Leaps of Faith: Karmen Ward BBA ’06, MAcc ’07 Reflects on Her SEC Fellowship and Professional Accounting Career

As she looks back on her tenure as a professional accountant, Karmen Ward, BBA ‘06, MAcc ‘07, is certain that the success she’s experienced over the course of her career can be directly attributed to pursuing opportunities that required her to take a leap of faith.

Ward is no stranger to taking a chance. Her decisions to attend William & Mary for college, take her first accounting course, accept roles at a public accounting firm that affected changes in scope and geography, and apply for a fellowship at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have all called for Ward to have confidence in the academic foundation and professional skill set she built for herself over the last 20 years.

“I look at every one of the opportunities I’ve pursued professionally or otherwise as part of a new adventure,” she explained. “I think some of that adventuresome spirit traces back to my time at the college. Not only did I have the chance to spend time abroad studying in Spain and in Costa Rica while I was at William & Mary, but the idea of picking up and going somewhere new was sparked by my time in Williamsburg meeting people from all over the country and world.”

Finding the Right Career

A native to Hampton Roads, Ward didn’t initially consider William & Mary as an option for college.

“The school was only an hour from where I grew up and I thought surely this is too close to home,” she said.

But after she participated in an overnight visit program sponsored for students of color, she felt like it was the right place for her to do her undergraduate studies.

“To have that real on campus experience and see where the students went to class and hung out to socialize, I had a different feeling about William & Mary from the feelings I had after visiting other schools. Yes it was close to home, but my gut reaction was I wanted to be around the types of students that William & Mary attracts. I felt like I belonged there,” she said.

Ward enrolled as a Hispanic Studies major as she embarked on a journey of self-discovery to find the right career. Her mom suggested she diversify her liberal arts course load and take Principles of Accounting to see if she had an interest in business.

“That was in 2002. Here I am 20 years later still doing all things accounting,” she laughed. “I think it’s a really good testament of what I learned and the interactions I had at William & Mary. I had so much help and guidance over the years which shaped me in ways I didn’t realize at the time.”

Once she added accounting as a second major, Ward spent more time in the business school developing relationships with the faculty. Those relationships helped to influence her decision to stay for the Master of Accounting (MAcc) program and earn the requisite credit hours needed to sit for the CPA exam.

“The decision to earn my MAcc degree at the Mason School was a no brainer. Not only had I interacted with a lot of the professors who taught in the graduate program as an undergrad, I was familiar with William & Mary and Williamsburg so it eliminated a lot of the external factors and noise that would have affected me if I went to another school for two more semesters. I knew where to live, get gas, buy groceries – all of these reasons combined are what drove me to stay at William & Mary,” she explained.

Following Her Right Path

After graduating from the MAcc program in 2007, Ward started as an Associate at KPMG in their Norfolk office. She was promoted to Manager five years later, and in her sixth year with the firm, transferred to the Dallas, Texas office.

“I had just gotten married so it seemed like a fine time to up and leave everything we knew and loved in Hampton Roads,” she said jokingly. “Dallas was a new adventure and my husband and I built a lot of personal and business connections.”

All signs pointed to Ward staying in Dallas with KPMG until a partner approached her and asked if she would consider transferring to the national office in New York City for a three-year rotation.

“I never imagined living in New York City for an extended period of time,” Ward said. “I just had my daughter six months prior so we thought about it for a night and we said, let’s do it. Having my husband’s support has been a neat part of my career growth because it makes these decisions far less complicated when everyone in your family is all in.”

Ward came up through KPMG’s audit practice so when she transferred to the national office, she joined a large team of audit experts who lend support to the local offices when they are working through different issues with clients.

“Sometimes as you’re going through standards and rules with a client, those situations can become complicated and interpreting the rules can be a little tough so most of the public accounting firms have teams within their national offices that the local teams can call and ask about best practices of the rules and how to apply them in a particular situation,” she explained.

Not only was Ward exposed to the flip side of the firm’s audit practice, she says the networking opportunities at the national office contributed to significant professional growth.

“I met so many others in that office that were doing the same type of rotation from different offices around the country and the world,” she said. “It was another way to deepen my relationships and not just gain professional knowledge, but I learned a lot about myself and how to interact with many different types of people.”

Fueling Further Professional Growth

As she prepared to return to Dallas at the end of her three-year tour in New York City, Ward was promoted to Managing Director and was then approached by her mentor at the firm about considering applying for a fellowship at the SEC.

“He asked me if I had ever thought about putting my name in the hat and I said no, I’m supposed to go back to Dallas!” she laughed.

Her mentor explained that the fellowship was a two-year term and KPMG was looking for applicants who, if selected, were interested in moving to Washington, DC.

“I thought about it and I said, looking back on my professional career, it has been quite the adventure moving to different offices and meeting different types of people. Accounting professionals naturally like stability and consistency, and there is a certain level of comfort in pursuing roles that won’t disrupt that. I had to put it in my mind to get out of my mind, meaning, if I thought about the realm of possibilities of what can go wrong if I make a change, I will be holding myself back from, at the very least, a really good story. Once I shifted my mindset, I saw the fellowship as another step in my journey or in the story I have.”

Ward applied to the fellowship and was notified she was one of eight candidates selected to the SEC’s 2020 fellowship class several weeks after the world shut down due to COVID-19. Never one to turn down an adventure, Ward and her family packed up and moved down to Washington, DC amidst a global pandemic and she began her term as a Professional Accounting Fellow in the Office of the Chief Accountant (OCA) in August 2020.

She was assigned to work in the accounting group responsible for accounting matters arising in the SEC’s administration of the federal securities laws, particularly with respect to accounting policy determinations. OCA also assists with oversight of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), and engages with registrants, auditors, other SEC staff, and international regulatory and oversight bodies regarding the application of accounting and auditing standards.

“Before, I was in an audit firm that had a different view or a different way of approaching these situations. Now as part of the SEC, I help make sure that we are maintaining fair and orderly markets because protecting investors is a big deal. The SEC has a really important purpose and the mission we abide by is outstanding. The people I’ve had the opportunity to work with are passionate about what they do and it’s been exciting to have the pleasure to be a part of this agency,” Ward said.

As her time at the SEC winds down this summer, Ward is exploring options that will allow her to apply all that she’s learned throughout her career, including, more specifically, the knowledge she’s gained through her SEC fellowship.

“I have a new mindset now, so I hope to bring that perspective and an investor protection focus to conversations with accounting professionals who may not have had that type of exposure,” she said. “I do hope that prioritization of protecting the investor has seeped into my soul a little bit as I progress to the next step in my career.”