NABA: Forty Years of Growth

Advocacy efforts opened doors for African-American CPAs.

BY DALE L. FLESHER, CPA, PH.D. AND HELEN G. GABRE, CPA, PH.D.
December 1, 2009

From seeds sown 40 years ago this month in a gathering of accountants in the living room of CPA Frank Ross, the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) has grown to more than 50 professional and 150 student chapters nationwide. To succeed, it has had to reach consensus on its goals and identity internally and within the larger accounting profession.

 

THE INITIAL YEARS

One precursor to that initial meeting of what would become NABA was the effort by one of the nation’s relatively few practicing black CPAs, Bert N. Mitchell, to quantify and call attention to the dearth of African-American accountants and CPAs, particularly within white-owned firms. He revealed his findings in a 1969 Journal of Accountancy article (“The Black Minority in the CPA Profession,” Oct. 69, page 41). Mitchell surveyed 104 firms and the 136 African-American CPAs he was able to identify. Representatives at the 52 firms that replied said that out of the 27,481 professionals those firms employed, only 404 were from minority groups, including 108 blacks. Black representation at the partner level in these firms was “virtually nonexistent.”

 

Mitchell said many firms recognized the need for more inclusive hiring and were taking remedial steps, but a greater commitment was needed to make training and employment opportunities available to minorities. He noted favorably steps by the AICPA’s new biracial Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups, later renamed the Minority Initiatives Committee (see sidebar, “Minority Initiatives Committee Celebrates Four Decades,” at bottom of page). Mitchell advocated a greater role in the profession for black CPAs, but he did not specifically suggest a new national association. In fact, he said that black respondents rejected the idea of a “separate national professional association of black CPAs” by a margin of 57 to 25.

 

FORMULATORS OF THE VISION

Mindful of that desire by African-American CPAs to open the profession to minorities while working with and within established professional organizations, about 16 New York-area accountants met on a Sunday in early December 1969 at Ross’ home in the Bronx. The precipitating event was the filing of a civil rights lawsuit by the city of New York against the six of what were then the Big Eight accounting firms that had headquarters there, Ross recounts in his 2006 memoir Quiet Guys Can Do Great Things, Too. The accountants’ purpose at that first meeting, however, was open-ended: “to discuss the unique challenges and limited opportunities they faced in the accounting profession.” The group soon coalesced into nine founding members. Besides Ross, they were Ronald Benjamin, Kenneth Drummond, Earl Bigget, Bert Gibson, George Wallace, Donald Bristow, Richard McNamee and Michael Winston. Benjamin, Ross and Winston were the only CPAs in the group.

 

Five of them, including Ross, had been hired by one of the New York Big Eight firms, Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. Despite such signs of progress, however, there was little to cheer about for African Americans, generally or as CPAs. The nation was in crisis. The Vietnam War was still raging. Earlier in the decade, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., had both been shot and killed the previous year. The civil rights movement had produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the struggle to implement those initiatives continued.

 

Click here to open the "NABA Timeline"

 

STAYING THE COURSE

NABA’s founders were well aware that many of the organization’s prospective members were skeptical. “Many young blacks were afraid to step out and take a chance that they might be called a radical if they got involved with an organization such as NABA. They felt they could lose their jobs,” Ross wrote in a recent e-mail to the authors of this article. The founders knew, too, that just by including “black” in the name, the organization might be associated by some with radical organizations such as the Black Panthers—such was the sensitivity to militancy. Some African-American accountants in private practice “had not worked for a major firm and could not fully understand why we were not happy with the opportunity we had,” Ross wrote. Acceptance by established professional organizations and firms came with time, but at least NABA’s organizers were able early on to reassure them that they harbored no radical agenda. A healthy dialogue was launched with the AICPA, the New York State Society of CPAs and Big Eight firms in a forum at New York’s Biltmore Hotel. The founders also set forth at the meeting their goals for the organization, stressing education, entry to the profession, professional development and fellowship.

 

Despite near-universal agreement with NABA’s aims, “established black accountants were some of [the] harshest and most vocal critics” of its strategy, Ross wrote in his book. NABA’s organizers “did not get into a debate as to who was right and who was wrong,” Ross added in the e-mail. But they did “stay the course on why we felt it was important to have NABA.” One reason, which Mitchell’s study had not directly addressed, was the difficulty black accountants faced once they were hired by a major firm to advance in their careers there. Reasons then—and since—Ross says in Quiet Guys, include a lack of support from supervisors and difficulty making social adjustments. Thus NABA was able to point to a need for a network that could mentor not just accounting students but young accountants.

 

NABA was incorporated in New York in 1970, with Ross as its first president. It immediately established the first professional chapter in New York City. Between 1969 and the following year, signs began to emerge that the attention was beginning to bear fruit. An AICPA survey found 700 black accountants working in the 60 largest firms in 1970, up from 197 just a year earlier.

 

In 1971, the first student chapter, at North Carolina A&T State University, was admitted. Also that year, NABA adopted its logo of clasped hands. It was conceived by two-time national president William Aiken. In 1993, NABA adopted the motto “Lifting As We Climb.” Besides offering fellowship and mentoring, NABA also researched what Ross and others saw as the continuing problem of retention of black accountants in major firms.

 

GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT

In 1986, NABA organized the Division of Firms, which provides member firms with a forum to network with other minority firms and share opportunities for education and professional development. Currently, there are 65 member firms. In 1989, NABA created the Center for Advancement of Minority Accountants (CAMA) “to attract and advance talented minorities into and throughout accountancy-related careers in business and academia.” It does so partly through the Accounting Career Awareness Program (ACAP) outreach to high school students. In 2007, NABA launched CPA Bound, an advocacy initiative to increase the number of black CPAs. Membership in these groups has provided leadership experience, teamwork, networking and voluntary community service, as well as financial assistance through scholarships.

 

NABA TODAY

In a 2008 interview with the authors, Ross applauded what he said had been a serious commitment by major accounting firms to hire more minority accounting professionals. Likewise, George Willie, a CPA active in NABA as well as AICPA committees, said in testimony in 2007 before the U.S. Department of the Treasury Advisory Committee on the Audit Profession that “the competition to recruit and retain top talent is fierce in the professional labor markets, including accounting, with many firms seeking to enhance staff diversity in order to meet both staffing needs and client expectations.” Yet, leaders also point out, underrepresentation of African Americans in the CPA profession remains a challenge. Despite a significant increase in the number of minorities studying accounting, African Americans are only 3% of all CPAs and 1% of partner-owners, according to Willie’s testimony. Many observers agree that for African Americans, the “problem is retention, not entry into the profession,” Linda Gaston, then the executive director of NABA, said more than 21 years ago in a JofA article, “Blacks in the Profession” (Feb. 88, page 38).

 

Another challenge is making the transition from accounting student to CPA. A CPA Examination Summit sponsored by the Howard University School of Business Center for Accounting Education, which Ross directs, and NABA identified the following circumstances as contributing to a reluctance by recent African-American graduates to sit for the CPA exam (see also “Expanding the Ranks of African-American CPAs,” JofA, Feb. 08, page 48):

 

  • Generational challenges.
  • Dearth of African-American CPA role models.
  • Lack of motivation or the need to become a CPA.
  • Exam mechanics.
  • Preparation at the college/university level.
  • Lack of valuing the CPA credential.
  • Lack of reliable data about the problem.

 

Ross has continued to be an unwavering supporter of NABA and minority accountants. In 2008, and again in 2009, he was selected as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting” by Accounting Today magazine.

In addition to being a vehicle of social change within the accounting community, NABA has succeeded in becoming a networking forum for African-American professionals and businesses, through its annual conventions, the Division of Firms and professional and student chapters throughout the country.

 

NABA is now led by its 23rd president and CEO, Walter J. Smith, vice president of financial reporting at Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J. His theme is “40 Years, One NABA.” Last year, NABA hired its current executive director, Gregory Johnson, who previously worked 16 years with the AICPA, including as director of exam strategy for the Uniform CPA Examination.

 

The accessibility of the profession to African Americans attests to the cultural transformation that took place within the accounting community since the inception of NABA. According to NABA, today the organization represents more than 100,000 African-American and other minority professionals in the fields of accounting, finance, business consulting, tax and information technology.

 

Photo courtesy of Frank Ross. Six of NABA’s founders, plus a president, in 1999. Standing, from left: Frank Ross, Bert Gibson, Earl Bigget and Michael Winston. Seated, from left: Donald Bristow, Daniel Moore and Ronald Benjamin. Moore, while not one of the founding members, was president of NABA from 1997 to 2000.

 

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

 Forty years ago, when the National Association of Black Accountants formed, there were relatively few African- American CPAs, particularly within white-owned public accounting firms.

 

 Starting with a meeting in December 1969 at the New York home of CPA Frank Ross, the group that would soon be incorporated as NABA faced an uphill climb. Although it was nearly universally acknowledged that black Americans should have greater opportunities to enter the CPA profession, agreement on the best strategy to accomplish that goal was elusive. Even among black accountants, there was not a clear consensus in favor of a national organization such as NABA.

 

 An early goal was better preparation of accounting students; through such programs as CPA Bound and the Center for Advancement of Minority Accountants, NABA helped open the pipeline for young professionals. Through its Division of Firms, it also has sought to provide networking opportunities for black-owned firms.

 

 Today, in conjunction with other groups such as the AICPA’s Minorities Initiatives Committee, NABA continues to cultivate young CPAs as well as to work on related issues, such as retention of African Americans and other minorities within the profession.

 

Dale L. Flesher (acdlf@olemiss.edu) is an associate dean and professor at the Patterson School of Accountancy of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. Helen G. Gabre (helen.gabre@aamu.edu) is an assistant professor of accounting at Alabama A&M University.

 

To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Paul Bonner, senior editor, at pbonner@aicpa.org or 919-402-4434.

 

 

AICPA RESOURCES

 

Web sites

 

OTHER RESOURCES

 

Web site

National Association of Black Accountants, nabainc.org

 

Books

  • Quiet Guys Can Do Great Things, Too: A Black Accountant’s Success Story , by Frank K. Ross, Writing Our World Press, Chicago, 2006.
  • A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921 , by Theresa A. Hammond, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2002.

 

 

Minority Initiatives Committee Celebrates Four Decades

At the same time the National Association of Black Accountants was being formed, the AICPA launched an effort to encourage more minority students to enter the CPA profession. The Minority Initiatives Committee (MIC) is celebrating its 40th anniversary with new promotional materials and recognition by accounting educators for its role. An e-book, “CPAs of Color: Celebrating 40 Years,” commemorates the MIC’s founding, progress and continued dedication (tinyurl.com/yj7l82e). It highlights 41 minority CPAs with short profiles and quotes. In fact, presenting to students the significant and varied career paths for CPAs is a big part of what the MIC does.

 

Swelling the pipeline of promising minority accounting graduates was a central aim in the MIC’s initial work. It was formed as the Minority Recruitment and Equal Opportunity Committee, also known as the Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups. The AICPA’s Council had declined to vote on a proposed antidiscrimination resolution in 1965 but four years later passed a resolution calling for “special efforts” to educate and hire “from disadvantaged groups” more students “of high potential”—this last phrase added after a contentious floor debate. The resolution also called upon individuals and firms to “integrate the accounting profession in fact as well as ideal.” The resolution also charged the committee with the duty to “continue to advance these objectives until they are achieved.”

 

Soon after its founding, the committee established its Scholarships for Minority Accounting Students program. Since then, the program has awarded more than $14 million in scholarships to more than 10,000 students.

 

The committee recognized that equally important as scholarship assistance is providing students with mentors and other contact with CPAs. Accordingly, the MIC’s Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop has since 1995 held free annual workshops for top undergraduate and graduate accounting students from across the nation. The workshop is designed to inculcate communication and presentation skills and give participants an opportunity to learn from and be inspired by role models within the profession. More than 1,200 students have attended the two-day workshops, in which they also engage in case study competitions and other team-building exercises. Accounting professionals from government, business and industry, public practice and academia show them that accountancy tasks are as diverse as the professionals who perform them, said Ostine Swan, AICPA senior manager for diversity and staff liaison to the MIC.

 

“In a lot of cases, they become aware of CPAs’ varied career paths,” Swan said.

 

Another important effort is the MIC’s work in conjunction with other groups, colleges and universities and the KPMG PhD Project. The AICPA’s Fellowship for Minority Doctoral Students is a component of the effort to attract students toward advanced degrees in accounting, to help ensure the ranks of accounting educators are filled from a representative pool of well-qualified candidates. The fellowship provides $12,000 per year for up to five years and so far has assisted 111 doctoral candidates.

 

In recognition of the MIC’s longstanding commitment, the American Accounting Association awarded it the 2009 Diversity Section Award for Excellence.

 

Collaboration between NABA and the MIC has created synergy, said Genevia Gee Fulbright, who chairs the MIC and has chaired NABA committees.

 

“NABA’s strategic partnership with the AICPA Minority Initiatives Committee has contributed to the increased number of minorities in significant roles within the AICPA, including those serving on the AICPA boards, foundations and committees,” Fulbright said. “Many leaders have been active NABA members who benefited from mentorships and coaching.”

 

—by JofA Senior Editor Paul Bonner

 

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