Alexis C. Bell, M.S., CFE, P.I., may not have followed a traditional academic career path, but her hard work and dedication have fueled her journey to become an international expert in fighting financial crime. We had the opportunity to ask our newest faculty member about her career journey, and how she hopes to empower and inspire students at Utica College.
An Unexpected Path to Forensic Accounting
My path was a little bit different than it is for most people. I became a single mom when I was 29 and I had only a high school education. We were living in our car at the time. I knew I needed to go back to school to be able to support my family. Obtaining an education was the key to not only changing where I found myself and my children but also how I would ensure we never went back there again.
So I enrolled in two degree programs at a community college—one for accounting and the other in business administration. I took 21 to 22 credit hours each semester. A few months after enrollment, I confided in an instructor about our living situation and he helped us find a basement apartment that was both warm and safe.
I ended up being top in my class across all degree programs, and as I was getting ready to graduate, I was recruited by Cornell University. The career advisor at the college told me in no uncertain terms to decline the offer, stating I would never be able to be successful in an Ivy League university with me coming from a community college, much less a single mom.
Unsatisfied with her position on the matter, I went to the chair of the accounting program and asked for a second opinion. He said, "Look, you've got two options. One, you can go to Cornell, and in two years you'll have been successful and you'll have a degree from Cornell, or you're not successful and you fail. Two, you don't even try at all and you're in the exact same place as you are right now."
With the belief that I could achieve the impossible, not a penny to my name, and two young daughters in tow, we moved to Ithaca, New York so I could attend Cornell as a transfer student to finish my degree in applied economics and management.
Why Forensic Accounting Made Sense
After graduating from Cornell, I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to accept a position in a public accounting firm. I happened to be the first woman hired into their forensic accounting group. I crisscrossed the country doing investigations and litigation support engagements.
I had 13 years of management experience before making the switch to forensics. Although this job was entry level, I made an agreement with the partner to put me on the fast track. I also asked to be mentored. When we were doing an investigation, the lead for the case would take an extra hour at the end of the day to explain the reasoning behind why we did things. It helped me to have the confidence I needed when it came time for me to be the investigative lead.
After being exposed to the work, I soon realized that fraud investigation was in my blood. I absolutely loved it. The work was challenging, constantly evolving, and fast-paced. I learned so much from that experience and will be forever grateful for my time there and for the people who supported me early in my career.
An International Career Opportunity
Years later, I was recruited by a European public conglomerate based in Belgium. They asked me to build their global anti-fraud program. While I was a bit sad to leave the public accounting firm, I was extremely excited about the opportunity to do international work and build something that didn't currently exist.
I architected a program that encompassed governance (policies and procedures), the communication strategy, fraud awareness training, data analysis, and investigations, and I developed fraud risk assessments.
Additionally, my team was responsible for building and implementing the overarching ERM (Enterprise Risk Management) process for each operating company that was required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), legislation that protects shareholders, employees, and the public from accounting errors and fraudulent financial practices.
I was also responsible for all of the fraud-awareness training throughout the organization, from board level to deep, technical, department-specific training. Everything we did was brand new and the environment was constantly changing, so I also managed the communication strategy to effectively integrate those changes inside our 165,000-employee organization. It was a big task and, with the support of the team, I loved the challenge of solving that puzzle.
From Vacation Destinations to War Zones
After working in-house for the Belgian company, I took a similar role for a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. They also needed me to build their anti-fraud program from scratch, but they operated in 22 countries that were either actively at war or were recent post-conflict countries. It was an exciting project for me because this kind of comprehensive fraud management program had never even been attempted in that sector before anywhere in the world. I embraced the challenge.
We had about 180 people in the department and I was the only American in the group. While I had extensive international experience by then, I had to adapt to managing a group of culturally diverse, disparate professionals operating outside of the United States, with only a small travel budget. Video conferencing, conducting webinars, and targeted in-person trips became the norm.
Starting My Own Firm and Going Back to School, Again
After completing the project in war zones, I decided to focus on my own consulting firm full-time. We provide international litigation support, primarily for attorneys, and anti-fraud consultation for organizations. We also offer anti-fraud training at a variety of levels, either within an organization by conducting live training, or via seminars, conference keynotes, or online self-study courses.
I also decided to go back to school again. When I researched master's degrees, I found only five that focused on fraud or financial crimes. Four of the programs were MBAs with only four fraud-focused courses, and they were designed to prepare students for the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) exam. This didn't appeal to me, because I was already a CFE and heavily involved with the ACFE as the president of my local chapter.
But then I found Utica College's Financial Crime program and saw that every single class had something to do with financial crimes—this was much more in line with what I needed as an experienced practitioner in the field.
Read Part II of Alexis C. Bell's story
Check out Part II of this series to learn more about Alexis Bell's experience in Utica College's M.S. in Financial Crime and Compliance Management program.
You can also request more information to learn more about where this master's can take you, or call (315) 732-2940 or (866) 295-3106 to speak with a Program Manager.