An accounting pioneer who credits good fortune
"No one gets into the U of Chicago."
Four decades ago, Pownall was a single mom with a daughter, attending the University of Illinois-Chicago and working as much as possible to make ends meet. An undergraduate degree was a means to a higher income, and she took the most direct route to her goal. “I was almost never in my undergrad classes because of home and work responsibilities, only to pick up the syllabus, take the midterm and then take the final,” she recalled.
But one accounting professor threw her a curve. He changed the course content after the midterm, so when Pownall arrived for the final, he laughed and offered her a deal. He’d give her the new material and 24 hours to prep for the final, but she had to promise to apply to the University of Chicago doctoral program. He had seen her ease with difficult material. Pownall didn’t want to agree, but it was the only way not to fail the final. “Don’t worry, no one gets into the U of Chicago,” he said.
She did. The acceptance came with fellowship funding too. Her charmed life was taking off.
"Unless Grace was traveling or teaching, she was always there."
Critical time for women
At that time, universities had few women as accounting faculty. But as Pownall’s luck would have it, her dissertation chair would become the first female inductee of the Accounting Hall of Fame. Katherine Schipper would become Pownall’s research partner, lifelong friend and traveling companion.
For her research, Pownall spent a lot of time with big mag tapes in the business school’s computer lab. The tapes were managed by Ron Harris, a part-time lab manager who was getting his MBA. “He also had mad programming skills, far in excess of mine, and he was and is a problem solver,” Pownall said. They married and had two daughters who grew in parallel with Pownall’s career.
“Family has always come first for Grace,” Harris said. “One of the benefits of a job in academia is the flexibility that the job offers. Our home life is a blend of the traditional and nontraditional. When our children were young we had family dinner every evening, and unless Grace was traveling or teaching, she was always there. The downside to the job flexibility was that Grace often had to resume working after the kids went to bed at night. Working through the weekend was, and is, not uncommon.”
Her family can measure her workload by the tower of books she wants to read in her free time. “The harder she works,” Harris said, “the taller the stack of unread novels grows.”
"What Goizueta looks for is upside potential, and Grace offered that in spades."
A vacation and job offer
From Chicago, the family moved to St. Louis for Pownall’s faculty appointment at Washington University. In the early 90s, she agreed to give a research workshop at Emory. After all, she had family in Atlanta, and her children could tag along because they were on spring break.
The workshop went well, and the dean offered her a job. She loved that her kids loved the warm weather and family time, and she didn’t look forward to returning to lingering Midwestern winters.
“I thought she would do well here for several reasons,” said Greg Waymire, Asa Griggs Candler Chair and Professor in Accounting, who had met Pownall in the University of Chicago doctoral program and recruited her to give the research workshop.
“First, we were looking to hire superb researchers, and she is one of those,” he added. “Second, we wanted people who cared about individuals with whom they interacted, and she is a great mentor to young people. And third, I knew she loved Atlanta. What Goizueta looks for is upside potential, and Grace offered that in spades.”
In 1993, Emory Business School (now Goizueta Business School) was trying to transition from a solid regional school to one known for programs highly ranked nationwide. A number of senior faculty members were recruited, and Pownall came in as the chair of the accounting area. She was the school’s second tenured female faculty member and first female full professor.
She wanted that scarcity to change, and it did, though not quickly. Today, a quarter century later, 22 tenured or tenure-track women are on the Goizueta faculty. In accounting, the ratio of tenured/tenure-track women professors to men is 7 to 6.
“This diversity was not achieved through any campaign or policy but through a persistent, reasoned and logical approach to recruiting faculty colleagues,” said Harris, now director of research consulting at Goizueta.
Dean Erika James noted at a Goizueta town hall that the accounting faculty were rated higher than any other Emory department in terms of research productivity. “This is a testament that the diversity Grace sought to achieve has had tremendous positive results for Emory,” Harris said.
"I wasn’t confident, but Grace believed in me."
Going beyond borders
Pownall became known as a professor with a “go beyond” mindset, whose gumption led to establishing the new accounting field of information and global capital markets. As more international students enrolled, the more interest grew in accounting practices across cultures.
When a student asked her how financial disclosure laws would be enforced in a country known for government corruption, Pownall designed a research project to find out. She is an expert on international accounting standards and international financial reporting standards, which have risen in importance with the global economy. These standards influence foreign investment and the flow of capital across borders.
She is known for designing research that produces insights relevant to current business practices. Using an algorithm she developed with her research team, Pownall identified information-based insider sales that were followed by statistically and economically significant negative abnormal returns. Further research showed that these insider sales were significantly more likely to be associated with future delisting, earnings declines, downward analyst forecast revisions, analysts dropping coverage and earnings restatements. Pownall and her team concluded that it is possible to directly identify insider sale transactions with significant information content.
Nationally recognized programs offer doctorate degrees, and Pownall worked on establishing and developing Goizueta’s. “The Ph.D. program has been critically important to the academic reputation of the business school,” said Julie Barefoot, associate dean of engagement and partnerships. “In directing that program for many years, Grace was strategic and thoughtful in developing our student recruiting strategy.”
“She approaches her work — both teaching and conducting research — with such passion and conviction, and with such concern for others,” said Allison Gilmore, who came to Goizueta as senior admin for accounting faculty. Pownall saw her potential and pushed her to seize it.
“By asking me to help her create web-based lectures for the Modular EMBA program, she opened the door for new opportunities,” Gilmore said. “I love learning new things, and these skills led me to working in the EMBA program office. After a few years, Grace approached me about an open position in the then very young Ph.D. program of which she was serving as associate dean. I wasn’t confident, but Grace believed in me.” Gilmore got that position and under Pownall’s daily mentorship, she cultivates young scholars to have passion and conviction too.
There was never a plan for Pownall to stay this long at Goizueta, but it never made sense for her to leave. “There’s always been support for the research, teaching and travel that I have been interested in,” she said.
"Her doctoral students become part of her family."
Investing in relationships
Pownall’s passion for accounting is rooted in the beauty of double entry, a fundamental concept that every transaction creates equal and opposite effects in separate accounts. If a business made, spent, lost or hid money, that story is told in double entry.
Her career, in retrospect, is the sum total of transactions that are not quantifiable; they are the moments she devoted to her students, research and the Goizueta community. From that investment over time, she has many lasting relationships today.
They range from students she taught as BBAs to those she guided to their doctorates (for whom her chocolate chip cheesecake has become legendary). In 2017, students gave her the Crystal Apple Teaching Award.
“Her doctoral students become part of her family,” Gilmore said. “She and Ron frequently open their homes to them through family dinners, holiday celebrations or a game of bridge! As alumni, Grace’s advisees are now her co-authors, colleagues and stellar faculty researchers. Her legacy will continue through them, and then their students, that’s for sure.”
“She has made a lasting mark on people that way — she has been a superb teacher,” Waymire said. “The number of students here she has had a profound impact on is large and her impact on these people individually has been enormous as well. She's the kind of professor who, when she passes away many years from now, there will be a long line around the block to get in and pay their respects.”