Episode 72 – Brett Austin Cooper


Brett builds community all over the world

 

Brett Cooper is always looking to feel more personally connected with others. It started out organizing activities for his peers at his first public accounting firm but then shifted to those less fortunate half the world away. After volunteering domestically for a few years, Brett decided he needed to be able to see and talk with the people he was helping, which led him to use his accounting background in India, Uganda, Kenya and now Rwanda. He likes that he is maximizing the value of businesses while also maximizing the value of his personal life.

In this episode, Brett and I talk about the beauty of sharing diverse experiences. It’s crucial for everyone to determine their own happiness, know who they are, and own it. We also talk about the fear of being perceived as “not serious” if you show that you have passions that are equally important as your job. In the end, it’s up to you to overcome that fear because, as Brett says, “Either fear dictates your choices or you do.”

Brett Cooper is the Finance and Strategy Manager at Brioche, Ltd. in Kigali, Rwanda. He was named to the 2015 CPA Practice Advisor 40 Under 40 List.

He graduated from West Chester University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelors in Accounting & Finance.

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Other pictures of Brett

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Starting a fire in Akagera National Park in Rwanda

Lunch with friends at a sustainable Ostrich Farm in Kenya

Tetra, a participant in ACCION India’s Financial Literacy Program

Brett’s links

 

Transcript

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    Brett, I’m so excited to get into your story, but first, I need to ask, what made you want to get into accounting in the first place?

    Brett: It’s a great question. Well, going into my undergrad, I kind of knew that I like to break things down and understand how they worked. I had this natural analytical approach to things. To me, the most natural pairing for that curiosity was accounting because it is the language of business, and it allows you to understand how businesses function and work. In my mind, it’s also kind of the building block of business because without it, you can’t really understand how they function, how they work, and how to augment whatever path that they’re on.

    John: Right.

    Brett: That’s what I was driven and attracted to was, “Okay. Well, if I use that, I can dissect businesses. Understand how they work.”

    John: Yeah, that’s exactly it. So, going into undergrad, you were like, “Accounting it is, that’s what I’m going to do.” Look at you, man. Now, you’re in Rwanda. That wasn’t in the brochure, was it? That is not in the accounting brochure.

    Brett: Not necessarily. I think that’s actually a shortcoming of how undergraduate accounting programs market themselves, is accounting is such a widely applicable skill set, and it’s not just — okay, you know how to balance a balance sheet, you understand how to compose standard cash flows. But it’s the concomitant analytical views and perspectives and ability to break things down onto this like intimate level within a business, that’s a hugely valuable skill set. Again, it would be applied in what are really disparate situations.

    I think my career trajectory is a good example of this. I started out in kind of more traditional roles working at a big firm, doing some auto works and due diligence work, and then I started sliding further into doing evaluation services, which I thought was fascinating. And an accounting background was really useful for that. But then after doing this work in the states for years, I wanted to pursue a different career path. I thought I was going to have really daunting challenge, like transitioning out of that career in the states into, one, doing kind of social entrepreneurship or development of impact oriented work. But I found there was a huge demand for somebody with an accounting background.

    John: Nice.

    Brett: Yeah. It’s made this really easy transition for me going from the states or it’s in India for a couple of months, and now a couple of years of work in East Africa.

    John: Right. I mean, yeah, it is that accounting is that base layer that no matter where you go, and this is why I ended up in accounting after getting a D in physics and engineering, was, “Where can I go? I don’t really have to make a choice.” So, you can be an accounting major but you don’t have to necessarily be an accountant. You can use that anywhere in business. Yeah, you’re a living proof of that for sure, man.

    I think that’s so great. Yeah. I think that this dovetails nicely into talking about your passion and what have you and what took you abroad and to India and then to East Africa. So, if you want to describe a little bit of that and what made you want to make that leap.

    Brett: Yeah. I can drop a parallel between this personal curiosity in my career and then in my personal life and then the two. I find a way to combine them. I started my career doing more what you would think like traditional accounting work, but I became kind of transfixed by this idea of value creation and how businesses create value. That’s what drove me to doing evaluation services and evaluating venture investments in young companies. But there was this other question of value in my personal life. I did a lot of community service and I gave back and I donate a lot of time. And seeing that physical waiver only gave so much impact and value, I started trying to explore ways to use my professional skill set to give back and contribute to those kinds of experiences and things that I thought were valuable.

    I found my way onto a nonprofit board in like a treasurer’s role and was helping young businesses. It was a nice way to see those skills that I built in accounting could be used to create and drive value in other places. I started to see more and more that there was this big gap between the time I spent in my full-time professional role and the value I created there and the value that I ultimately wanted to contribute to the world. Admittedly, I started this search by googling volunteer finance and just reading through every blog and all these opportunities that I saw.

    That’s what led me to apply the different opportunities abroad and trying to see how I could use my accounting and finance background to help businesses in developing markets, because knowing from this evaluation perspective that businesses can scale and create value because huge drivers have changed, I saw kind of the last piece in a puzzle for what I was looking for, to marry professional interest and my personal passion by doing accounting and helping scale young businesses and developing markets.

    John: Yeah. I think that’s awesome, man. I mean, that’s so cool. That took you to India and I read that blog post that you wrote up, which is so fantastic and such an eye-opening experience for you to where people didn’t even know basic saving skills, and you had a piggybank at home type of thing as a kid. That’s so fantastic that you’re able to make such a difference on a one-on-one basis there in person as part of a board which is also very cool, but you took it to that next level.

    Brett: Absolutely. I think that’s another personal drive of mine. Some people can feel more comfortable in a role where maybe there are a couple that was removed from the value edition process. But me, I really like getting my hands dirty, rolling up my sleeves and feeling directly connected to something, like having a really visceral connection to the work you’re doing and the value it creates. Being more in operating roles and working hands-on with companies, that’s what really gets me up, is how this drive me forward.

    John: Yeah, man. I think that’s awesome. I think it’s so cool. What would you say might be some of your more rewarding experiences that you’ve had from doing this? I’m sure there’s dozens but are there a couple that stand out?

    Brett: Yeah. There’s been a lot of really powerful and transformed experiences both professionally and personally. I can think professionally, and you’re referring to this blog post I wrote when I was working with Accion’s Internationals Financial Literacy Program in India. I was going out and helping administer some M&E surveys — M&E is Monitoring and Evaluation — and trying to assess the impact of their program. I got to meet these groups of women who went through this training program, learned both personal, like financial skills, but also some smaller ones that are related to businesses, and seeing them utilize this opportunity and to really dive in, wrap their arms around those skills.

    On the backend, a lot of them started businesses or they started using like insurance products and just to see how big the impact it would be from — well, it seems like a really basic thing. I mean, you’re referring to like maybe personal savings and like the idea of forecasting expenses and preparing for disruptions in your cash flow, like giving them the tools and the insight to act and prepare for those things. It was a really cool experience.

    John: Yeah, and just to see their eyes light up and just the impact that that program has on their lives is really cool. It was also funny too. I’ll put a link to that blog post at greenapplepodcast.com so people can read it. But how you said that you wish that you could one-on-one converse with one of the women because her answers were very animated and hand gestures and everything and then the translator just had a very simple one sentence answer. You’re like, “Wait. No. There’s a really good story here. What the heck.” But no, that’s really neat. What a cool experience for you to be able to do that and to just see the other side of the world like that. Would you say that this passion has developed you as a businessperson, some skills that you’re able to bring to the office, let’s say?

    Brett: Sure. I think I have this tendency and need for developing and connecting to community in some way, and feeling personally connected to people with similar values and similar interests. That’s what led me to do a lot of community service in the first place. But I mean even inside the office, I was often either like the social chair of my department or leading group activities. I also did something pretty silly in my first firm. I would organize competitions during lunchtime between different departments. We would go to a local Dave & Buster’s and be split into teams and either shoot, like the basketball games, like air hockey. Through this playful competition like building a small community within the office. This is something that’s core to who I am and it follows me everywhere both in the accounting firms I’ve worked and now the work that I do now.

    John: Yeah. I mean, that’s such a great example of something that’s so simple. You’re having fun. You’re creating that shared experience where — yeah, you can talk a little bit of trash when you get back to the office or even later that next week or the week after. It’s like, “Ah, we would do air hockey but I don’t want to beat you again” type of thing. You kind of have that fun banter in something that everyone can kind of laugh about and breathe a little life into the office. That’s such a great example. I love it, man. That’s awesome. How did you make that transition? I mean, clearly, you talked about this passion with people there at that first accounting firm that you were with.

    Brett: Sure. When you say that transition, you mean kind of the professional transition I found myself on?

    John: Right, yeah, absolutely.

    Brett: Yeah. It’s something that now in hindsight, it looks like almost a perfect story arc. But at the time, it didn’t feel like I was building towards the place I am now. But I saw myself not only developing my professional skill set but it’s forming avenues where I can apply that skill set into different community-oriented organizations and being involved with nonprofits and social programs. Over time, the amount of time and dedication I had towards these causes is starting to get large — it was a larger and larger size of the buy in terms of my time. That’s ultimately when I decided to make the full switch and really delve into what I felt passionate about.

    John: Right. When you shared this with people even just a little bit when you were just early on, did you find that they gravitated towards that or had follow-up questions?

    Brett: Yeah. It’s funny when you mentioned that, like I can vividly recall when I left my last firm in the states and I had been promoted to a manager level. But shortly after that is when I decided to leave and move to India and Uganda. I had a conversation with the MD of the office and I told her what I thought, what I felt, and what I thought I needed to do for myself. She’s like, “You know what, that fits who you are and I understand.” And they kind of let me know that, like people did see why I was doing it and they kind of had some insight into who I am and why this made sense for me. It’s funny that maybe there are some other people in my life at that same time who — they didn’t get it. They were like, “Whoa, Brett, you’re in this young stable lucrative career and you’re leaving?” These were some of the people who maybe didn’t have as much insight into this part of me.

    John: Right. I mean I remember when I made the leap to do comedy full-time, yeah, there was a mix. There was a mix of people. There were people that completely got it. There were also people that yeah, who are like, “Are you crazy? You don’t even make any money. What are you doing?” And then there was another part that I was really shocked at where a lot of my close friends, they were like, “I wish I could go program video games” or “I wish I could go do something” but they were married, had kids, their life situation was a little bit different. That’s what really hit me was, “Man, you got to go around with ‘I wish’ forever.” That’s like, “Oh my goodness.”

    But leaving your job isn’t necessarily for everyone, and that’s cool. You can make it work but for you, if it’s inside you, you got to let it out and you got to really take that jump. And I assume that the MD at that office, she didn’t just — that didn’t come out of nowhere. She, I’m sure, heard you talking about things like that in the past and so they knew that this was a piece of you that wasn’t going away. That’s for sure.

    Brett: Yeah. I think you just mentioned too really powerful sentiments that I realize as well is that feeling of what if and that questioning, that’s something that you don’t shake. If there’s something unanswered in you, it’s never going to answer itself. So, like exploring ideas and feelings, it’s huge. I mean, it’s crucial to what is the human experience. But you also mentioned some of the barriers to doing that. The other one that I found with some other people is the other side of what if, like the scary what if. Not, “Oh, what if I pursue my passion but what if I do and I fail?” I think it can be really intimidating to explore things that are outside of the norm and are outside of stability. But at some point, you decided that either fear is going to dictate the choices that you make or that you are. It doesn’t necessarily — there’s another thing that you said, maybe those three points are meant to me.

    John: I was on fire right there.

    Brett: You’re crashing it, John, crashing it. You don’t need to leave your full-time job but you can find outlets for this thing. It’s like being in your job and having like a part-time role or outside of work, you explore these things, that’s a great opportunity as well. I’m never in a position to determine what someone else’s happiness is. Not everybody has to quit their job and move to East Africa. Maybe it can be like a part-time outlet for those feelings and that creativity. But yeah, you rattle up a couple of things that I don’t really do resonate with, things that I felt and thought.

    John: Yeah. No, I mean it’s a very similar path and I love how you said it. Just determine what your own happiness is and then go and create that. I mean surely, I didn’t go from 0 to 60. I was doing it on the side as a hobby. You, the same way. It just we got really good at it and it sucked us in, type of thing. But for most people, it’s not necessarily the case, but sure, you have to find that thing outside of work that really makes you want to wake up in the morning and it’s very rarely is it accounting. It’s the people that are in the firm, or it’s maybe something related to that, or it’s the check that you get that then you can go and use to travel the world or whatever your passion is sort of a thing or make the world a better place.

    Yeah. I mean I think it’s excellent but yeah, it is one of those things where you start little and then you see where it goes. So, thanks for — I guess I’ll keep you on here, but the more that you pump my ego. I need you around all the time. You need to come back to New York and just follow me around and be like, “John, that was really good. That was a good choice.”

    Brett: I assure you, my services are affordable. It’s just that good food and maybe a flight to the states.

    John: Right. Okay, all right. There we go. I think I can handle that or maybe I should just come join you. That’s where it is, for the winter, anyway. That will be good.

    Brett: It’s a wise choice, yeah.

    John: Exactly.

    Brett: I mean, birds migrate. Why don’t we?

    John: There you go, until we’re like retired and then they migrate apparently.

    Brett: It’s so true.

    John: When it comes to an organization, how much do you think it is on that organization to create that culture, kind of like maybe what you were doing at that first firm you were at versus it’s on the individual to maybe step up and do it like you did with those lunchtime competitions or things like that?

    Brett: That’s a great question. I’m not sure how much onus is on a firm versus an individual to shape their experience. Ultimately, a firm is just a composition of people. I think that that kind of inclusive firm and like where people are able to share their ideas and feelings, it can be started and then propelled forward even by individuals. What I mean is like if you go into a firm and you start to share your ideas and you start to connect to people on topics that are necessarily just accountings and/or it’s work related, that’s going to create an environment where they’re more willing either to open up about themselves and create a more personal meaningful dynamic. I think to answer your question more succinctly, I think it comes down to people. And if that is an environment you want, you’re able to create it.

    John: Right. I agree. It’s just scary to do so, I think, for people to open up a little bit. You’re a little bit vulnerable, I think sometimes. But as you’ve proven and everyone else on this podcast is that the other side is definitely very safe, if not much better when people actually know who you are and what makes you tick. I guess one thing that I always struggle with too is just what makes — because when we’re in college, we’re pretty open. I mean, we’re part of activities, we’re doing things, we’re talking amongst ourselves. And then once we start work, I don’t know what that is, but in the first couple of years, it just all sort of, kind of goes away for a lot of people. What do you think that is that makes that happen?

    Brett: Sure. I think that there’s probably a number of variables in that equation. One of the more obvious ones is usually when you start a new career in accounting, you’re both busy getting up to speed in full-time role, probably studying from CPA in the evenings. This is going to eat up a lot of time. But I think what is — probably an area that people talk about a little less is this fear of being perceived as not professional for young people entering the workplace. I think this idea is — not just for young professionals but is exacerbated for young female professionals that if you don’t really comport yourself in the most professional serious way, that you won’t be taken seriously.

    I think that might not necessarily be the case in all firms and in all instances but I personally attest to feeling those things and viewing that in other young professionals joining firms. I don’t know if there’s a way to curtail that, ameliorate or navigate it, but I think that’s an idea that people come in with. Perhaps, it’s not — part of it is probably, it does exist. But the other one is that there are ways to express yourself and your passions in a professional way, right? If I was to give you like a hypothetical example, like if I was really in to pick-up rugby, I could talk about it in a professional context and that could be fine. I don’t have to talk about the locker room or anything else that might be associated with it. There are possibly ways to express those passions and still create those channels of dialogue with your other colleagues. And I’ll be stymied by this fear.

    John: Yeah, stymied, what a great word for that. I mean that really is. Yeah, and I think that fear is a lot in our own head. All of a sudden, we’re getting like a real check. I mean we’re this like real money we’re getting paid now and it’s like, “Wow, I’d better up my game and everyone is going to know everything.” Partners are so smart. They know all the answers and it’s like, “No, they don’t.” Not everyone knows everything. That’s why Google exists. A way to profess that is also just to ask the question of the other person just, “Hey, what do you like doing?” or “What do you do over the weekend?” A genuine interest in other people goes such a long way in this world that clearly, you’ve taken to the extreme.

    I don’t know why I’m telling you about it as I sit in my comfortable apartment in the U.S. Yeah, that’s so profound, man. Really, really good. Do you have any words of encouragement to others that might be listening that are a little bit on the fence or think that, “Hey, maybe no one cares about what my passion is”?

    Brett: Yeah. I think it’s really important to not only know who you are but I mean, own it and share it as well. Like, the beauty of interacting with other people’s diversity and getting to share in diverse experiences and see diverse perspectives, and allowing yourself to just fully own who you are and what you’re passionate about, but allows others to share in that with you. I think that if you have some kind of calling, if you feel like there’s something latent in you that you need to explore, you’re the one that has to do it. The thing about adventure and opportunity is, it usually doesn’t come find you.

    John: Right. No, that’s really awesome, man. It’s such a great ending. Yeah, really, really good. It doesn’t find you but it’s inside you and it will have to come out or you’ll go insane. That’s for sure. I think I speak for you but that’s the way I was. That’s for sure. But before I come over and hang out in Rwanda and see what it’s all about there, I do have my 17 rapid fire questions, the “get to know Brett Cooper” version. We’ll have a little bit of fun here. Let me fire this thing up. Here we go. I’ll start with something easy, start with something easy. Pens or pencils?

    Brett: Pens.

    John: Pens. Easy. Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Brett: I have Star Wars tattoo, so Star Wars.

    John: Wow, that’s fantastic. What is it?

    Brett: I have a Rebel Alliance symbol.

    John: That’s so great. That’s awesome, man. That’s so cool. Do you have a favorite color?

    Brett: Me personally?

    John: Yeah.

    Brett: Blue.

    John: Blue, there you go. How about a least favorite color?

    Brett: Not sure I have.

    John: All right, fair enough, fair enough. How about are you more of a suit and tie or a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy?

    Brett: Definitely jeans and t-shirt.

    John: Yeah, I was going to say we should make it cargo shorts and t-shirt. Did you have a favorite actor or actress?

    Brett: I can’t say that I do.

    John: All right. How about are you more of a PC or Mac?

    Brett: I’ve got a PC. I don’t speak Mac, is what I usually say to people.

    John: Yeah. No, I tell people I’m not cool enough to even go in that store, like I don’t even know what happens in there. When it comes to a mouse, are you more a right-click or a left-click?

    Brett: I’m trying to imagine myself on a mouse, I guess I’m left-click.

    John: Left-click, making decisions, making things happen. Did you have a favorite TV show of all time?

    Brett: I was a big fun of Lost until, ultimately, you kind of lost me at the end. It’s still my favorite show though.

    John: Right. I think that I lost everybody at the end, right. Yeah. How about a movie that makes you cry?

    Brett: Every time I watch The Green Mile, I cry at the end.

    John: Yeah, that’s a solid movie. That’s a solid answer right there. When it comes to financials, more balance sheet or income statement?

    Brett: More balance sheet kind of guy.

    John: Yeah, yeah, right. I bet you haven’t said that line before.

    Brett: You’d be surprised of the pick-up lines, John.

    John: Right. You know what, I should have tried that years ago. How about more Sudoku or crossword puzzle?

    Brett: I have a tendency to go to the crossword, even though I’m a number-driven guy, I like the word play or crosswords.

    John: Yeah, absolutely. How about do you have a favorite animal?

    Brett: Rabbits.

    John: Rabbits.

    Brett: Always has been, always will be.

    John: There you go. How about least favorite vegetable?

    Brett: Well, I recently developed a nightshade allergy and I can no longer eat eggplant.

    John: Oh, wow, okay. Yeah, yeah, that was on my list. I’m using that as my excuse going forward for not eating eggplant. It was weird. We got three more. Are you more of an early bird or a night owl?

    Brett: Definitely a night owl.

    John: Definitely night owl. How about as an accountant, I got to ask, do you have a favorite number?

    Brett: I have always been attracted to prime numbers and of those, I think seven is the coolest.

    John: Yeah. Seven solid. Yeah, it’s mine too.

    Brett: Yeah, it’s a great number.

    John: The last one, the favorite thing you own.

    Brett: Actually, I made a conscious decision when I first left the states to own less. I made this realization when I was packing things up in my Seattle apartment then. I had so many things that I owned that I never used. It’s this cathartic feeling to like donate a bunch of it and get rid of it all. I’m kind of a minimalist right now. I actually had this kind of pragmatic system with my clothing.

    Anytime I get in new piece of clothing, I throw piece of clothing out. I have a finite amount of clothing at all times. That being said, a lot of the things I have are functional. Favorite thing I own? It’s either a little 180cc motorcycle which gets me around Rwanda. It’s either that or I have this really beautiful Ibex skull with two spiraling horns that I found when I was camping in a Rwanda National Park once. It’s super heavy skull that sits out of my porch. Those are two of my more favorite possessions.

    John: Yeah, there you go. That’s awesome. You certainly wouldn’t have had that. I had you just stayed working in the accounting world. That’s for sure.

    Brett: That would be very unusual.

    John: Right, right. They would add your skull. It would have been really ironic. Well, thank you so much, Brett. This was really, really fun and have a good rest of your day. Thanks so much, Brett.

    Brett: I really appreciate it, John. Thanks for having me on.

    John: That was so, so good. I loved how Brett said the beauty is in sharing in diverse experiences. You got to determine your own happiness and know who you are and bring that to everything you do both at work and at home. Be sure to go to greenapplepodcast.com to see some really cool pictures of Brett over in Rwanda. And while you’re on that page, please click that big green button and do my anonymous research circle. Thank you so much for sharing this with your friends so they get the message that we’re all trying to spread, which is to go out and be a green apple.


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