culture.

“I think culture is a lot more than just a set of rules or rituals or events. It’s how people feel when they come here and shared beliefs and behaviors that really define our organization. And to me, I know that culture starts at the top, but then it really permeates through every level of leadership, all the way down.”

In guarding the company’s culture, Desai regularly hosts company-wide virtual meetings, called “Eye-to-eye with Desai,” in which any employee can ask her any question. Last year, she also reevaluated Schellman’s corporate values, consolidating them into three principles that resonate with clients and employees:

  • Transparency builds trust
  • People come first
  • Never stand still

These principles mark Desai’s professional values, as well. As she leads Schellman into what Desai calls the next industrial revolution, she’s prioritizing transparency and accountability around developing areas like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and working towards providing one-stop cybersecurity on a global scale.

“I feel that technology is constantly pushing boundaries and it’s shaping the future, hopefully for good,” she shared. “And I’m really engaged in being able to be part of something that’s so meaningful.”

It’s the seemingly wrong turns, like taking an unplanned job at a career fair, that guide us to where we’re meant to be, Desai says. She readily identifies wrong turns and mistakes as important events that have helped her become who she is today and encourages young professionals to have the same mindset.

“I’ve heard a lot these days of people who want to have it all,” she said. “But I think the concept of having it all is really misleading and overwhelming, especially when you have your first job or your second job. In reality, life is beautifully messy and it’s unpredictable.

“So instead of comparing yourself to others, don’t match your version of success with that. I think it’s going to take time, but you have to understand what makes you genuinely happy, what satisfies your personally, and then align that with your values and aspirations. And I think once you figure that out, you’ll realize that you do have it all and that your journey is just very different from someone else’s journey.”