Learn from Black CPA career models
A century has passed since John W. Cromwell Jr. became the country’s first black CPA. Meanwhile, he and other pioneers, such as Mary T. Washington Wylie and Elmer J. Whiting Jr., opened new doors for blacks in the profession. This article takes a look at some of the black CPAs who continue to break down barriers and offer advice to young professionals, as well as suggestions for strengthening the black CPA portfolio.
Become a CPA
Exposure to the profession and all it has to offer is an important factor for a young person to become a CPA. Here’s how it worked for a successful CPA group.
- Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA – Founder and CEO, KET Solutions LLC. During a career discussion in her third-grade class, Ellison-Taylor learned that an accountant is someone who “manages the money.” She decided that accounting was the career for her and went on to take up accounting in high school. His college did not offer a specialization in accounting. After earning degrees in information systems management and an MBA, she attended community college in the evenings to take the courses she needed to qualify for the CPA designation. Now head of his own consulting firm, Ellison-Taylor has held global leadership roles at Oracle and was the first black person to chair the AICPA and the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, as well as the first black woman to be president of the Maryland Association of CPAs.
- Steven Harris, CPA, CGMA – Managing Partner, Entrepreneurial Services Group of RubinBrown and Partner of its Assurance Services Group. Harris began by studying engineering, but a basic college accounting course piqued his interest. His father ran his own wall hanging installation business, and seeing the good and bad advice he received along the way, Harris appreciated the value of a knowledgeable business advisor. An internship with RubinBrown LLP while in college “made it real,” he said. “I started to like the job.
- Dorri McWhorter, CPA / CITP – new President and CEO, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. “I’ve always been good at math, but I didn’t associate it with a career,” McWhorter said, until she read a book about successful accountants when she was in seventh grade. She studied accounting in high school and obtained an internship in the accounting department of a local company. “I loved school, and hearing about these opportunities allowed me to focus my energy,” said McWhorter. She went on to become the first black partner of what is now Crowe LLP, the CEO of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, and the first black person and first woman in her upcoming role at the YMCA. She was also the first black president of the Illinois CPA Society.
Join the profession
What advice do these models have for potential black CPAs?
Contact other black professionals. Harris, former president of the National Association of Black Accountants, said the organization gave him a sense of belonging early on, while a local networking group for young minority professionals introduced him to people from all walks of life. “I was able to grow and learn with people who looked like me,” he said. Also, a diverse group of mentors – what he calls a personal advisor board – is valuable because it can offer different perspectives, “but you need a mentor who can understand what you’re up against” by as a minority, he said.
Start networking early. “Surround yourself with people who have similar goals because they will energize you,” Ellison-Taylor said. She suggested having vision sessions with other young professionals to chart your way forward. When it comes to career planning, “you can’t take it for granted,” she said. She also recommended sharing your goals with a mentor or coach so they can help you achieve them. “Remember networking is powerful and to celebrate your accomplishments along the way,” she advised. “Plus, we can’t forget these amazing leaders who paved the way for us as black CPAs. Recognizing that we are standing on the shoulders of giants is not negotiable.
Be relentless in seeking feedback. It can help you see your blind spots and fix them, Harris said. It is also essential to recognize the value of a sponsor. “Realize that a lot of important career decisions will be made when you’re not in the room, so think about who will advocate for you in these situations,” he said.
Recognize that there is more than one way to be a CPA. “There are so many different aspects to the profession,” McWhorter said. She has spent much of her career using her skills in business and management consulting. “If you understand the drivers of the business, you can apply them to any business,” she said. While at the YWCA, she led an effort to create an exchange-traded fund that invests in companies that advance women’s empowerment and gender equality. The fund donates its asset management fees to the YWCA. “We have to use all the levers available in the market to create change,” she said.
As the stories of these CPAs demonstrate, career decisions can often be made very early on based on what can be a haphazard introduction to the profession. Opening the door to more black CPAs may require a more intentional effort to include them, as they are less likely to be introduced to an accounting career through family and community due to the low percentage of Black CPAs in the profession.
“One of the downsides to recruiting is that accountants are heroes behind the scenes,” Harris said. “It will take a collaborative effort among businesses, professional organizations and colleges to ensure that potential black CPAs are more exposed to the profession from an early age. “
“Creating a black CPA doesn’t just happen in one step,” said Ellison-Taylor. “There are many people, stages and factors involved. Thinking back on her own journey to the AICPA chair, she traced her beginnings to a vision; lots of mentors, coaches and sponsors; enter college; continue with their CPA; become a volunteer and then a senior executive in his crown corporation; become president of the Maryland State Society and serve on the AICPA board; sit on the Horizon 2025 project and on the business and industry executive committee; be selected for the AICPA Board of Directors and be successfully appointed to the position of AICPA Vice-President and then President. It is only a path. Studying the many paths and barriers to success can help identify the best ways to present the profession to black students and support them on their journey, she said.
“We have to open these doors so that we can be at the table and participate,” said McWhorter. “If you’re the first, then the goal is to get the second and the third, and so on until you can stop counting.”
the Centenary of the black CPA is a year-long effort to honor, celebrate and build on the progress black CPAs are making in shaping the accounting profession. The celebration is a collaborative effort of the AICPA, the Diverse Organization of Firms, the Illinois CPA Society, the National Association of Black Accountants, and the National Society of Black CPAs.
– Anita denis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article, contact Ellen Goldstein, Association Director of Communications and Special Projects, at Ellen.Goldstein@aicpa-cima.com.