insight magazine

IN PLAY: Nerissa C. Brown, Ph.D., CFE

Witnessing firsthand how accounting can change the trajectory of someone’s life for the better, the Illinois CPA Society 2022 Lester H. McKeever Jr. Advancing Diversity Award winner has built a career on bringing more people like her to the table. By Amy Sanchez | Winter 2022

Nerissa C. Brown, Ph.D., CFE, has a lot of titles: associate dean of Graduate Programs, professor of Accountancy, Josef and Margot Lakonishok Faculty Fellow, and PwC Faculty Fellow. The University of Illinois (UI) educator recently added another—Illinois CPA Society (ICPAS) 2022 Lester H. McKeever Jr. Advancing Diversity Award winner. Oddly enough, Brown was convinced early on in childhood that her destiny lied in dentistry. A close family friend was a dentist and was someone Brown deeply admired. “She was a female dentist who owned her own practice, and I thought she was just so cool,” Brown laughs. However, while taking a career test in high school, Brown discovered a different path. “I could’ve sworn that one of the choices from the test would be a dentist, but it wasn’t.”

While Brown doesn’t remember the career choice the test had made for her, not seeing “dentist” on the recommended professions list gave her some pause, and she ultimately decided to take the advice of her wise mother. “When it was time for me to go to college, my mom, who’s an accountant, suggested I study management studies because you get to do a little bit of everything in business. And so, I took my first accounting class, and everything just clicked. I then decided to switch my major to accounting.”

Brown attributes a lot of her success—and her family’s success—to the accounting profession. As a native Jamaican, Brown’s family started from humble beginnings: Her grandfather trained as an apprentice to be a bookkeeper with the Jamaican Railway Corporation and would eventually rise to managing the bookkeeping for the railway’s entire payroll. Her grandmother was a dressmaker who used rudimentary bookkeeping skills to keep track of her stock of dresses and material. “I can still remember that little booklet she had with all of the different numbers,” Brown says.

And of course, Brown’s mother also embarked on a career in accounting. As a single mother, she entered college as a first-generation student and earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting while working. She then transitioned to governmental accounting and eventually retired as the principal finance officer of one of Jamaica’s largest government ministries.

Personally experiencing how accounting can change the generational trajectory of a family has been the guiding light in Brown’s efforts to champion greater diversity in the profession.

“Being an international student has really made me think about how accounting and business can help in the bigger roles for underserved populations, as well as for individuals who are immigrants to this country or come from immigrant families,” Brown says.

Because she’s lived that life, Brown sees her success as a means to pay it forward—bolstering the pipeline of underrepresented minorities in the profession and increasing representation and inclusion in business education. Of her many efforts, Brown works closely on the UI Gies College of Business Accountancy Opportunities scholarship program, which provides tuition-free graduate accounting education to minority students who are passionate about the accounting profession and obtaining a CPA. Notably, the program partners and collaborates with ICPAS’ charitable partner, the CPA Endowment Fund of Illinois, on its Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program to support diverse recruitment. She’s also gone above and beyond in her involvement with The PhD Project, focused on increasing diversity in the workplace by diversifying who students see at the front of the classroom (i.e., the faculty).

Most importantly, Brown’s efforts have also redirected her back to the most influential piece of her life: her family. She created a scholarship fund in honor of her grandmother to provide financial assistance to underrepresented and first-generation undergraduate and graduate students or students that are committed to enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within the Gies College of Business. “My grandmother really believed in education as a way of progressing through life. She didn’t go as far in education as she would’ve liked to, so I think in many ways, I’m living out her wildest dreams education-wise.”

Brown’s passion for championing diversity also stems from another important influence: her students. As a mentor to many students of color, she often hears a familiar phrase: “I don’t think the accounting profession is for me.” Knowing what the profession has given her and her family, Brown has dedicated her career to combating this myth and opening doors for those that think they don’t belong.

“It boils down to that single thing that keeps driving me—I don’t want to always be the only person of color in the room. How can I change that? If I get a new opportunity, how can I bring one or two more people along with me?”

Related Content:

  • IN PLAY: Brian E. Daniell, CPA: Personal connections and endless “carrots” have grounded this Illinois CPA Society Board of Directors member in his local, downstate community.
  • IN Play: Q&A With Timothy Watson, CPA: Watson, a partner with Benford Brown & Associates LLC, looks back on his father's legacy and looks forward to the Black CPAs who will follow in his footsteps.

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