Part of the success I’ve had with Financially Fierce is that I was able to layer on skills from my previous two careers, including what I learned from being an accountant and what I learned from practicing law.

It All Added Up

Sonya Smith-Valentine ’97

While serving large corporate clients as a financial attorney, Sonya Smith-Valentine ’97 had a lightbulb moment. She realized that her legal services would be utterly unnecessary if midlevel managers possessed a higher degree of business acumen.

“Especially in litigation work, I would ask myself, ‘How did we get here?’” Smith-Valentine said. “There was a failure in decision somewhere, because this should never have happened; the client should not be in court. And then after you conduct the discovery and dig in, you realize this was a leadership failure.”

Such behind-the-scenes dysfunction inspired Smith-Valentine to start Financially Fierce, a training and consulting business that she runs from her home just outside Washington, D.C. With the direct style of a native New Yorker—and decades of financial and legal experience behind her—Smith-Valentine helps corporations improve their bottom line by training managers to make financially astute decisions, and she helps set things straight when they do not.

Listen to Sonya Smith-Valentine ’97 explain how the skills she learned first as CPA and then as an attorney were the perfect segue to her latest venture: Financially Fierce.

She launched the company as a side business in 2012 while operating her own law firm, Valentine Legal Group. In 2017, she closed her firm and funneled the profits into her new enterprise.

“Part of the success I’ve had with Financially Fierce is that I was able to layer on skills from my previous two careers, including what I learned from being an accountant and what I learned from practicing law,” Smith-Valentine said. Other elements of her success: developing a sharp eye for opportunities, networking, and constantly learning from teachers and mentors.

As a first-generation college graduate, Smith-Valentine headed straight to corporate America, spending eight years as an accountant, including for what was then Price Waterhouse, one of the era’s prestigious “Big Six.” After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, she was a tax attorney for another—Deloitte & Touche—again learning the intricacies and weaknesses of Fortune 1000 financial operations. Later, she started her own law firm and handled lawsuits involving Bank of America, Equifax, and Capital One.

“As companies get bigger, there is more disconnect between those at the top and those at the [middle] levels who are actually doing the work, and so the top leadership doesn’t know that it has to address the disconnect,” Smith-Valentine said.

Throughout her professional life, Smith-Valentine has boldly sought out mentors and knowledge. After she saw a lawyer with expertise in her field speak at a conference, she introduced herself to him, sent a thank-you note, and ultimately flew to Minnesota to shadow him for a week.

To find corporate clients, she took a course from a business coach who instructed her to treat networking like a muscle strengthened by exercise and to not have an “emotional tie to the outcome.” She learned to attend smaller events (30 people or fewer) to find the executives who would hire her firm and used her 20 years of experience as a litigator to break the ice.

“With litigation, you have to go in and tell a story to a jury to get them to like you and get them on your side,” Smith-Valentine said. “So when I walk into a room filled with strangers, I have that ability to disarm people.”

As a solo entrepreneur, Smith-Valentine uses subcontractors and a virtual assistant to keep expenses flexible, and as her revenue grows each year, she treasures the freedom of being her own boss.

“My brain doesn’t work as a 9 to 5 person. I can wake up at 6 a.m. and work for three hours, and then go play with the dog in the yard at 9 a.m.,” she said. “Or I can take some time off during the day and go back to work from 7 to 9 at night.”

Consulting also allows her to be direct with clients and avoid the linguistic gymnastics of lawyer-client discussions.

“I have more of an ability to push back,” Smith-Valentine said. “When you’re practicing law, you have to be more delicate about what you say, and how you go about saying it.”

Her no-nonsense style evolved from facing challenges head-on. Smith-Valentine attended Brooklyn Law School full time while still working part time as an accountant to earn her CPA. At the time, very few of her classmates were people of color, but an unofficial alliance formed among those who were. When juggling work and class nearly prompted her to quit the Law School, her friends would not hear of it.

“Two of them came to my house and said, ‘We will drag you out of the house in your pajamas if you don’t come with us to class,’” Smith-Valentine recalled, laughing at the memory. “We all stuck together through the three years.”

That sense of community prompted her to mentor others through the Law School’s Women’s Leadership Network.

“Brooklyn Law School is one of the big reasons I am where I am,” Smith-Valentine said. “The knowledge that I gained and the relationships that I formed have made a difference in my career, and I wanted to try to make sure that those who were behind me could get that same feeling, and experience, and career.”

— Teresa Novellino