'Technologically Advanced Financial Systems Can Assist With Critical Decision-Making'

We talk to Laura Hazlett, CFO, California College of the Arts


Laura Hazlett is the Chief Financial and Administrative Officer at California College of the Arts (CCA), where she oversees the areas of business and finance, campus planning, risk management, operations, IT and human resources. Laura is focused on bringing an entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit to non-profit initiatives. Prior to joining CCA, Hazlett served as the CFO for Athletics at UC Berkeley, also overseeing four varsity sports. Before joining the Golden Bears, Laura created the financial feasibility model for University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena, where she worked as a Consultant/Special Assistant to the Athletics Director. Laura also has served as an Assistant Professor of Finance at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management. Laura earned her PhD in Finance at UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

We sat down with her ahead of his presentation at CFO Rising West, taking place in San Francisco this October 19-20.

How did you get started in finance?

I completed my undergraduate degree in economics and mathematics and when exploring what to do next, my mentor suggested I get a PhD. It was something I hadn’t considered but was convinced to get a PhD in finance since I thought it would give me options – to go into academia or administration, or even industry.

What do you see as the finance function’s role in innovation?

Finance plays a central role in innovation as most innovation requires some level of investment. The way in which an organization chooses to invest its dollars and resources demonstrates its values and strategic path. The Finance function has the opportunity to help shape this investment through leading organizational strategy and implementing processes necessary to support a strategy of innovation. In addition, the Finance function has the opportunity to make these priorities and the decision-making behind them more transparent.

What specific challenges do you face as a finance leader at California College of the Arts?

The biggest challenge is resource allocation in an environment where our revenues are tuition driven and where we do not believe it is appropriate to price degrees based on demand since we believe in providing breadth, access, and excellence. Decisions cannot be made solely by reviewing the financial results. Numbers and analytics take a back seat in decision-making that tends to be driven more by mission and values alignment. Determining the optimal and appropriate resource allocation in this setting, where we still need to be financially responsible and ensure ongoing sustainability, can be challenging.

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?

For small non-profits, the finance function has become much more strategic over the last decade and has evolved beyond the traditional controllership function to a much broader and more strategic role. More recently, the treasury function has become more than simply borrowing when needed - engagement with for-profit vendors has increased the importance of the tax function, and advanced modeling and planning tools are increasingly deployed and utilized to inform decision making.

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?

I believe the best executives have realized the value of financial leaders who think more broadly and are engaged stakeholders with all parts of the organization. Despite this, there remains some historical thinking which results in some CFOs being pigeon-holed into their role as simply finance experts when they have the ability to provide significant incremental value and to inform decision making across the organization. The best CFOs are able to demonstrate their commitment to the mission and values of an organization, and not just the numbers.

Do you see any technologies as having a major impact on the finance function in the near future? How do you incorporate these? How important is it for the CFO and CIO to work together?

It’s critical. Technology is playing more of a role in all that we do. At California College of the Arts, we use technology to reach out students during the recruiting and enrollment process, to process our faculty contracts, to aid our faculty in teaching and educating our students, and to run all of our administrative systems. At CCA, the CIO and I work closely to evaluate how technology can have an impact on the student experience and to make recommendations about where to invest in technology; we regularly discuss how to sustain existing technology while investing in new technology. Most relevant to the finance function, the newest systems have hugely impacted our work. Most recently, at CCA, the CIO and I co-sponsored the implementation of Workday Financials which has significantly positively impacted our end-user experience and has already allowed us to gain more control over expenditures across the college. Overall, technologically advanced financial systems can assist with critical decision-making through data management, visualization and analytics.

What will you be discussing in your presentation?

I will be discussing the importance of a strong CIO / CFO collaboration to drive change in an organization!

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


Read next:

Revenue Recognition