South African native set career path at early age

Publication: Denver Business Journal
July 24, 2009

Claire Pearson, senior tax manager with Clifton Gunderson, moved to the United States from South Africa in 1996.

Claire Pearson may have followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a CPA, but she blazed her own trail when she moved to the United States from South Africa.

At 15, she’d decided her career goal. She said that after taking an accounting class at her high school in South Africa, she knew what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

“It just kind of clicked,” she said.

She came to the United States as an exchange student in 1993 after graduating from high school. It was a long way from the close-knit family in which she’d grown up, but Pearson forged supportive relationships during her year in the United States. She stayed with families with whom she still keeps in contact, and met the man she would marry.

“I just had the most amazing experience,” she said.

She completed her degree in South Africa before returning to the United States in 1996, where she’s lived since. In 2001, she came to pubic accounting and consulting firm Clifton Gunderson LLP. Ready to pursue her CPA certificate, she encountered a hitch in the plan: Because of issues with licensing, her degree wasn’t recognized.

“No. 1 was the frustration that, ‘Hey, I have a degree,’” she said. “And my degree is a good degree.”

Her first two years of general education — courses she’d completed in the last two years of high school in South Africa — didn’t transfer. While working full time, Pearson completed 45 hours of classes, such as U.S. history, religious studies and literature.

“At first I saw it as a huge obstacle and was extremely frustrated,” Pearson said. “As I started going into it I said, ‘Wow. This is really an opportunity for me to study things that I would not have the opportunity to study otherwise.’”

She said her colleagues and husband supported her, and she received her CPA in 2005. Now, part of her job at Clifton Gunderson is to support her colleagues as a career adviser.

In 2007, she won the Growth Of Our People award, one of three employee-of-the-year awards given by Clifton Gunderson’s Rocky Mountain Client Service Center.

“It’s great serving clients, but it’s also great developing staff,” said. “I felt like I was the recipient of so much great advice.”

Her primary role as a senior tax manager is advising midsize to large businesses about corporate-taxation issues. She said the economy has created fear in almost all industries, and she has tried to remain conscious of it when speaking to clients. However, she said the economy has had little direct impact on Clifton Gunderson.

“Accountants are always in demand,” she said. “Having advisers, especially in these economic times, is important for any kind of business out there.”

Pearson wants to become a partner at Clifton Gunderson, which last year became the first top 25 accounting firm to name a female CEO.

She also volunteers in the community. She chaired the Women Who Light up the Community event hosted by the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, a program for which she’s served several roles in three years. She also serves on the board of Boulder’s YWCA and is active in her church.

“I think that it’s probably part of my upbringing by my mom and dad … the sense of community,” Pearson said.

Despite what she called a privileged upbringing, she said she was always aware of the tough climate around her. Living in South Africa during apartheid made Pearson very aware of discrimination. It affects how she works with people, she said, but it doesn’t define her.

“No matter where people grow up, I think it has to do with just the foundation that their parents laid,” she said. “That is where I think I really get who I really am is from my mother and father and my family.”

From her family to her husband to Clifton Gunderson and her community, Pearson said the people in her life stand behind her.

“I can go where I want to go,” Pearson said. “I feel extremely fortunate to have that in my life.”

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