Celebrating five years with Carmen Loh: ‘It felt refreshing to say: We are building this thing. We are making it our own.’

Mar 25, 2023

Carmen Loh (left), her husband, Julien (right), and their son enjoying Gearhart Beach in Oregon last summer.

For the past five years, Carmen Loh (she/her/hers) has served as Inatai Foundation’s finance and administration director, working to build both a team and systems to oversee and ensure the accuracy and integrity of Inatai’s internal controls and procedures. “I like rules. That’s part of the reason I’m in the finance and accounting field, but one thing I’ve learned over the past five years at Inatai is that you can’t plan for everything in a new and growing organization. I’ve definitely become more flexible,” says Carmen.

As a self-professed planner (“I started saving for my son’s college fund before he was born”), Carmen says the last few years have also helped her to enjoy the moment and to feel more grounded. She acknowledges that, by all appearances, her life hasn’t changed much in the past five years. What has changed, she says, is how she feels: “I’m more confident in who I am. I’ve embraced the community we have.”

Carmen grew up in California and worked for nonprofits in the Bay Area before relocating with her husband, Julien, to Seattle in 2008. Now, she says, she can’t picture ever leaving, unless it’s for a long trip to Oahu, Hawaii, one of her and her family’s favorite places outside the Pacific Northwest to spend time. Carmen reflects, “This is definitely home. I know it’s weird to say, but Seattle is still a small community, and I really love that.”

Carmen always knew she wanted to pursue mission-driven work and loved her time spent at nonprofits before joining the Inatai team. Her role at the foundation was her first working in philanthropy, a move she describes as both incredibly exciting and a little scary. She says she quickly realized her first impulse – to look to philanthropic peers for expense policy examples to follow – wasn’t always the way to go. She remembers thinking, “We are going to approach things differently. We need a policy that aligns with our organization values.” She says this revelation was tough in some ways but freeing in others. She reflects, “It felt refreshing to say, ‘We are building this thing. We are making it our own.’”

Carmen and Inatai team at a happy hour in 2018. From left, going clockwise: Rosa Gimson, Cory Sbarbaro, Ann Ngo, (former interm CIO) Chris Hanak, Willa Gubner, and Brenda Anibarro.

For Carmen, part of that building process included collaborating with her teammates to design an accounting system to track every dollar the foundation spends and determine whether the expense is aligned with the foundation’s values. As with standing up the foundation itself, no ready-built accounting system existed to serve as a model.

Carmen explains, “We said, ‘OK, we know what we want, but where do we start?’ Essentially, we ask a series of several questions – For example, is this vendor in an economic priority area? Is this business owned by a person of color? Is this vendor a locally owned business? – and started attaching codes to every expense based on the answers and our priorities. At the end of the year, we can look at how our spending followed our values. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Carmen and her team may not have had an example to follow, but she says they’re happy to share what they’ve made with others. “We want people to see what we’re doing accounting-wise and to spend based on our values as well.”

Despite co-creating this first-of-its-kind accounting system, Carmen says she’s most proud of the team she works with and manages. “Willa, DeAna, Celeste, Ann, LaHoma – it’s an amazing team. I’m really proud of them.”

When asked what advice she might offer to someone getting started in their career, Carmen says, “Ask questions. If things don’t seem right, speak up. People can get used to the way things work, but it’s OK to ask, ‘Why are we doing it this way?’ and to push for policy changes.” In keeping with her move toward more groundedness, Carmen adds, “It’s also OK to slow down. This is important work, and it’s important to make sure you and the people on your team feel stable and supported.”

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