insight magazine

Evolving Accountant | Spring 2021

Looking Forward to the Next Century of Black CPAs

It began with pioneers. It continued with brave leaders. Now, the future is up to us.
Andrea Wright, CPA Partner, Johnson Lambert LLP

One hundred years ago, John W. Cromwell Jr. became the first Black CPA. Then 22 years later, in 1943, Chicagoan Mary T. Washington Wylie became the first Black female CPA. Now, a century later, we have these and other bold and brilliant pioneers to thank for blazing a trail for so many Black CPAs to follow: Today, there are more than 5,000 Black CPAs in the United States and more than 200,000 Black professionals in the field of accounting. While growing from one to 5,000-plus Black CPAs over 100 years is an accomplishment, we must honor the trailblazers of the first century with exponential growth over the next 100 years.

There have been similar calls for growth and progress before. In 1969, 48 years after Cromwell earned his CPA, nine men formed the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) in an effort to increase the number of Black CPAs. At that time, there were only 136 Black CPAs nationwide. Over the past 52 years, NABA’s work and partnerships have made an impact, taking the profession from fewer than three new Black CPAs per year from 1921 to 1969 to more than 93 new Black CPAs per year for the past 50 years.

Yet these numbers still feel shockingly low. The CPA profession is primed and ready for a tidal wave of Black talent, voices, perspectives, and knowledge.

How do we as CPAs inspire young Black people—and all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and disability statuses—to find this career path, feel supported in this industry, and love the experience of being a CPA? We have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to bring more perspectives and voices to this profession by making it more inclusive and diverse. In shifting the demographics of our profession, we can cause a ripple effect of new possibilities in many communities and professions.

A critical step in growing the number of Black CPAs is exposing more Black students at younger ages to the possibilities that come with a career in accounting. As CPAs, chances are that we had a role model in accounting or a similar industry while growing up. We saw those CPAs in a positive light—they were respected, trustworthy, and interesting. They were successful, excited about their work, and able to make a positive impact. Now it is our turn to get involved, to mentor, to visit communities with diverse students, and share with them what this career has meant to us.

We must tell our stories about solving problems or having constant opportunities to learn new things. Some of us can tell stories of long careers with promotions within a firm or company where we have made a difference. Others can share how we moved around but have had doors open because of the CPA credential or our accounting and financial acumen. Some CPA careers have allowed for travel to interesting places or to conferences with famous or inspiring speakers. For others, our careers have enabled us to spend more time with the people we love.

Regardless of which path we’ve walked, if we value either the journey or the destination, we must share that with a community larger than our own. Volunteering to speak to students with an organization like the Illinois CPA Society (ICPAS) or Junior Achievement can be a great avenue for this type of connecting and sharing. Taking on a Black mentee could be an experience that teaches both parties. Actively seeking Black accounting students for internships, like those who participate in the ICPAS’ Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program, can bring fresh perspective and strengthen teams. Learning from their experiences, as much we share ours with them, can open a dialogue that lays the groundwork for a more vibrant profession and industry.

When more Black students see the exciting and rewarding careers available to CPAs, the CPA community as a whole must cheer on and support a hopefully growing segment of a hopefully ever-growing industry. Black CPA voices need to have access to the microphone, and when they talk, we need to listen and act. One simple way to do this is through the amplification of Black CPA success stories.

Former AICPA chair and trailblazer Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA, and ICPAS immediate past chair Dorri McWhorter, CPA, CGMA, CITP—who became ICPAS’ first Black chairperson in 2020—could teach master classes on how to celebrate and amplify Black CPA voices. Not only do these Black CPA leaders accept LinkedIn connections freely, but they use the platform to habitually share and comment on both budding successes and mountain-top moments for Black CPAs at all stages of their careers. Their reach and reputations allow these Black CPAs a moment in the limelight, and even if it is for just the life cycle of a LinkedIn post, it is powerful. There is a real need for continual support and encouragement of this new generation of Black CPAs so they can grow and prosper in every way.

Many of us have built platforms to amplify our voices to clients, prospects, business connections, and other centers of influence. If you have a platform—whether it be digital, written, or a strong network of peers—use it to connect with diverse voices, share their perspectives and achievements, and champion the next generation of diverse CPAs who will break barriers and use their intelligence and determination to shift our profession’s demographics and potential.

In fact, we can’t just sit back and wait for these demographics to change. We must work now to be leaders and role models in our communities that shape the future composition of our profession. We can make a resolution today to constantly seek out broader perspectives and stories. We are a profession of talented, hard-working people who have the skill and passion to tackle complicated challenges. I have no doubts that we can overcome whatever obstacles stand between us and a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable future. When we invite and encourage the best young minds to put their stamp on the future, it is undoubtedly brighter.

This column was co-authored with Courtney Kiss, MBA, chief marketing officer with Johnson Lambert LLP.

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