I Am UWC: Elton Pullen - Teaching Accounting and Accountability
Every year, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) recognizes the top young chartered accountants in the country for their contributions to entrepreneurship, corporate accounting and academia - like University of the Western Cape (UWC) senior lecturer Elton Pullen, a finalist in the SAICA/Accountancy SA magazine 2017 Top 35 Under 35 competition.
Elton grew up in Belhar, where his parents still reside. While attending Settlers High School, he set his sights on a career as a chartered accountant (CA), and he went on to earn his BCom and BCom Honours in Accounting from UWC and a Master’s degree in Financial Management from the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he’s currently completing his PhD.
He worked as an audit manager and financial manager before deciding to return to UWC to teach future generations the art and science of Management Accounting and Finance (or MAF, as you might know it). With his natural love for the subject, and for helping others understand it, he’s found it very rewarding (and so have his students - he’s been nominated as EMS Teacher of the Year four times since he started lecturing).
Here’s what he has to say about the importance of accounting, and how it can make a difference in society.
What made you decide to become a Chartered Accountant?
In Grade 9, we had an assignment to research a profession we were interested in. I was doing well in accounting, so I thought I’d research professions requiring an accounting background. And so the CA dream was born - it seemed interesting and important, and it also didn’t hurt that I was told CAs would earn decent salaries. So I’ve been very blessed that I knew what I wanted to become since I was fourteen.
Why teach accounting?
My father has been an educator for over 30 years, and he passed his passion for teaching to me. So when I joined UWC I wasn’t concerned about which subject I would teach as long as I could give back to my alma mater. But I’m grateful I ended up teaching Management Accounting and Finance (MAF); of all the accounting subjects, it’s the one I think is most crucial for business leaders, because it teaches fundamental principles for decision making in any industry.
Do we really need more CAs in this country? What makes this career so important?
I think we can all agree that South Africa (and the world) needs more accountability - but we can only be accountable if we’re more transparent. And that’s the heart of accounting - it’s not just about debits and credits, but about transparency. As the saying goes, “The numbers don’t lie.”
Another important thing: despite the very troubling youth unemployment problem in South Africa, there is still a significant shortage of black CAs in this country. This is what drives me - the more CAs we are able to produce at UWC, the more we address the unemployment problem.
It’s a difficult task, of course, but it’s that simple.
What brought you back to UWC? What’s changed since your student days?
When I started my studies, the notion was that if you wanted to become a CA in Cape Town, you needed to go to UCT or Stellenbosch and that CAs from UWC weren’t as good as those from the other universities. So I wanted to return to UWC to help change that perception, so that our students don’t go through their studies with that mindset.
A lot has changed since I was a student, but a lot has also stayed the same. One significant change: there are more and more young professionals entering UWC as academics, which is great for our students. And as to what has stayed the same...well, even years later you can still find a good game of “dumz” or klawerjas in the Caf...
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the fact that I have been give the platform to change futures forever. Many of our students are first generation university students and will be first generation CAs, and their family legacies will be changed forever. I am extremely honoured and grateful to be a part of that.
And I just love that moment in a lecture when you look over the class and you can see light bulb moments going off, when students grasp a difficult concept. As a teacher, you live for those moments.
What do you do when you’re not at work? For fun, I mean…
I enjoy relaxing with my wife, just hanging out and watching our favourite TV shows. And I started running in 2013, so most weekends I do a park run or some form of running, in training for a marathon event or just for the fun of it.
Any tips for students who want to become successful CAs someday?
The road to becoming a CA is tough - so make sure you understand why you’re pursuing it. I’ve always been inspired by two great men: William Wallace (from Braveheart) and Nelson Mandela. Their roads were tough, but they knew what they were fighting for, and they fought for it at all costs. You will probably never have to die or be imprisoned to become a CA (even if it feels like it at times), but you need to make sure that your “why” will push you through when the going gets tough - because it will get tough.
Most important: stay humble, be a lifelong learner, and always be willing to give back - you will be known by your fruits, after all.
Any shoutouts you’d like to send?
So much has happened in my life where the script could have been so different, and I’m forever mindful that I am living under God’s grace. I honestly don’t know where I would be without it.
I also want to acknowledge my amazing wife, who stands by me unconditionally, and my parents for instilling godly principles in me and for pushing me to finish my studies even when I wanted to quit. I want to thank my brother for always being proud of me, and pushing me to be a role model.
And last but certainly not least, I want to thank my amazing colleagues at the Department of Accounting - and particularly my boss and mentor, Professor Carol Cairney. I actually don’t know where I would have been without her mentoring me for these past five years. Thank you so much, Carol!