This story is a part of our “A Day in the Life” series that highlights the career journeys of 2U employees across the world. Throughout May, we’re celebrating Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month and featuring members of the Asian Pacific Islander Network (APIN), one of the company’s five Business Resource Networks.
Paul Kingston may have grown up in a small family and small town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, but he’s always had big dreams and big ideas.
His parents believed that having a good education meant getting the most out of life, so after finishing school, he headed wide-eyed and eager to University of Cape Town, earning a B.Com Accounting degree and Chartered Accounting (CA) designation. He did his articles through PwC, which then took him to San Jose, California, where he spent two years auditing big companies, traveling the world, and soaking up as much knowledge as he could.
“I always felt a deep connection with South Africa,” Paul says. “So I eventually returned and soon started looking for work in Cape Town outside of audit.”
Paul’s career journey eventually led him to GetSmarter, now a brand of 2U, Inc. “In Group Finance, we measure our term through the number of quarter-ends we survive. I joined in February 2018, so it has been 13 long quarters,” he laughs. Read on to learn more about Paul’s role at 2U, how he enjoys celebrating his Chinese heritage as part of a South African tradition, and how he uses humor to help power his team and himself through challenging times.
Paul (bottom row, blue shirt) and his family goofing off for the holidays
Why did you join GetSmarter/2U? What is it about the company that sparked your interest?
I had never heard of 2U/GetSmarter prior to applying and was curious to see what the job opportunity presented. It was also probably one of the hardest interviews and competency tests I have ever undertaken. After about six long hours, I opened the door to an empty finance department and asked the hiring manager for more time. She laughed and told me to sit down, and we talked for about an hour through the assessment. It was quite a memorable experience. Looking back, I joined because it was a great opportunity to learn and develop a new set of skills to further my career, but I’ve stayed because I feel like I’m needed and have always felt supported by my team.
How would you describe your role as a finance director at 2U?
Finance is a fast-paced, high-pressure, deadline-oriented team at 2U, and the world of finance is ever-changing. As a group-reporting director, this means I drive the team hard to meet every reporting deadline to support business and investors. I’d like to think that my main job is to coach and mentor people wherever possible, as well as to lighten the mood with my sarcasm when things go absolutely crazy.
An early morning hike up Lion's Head Mountain in Cape Town for Paul (center) and work colleagues
What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your job?
What I find both challenging and rewarding is working together as a team toward the close of a quarter. You can imagine a situation: It’s 11 p.m., there are 30 unread emails in your inbox, and you can’t tell whether it’s coffee or blood stains on the table. (I’m kidding about the blood—there’s that sarcasm!) You’re fighting the urge not to fall asleep, so you push forward, alone. But in Finance, you are never truly alone. There will always be someone that will drop what they are doing and look to help or listen to your problems. It is through those moments that you forge deeper bonds with those who endure alongside you. Each close is different and challenging in its own way, but the hard work and team support make it very fulfilling.
What’s your favorite part about working at 2U?
The Finance environment is quite challenging because it’s always evolving, with new and exciting ways of doing business while ensuring compliance in different jurisdictions. I love working here because I feel like we have a really strong team with an affinity to new technologies and a willingness to build automation into our business processes. Since I joined, we've made unbelievable strides in operations, and I look forward to working toward making it even better.
Paul and his father on the squash court after a tournament
In the U.S., May is Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. How is your Chinese heritage and culture celebrated in South Africa?
I can definitely relate to how APIN seeks to raise awareness of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander contributions to American history. In South Africa, once a year, a great number of Chinese across the country come together through a grand sporting tournament, known as the “Easter Tournament.” What started as a small event for Chinese people to play sports (during Apartheid we were not allowed to participate in events) has evolved way beyond sports to become a gathering to celebrate our proud heritage and cultural impact on South Africa. I usually participate every year and play my favorite sport, squash.
Unfortunately, due to COVID, we’ve had to put this event on hold until it is safe to gather once more. But I shall be celebrating my South African heritage this month by having a lekker braai (aka really good barbeque) at home with a small group of friends.
This year’s theme for Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month is “Advancing Leaders Through Purpose-Driven Service.” How might this resonate in your work at 2U and/or your life?
As a manager at 2U, I can definitely relate to how important it is to build the right kind of culture and to drive what your team needs to accomplish. As we continue to work remotely, now more than ever, leaders need to provide clearer direction and build the right kind of culture that aligns with their companies’ goals, so that they can keep their teams motivated and better connected with each other.
Hiking in Cape Town's Cecilia Forest
Out of everything you’ve done at 2U so far, what are you most proud of?
I am most proud of being part of such a great Finance team. We have all contributed something of value to the organisation, but I feel like the team more than the individual shares in those achievements together.
What advice would you give to someone just starting at 2U?
Learn to embrace the company’s Guiding Principles and incorporate them into your personal brand. Every team and manager has their own unique culture, but we all work hard to build a better future for everyone. So find early on what values drive and motivate you to be the best you can possibly be.
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