Open Doors: Bolanle Williams-Olley on Finance in Architecture, Parallel Pursuits, and the Power of Relationships
By Julia Gamolina
Bolanle Williams-Olley is the Chief Financial Officer at Mancini Duffy, a technology-first design firm based in NYC where she oversees the firm’s financial and operational performance. She has over 11 years of experience working in the AEC industry with a strong background in financial analysis and strategic initiatives. At her core, she thrives on building relationships between finance and management teams to ensure the overall financial success of projects and her firm.
She is passionate about service and is the founder of 3 impact organizations: SheBuildsWaves - a community that provides support, resources and gives back to professional women in the built industry, BolaKrafts Cares - a non-profit focused on addressing needs of children and improving quality of education in low-income schools in Nigeria, and REACHNigeria - a connector hub that creates awareness about NGOs and volunteer opportunities across Nigeria. She is married with two kids and is absolutely obsessed with throwing really fun themed parties.
How did you first start working in architecture?
I am originally from Nigeria and moved to the states in 2002 to attend City University of New York, Hunter College. I’ve always liked numbers and did well in my math classes, so my initial major was supposed to be computer engineering. After my first year however, I decided to switch majors, taking on the accelerated Bachelor’s and Master’s program in math that Hunter offered. The Master’s program was an applied math track that allowed for real life application to different careers fields.
When I was about to graduate in 2007, I began my job search looking to gain some work experience before considering moving back to Nigeria, and came across a job opening for a junior project accountant at HLW in New York Times classifieds. This sparked my curiosity because back in high school in Nigeria we had the option to take technical drawing, which I did and enjoyed. I thought working in the industry would be interesting, so I applied and got called in for an interview.
Can you explain what accounting in the architectural world entails?
Accounting in architecture is more than just billing clients. The responsibility includes frequently reviewing project performance and profitability i.e. project managers and project accountants working hand in hand to understand what the numbers are showing and then recalibrating future project plans. The goal is to use the right financial rhythms and tools to help us finish out our individual projects successfully and with profit. This then rolls right into the next level of firm profitability, which is the core of a controller and/or CFO’s job. Depending on firm size, we monitor, manage, and make strategic decisions that affect the financial position and health of their company. Managing cash flow and meeting targeted profitability are examples of some of our day to day responsibilities.
Personally, my current role involves not just analyzing financial reports but developing internal and external relationships to make sure the right initiatives are implemented for business growth. Projects have so many moving parts and I really believe that for us to be more efficient and productive, more communication needs to happen between project decision makers and accounting teams. I’m passionate about integrating and showing the value my team brings to projects. To simplify it, in my experience, I’ve seen projects and client relationships saved because firms made a decision to start paying attention to their numbers.
Let’s now take it back to the beginning - tell me about starting in the field at HLW.
I was at HLW for five years, climbing the ranks from junior project accountant to project accountant and then billing manager. I spent a lot of time in my first two years supporting the accountants, learning about the value I could bring to the team.
When the recession hit, some colleagues who were above me in my team lost their jobs. I then took on more responsibilities and stepped up into the roles they occupied. Doing so really jump started my career. At one point, I was billing and project accounting for sixteen project managers! I also grew into the billing manager role, hiring two people to support the team. I eventually realized though that I only knew accounting in our industry from one point of view and needed to broaden my knowledge of how else it was done.
What did you do next?
My next opportunity as a Senior Project Accountant was at SOM. This was a huge deal for me at the time, SOM being a globally recognized and established architectural firm. I went in with my own goals and ended up spending another five years there. My time at SOM will always be important in my career journey - I developed excellent relationships with those that I worked with, tackled challenges along the way and as I set out to do, learnt a whole lot more working in a bigger accounting department.
Midway into my time there, I went back to school for a second master’s in education and social policy from NYU. Getting an educational background in that area was a priority to me, so I did it at the time that I could. I have a non-profit called BolaKrafts Cares which focuses on addressing the needs of children and improving quality education in low-income schools in Nigeria. When I came across the NYU program it was a no brainer, considering it as an investment in myself and my future goals. Fun fact, I started that program when I was 6 months pregnant with my son and when my daughter was one and a half years old.
I’m so glad you shared this - so often we think that our career and professional lives are a series of steps that happen in a particular order, but I see more and more that this isn’t the case - and you working, while having kids, and while getting your Masters exemplifies just that.
Definitely for me, life happens in parallels, not one thing after another. My mindset is one where I’m constantly thinking of how I can live out my God-ordained purpose, professionally and personally. Doing this involves maximizing my potential. I really think that if we allow ourselves to take the leap more frequently we would surprise ourselves with what we can achieve.
I went back to school while I was working full time at SOM. My son, my second child, was born a few months into my Masters - I missed some weeks of classes but my classmates were great and would Skype me into class. Was it hectic during that time? Without a doubt. However I have a very strong support system – my husband and family who helped with my babies, and friends that cheered me on. I took it one day at a time and focused on being positive, both mentally and physically, to recover quickly and return to school and work.
How did you finally get to Mancini Duffy?
I got a call from a colleague I had worked with in the past asking if I was interested in a new opportunity to run a finance group at a firm. I remember wondering what impression I had made on him to get this call - this goes back to my earlier point about relationships: how you treat and interact with people along your journey is very important. You never know when and how a connection from any point in your life can manifest into open doors. I started in April 2017 as a controller, and after a year I was promoted to CFO. May 2018 will always go down in the books as a great time for me - I graduated with my second Master’s and became CFO.
Not only that, but you also launched an initiative, SheBuildsWaves. What is it?
From my belief in the power of relationships and support in moving forward, I started thinking about ways I could begin to connect as well as impact other women in the AEC industry. As you advance in your career, you need to bring others - especially women in a male dominated industry - along as well. I think that professional fulfillment goes beyond just being happy at work but being empowered to define your path unapologetically. When you tap into all the great things about yourself, it only makes you produce greater work. We are all multi-faceted and don’t need to hide any part of ourselves to bloom.
SheBuildsWaves is a collective of women who make waves in their careers in the built environment. We do both online engagement and offline events. While engaging online is great, it was important to me to curate events offline so women can get together, tackle issues and explore solutions from our point of view. I want SheBuildsWaves to break departmental barriers by pushing for more inclusivity and visibility for all women regardless of what department you work in the industry. The goal for 2019 is to have four Quarterly Conversations which are in a panel-style format for women in the industry to attend. We hosted the first on March 28th with a great turnout and are looking forward to the next Quarterly coming up in June 2019.
With all the different things you have going, where do you feel like you are at in your career today?
I’m in a great spot in my career where I am thriving but still with room for growth. I’m fortunate to have found my firm fit where our values align. Mancini is supportive and truly invested in our employees’ trajectories past the 9 to 5. Because of this, I’m excited to give my best when I come to work, knowing that the firm sees all my other interests as a plus.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
A big challenge for me when I moved to Mancini was my qualification being questioned at first. Frankly, I think some people had their doubts about seeing a younger person in such an important and critical role. That perception only fueled my motivation and I responded by being a serial solution-seeker, constantly challenging the status quo, producing quality work and implementing initiatives that will continue to elevate my firm. In essence, I let my work speak for itself.
What have you learned about architects and architecture from where you are in the profession? What advice do you have for architects?
Architects are incredible thinkers, creators, and executors. It’s amazing what we do in the built industry - you get an opportunity to see the design process starting from scratch and then finished into beautiful architecture. I will forever get to say that I worked on the World Trade Center project or that I was part of the United Nations project and I think that’s amazing.
My advice would be for architects to really collaborate with their accounting teams. See your accountants as contributing members to the success of your individual projects, and pull them in to the process often. It helps to give context, meaning and empowerment to the work we do. In addition, because architects are visual people, I would say have your accounting teams present you information visually [laughs]. I bet you it will click faster than just seeing numbers that might not mean much without a picture.
What have been some of the biggest highlights?
One I hold dear to my heart is becoming CFO and having my 5 year old daughter asking me if I am now the Boss Boss at work. When your kids recognize you do other things besides being their mom or dad, it’s a big deal. Another highlight for me is that in addition to being CFO, I am also part of our firm’s leadership team, a group I am incredibly proud of, because of how diverse we are, especially in this industry. Having a seat at the table has been amazing, to see everyone come together and strategically think of ways to accomplish goals we have set for ourselves as a firm. I’m excited that in my seat, I can advocate for working moms on every possible front no matter how small. These decisions matter.
I also want to mention, running my first half-marathon a year after I had my son, was a pretty cool accomplishment as well.
I just ran my first - an accomplishment indeed! One needs a certain mentality to do all that you do - what has been your general approach to your career?
My personal motto not just in my career but in life in general is just do it. That thought, that idea, that career opportunity you can carve for yourself, go ahead and do it.
My approach is also never to feel like I can’t do something. My math background conditions me to tackle challenges and opportunities from an analytical perspective: there is always a way. The possibilities of what you can achieve are endless, and I believe I am proof of that.
FInally, what advice do you have for those starting their careers?
Be confident in yourself and be confident in what you know. Never stop learning because that truly is the only way you get better. Even within your industry, continue to explore and fine tune what you are passionate about. Never lose that spark or wonder, I guarantee you it won’t steer you in the wrong direction.