Meet Executive Women in Technology Forum Member and SVP of Finance at Open Education Lilian Dominkovics. We spoke with Lilian about her background in finance and business, how she got her start, and the advice she has for young women who are looking to jumpstart their own careers. Here’s what she had to share!
Q: Can you share a bit about your background?
LD: I moved to the United States from Barcelona when I was close to 10 years old. I didn’t speak a word of English when I started at an all-American school. That was, of course, challenging. I got very busy learning the language and keeping up with the new school system here. I was extremely involved in clubs and leadership organizations from a young age. In my junior year of high school, I started a petition to change the student government constitution to allow for juniors to run for president, in addition to seniors. The petition went through, and I also went on to win the election and became the first junior student government president that year.
From as early as I can remember, I loved babies and little kids and would often be the first volunteer to babysit the smaller kids in the family. As a result, I wanted to be a pediatrician. At the same time, my experience in high school exposed me to organizations and, at times, I did see myself as a savvy businesswoman, perhaps even owning my own business on day. I went to the University of Miami as a pre-med student to pursue a career as a pediatrician. While I had scholarships and several grants, many of those required work-study programs, on top of a waitressing job in order to make ends meet. I knew that staying in the pre-med program and working multiple jobs was going to be a real struggle, so I switched to business school after the first year.
I chose accounting as my degree after acing my first test. Although I had studied quite a bit, I found that the material came fairly natural to me. Once I got my degree, I started working part-time for a CPA and quickly determined that accounting and straightforward CPA work did not interest me as much as I had envisioned. But what was very interesting to me was the business angle of things—running financial projections, working on business plans for potential angel investors, and other financial aspects of starting and operating a business.
One day, I told my parents that I was moving to San Francisco to jumpstart my career in finance. I had a group of friends out there and $500 in the bank. That was really the starting point of my finance career. I got a job within a month and a half at a startup company that was eventually acquired by Salesforce. I was responsible for making revenue entries just at the time when new GAAP revenue recognition standards for SAAS companies had been released. I was also learning how to manage the employee stock option program, and every day provided challenging learnings.
Then 9-11 happened, and I decided to come back to South Florida. I was the only person from my family who was away, and the events of that day made me want to be closer to my family. Within a few months, I accepted a position as a financial analyst and worked there for about three-and-a-half years, during which time I was promoted twice. From then on, I continued to have a progressive career in finance and also the management aspect of a business.
Finance is really so much more than just working with numbers. A good finance professional knows how to tell the story behind the numbers and the value of relationship-building across all levels of the organization. Today, I am on the executive committee at Open Education, a leader
in E-Learning in Latin America and Brazil. I recently picked up the Business Intelligence team and am working hard to take that group to the next level.
Q: What made you interested in pursuing a career in finance and business?
LD: Going the numbers and business route was a little bit out of necessity to move away from the costly pre-med program I had initially started. But it was also something that I felt I was good at and that came naturally to me.
I discovered early on that good communication and relationship-building skills, together with understanding all layers of the organization, were key factors in creating value for companies.
Q: Who were your role models or mentors?
LD: In general, many of my teachers from middle school through high school, who were, in most cases, all women, were very much role models for me. I still have a relationship with some of them today.
I would also add to that my parents, because I attribute my work ethic and discipline to them. They were really hard workers, they moved the family here to the US and didn’t really have careers. They worked multiple jobs, and I just remember that they never bought anything for themselves. Taking care of the children came before anything else. Their work ethic and discipline was something that I always looked up to and wanted to emulate.
In particular, my dad taught me the importance of relationships. He was a smart and well-traveled man who could carry on stimulating and, at times, quite funny conversations on just about any topic. He was a super kind person that wouldn’t hurt a soul.
Q: To what do you accredit your success?
LD:Certainly the discipline and work ethic I mentioned—pushing yourself and not making excuses. Early on in my career, very seldom did I ever miss work. As an analyst, you could always count on me being there on a Friday night working on crazy spreadsheets or something for the company or boss. My job reviews always commended me on my dependability. So I would say, work ethic and dependability would be the top two.
The other quality I would say is relationship management—the ability to understand people. What makes a boss or colleague behave in a certain way, and how do I navigate that? In a finance role, you’re often the bearer of bad news. So it’s important to really understand how to deliver that message and how to focus on solutions. You really have to be comfortable getting away from your desk and being a people person. I know that has played a huge part in my success—combining finance with relationship building and communication.
Q: What has been one of your biggest challenges as a businesswoman?
LD:Social efforts like the #MeToo movement have helped a little in terms of promoting awareness of some of the challenges that many women still face in the workplace. I have experienced similar challenges with male colleagues of mine offering to take me out on dates and making passes at me. Having to battle those offers in the workplace leads to that internal struggle of how to respond in a way that is both professional and effective.
There was onesituation in particular that escalated and became such an issue that I needed to talk to my boss about it, but he was also a man. He was also in Brazil at the time, so I didn’t get to speak face-to-face about it. That was tough. Even more difficult was the fact that nobody was really addressing the situation. I discussed it with an HR business partner out of the global office, whom I really trusted, but felt she just brushed it off, too. Overall, there was no real sense of urgency from anyone to help resolve the matter. This man was senior to me, so it very much felt like I had no support. I ended up having to take it upon myself to stand up to this person and let him know that the situation was not acceptable. Those decisions are hard to make and are frankly something you shouldn’t have to worry about at work.
Cultural differences can also pose a challenge, especially working in the South Florida and Latin America market. My husband has said to me that I should not smile as much when I travel alone. My personality is very social and friendly towards everyone I meet. To some men, a smile is the first sign that it is okay to approach you. Having to curtail personal habits like naturally smiling in an airport, for instance, can take time and conscious effort.
Q: What advice would you give to other women who may not know what direction to take in their career?
LD:Effort is really important. Whatever it is that you’re doing, really put in 120% effort for yourself. Ultimately, when you put in the hard work, the reward will come. This is true in all walks of life, and certainly from a career standpoint.
Relationship building is also very crucial to personal development and career growth. Never just sit behind a desk. Work on soft skills like understanding how other people function, why they react the way they do, and using emotional intelligence to measure your reactions. Nine times out of ten, the way a person reacts to something has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. Ask for feedback about your communication style and work on character building. When you focus on those soft skills, the rest will follow suit.
For younger women, I think that working on presence is also very important, especially when technology today is causing people to be incredibly distracted. Be present. Be present in meetings, not distracted behind your phone and computer. You say it is multitasking. I don’t believe in multitasking, and I find that it is only an excuse for not focusing and being present. So many times, you hear, “Can you repeat the question?” during a meeting because people are always trying to multitask. I go to a lot of executive meetings with only my notebook—no, not a computer notebook, but an old-school paper notebook. I listen and focus on the person talking and the issue at hand. Get comfortable with the idea of putting your phone face-down and not letting it distract you from what’s going on in the here and now.
Q: Do you have any tips for women struggling to manage their work/life balance?
LD:One thing that has really helped me was to start thinking in terms of a “work/life integration,” rather than use the word “balance.” Because when you strive for a balance, you end up having to choose one or the other, and work usually wins. Thinking about this as an integration instead has helped me to stop feeling guilty for scheduling doctor’s appointments or talks with teachers during work hours. When I shifted that thinking, it got easier for me. Of course, being at the right company with the right culture is really helpful. A company that aligns itself with good family values can help you switch gears a bit and get into a mindset of integration rather than trying to balance two aspects of your life at once.
Q: How has being part of the Knight Foundation funded Women in Technology Forum benefited you, and how could an Executive Forum benefit other women?
LD:Being in this collaborative group of women who have very similar struggles, challenges, and accolades has been a great experience thus far. It’s a safe place where good ideas are shared and, through good listening and support, we are achieving great peer mentoring. In listening to the stories and happenings of others, you pick up so much. Being able to add a little bit of advice feels good, too, knowing you’re able to add value and help other women colleagues in their journeys. Overall, there is a sense of confidence and collaboration that exists with these women.
In terms of benefitting other women and the community as a whole, such groups have the potential to be extremely impactful, especially for younger generations. One of the ideas I’d love to flush out more with the WIC forum is partnering with local businesses to create internships for high school girls across all academic and economic levels. Imagine if key companies put out there on their sites and public domains real problems that they’re trying to solve and then invited students to submit solutions. It could be a summer or dual enrollment type of program, nothing too formal. Something like this could open up a pipeline for companies who are looking for good talent, but more importantly, it could encourage young women to start thinking in more business-oriented ways and make those career paths just a bit clearer.