The ghastly death of George Floyd by a white police officer has reminded the US (as well as the world) of a stark realization that systemic racism is alive and well.
Through protests, riots, and vigils, many of us have discovered just how disconnected we are to race and its impact in our community.
And, this is especially true in the workplace. In the field of accounting, out of 650,000 CPAs in the U.S., an estimated 5,000 are black, according to the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA). And while the number of Asian and Hispanic accountants has increased over the past two decades it has remained relatively stagnant for Black people.
I spoke with three very successful Black accountants to get their insight into what their careers have been like, and for their advice to other people of color looking to do the same.
Lack of diversity
Atiya Brown is an 11-year veteran Certified Public Accountant. Originally from Montreal, Canada, she came to the US after graduating Top 5 in her graduate class and started her own accounting firm, The Savvy Accountant.
Atiya loves what she does, but said there is a distinct lack of diversity in the accounting profession. “I have to admit that I feel like the letters (CPA) do hold value. But I can say that in every role I ever held, there are never more than two black CPAs that I worked in close proximity to,” she told me. She said it’s true for both the private as well as public accounting sectors.
Throughout her career, she has had her battles with race. “I had to attend client audits and was treated as if I was there to rob them,” she said. “I have had people ignore a request and then respond to the same request from lower-level staff.” She also said that she’s overheard racist jokes at the office when her coworkers thought she wasn’t listening.
What’s one piece of advice that Atiya has for younger black accountants: “Go for it!” she said. “Don’t get discouraged by studying or lack of representation. Find a mentor and get it done. Our skills are needed!
“I look forward to growing the number of black CPAs in the country!”
Sharif Muhammed is a CPA and graduated from NYU with an MBA and worked for one of the top accounting firms in the nation, Deloitte, before starting his own firm, Unlimited Financial Services. His career, he said, has been 90% positive.
As a teenager, his budding interest in accounting started at a New Jersey-based organization called Inroads, who’s mission is to teach leadership and training to people of color, such as how to write your resume and how to conduct yourself in an office.
“For young African Americans, there are certain unwritten rules about how one acts if one wants to be identified as someone who is destined for greatness,” he told me. And, Sharif stressed that his colleagues with a diverse background, such as attending a university with a diverse student body, were better prepared to excel in the accounting field.
“As an African American, you try your best not to be a stereotype”, like getting to work late or being argumentative. “You’re fighting so hard every day to shape who you are in the office, you feel pressure to avoid falling under these stereotypes,” he added.
I asked Sharif if he would recommend accounting to younger people of color. “A resounding yes”, he told me. “It’s a great environment for a young accountant to get broad-based training in the industry, as well as exposure to opportunities to other related industries.”
Senegal born and raised CPA Solange Lopes graduated from Suffolk University in Boston and is completing her doctorate in Accounting currently. She grew up in a single-parent household in west Africa and now works as a CPA in Massachusetts.
“As a young girl, and later a young woman, my mother taught me very early on to do what was practical for a woman to succeed,” she wrote on her website. “In my family, it meant excelling in school, finding a career that could support my family and me, and working hard at being a respectable, upright, and honorable woman.”
I asked Solange about her career as a black CPA, and her response echos that of Atiya and Sharif. “In general, I feel the low number of black CPAs in the field of accounting, especially at higher levels, creates a diversity void in the field of accounting.”
She also noted the importance of establishing credibility as a person of color in the workforce and dealing with complex corporate politics and unconscious bias.
Solange sees herself as a mentor. “In my experience, the pressure to establish credibility as a black CPA and the challenge of corporate politics have taught me the importance of advocating for myself and other members of under-represented groups.”
Atiya, Sharif, and Solange are accomplished black CPAs who understand the struggle of working in the accounting industry. People of color are under-represented, unconscious biases are prevalent and stereotypes continue to permeate the culture.
To combat this problem, all three CPAs stressed the importance of focusing on personal work ethic and supporting under-represented coworkers throughout the corporate structure.
“It started with speaking up and not just asking, but creating opportunities to innovate by adding more diversity of thought,” Solange said.
“I joined diverse professional associations and networks, which greatly helped me in gaining much-needed confidence, and making the necessary contacts to grow and progress in my career.”