State CPA Society Leaders Spearheading DEI Efforts By: Anita Dennis

A number of Black CPAs have risen to the leadership level at several state CPA societies, either as board chairs or chief staff officers. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is also at the top of many state societies’ agendas. Here’s a look at just a few of the many people in state CPA societies helping to promote the recruitment and advancement of Black CPAs.

Upholding a legacy

At the Illinois CPA Society, the commitment to DEI was inspired at least in part by some of the trailblazing Black CPAs who have lived in the state. Chicago became a vibrant community of Black-owned businesses in the middle years of the 20th century, attracting Black CPAs to open firms there. In fact, Chicago was home to one-half of the 14 Black CPAs in the United States at the end of World War II, according to A White-Collar Profession: African-American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921, by Theresa A. Hammond, accounting professor at San Francisco State University’s Lam Family College of Business.

“Chicago was a growing town and a place where people of color saw opportunities,” said Todd Shapiro, president and CEO of the Illinois CPA Society. Lying at the center of the Midwest, “it was a hub for the country.” Although the city was not free of segregation, Black business owners and professionals worked together so that they had a chance to grow, he said.

Today, the Illinois CPA Society is a partner in this year’s Black CPA Centennial project, which celebrates the history, achievements and future progress of Black CPAs. “We volunteered enthusiastically to participate since we knew Illinois had deep roots in the profession and in helping Black CPAs to advance,” Shapiro said. “Our goal was to build awareness and celebrate success.”

Black CPAs setting an example

When Ralph Albert Thomas joined the New Jersey Society of CPAs in 1999, he became the first Black chief staff officer of a state society. He left a position as head of due diligence for leveraged buyouts at Citibank to take on that role. As part of his decision-making, he spoke with leaders of the profession, including AICPA President and CEO Barry Melancon, who told Thomas that his visibility could help advance the profession’s DEI efforts.

Shawana Hudson, the first Black woman volunteer chair of the North Carolina Association of CPAs (NCACPA), had a similar goal. “They won’t want to be you unless they can see you,” she said, referring to the impact that successful Black CPAs can have on the ambitions of subsequent generations. Because she had few examples of Black CPAs growing up, Hudson felt it was important to offer others a visual reference point of what they can aspire to, she said.

Best practices for DEI success

The state society leaders outline steps that they and their organizations have taken to promote the advancement of Black CPAs.

Make DEI a priority. To position DEI as a key strategic initiative for the organization, the Illinois CPA Society has initiated projects such as the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program. Designed for Black and other racial or ethnic minority college students who are interested in accounting, it seeks out promising people from a broad pool of schools in Illinois. They receive training, resources and mentors, as well as interviews for paid accounting internships. “It’s a great opportunity that they may not have gotten otherwise,” Shapiro said. If a participant doesn’t do well, the Society tries to understand and address the factors that can hold them back. “It’s not just about the first opportunity, we want them to continue to be successful after that,” he said.

Help employers find potential Black CPAs. Firms often report being unable to find promising Black students, Thomas said. To solve that problem, state societies can alert employers about schools to recruit outstanding students from underrepresented minorities. In his state, Thomas points to Rider University, which has a highly ranked accounting program that actively works to match minority-community students with local firms and industries. Thomas noted that three of the participants in the Rider program have been awarded prestigious PCAOB scholarships, which provide funding to outstanding undergraduate and graduate students to pursue careers in auditing.

Appeal to students’ passions. Hudson is excited about opportunities to introduce underrepresented minorities to the many advantages of a career in accounting. “Young people have to understand that CPAs work in industries they are passionate about,” she said, citing sports teams, entertainment, environmental sustainability and NASA, as just a few potential types of employers that aspiring CPAs might find appealing. “We need to draw a connection between what has meaning for individuals and how being a CPA can get them there,” she said.

Urge firms to focus on retention. Black professionals may not stick with firms because they don’t feel included or encouraged, according to Thomas. “We’re seeing people leave after two or three years because it’s not the right environment for them,” he said. In addition to recommending that firms have mentors and coaching programs, he emphasizes that professionals from underrepresented minorities need sponsors who can take them under their wing and help them navigate their careers and ensure they’re positioned for opportunities. As a foundation for that effort, there should be a committed senior leadership who understands the value that DEI efforts can offer the firm and who hold leaders accountable for meeting DEI goals, he said.

Bring in outside perspective. To make change, the NCACPA engaged a consultant to educate its leadership on DEI. The effort has included reviewing what the state society is doing to advance DEI and determining whether its programs and policies adequately serve existing and prospective members. After that assessment, the organization will determine how best to address the barriers it has found and better educate members on DEI challenges. It also looked at how better to engage with the community at large. And, like each of these and other state societies, it is trying to engage with potential Black CPAs beginning in high school. “It’s not enough to begin looking for potential CPAs when they are juniors in college,” Hudson said. “It has to start earlier.”

All About the Journey

All of these efforts are driven by a commitment to increase the percentage of Black CPAs in the profession. “We don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we have a long way to go,” Shapiro said. It’s also important to see the work as an ongoing effort. “It’s not about the destination,” Thomas said. “It’s about the journey.”

For more information on the profession’s local diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, or to get involved and help increase the number of Black CPAs, contact your state CPA society.

The Black CPA Centennial is a yearlong effort to honor, celebrate and build upon the progress Black CPAs have made in shaping the accounting profession. The celebration is a collaborative effort of the AICPA, Diverse Organization of Firms, Illinois CPA Society, National Association of Black Accountants, and National Society of Black CPAs.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.