As a teenager, Hui Chen thought accounting was boring. But today she knows better: it's the language of business. She is a professor with heart and soul, always striving to make her complex field accessible. And with one goal in mind: to make a real impact with her work.
Resilience is the key. This is what Hui Chen learned in her childhood growing up in China. As a professor of accounting she likes complexity and learning new things. That is one reason she enjoys the university environment so much. "I love to be surrounded by smart people and having an open-minded atmosphere." When she was writing her PhD thesis, she realized that this was where she belonged. "I found that if I pursue an academic career, I could work at a university forever", she says with a smile. That is why she was never drawn to business. "I probably would not have fit well in a corporate environment, because you have to take orders and do things based on what your boss or company wants you to do. I'd rather be able to decide for myself where I want to do research."
Chen loves to discover new places. She moved to the United States for her PhD and has now been in Switzerland for six years. "Yes, it is a challenge to move to a new country. But it is so important to see what the world is like outside of what you know." Compared to the U.S., she misses diversity the most. "There are many different types of role models and leaders who are just not what you typically would expect in the stereotypes. We need more of them in Switzerland."
Hui Chen probably inherited the accounting gene from her mother, who was an accountant at a company in China and always emphasized the importance of this profession. "I resisted for the longest time because I thought it must be the most boring thing. But look what I am doing today", the 48-year old laughs. Today, she knows the importance of this field. "Warren Buffett once said 'accounting is the language of business'. I totally agree with him, it is the most important communication a company can have with the rest of the world." With an ease, Hui Chen explains the complexities of financial accounting. How it is the basis for important investment decisions, why it is not intuitive at all, and why it often runs unnoticed in the background. "Unless there is a big scandal, everyone will hear about it", she laughs. Even though her work runs in the background, it is an important piece of the economic puzzle. This is because research in financial accounting has a direct impact on the international accounting standards that companies must adhere to. "This interaction between academia and regulators fascinates me and makes me feel like my work is really having an impact."
When asked about the biggest challenge in her life, Hui Chen mentions the time when she was writing her PhD thesis and starting a family at once. "Because I was pregnant while writing the thesis, my friends always joked that my son was my co-author", she laughs. "But the early stage of career as an academic was really tough. As a young assistant professor, you have to catch up on so many fronts: You need to build up your research portfolio, write papers and learn how to teach. All of that takes time, and you just had a newborn baby. It is like a bottle neck in your life." Still, she would not do it any other way, though. Because two things are important to her in life: family and work. "A family is like an anchor and keeps you grounded. A job that you like is just as important. Everything else is just a bonus." She appreciates that universities are taking steps in the right direction by taking measures, because it is important to give young women more flexibility during this time.
For Hui Chen, her profession is a calling. That makes it sometimes hard to separate work from life. "Every now and then I think it would be nice to have a job where you do not take work home with you. But that is never going to happen with a researcher. You cannot turn it off, it is like a computer program running in the background." That is why she will probably never stand still. Her next big goal? To understand where the cut-off is between principle and rule-based accounting. "Too many rules make people inventive to avoid the rules. Too few rules leave too much room for interpretation. So where is the optimal point?"
Author: Fabienne Schumacher
Photos: Esteban Castle