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Alumnus Profile: Jennifer Zelen, MSF '18
Alumnus Profile: Jennifer Zelen, MSF '18

Jennifer Zelen is one of those rare, mythical creatures you rarely encounter in the City of Roses: an actual Portland native. Aside from leaving for some extended travel, she was born, raised, and educated here in the metropolitan area, including receiving her undergraduate degree from Portland State University. Zelen double-majored in Russian and Corporate Finance, then after working for a few small businesses, hung out her own shingle offering bookkeeping and payroll services. The flexibility of being her own boss when her children were small initially worked well. Eventually though, she needed a change and pursued the Master of Science in Finance (MSF) at The School of Business.
 
What drew you specifically to PSU’s School of Business?
I had a great experience as an undergrad; I always had high regard for the professors and instructors at PSU, and am truly impressed by the many strong relationships that the school has with Portland area companies and beyond. I always felt that if a student has a goal of working in an industry or company, and that person is willing to work hard, then faculty and staff at PSU will help them get there through recommendations and other support.
 
What was your previous experience in the finance industry?
Having worked in smaller companies, I did not work in anything finance related beyond some planning activities or working with lenders for small scale financing needs. So, none. My work was in setting up and managing accounting and payroll systems, some HR work and general office management.
 
What helped you achieves success in the program?
I think having some background in business helped, both in terms of having a degree in finance but also having been in the work world. Beyond that, I felt that my instructors and other faculty and staff were always available for questions or assistance. I also made some great friends through the program. I appreciated that we moved through the classes in a cohort, which helped our group of about 45 students get to know each other and work together on projects and classwork many times over the course of the program. I really liked working with students from a bunch of different backgrounds and experience levels, and I felt like I got a lot of support through these relationships as well.
 
How do you like living and working in Portland?

Portland is excellent- lots of activities in the city and also in a few hours driving distance; lots of new, fast growing companies as well as long-established firms. I think there is a lot of opportunity here, whether a person wants to work in a company or open their own business.

What is your current position and how long have you worked there?
After doing research- job fairs, informational interviews, actual job interviews and talking to friends and acquaintances, I decided to continue running my business but move into higher level financial consulting. One amazing thing that happened is that one of my classmates had passed my name on to a former client of hers who is in the real estate industry. That contact hired me for some part time work getting a new company up and running, and that contract led into more long term work with a fast-growing, mid-size real estate and investment company. 
I am providing consulting and building a strong accounting system, especially where I can implement more efficient software and automate processes. I am also helping with financial planning in all the company divisions, which will lead to more informed management decision making as the company grows.

What role did the MSF play in helping you obtain this position?
There are so many skills and experiences that I gained in the course of earning the degree, it is hard to say that one thing helped me get this position. When I started the MSF, I thought that my knowledge of finance would increase and that the learning would be both exciting and useful. That is still true - I learned so much through class work, readings, hands on work in data analysis and case discussions, it amazes me. But the number of people I met in my classes and at other PSU events, and then business contacts that I made not directly related to classes really surprised me. If I have any recommendation for incoming students, it would be to study hard but also take time for networking hours, speakers, seminars and clubs. I found the networking to be at least as valuable as the knowledge gained in class, and it just reiterated for me the value of the PSU SBA’s connections to the Portland area business community.

What are your future career goals?
My goals include continuing to work in accounting and finance, most likely through my existing business, although I don’t have anything against working as an employee in a company if the opportunity arises. I do like the flexibility and control that I have while working as a contractor, and I am at a point where I can choose which clients to work with. Earning a masters at PSU has definitely given me more knowledge and skills that I bring to my work with clients. My business revenues have increased and I have more choice in the type of clientele I work with, which is an excellent place to be when running a business.

How do you envision yourself applying the business expertise you gained in the program now that you have graduated? 
Even while in the program, I looked for ways to better serve clients as I learned. I plan to keep learning after graduation. I will watch for professional seminars, for instance, through the PSU Center for Executive and Professional Education. A class in negotiations was recommended to me, and I haven’t taken it yet due to scheduling issues. I would like to take a class or seminar once in a while to continue learning and networking. As far as applying knowledge learned in the classroom, there were many times I learned concrete new things about Excel and especially about data modeling software that I can bring to my workplace now.

How will you stay connected to The School of Business at PSU? 
I’d like to stay connected by potentially attending events as an alumni and by keeping up with former classmates. If there is ever a way that I can help potential students, or those incoming to the program, I’d be happy to “pay it back” by doing so. I can’t say enough good things about the PSU MSF and I’m thrilled that I had this opportunity. Ten years ago I only dreamed of earning a masters in finance, and achieving this is huge for me, both personally and professionally.