Alumna Finds Renewed Purpose as CFO
By Christine Vaughan
Female finance chiefs are rising.
While the representation of women in senior financial roles is still less than 15 percent among Fortune 500 companies, there is progress. Last year, the number of female CFOs doubled. One of those executives joining that C-suite rank is CSUSM alumna Denise Gurulé (’10).
In May 2017, Gurulé was named CFO of Feeding San Diego, the leading hunger-relief organization in San Diego County that provides 25.2 million meals annually to local residents.
Gurulé never imagined herself in the nonprofit arena, having spent nearly 15 years working for Merlin Entertainment’s LEGOLAND California. She worked her way up from junior accountant to assistant controller while earning her BS in Business Administration with an emphasis in accounting at Cal State San Marcos.
From her executive office above Feeding San Diego’s warehouse in Sorrento Valley, Gurulé laughs at the irony, recalling a business course in government and nonprofit accounting and how she scoffed at the thought of ever leaving the for-profit industry.
“I remember thinking, ‘Who would do this?’” she said.
On her nearly two-decade-long academic journey – one that included an extended hiatus as she took guardianship of her 2-year-old second cousin (who she now calls her daughter) – the single mom found that her love for numbers had a greater purpose to serve people.
U-Turns and Speed Bumps
Gurulé was 41 when she crossed the commencement stage to shake President Karen Haynes’ hand. The road to her bachelors was long and it included speed bumps and some unexpected detours.
The ’86 San Marcos High School graduate first wanted to be a fashion buyer and even studied at Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. Though it was a passion, pursuing fashion as a career never quite felt right. So Gurulé turned to a familiar subject that always clicked for her: mathematics. Thinking she might like to own a business one day, accounting seemed like a natural fit.
She enrolled in accounting courses at Palomar College, taking one course at a time and in 1999, she began working in the accounting department at LEGOLAND California. She transferred to CSUSM in 2000.
That first year, Gurulé became a single mother as she took guardianship of Amanda. Adjusting to the new role of mom while balancing work and school was debilitating. Gurulé took a step back from her studies and put her degree on hold.
Seven years passed, and then one night during a family dinner, her dad spoke up.
“I remember him telling me, ‘Mija, I want you to finish your degree. Move back home, we’ll help with Amanda, and we’ll make this work.’”
Moving home in her mid-thirties didn’t feel like progress, but Gurulé knew she would need the support of her family. She also knew that this time around, she needed a mentor.
Gurulé was matched with then-business professor Dr. Jim Hamerly as part of the University’s Faculty Mentoring Program. Focused on her studies, working part time and armed with a mentor, Gurulé thrived. She was promoted to assistant controller a few months before she earned her bachelors.
When Gurulé was ready for the next challenge, she once again turned to her mentor, Dr. Hamerly, who suggested she consider TGG Accounting to give her more opportunity to grow in her career. A competitive recruiter for CSUSM alumni, TGG is a managerial accounting firm that works with small businesses to help owners make better informed financial decisions for their companies.
Crunching the Numbers for Good
At TGG Gurulé discovered that her knack for accounting enabled nonprofits to serve more people, operate at greater capacity and flourish financially. Gurulé quickly became the go-to nonprofit accountant for her firm.
It was there that Feeding San Diego came on her radar. She began as a consultant, filling gaps in accounting leadership.
In November 2014, Gurulé officially moved over to Feeding San Diego as the director of finance. Last May, CEO Vince Hall named Gurulé the Chief Financial Officer.
It’s a Matter of Green
Feeding San Diego is part of the 200-member network of Feeding America and a member of the California Association of Food Banks – connections that allow the organization to leverage resources at minimal costs. For example, when local farmer harvests are larger than demand or when produce is deemed aesthetically unsellable because it’s misshapen, farmers donate their product and organizations like Feeding San Diego pay a small pack-and-pick fee to cover farm operation costs. The partnership means healthy food options are made available to families in need at the lowest cost to the organization. It’s a partnership made possible by financial strategy and agreements.
That creative thinking fuels Gurulé and has her focused on the next big challenge. San Diego needs 80 million meals to meet the food insecurity needs of the community. Only about half of that need is being met by area food pantries and nonprofits.
“Accountants are always working in the past,” Gurulé said. “My goal as a CFO is to work with our executive leadership team and look into the future to talk about how we’re going to meet the need. Being a CFO gives me the freedom to dream, and then crunch the numbers and find fiscally responsible solutions to get us there.”
“What we do is so important. Leaving a legacy is what matters. I want to know that I left my world better than it was when I got here, and to accomplish that you need to start with what’s right in front of you.”