Acing the CFA, Heading into Harvard Business School: Isaac Simpson

Selorm Tamakloe
8 min readSep 7, 2021

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Isaac Simpson was 26 when he became a CFA Charter Holder. At the time he got certified in 2016, he was the youngest person in Ghana, and probably West Africa to ever hold the CFA certification at that age, attaining above 70% in 9 out of the 10 tested subjects on average at all levels.

For years, CEOs, CFOs, investors, all prep for this gruelling 6-hour exam, with many of them rewriting over and over. How did Simpson make it at that age, passing all the tests on his first try? We uncover that in this interview and touch on his recent entry into the Harvard Business School.

How was growing up for you?

Growing up was quite interesting. My dad passed away early. Our mum took care of us. We were 4 children. The major thing that contributed to me getting strategically positioned for life was mentorship. I didn’t take mentorship only as somebody mentoring me directly and in person. This is how I approached it — I looked at the people I considered as role models and did all I could to learn as much from them as possible. Sometimes, the people you strongly desire to have as mentors can be distant.

There was a student ahead of me in my junior high school that I admired. He went ahead to study science in senior high school. I didn’t want to study science. I asked him questions about what he would have done differently. He was the one who advised me to attend Achimota. I was greatly exposed when I got there. I got in contact with the teachers, especially our math teachers. My math teachers were good counsellors. They told me to go study actuarial science.

I had wanted to study outside of Ghana. I even wrote the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and started applying to Temple University. I spoke to some professors at Legon and they told me to do my undergraduate in Ghana and then later pursue my graduate studies outside Ghana. They presented some good reasons for recommending that pathway. A key one was, most people who go directly for undergraduate studies outside the country find it hard to reconnect and reintegrate when they come back. Those who do their undergrad in the country before going outside have a base of relationships that help them when they eventually return. This has worked for me. I now have a solid network of key people in the finance sector in Ghana as I am pursuing my graduate studies. It was really solid advice. I wasn’t fully sold to the idea initially, but I am grateful I walked with that advice.

How was your time in KNUST?

Truth be told, I didn’t really have any extraordinary expectations. I wanted to find out what would be the next thing after my time in school. In my life, I always fix my eyes on the next goal. I always think, what am I going to do after this stage? I never like to be in a situation where I am now learning to do what I need to do. I had my eyes set on becoming an actuary after school and tried to figure out what steps would get me there. I held that vision to become an actuary closely before I changed my mind at a point.

I had one mentor — he was the CEO of Stanlib Ghana (Stanbic Asset Management). We were virtually neighbours where I lived in Adenta. When I was in Achimota, I would see him with a backpack going to study at OWASS. I didn’t understand why he was still studying because he had a Prado and some other cars. I asked him on one occasion and he said he was writing the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) certification exam. He told me he had been writing that exam for 6 years. He was the first person ever to tell me about the CFA.

In my final year in school, I had a friend who mentioned the CFA again. I had already saved up some money to start writing my actuary exams, but I considered adding the CFA. I applied for a scholarship to write the CFA. I was awarded and combined the two programs. The interesting thing was that most of the KNUST actuary lecturers at the time were not very well exposed to the CFA exams. I later made jokes with some of my friends about how some of our lecturers presented actuarial science as one of the most luxurious courses. I was just a myth. It was a young program in the school, and my batch was the 4th. Everybody was just raving about it because it was a new thing.

Tell us about writing the CFA.

The CFA program comprises 3 exams, with a requirement that you have 4 years of work experience by the time you have completed all 3 exams. For me, I don’t think it is a difficult test to write. It is a difficult test to prepare for, but not so difficult to write. The work experience requirement is one thing that makes it difficult since most people have to juggle it with full-time work. Plus, the information you have to go through is pretty loaded. Someone once said, “The CFA is a jealous lover — it just won’t give you time for any other thing.” If you are someone who is truly excited about finance, you can get it done.

I combined writing my CFA exams with my actuarial credentialing exams. That did make it challenging for me. I needed to know the learning approaches that worked best for me and maximise them. When I was in KNUST, I wasn’t much of a note-taker. I hardly brought books to my lectures. I decided to study on my own for the CFA.

I knew time was a key factor in preparing and writing the tests, so I gave it the time it needed. I am not an early dawn person — I have never been able to study at dawn from my childhood years. I focused on the hours after work. Each day, I would study for about an hour before leaving the office. When I got home and got settled in, I would study for another hour before going to sleep. Weekends were the times I had the most hours available to learn. I would learn from morning till about 5 pm with intermittent breaks. I took notes when reading — I noticed I am able to take those kinds of notes, but not the classroom setting notes.

The CFA gave me one mock exam. Those were the only questions I solved before the tests. I didn’t do many sample questions. I usually don’t find those useful. There were 10 subjects in each exam. If I recall correctly, I got above 70 for the majority of them. I wrote the 3 exams over a span of X years.

Which companies/institutions have you worked with so far?

My National Service was at Ghana Statistical Service as part of the Ministry of Finance. I was doing finance and economics related work. I started writing the actuarial exams while I was there. I got a call from a colleague at Vanguard that they needed someone for a role. I worked there for less than a year and realised that I was more gravitated towards the finance and investment banking side of work. I quickly noticed that there weren’t a lot of managerial roles ahead of me if I took the actuarial path. I wanted to be in a role where I could affect the status quo. I realised that would be a more fulfilling role for me. Investment and private equity seemed to be the space for me.

I spoke with someone at Deloitte. I moved there. They wanted me to work on risk analysis. I worked there for a while. All this while, I was writing the CFA and the actuaries. I wrote the level 2 of my CFA while I was at Deloitte. I wrote the level 3 exam at KPMG.

It was at KPMG that I found something that I really wanted to do. In all the places that I have worked, KPMG Ghana has been the most well structured and well-run workplace. They had very good equal opportunity platforms. The most defining thing for my time there was the new director we had. He is one intelligent guy! He was the only CFA Charter Holder in KPMG Ghana. I am so grateful to God because this guy pinched the direction of my trajectory. What I learned from him within a year, it would take some people about 10 to 12 years to learn. He taught me how to be proactive and not reactive.

An Ivorian, he had his MBA from NYU. He had worked across the globe and was multilingual. He was only at KPMG Ghana for a year, but that year stands to remain as one uniquely definitive year of my life. His presence contributed to my rich and solid experience at KPMG.

After working at KPMG for a while, I realised that you could only do much being a transactional advisor. Your advice could be taken or rejected. I started looking for a role in which I could fuse the transaction advisory experience with directing the strategic move of a company. The industry I saw that in was private equity.

I joined AFIG (Advanced Finance & Investment Group), a PAN African fund management company. I worked on managing funds to a total of 260 million dollars. I was located in the Senegal office. Fortunately, my mother had lived in France for a great part of her life and had even taught French at the University of Ghana, so it was easy for me to integrate into the francophone community. I worked there for a year and moved to work with a company in Nigeria.

Share with us your journey into Harvard Business School.

When I was in Senegal, I applied to Wharton. I got admission, but the funding that was provided wasn’t enough. I had also applied to Harvard Business School, and they gave me more funding, so I took that up.

The application process was challenging. The first step was to write the GRE and GMAT. That depended on one’s aptitude and preparation. What came after that was filling out the application forms. What I realised was that the schools were more interested in knowing who you are as a person and the life experiences that have made you who you are, not necessarily just your academic records. I could say that, especially for HBS. If you are someone who likes to pretend to be who you are not on paper, they are trained to decipher that. They are just able to see and tell. My advice to anyone applying is — be yourself.

Any final words?

I think there are three things that are very key to success in academics and career. You can be smart and all, but you need to have the following.

  1. Relationships — Learn to network, manage and keep your relationships. You need to manage your relationships properly. CEOs build solid relationships, individual performers just get the work done. If you want to move forward in your career, it is mainly your relationships and your networks
  2. Mentorship — Find yourself a mentor and a sponsor (someone who can direct you). Trust me, you can work at something for 10 years, but someone’s two minutes of advice could actually help you get that done in a year. When you have a sponsor, that sponsor can speak and advocate for you.
  3. Character — Sometimes, you have to let things pass. You can just let things slide and sometimes, you have to stand for what is right. You should know your character and how you position that in your working environment. You need to get a high level of emotional intelligence. You need to know how to behave at every point in time

These 3 make the cornerstone of a fruitful career.

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Selorm Tamakloe

principally an interviewer, consequentially a poet, and occasionally voicing opinions