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‘Be bold’: This digital innovation and business strategist urges fellow women leaders to be their authentic selves

Donna Meshaka brings over 30 years of experience to her position leading the US strategic alliances team at KPMG.

Donna Meshaka. (Courtesy)

This is How I Got Here, a series where we chart the career journeys of technologists. Want to tell your story? Get in touch.

Donna Meshaka didn’t expect to get into the business and technology sectors. She originally studied psychology in college at Florida International University and only took one computer programming course. 

But at her first post-college job as a legal administrator at a law firm, she tasked herself with improving its efficiency. That meant shifting from typewriters to word processors. When there were issues with the technology, she would teach herself how to fix it using manuals. 

Fast forward about three decades and Meshaka now leads alliance management in the US at KPMG, one of the biggest accounting firms in the world. She oversees the development and implementation of professional service programs with the firm’s alliance partners, which Meshaka described as an extension of the company’s salesforce. The partners are mainly technology providers, and it’s a mutually beneficial relationship that augments the professional services KPMG provides, Meshaka said. 

Meshaka, based in Leesburg, Virginia, stressed how empowering it is to have such a fruitful career. She hopes other women can achieve the same.  

“We can do it,” she said. “We can have everything that we want.”

The Big Four accounting firm leader discussed this, as well as overcoming resistance to tech, the artificial intelligence frontier and how to be a good manager. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Six people sit in white chairs on a stage. In the background, there is a green backdrop with the name "Appian" in the top right corner.

Donna Meshaka (far right) speaking at the Appian World 2024 conference in April. (Courtesy Appian)

Let’s talk about your career journey. You have a background in business and tech. Can you talk about how those came together? 

I’m happy to, although it’s an odd story given where I started. While I was in college, I was working as a bookkeeper. I don’t even know [if] bookkeepers exist anymore, to be honest. But that’s how I paid my way through college. And when I graduated, I landed a job as a legal administrator for a law firm. So I managed their books. I managed the office. 

I’ve always been very curious about technology and very oriented towards technology. So when I started to learn about PCs and servers back then, I’m like, “Wow, I think we could get a lot more efficient here in this firm if we moved away from typewriters.” So I hired a firm to come in and put that in at the law firm. 

I ran into a lot of resistance from the secretaries of the lawyers, the partners. That was my first entry into change management. They kept using their typewriters. So I came in on the weekend and I took all the typewriters and put them in a closet, locked them away. That was how I did change management 30-something years ago, but it worked really well. 

But what really got me into technology is when there were bugs with the software and I couldn’t get a hold of them. They’d given me so many manuals, so many books, and I had to get the work out. Law firms are billed by the hour, right? So I just got the books out and I said, “I’m just gonna have to figure this out myself.” And I did. 

And then, the auditor for the law firm saw what I did, and when I was having my first child, I quit. I wanted to stay home, take care of the baby. We didn’t have maternity leave and stuff like that. You didn’t have those options. But [the auditor] said, “Well, if you’re willing to still work while you have your baby, I can send some clients your way and you can do the same thing you did for the law firm for those clients.” 

I started to build my business more and actually opened up my own company. That’s how we got started.

And how did you get to KPMG? 

I started my own firm, and eventually, another large accounting firm brought me in to lead what they called their business and technology solutions. So I went to that firm. I became a partner. I did that for a number of years. That was with BDO Seidman.  

You can have a family, you can be there for your children. You can have a successful career. Find the right organization that fits your personal lifestyle so that you can thrive at work and you can thrive in your personal life as well. Donna Meshaka

I was recruited to The Hackett Group. And that’s what got me more into the sales side. I stayed there for a number of years. And then I went to CSC, and a member of my team came to KPMG and he really loved it and said, “I think it’d be a fabulous place for you to consider.” So we started to talk. 

I couldn’t have been happier joining KPMG. When I joined I was brought in to lead aerospace and defense for consulting in IT strategy. And then I just took on a lot of different roles, but that’s how I got to KPMG.

Can you walk me through what your day-to-day looks like at KPMG? 

Well, it varies. Some days I’m traveling because I’m meeting with our alliance partners. I’m out there meeting with them, doing panel discussions, but more importantly, talking with our alliance partners to understand how we can be better together and how we can drive more value. That’s absolutely central to what I do every single day. 

There’s a lot of things that go around that. And technology is changing faster than I have ever seen it change in the 35 years I’ve been doing this. So always looking ahead is what I’m doing every single day. What do I need to do differently? How can I get my teams excited and work better together so that we can drive more value? 

In fact, I just got off a call that I have weekly, that we’re always challenging ourselves around: “What should we do differently next year?” Because what got us to where we are isn’t going to get us to where we need to go. So I’m always challenging myself and our team to say, “How can we do better?”

I believe that if you get people excited and passionate about what they do, you don’t have so many performance management issues, because they’re loving what they do. I really want people to be happy working for KPMG and delivering fantastic results to our clients.

You mentioned that technology is changing faster than you’ve ever seen it in your career. What excites you about that? Is there anything that concerns you?

So particularly what excites me is the rapid pace that things are happening. The whole evolution of AI and gen AI. The awareness and the need for companies to adopt that technology and the technologies that go around it is what’s particularly exciting. Not to get too technical, but in order for AI or gen AI to really work well,  you’ve got to have good data. I think that organizations over the years haven’t paid as much attention to that aspect, as they’re going to have to now, so that their AI vision can be achieved. 

At the same time, it scares me, because there’s so much that can be done with AI. Having a trusted AI motion is absolutely imperative and a moral obligation, I believe. So it’s exciting, but it can be scary at the same time. 

The other thing that I think is particularly exciting about it is how it’s disrupting business. It’s causing us to have to say, “What do we need to do differently to utilize gen AI and AI in how we deliver services to our clients?” And then, what does that mean for the role of our people in our organization? So how do we get them to do other things that will drive more value than those more rote task-oriented processes that they’re doing? 

What advice do you have for people wanting to pursue a similar career? 

Be passionate. Do something that you’re excited to do. It’s not easy to do anything in technology these days or to lead a very large organization. So you have to really love it. 

Be bold. Be courageous. I really want that message to resonate with other females who strive to be leaders, if that’s what they want to do. Don’t give up. Be your authentic self. If you feel that what you’re hearing is not right, raise your hand and say so. Use your voice. Be confident in your voice. We have a lot going for us. 

You can have a family, you can be there for your children. You can have a successful career. Find the right organization that fits your personal lifestyle so that you can thrive at work and you can thrive in your personal life as well. 

And don’t settle. I will absolutely tell you that if I had to do it all over again, I would have started at KPMG and I never would have left. Because this is the company that enabled me and enables me to get up every morning and be passionate about what I do.

Series: How I Got Here

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