“Do the Right Thing:” Honored Alumnus SiSi Pouraghabagher’s C-Level Advice to Students

SiSi Pouraghabagher teaches an accounting class on campus

SiSi Pouraghabagher, the Honored Alumnus from the Orfalea College of Business, teaches an accounting class on campus. (Photo/Sarah Davenport)

Written by February 20, 2024

If you want to become a C-level executive, you have to be accountable, resourceful, have grit, be a continuous learner, take leaps of faith, know your personal brand, and have the right soft skills, said SiSi Pouraghabagher.

But, above all, Pouraghabagher added, integrity is paramount to success.

“Always doing the right thing means walking your talk even when no one is looking.  Surrounding yourself with others who hold integrity as a core value is also incredibly important in life.”

Pouraghabagher, the Orfalea College of Business’s latest Honored Alumnus, brings C-level experience to her classes every day.

“While she instructs with a textbook, her lectures are driven by real-world problems and solutions,” said Samuel Wisner, a former student and teaching assistant. “She concludes each quarter with a career discussion providing feedback to students and answering questions about her professional experience.”

A 1994 alumnus who has had numerous executive titles and board positions, Pouraghabagher can still easily relate to her students.

SiSi Pouraghabagher has remained actively involved eith the Orfalea College of Business. (Photo/courtesy of SiSi Pouraghabagher)

“I always say teaching here is keeping me young, as it still feels like an extension of when I was here as a student,” said the adjunct accounting professor, who describes the experience as a full-circle moment. “I deeply care about this university and the students, because I once sat in their very seats.”

After graduating from Cal Poly, Pouraghabagher began her career in Orange County, where she rose through the ranks at companies such as Deloitte, Bank of America, and QBE. During her 30-year career, her executive leadership positions have included chief financial officer and chief operating officer roles for global Fortune 50 financial service companies.

Her career path reflects the advice she gives students.

“Be the driver of your own career,” she said. “Take those leaps of faith when opportunities present themselves, as those are the moments in your career that set the trajectory.”

She was decades into her career trajectory in 2014 when Doug Cerf, interim dean and one of Pouraghabagher’s former professors, asked if she was interested in teaching a class when he learned she and her family were relocating back to SLO from Southern California.

“Returning to campus as an educator was exhilarating!” she recalled. “Initially, I felt like I went through some kind of time warp.”

While returning to the Cal Poly campus brought back fond memories of places, friends and longtime connections, Pouraghabagher’s industry success has carried over to her teaching, earning her the Orfalea College of Business Distinguished Faculty Award twice, as well as multiple Outstanding Faculty Awards for Accounting and the MSA program. In 2023, she was also chosen as one of nine Honored Alumni honored by Cal Poly.

“It is extremely valuable for a business leader with SiSi’s reputation, expertise, and passion to devote her time and talent to Cal Poly,” said Damon Fleming, dean of the Orfalea College of Business. “SiSi has invested much of her career in developing, mentoring, and coaching current and future leaders, and students often attest to the impact that SiSi continues to make on their education and careers.”

For more than 60 years, the Honored Alumni Award has served as the highest honor bestowed upon Cal Poly graduates.

“I have earned professional accolades throughout my career, but this lands very differently,” she said. “When you are recognized for not only your professional achievements, but also for your impact and contribution to your own alma mater, it is a once in a lifetime recognition.”

As she continues to be involved in industry through her leadership on three professional boards, she is also active at the college, serving on the Dean’s Advisory Council and Accounting Advisory Board.

Meanwhile, the SiSi Pouraghabagher Accounting Scholarship Endowment aims to help accounting students succeed.

Currently, there is a critical need for accounting professionals nationwide. And, Pouraghabagher said, accounting is crucial to businesses.

“I always tell my students that accounting is the language of business.  As Warren Buffet professes to college students, there is no better way to understand business than to learn how to read financial statements. That is the core of what I teach.”

“When you are recognized for not only your professional achievements, but also for your impact and contribution to your own alma mater, it is a once in a lifetime recognition.”

                                                                                   Sisi Pouraghabagher

While her career showcases the importance of accounting knowledge, at Cal Poly, she seeks to help others succeed.

“She is present, engaged, and deliberate with her students, offering opportunities to connect outside of the classroom,” Wisner said. “She alters her instruction methods to best suit the needs of the student while guiding them toward their academic strengths.”

            Give to the SiSi Pouraghabagher Accounting Scholarship Endowment

After a promising job interview with Goldman Sachs, Nico Chico, another student and assistant, immediately reached out to Pouraghabagher when he received a disappointing rejection.

“She acknowledged my situation but immediately turned the discussion to ‘Where should we go from here?’” Chico said. “Professor Pouraghabagher was always optimistic and encouraging. Just from speaking with her, you can tell she doesn’t let unfortunate situations take her down, and neither will she let them hold you down.”

But the most important lessons, he said, go back to integrity.

“Despite all my academic accomplishments, the most important thing she stresses, is who I am as a person,” he said. “Being authentic, being considerate, being a team player, being hard working,  and holding to high ethical standards will always get me further than anything I can put on my resume.”




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