Voice of Experience: Viva Hammer, Principal, KPMG Washington National Tax

VivaHammerBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“I’ve been trying to get my driver’s license in the US for seventeen years,” began Viva Hammer, Principal at KPMG Washington National Tax. She continued, “I took the written test when I was pregnant with my daughter. Two weeks ago she graduated college and a week later I passed my road test.”

The story is emblematic of the careers of many women, Hammer said. “Sometimes for women, your career can seem like a long road with lots of detours. You need a lot of faith – or desire – to believe you’re going to make it.”

Hammer, a native of Australia, moved to New York City two days after graduating law school without a job prospect in sight. Now, twenty years later, with a high profile career in US tax law, having founded several non profits and begun her book Choosing Children – and, now with her driver’s license – Hammer can say she has made it.

“Never give up,” she exclaimed. “Never, never, never, never!”

Building a Tax Career

“When people ask me why I left the incomparably lovely Sydney, Australia, for a dirty, dangerous New York of the early 1990s, I say ‘I have no idea.’ I’d had the dream since I was fourteen that I would come to The City. And two days after graduating law school, I did my dream,” Hammer recalled.

But she quickly learned that American companies didn’t like foreign degrees. “Unless you have gone to Oxford or Cambridge, they treat us all as as if we’re from the University of Southern Transylvania,” she explained.

“I had a grand time being unemployed and living on friends’ couches, and I didn’t give up – never. I applied for every kind of job and finally landed with a firm that who needed help bridging the US and Australian tax laws. I didn’t know a thing about either, but I opened those great tax tomes and started my self-education.”

She said that even though it may be difficult to get started, job seekers shouldn’t lose hope – and her career confirms it, eventually becoming the only Australian to be asked to join the Office of Tax Policy at the US Department of the Treasury. “The cream floats to the top. Ten years after being rejected by almost every law firm, I became an advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, responsible for the taxation of financial institutions and products.”

Having worked for the government, in consulting, and as a partner in a law firm, in addition to writing a book and establishing several non profits, Hammer has settled into a new role at KPMG. “The only thing I haven’t done is work for a corporation,” she said.

Hammer said her proudest professional achievement is the work she did on Dodd Frank – “securing the only tax page in the law, tacked on to the back.” But while there’s only one page of explicit tax law in Dodd Frank, she continued, “it’s riddled with tax implications that weren’t necessarily thought through in the process of drafting it.”

“I had been warning my clients of the tax implications in Dodd Frank all along, and no one thought it was really going to happen. And now it has. I’m looking forward to helping my clients plan the full implementation of the law,” She said

But, some parts of the legislation have been frustrating. “The most infuriating part of the law is that Congress had the opportunity to reform the taxation of derivatives. But this wasn’t the right moment. I look forward to the day when the stars are aligned and we can work on tax reform for derivatives. It will be a great battle.”

Making Sacrifices, then Being Successful

“I worked because I had to,” Hammer said. “I didn’t work for a higher purpose, but sometimes a higher purpose can come out of things you have to do.”

“I had my children early in my career. Actually I was in the doctor’s office for a pregnancy test when I got call about the most important career move of my life.”

“It was the most stressful period,” she continued. “And at some point in my career, it had gotten to be too much. I went to my family and told them I wanted to stop working. And my son, who was seven or eight at the time, announced that it was the obligation of a mother to earn a living for her family. So back I went to my desk!”

She continued, “You have to be prepared to make sacrifices. For example, I’m never going to have a perfect house. I was going to renovate my kitchen and when weighing the decision, I thought ‘it’s either the kitchen or my book.’ I decided the book was more important.”

Hammer believes it is possible to engineer work/life balance – and with commuting between Washington D.C. and New York, her advice might be particularly useful for women who spend a lot of time in transit. “It is possible if you also put down the right boundaries, deciding what’s important, and then sticking to it. Today’s technologies make it infinitely easier. Some people curse their Blackberries, but I love mine!”

She said that consistency is important as well. “My children need me regularly – not just going to a soccer game once a week or once a month. Obviously I was at my daughter’s college graduation. But my principle is that I’d rather be with them during an emotional storm than at a school performance – if that’s what they need.”

“It is possible to be a successful, working parent,” she said, “but you have to make sacrifices that previous generations wouldn’t have imagined.”

Advice for Women Early in their Careers

Hammer advises women beginning their careers to become specialists. “At the start, aim to be the world expert in some up and coming field (like derivatives!) and work with all you’ve got – then when you reach the top, you can choose what you do and where and how you do it.”

“Be indispensable! Then you call the shots,” she concluded.

As women become more senior, Hammer said they should seek out mentors. “You need to have people in the higher echelons who really want you to succeed. It’s not easy to keep moving up. In fact, it’s very, very tough. But it’s possible if you have friends above you.”

She continued, “And if it seems like you keep failing at what you really want to do, remember that there’s so much we accomplish on the way to the goal we’re not getting to – don’t forget to look around and see what else is out there while you’re on your journey.”

In Her Personal Time

“I’ve got so many interests,” Hammer said. “Currently I’m working on a book about why we decide to have children. I have also developed and implemented a program to boost literacy in young girls.”

Alongside her tax law career, Hammer has also established a number of non profits. She said, “I did this in addition to my career – I never gave up my job as a tax lawyer. I just pushed myself extra hard so I could contribute to the various communities I’m part of.”

One project she is currently energized by is a breast-pump exchange that she founded and runs. “I connect women who have breast-pumps and are no longer using them to women who need but cannot afford them.”

She explained, “I was very fortunate – when I had my second child I had a job with a great program that provided you with a breast-pump after the birth. When I stopped using it, I lent it to a friend and then another and another.”

“And I realized there was a keen interest and need for this. People started offering me pumps to lend out, and now my home has turned into into a whole breast-pump clearinghouse.” The exchange, she said, is very meaningful to the women on both sides who participate. “It’s a big sacrifice to make – to pump for your baby when go back to work. There’s a big emotional freight locked into that machine. By passing a breast-pump onto another working woman, it’s like passing on the baton of working motherhood to the next woman on the path.”

“There’s a very strong sense of sharing, with the common goal of doing the best we possibly can for our children. It’s about partnering in that experience and handing on the tools to the next woman. Together, we’re forming the contemporary village of motherhood.”