insight magazine

The CPA Credential: Opening Doors for U.S. Immigrants

For some, earning the CPA credential isn’t just about gaining more career opportunities—it’s also a pathway to a new home and the American dream. By Natalie Rooney | Summer 2023

It's often said that earning the certified public accountant (CPA) credential opens doors and creates new opportunities for those that pursue it. Whether providing more earning potential, job security, credibility with clients, or opportunities to pursue more unique business niches, most CPAs will say that the license has changed their lives for the better. Perhaps, this is even more so for CPAs whose career paths began outside the United States.

Several CPAs who immigrated to the U.S. share what earning the CPA has awarded them throughout their professional journeys—and how they’re using their success to inspire future generations of CPAs.

An Affinity for Numbers and People

Hilda Renteria, CPA, came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager. For Renteria, her interest in accounting started early in her childhood. She remembers how she enjoyed—and had an affinity for—helping customers and doing calculations at a friend’s family business back home. Her father, while not a trained accountant, also performed accounting duties at his job. “I was so interested when he spoke about accounting,” she says.

In high school, Renteria took a bookkeeping class, and the teacher encouraged her to consider accounting as a profession. “She said it was respected and paid good money,” she recalls. “I loved the assignments in that class.”

As she entered college, Renteria knew she would major in accounting and soon learned about becoming a CPA. “Our professors stressed the importance of the license,” she says. “If you were getting an accounting degree, it was the natural next step.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Renteria accepted a position in the First National Bank of Chicago’s internal audit department. While at the bank, her future business partner, Maria de J. Prado, CPA, invited Renteria to join her in starting their own CPA firm. Now, 33 years later, Prado & Renteria CPAs Prof. Corp. is the largest Hispanic woman-owned CPA firm in Illinois.

A CPA on Two Continents

Influenced by her father who performed accounting duties for the government, Leilani Rodrigo, CPA, CGMA, began her accounting career more than two decades ago as a CPA with Ernst & Young in the Philippines. After a colleague tipped her off to a job opening at E. C. Ortiz & Co. LLP (now Roth&Co.) in Chicago, Rodrigo made the decision to relocate. When she first arrived in the U.S., she found it hard to adjust to a different culture and environment but was committed to staying for at least 10 years with the plan of eventually returning to the Philippines to be near her family. “But after a year, I knew I wanted to remain here permanently,” she says. “It was challenging for a few months, but the payback was so great.”

Once she settled into the firm, Rodrigo’s boss encouraged her to sit for the CPA exam in the U.S. Without CPA reciprocity between the U.S. and the Philippines, Rodrigo needed to go through the exam review process all over again to address the differences in certain subject areas, especially taxation. “He emphasized it was such a great profession and designation, and since I had it in the Philippines, why not in the United States?” she recalls.

For Rodrigo, taking the steps to earn her CPA here was an investment. “For me to have a competitive edge in the job market, whether I stayed at the firm or went elsewhere, I believed I needed the designation. There are a lot of opportunities in this profession, and that’s why I love it.”

Today, Rodrigo is a partner at Roth&Co. and serves on the Illinois Board of Examiners, the Illinois CPA Society Board of Directors, and the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois Board of Directors.

From Intern to President

Anoop Mehta, CPA, CGMA, immigrated to the U.S. from India when he was just 12 years old and had to adapt quickly to a new culture and language. His father was a chartered accountant in India and chose to move the family to the U.S. for Mehta and his siblings to have access to a better education.

Mehta saw how respected his father was as an accountant, and then an influential high school teacher mentored him in accounting studies. “Accounting is the language of business, and I saw how it could help businesses keep track of their finances and budget properly,” he says. “The idea of helping a business be successful was appealing to me, and that’s what attracted me to the field.” After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, Mehta joined one of his father’s clients, a scientist, as an intern. At the time, there were just two other employees. “I got the job because I had taken typing classes and could type,” he laughs.

The summer internship turned into a part-time job during the school year and a full-time job during holidays and summer breaks. By the time Mehta graduated, the company had grown enough that he was asked to stay on and do accounting work. And that’s where Mehta stayed for the next 41 years, eventually becoming president of the company.

Despite Mehta’s success, he readily admits that he almost gave up on his dream of becoming a CPA, as it took him several tries to pass the exam. “By the time I turned 30, I decided I really didn’t want to keep trying,” he admits. “I was questioning if I wanted to continue because I hadn’t passed. So, I gave up.” But after encouragement from his wife, he renewed his efforts and passed the exam. “That’s when I felt my career really shot up and accelerated, in large part because of the resources available to me as a CPA in developing my skill sets. It wasn’t necessarily the technical skills, like tax or audit, but really the connections I made with people who helped me grow as an individual and build my leadership skills.”

Mehta is now chief strategist of the aerospace firm Analytical Mechanics Associates. During the 2022-2023 fiscal year, he served as chair of the AICPA and of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. He’s also a past chair of the Maryland Association of CPAs.

Providing a Unique Perspective

Renteria says being an immigrant brings a different viewpoint to her decision-making processes—both personally and professionally. “Growing up in another country automatically gives me a different context and perspective,” she says. “I bring that to all areas where I participate.”

Mehta agrees. “A different country and background combine to create a different perspective,” he says. “I have an appreciation for how that’s helped me throughout my career.” He describes how he learned early on how to get along with people from different backgrounds, accepting and respecting differences and negotiating. Mehta grew up in a small house with 15 people, a number that swelled to 30 each summer when cousins came from other parts of India. “Living with so many people, you learn to quickly adapt and get along with everyone,” he says. “These are critical skills, especially when you look at the world today.”

Mehta says that in the early years after becoming a CPA, he realized there weren’t a lot of people who looked like him, but that’s exactly why he loves the accounting profession. “Even though they didn’t look like me, they were willing to help,” he reflects.

During his year as AICPA chair, he spoke with thousands of students. “The message I would give to students, or anyone looking to get into this profession, is that it doesn’t matter what you look like or what your background is. There’s a place for you in this profession and there are people to help and guide you. There are so many good people willing to help, and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for that.”

Rodrigo believes that today’s clients are also looking for firms they can connect with and are representative of their own diverse workforces. “Clients actively seek those who can provide a different viewpoint or process when teamwork and diverse voices are needed for solving problems,” she says.

Inspiring Future Generations

According to, Gen Z may be the most entrepreneurial generation ever, with 62% of Gen Zers indicating they’ve started—or intend to start—their own business. Renteria says that’s exactly why being a CPA has been so tangible for her, and hopefully, for future generations as well. “This profession provides entrepreneurial opportunities. But even if you don’t have that desire, this is a lifelong profession where you’ll never be bored because of the opportunities to learn and grow.”

Renteria says both she and Prado can see the influence they’ve had on the next generation: members of their immediate families are accountants, and through the firm, they’ve established an endowment fund at UIC that provides scholarships to immigrant students pursuing an accounting degree. “When I look at the past 33 years, I see all the opportunities our firm has created for other accountants who came through our doors, gained experience, pursued the CPA, and then moved on to continue their professional journey,” she says. “It’s so fulfilling to see them succeed and to know they’ll continue to inspire others in their networks.”

One success story Renteria shared was about a young woman at her firm who, as a child, carried a little sales and receivables ledger with her to record transactions and produce reports at her father’s business in Mexico. That young girl became an accountant in Mexico, came to the U.S., joined Renteria’s firm, earned her CPA, and is now a successful CPA advising businesses in both countries.

Another employee at Renteria’s firm immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea and was able to use his expertise to advise his family on tax matters for their small business. “To me, these are examples of the impact of the CPA designation,” Renteria says. “We touch other immigrant families.”

When Rodrigo looks back at her journey and what brought her to the U.S., she describes the opportunities available to her as “immeasurable.” “I was able to achieve the American dream,” she says. “My immigration story has given my own kids a unique insight into the opportunities available to Americans. They see what good work ethic, perseverance, integrity, and a desire to give back can accomplish.”

Natalie Rooney is a freelance writer based in Eagle, Colo. A former vice president of communications for the Ohio Society of CPAs, she has been writing for state CPA societies for more than 20 years.

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