Interview With Sam Hartwell, CFO Of KickStart, About Why The Modern CFO Needs To Be Outward-Facing

We sat down with Sam ahead of his presentation at CFO Rising West


As Chief Financial Officer & Treasurer of 250 employees at an award-winning social enterprise, Sam manages finance operations across offices in Kenya, Tanzania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Zambia, and the US to lead financial, treasury and risk management functions as well as budgeting, grants administration, accounting, and auditing. Sam has also been responsible for the IT function and global implementation of Microsoft NAV enterprise software to integrate financial, donor, staff, product, and customer data. He also oversaw metrics unit to measure product performance and launched a 3-year independent study of KickStart’s impacts.

We sat down with him ahead of his presentation at CFO Rising West, taking place in San Francisco this October 20-21.

How did you start your career as CFO at KickStart International?

After spending many years building finances and operations in nonstandard assignments, including in a public company with more than a billion dollars in sales, a turnaround in green tech, and venture-backed startups, I applied to become CFO at KickStart International. I was compelled by the founders’ irreverence for charitable efforts that simply feel good and their all-out commitment to do real good by engineering measurable and lasting solutions to the world‘s biggest problems. KickStart’s ambition is to eradicate poverty by creating money-making opportunities in the most economically challenged areas of the world. While working on such a large-scale project is daunting, I believed a committed team could make a big difference and that my for-profit experience might help. So, with a seven-year-old son, a five-year-old daughter, and a wife with a full tenure-track position at a university, we sold our house in West Hartford to move across the world to live and work in Kenya.

How has the role of the finance function changed over the last decade? What do you see as having been the main drivers behind this?

Ten or fifteen years ago, the finance function generally dealt with just that: finance. The CFO role was seen as mainly an inward- and backward-looking function that kept track of past company performance. Now, the CFO is expected to look after the business model and drive the business forward. Strategy and forecasting growth in new markets is a key component of the role. Meanwhile, with the increased demands from regulators and stakeholders, managing compliance and risk has risen on the CFO’s agenda in recent years, along with other forward-looking areas. The modern CFO also needs to be outward-facing - handling shareholder queries, liaising with the board and investors, and even speaking to the press for the company.

What do you think presents the greatest challenges for finance leaders over the next year?

Currency fluctuation amid ongoing volatility in Forex Exchange creates a lot of challenges related to pricing and maintaining margins for companies operating in emerging markets.

Do you think executives perceptions of finance leaders as accountants still prevent them taking up a role as a strategic partner in their organizations? If so, how can they overcome this?

No, I think most CEO’s have adapted to the new definition of the more CFO role – as more strategic and outward-looking.

How important do you see measuring employee’s health and productivity? What do you see the finance function’s role in this to be?

It’s very important because employee costs are a significant expense for most companies and one of the biggest factors in driving future growth and performance. CFO’s can help by adopting an evidence-based approach to funding programs to improve health and productivity – while simultaneously aligning accountability systems like budgeting and performance management – to track and monitor associated outcomes.

How has the role of the finance function changed over the last decade? Do you think the CFO role has changed to become more of a generalist? What do you see as having been the main drivers behind this? 

The CFO job involves more multi-tasking, which is a result of the role becoming much broader to include the forward-looking and outward facing responsibilities described in #2 above.

How important is it for the CFO and CIO to work together? 

Cloud computing is transforming the finance function, because it has allowed the function to break free from geographic constraints. We are using the cloud to render the accounting function entirely paperless and to outsource accounting to countries where the skills needed are abundant and relatively cost-effective. CFO/CIO collaboration continues to be essential.

You can hear more from Sam, as well as other industry leaders, at CFO Rising West this October. Register here to receive your pass today.

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