Role of the CFO

A nonprofit CFO’s inspirational journey

Guita Sharifi fled political turmoil in Iran to find success through education.
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Guita Sharifi

· 6 min read

Education has been the thread running throughout Guita Sharifi’s life story. Born in Iran, she settled in the UK with her family to escape the turmoil of the Iranian Revolution, and she changed schools several times during her teenage years.

Sharifi’s experience of pursuing education under difficult circumstances is perhaps reflected in her current career. In fact, she advises young people starting out in finance to choose jobs that resonate with them personally. You want to make sure that your work is “your passion” and something “you want to learn more about,” she said.

She’s taking her own advice. Sharifi is the CFO of the Lifelong Learning Administration Corporation (LLAC), which serves students who struggle with traditional education, including former dropouts, homeless students, students in the foster care system, and teenage parents. She’s also a mom of four and lives with her three daughters and her dogs in California.

In this role, she uses her finance skills and talent for relationship-building to help students succeed despite their difficult life circumstances.

Second chances. Learn4Life operates on-site charter high schools in California, South Carolina, and Texas, as well as virtual schools, and offers homeschooling support services and supported more than 47,000 students last year.

While she oversees a team of about 60 people and manages a budget of slightly over $400 million, Sharifi said one of the most rewarding aspects of her job is “seeing the kids’ success,” whether they measure that success in terms of going to college or finding steady employment after graduation.

“When they come to us…some of them don’t have hope,” she said. “Seeing the students move on, go on to college, get accepted, and hear the success stories really is very rewarding.”

For public schools like Sharifi’s, keeping on top of changes in government and regulations is a constant challenge. The funds that the organization receives from the state can fluctuate quickly depending on political considerations and she has to adjust the budget quickly, she said.

She also oversees Learn4Life’s financial expansion team, which budgets for new projects. The organization is looking to expand its footprint into more states.

Experienced leader. She was also a nominee for the CFO of the Year 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award by the Orange County Business Journal, an honor that comes after 20 years’ experience as a nonprofit CFO. Before joining the Lifelong Learning Administration Corporation, she was CFO at Radiant Health Centers, which provide health and HIV care to the LGBTQ community; the Alzheimer’s Family Services Center, which offers care and support services to people with dementia and their caregivers; and Western Youth Services, an organization which provides mental health services to children.

This experience has served her well at LLAC, said Claudio Wohl, SVP of finance at the Learn4Life Network. “She was exactly what the organization needed,” he said, “somebody that would bring new ideas, fresh concepts.” She was able to introduce nonprofit ideas the organization hadn’t yet considered, he said, and helped it “open up to perspectives [and] ways of doing things.”

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“One thing that she’s done very well is build a high-performing team,” said Chad Gray, COO of LLAC. Her people skills enable her to forge connections with others that are “meaningful [and] help move the organization forward,” he said, which he believes is a vital part of a C-suite executive’s role.

Wohl praises her ability to make finance accessible. She was a “driving force on changing and [opening] financial information and financial concepts to the rest of the organization,” he said, “because she thinks that finance should be involved in most decisions because everything flows through finance.”

Advances in technology have allowed CFOs to become more strategic, Sharifi said, because it enables them to “forecast and do financial modeling a lot faster and easier and more accurately, so [they] can make better decisions.”

An education disrupted by political turmoil. When she was in middle school, her family left Iran, fleeing the violence that surrounded the Iranian Revolution.

In 1978, Sharifi recalled, her mother came to her school to pick her up and said, “We’re going to London for a week.” The family wound up living in a London hotel for the next six months. Eventually, Sharifi’s parents bought an apartment and enrolled her in a school in Wimbledon.

The middle school in Wimbledon had been on the verge of closing, Sharifi said, but was able to remain open due to the large numbers of Iranian expatriates who sent their children there.

A few years later, Sharifi went back to Iran, where she attended an English-style school. Around that time, though, the government’s policies grew more restrictive. When she was in 12th grade, the government shut down her school along with the other international schools, and she had to attend a single-sex public school.

After graduating, Sharifi moved to the US and received a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Michigan University. She went on to earn an MBA from Pepperdine University and a Ph.D. in organizational leadership from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

She’s contemplating teaching once she retires from finance. It’s why she chose to earn a Ph.D., she said, and it’s one reason she took her current job. “Ultimately, I want to teach, so I want to learn this system,” she said.

Today, Sharifi advocates for Iran on social media—for example, supporting the Mahsa Amini Human Rights and Security Accountability Act (MAHSA Act) via the Twitter hashtag #MAHSAAct. This act would require the US President to determine whether sanctions should apply to the Supreme Leader of Iran and other high-ranking officials in the Iranian government.

Sharifi is also a board member of the Kharazmi Group, a professional organization whose goal is to rebuild Iran. Due to these efforts, she no longer finds it safe to travel to Iran. “Hopefully the regime changes, because I miss my country,” she said.

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The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.