Thursday, October 8, 2015

10:12 AM

Maija Arbolino ’86S (MBA)
Chief Financial Officer at Open Society Foundations

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Maija Arbolino
Maija Arbolino made the switch from public accounting to the nonprofit sector 20 years ago. Although it was always her intent to find a way to give back, the opportunity came earlier than she expected.

Arbolino worked for four years in public accounting as an auditor at Coopers (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) after receiving her Simon MBA and eventually landed in the financial services industry. While at Coopers, she started working with nonprofits and liked the environment. When a headhunter called with an opportunity to join the Open Society Foundations, she was ready to embrace it.

“My family had always been very service-oriented, and I fully expected to spend part of my career giving back,” Arbolino says. She has since moved up the ranks of the organization and now serves as CFO.

Open Society was founded 34 years ago by hedge fund manager George Soros with the goal of establishing open, free societies worldwide. “It was a big cultural shift,” notes Arbolino, “coming from Wall Street, where success is measured in dollars. Back in 1995, Open Society was about to take off, and I returned to my accounting roots to help them get a handle on the practical aspects of financial management.”

Arbolino found that success is harder to define in nonprofits. “It’s difficult to measure social change, and advocating for rights demands a long-term view,” she says. “What I love about being here is that my perspectives are continually broadened by really smart people. We don’t always agree, but we keep learning from one another and finding new ways to solve challenging puzzles.”

Over her years at Open Society, Arbolino has realized the importance of listening to the people on the ground. “We have learned that it doesn’t work to parachute in experts, thinking we know what other cultures need and want. But we’re still blindsided when certain countries unexpectedly close their societies and compromise basic human rights.”

Arbolino’s studies at Simon helped her develop problem-solving skills and refine the art of listening to other points of view. She valued the theories and engaging style of former Simon professor Ross Watts, particularly his instruction on the positive theory of accounting. “Simon had an intimate, international student body. I had friends from as far away as New Zealand and Norway,” she says.

Arbolino urges students today to consider employment options beyond the traditional financial firms. “Don’t buttonhole yourself in a certain place too soon,” she says. “The US is more globally oriented than ever before, and there’s plenty to learn. Even if you don’t consider the nonprofit field initially, it can make a great second career choice.”

In her spare time, Arbolino enjoys gardening and reading. She recommends Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for business and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel for escapist fun.

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