Learning from Black CPA career role models

A century after John W. Cromwell Jr. became the nation’s first Black CPA, Black role models continue to open doors in the profession.
By Anita Dennis

A century has passed since John W. Cromwell Jr. became the nation’s first Black CPA. During that time, he and other trailblazers, such as Mary T. Washington Wylie and Elmer J. Whiting Jr., opened new doors for Black people in the profession. This article looks at a few of the Black CPAs who are continuing to break down barriers and offer advice to young professionals, as well as suggestions for strengthening the pipeline of Black CPAs.

Becoming a CPA

Exposure to the profession and all it has to offer is a significant factor in whether a young person becomes a CPA. Here’s how it worked for one group of successful CPAs.

  • Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA — founder and CEO, KET Solutions LLC. During a career discussion in her third-grade classroom, Ellison-Taylor learned that an accountant was someone who “managed the money.” She decided that accounting was the career for her and went on to take accounting in high school. Her college did not offer accounting as a major, so after getting degrees in information systems management and an MBA, she attended community college at night to take the courses she needed to be eligible for the CPA credential. Now the head of her own consulting firm, Ellison-Taylor has worked in global leadership roles at Oracle and was the first Black person to be the chair of the AICPA and the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, and also the first Black woman to be the chair of the Maryland Association of CPAs.
  • Steven Harris, CPA, CGMA — partner-in-charge, RubinBrown's Entrepreneurial Services Group and a partner in its Assurance Services Group. Harris started out studying engineering, but a foundational college accounting course piqued his interest. His father ran his own drapery installation business, and seeing the good and bad advice that he received along the way helped Harris appreciate the value of a knowledgeable business adviser. An internship at RubinBrown LLP while he was in college “made it real,” he said. “I began to love the profession.”
  • Dorri McWhorter, CPA/CITP — incoming president and CEO, YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. “I was always good at math, but I hadn’t associated it with a career,” McWhorter said, until she read a book about successful accountants when she was in the seventh grade. She studied bookkeeping in high school and got an internship at a local corporation’s accounting department. “I loved school, and hearing about these opportunities allowed me to focus my energy,” McWhorter said. She went on to become the first Black partner at 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 chair of the Illinois CPA Society.

Joining the profession

What advice do these role models have for potential Black CPAs?

Reach out to other Black professionals. Harris, a former chair of the National Association of Black Accountants, said that organization gave him a sense of belonging when he started out, while a local networking group for young minority professionals introduced him to people from all backgrounds. “I was able to grow and learn with people who looked like me,” he said. In addition, a diverse group of mentors — what he calls a personal board of advisers — is valuable because it can offer different perspectives, “but you need one mentor who can relate to what you’re facing” 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 path 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 that networking is powerful and to celebrate your achievements along the way,” she advised. “Also, we can’t forget about those amazing leaders who paved the way for us as Black CPAs. Acknowledging that we are standing on the shoulders of giants is non-negotiable.”

Be relentless in seeking feedback. It can help you see your blind spots and address them, Harris said. It’s also critical to recognize the value of a sponsor. “Understand that many important decisions about your career will be made when you’re not in the room, so consider who will advocate for you in those situations,” he said.

Recognize that there’s 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 corporations and management consulting. “If you understand the business drivers, 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 need to use every lever available in the marketplace to create change,” she said.

Promoting inclusion

As these CPAs’ stories demonstrate, career decisions can often be made very early based on what may be a random introduction to the profession. Opening the door for more Black CPAs may require a more intentional effort to include them, since 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 disadvantage in recruiting is that accountants are behind-the-scenes heroes,” Harris said. “It will take a collaborative effort among firms, professional organizations, and colleges to get potential Black CPAs more exposure to the profession at an early age.”

“The making of a Black CPA is not done in one step,” Ellison-Taylor said. “There are multiple people, steps, and factors involved.” Looking back on her own journey to AICPA chair, she traced its beginnings to having a vision; plenty of mentors, coaches, and sponsors; getting into college; pursuing her CPA; becoming a volunteer and then senior leader in her state society; becoming the chair of the Maryland State Society and serving on the AICPA’s council; serving on the Horizon 2025 project and the Business and Industry Executive Committee; being selected for the AICPA board of directors and being successfully nominated for AICPA vice chair and then on to chair. This is just one path. Studying the many paths and barriers to success can help to identify the best ways to introduce Black students to the profession and to support them on their journey, she said.

“We have to open those doors so we can be at the table and participate,” McWhorter said. “If you are the first, the goal is then to get the second and third, and on and on until you can stop counting.”

The Black CPA Centennial is a yearlong effort to honor, celebrate, and build upon the progress Black CPAs have made in shaping the accounting profession. The celebration is a collaborative effort of the AICPA, Diverse Organization of Firms, Illinois CPA Society, National Association of Black Accountants, and National Society of Black CPAs.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article, contact Ellen Goldstein, the Association’s director–Communications & Special Projects, at Ellen.Goldstein@aicpa-cima.com.

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