What we can do to increase the number of Black CPAs

Hosted by Courtney Vien

African Americans are still underrepresented in the accounting profession: Only 2% of CPAs are Black. In this second part of a two-episode podcast, we look at what the profession can do to increase the number of Black CPAs.

Guests Ruth Harris, the first Black female CPA in Virginia, and Frank Ross, one of the founders of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), share their experiences as Black CPAs and educators, and Theresa Hammond, Ph.D., author of A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921, shares her perspective as an accounting professor and scholar of CPA history.

This podcast episode is associated with the Black CPA Centennial Campaign, a yearlong celebration and recognition of the impact of Black CPAs upon the profession.

In this episode, you’ll hear about:

  • Why diversity programs at firms can fail to get momentum.
  • The importance of sharing data about the demographics of CPAs.
  • The role non-Black allies can play.
  • Why mentors and sponsors are vital to Black accountants’ success.
  • How to increase the visibility of the profession to young people.
  • Why having more Black faculty matters.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Courtney Vien, a
JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.


Courtney Vien: Hello, and welcome to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is the second part of a two-episode look at Black CPAs in the accounting profession. The first episode delved into the history of Black CPAs in the 20th century. In this second episode we examine some of the reasons Black people are underrepresented in the accounting profession, and what steps the profession can take to improve that situation. Our guests are accounting historian Theresa Hammond; Frank Ross, one of the founders of the National Association of Black Accountants; and Ruth Harris, the first Black female CPA in the state of Virginia.

As we saw in our last podcast, Black accountants made incredible gains in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

However, when we look at the percentage of CPAs who are Black today, it hasn’t changed much over the past few decades. In 2019, an AICPA survey found that only 2% of CPAs are African American, and only 1% of partners at CPA firms are African American. With that being the case, what can the profession do to help? Our guests had many insights to share.

First, let’s consider the issue from the side of employers. Our guests noted that many firms have launched diversity initiatives. While these programs are valuable, there are steps firms can take to make them more robust.

Frank Ross worked for KPMG for 38 years, retiring as a partner. He now teaches accounting at Howard University and is director of its School of Business for Accounting Education.

To make lasting change, he said, firms need to have a commitment to diversity that’s not just tied to one leader or one initiative.

Frank Ross: I think the biggest problem is as leaders in the profession change, you go from a leader that might say, "I want to make a difference. I want to increase the number of minorities in my firm. I want to increase the number of female partners. I want to address this gender issue."

They start to develop a program within their firm. The typical leader in a firm might be four years, eight years, 10 years probably at the most now. A new leader comes along, and a new leader may not have a commitment towards diversity. As a result, all the effort gets put into the back burner. The momentum that that firm was starting to have don't exist anymore. I think that’s one, one reason.

Over the years, I've seen the profession — I've seen different firms all come forward with new ideas, come forward with initiatives.

But then when you look five, 10 years later, it's as if they're starting from ground zero again. That I think is one of the problems.

Vien: Theresa Hammond is a professor of accounting at San Francisco State University. She said she’d like to see organizations track and share more data about the hiring and retention of Black accountants. Without such data, it’s difficult for them to assess what progress they’ve made.

Theresa Hammond: Then I think it’s really important that we also share data. If you’re thinking about going to work for a law firm, you could find out how many Black partners it has, how many women partners it has, how many Black female partners it has, how many Black female associates it has.

The National Association for Law Placement, which does it for law firms, gives you exactly the number. It will say .75% of partners in this firm are African American women, for example. Whereas in accounting we just get these very generalized numbers that we really can’t trace to any particular firm.

Vien: One reason we know it’s important to track data on diversity is that we have evidence that it can make a difference. As Theresa pointed out, the number of female accountants in firms increased when firms started keeping tabs on whether women were advancing within their ranks.

Hammond: In the ’90s, a lot of the firms made part of merit increases and promotions tied to meeting goals of including and promoting women in the firms, and now we have a lot of women leading the Big Four and other firms across the country. I think you have to measure something in order to succeed at it.

Vien: As Theresa pointed out, white leaders at firms have a vital role to play in helping Black accountants succeed. A good way for them to start is by learning more about the issues their Black employees might be facing.

Hammond: I think we need to not expect African Americans to solve the shortage.

But because of 95% of partners are still white in the firms, white people need to be involved in this and take leadership in this issue.

Almost every Black History Month I do one or two talks at different firms. And very rarely do white managers or partners come. You know, Black partners come, if there are any, and Black managers come. Young people of all races come. And I’ll have people come up and say, “You really should talk to our partners.” I’ll say, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea,” but I never get a follow-up on that.

I think as white people we really need to educate ourselves.

Vien: Theresa also notes that white firm leaders need to actively listen to what their staff are saying.

Hammond: I hear many of my African American colleagues say that when they express concerns about their own experiences, many people do not accept them for who they are, or very well-meaning people might say, “No one thinks that.” I don’t think that’s truly listening to the experiences of African Americans.

And I think truly listening to our colleagues is really important, and I’m glad that those conversations are taking place more today than they used to.

Vien: One thing Theresa has learned through her conversations with Black accountants is that they feel they aren’t given the types of roles that would put them in line for advancement.

Hammond: Many people feel like they keep being put on not the most important jobs in the firm. and sometimes they’re valued only for helping with diversity issues but not ticking the boxes they need to get promoted to partner, which is really important.

Everybody knows what it takes to make partner so being put onto those teams is really important, and a lot of African Americans do not experience the types of challenging and visible assignments that their white counterparts do.

Vien: That’s one reason it’s so critical that Black CPAs have sponsors who are able to increase their visibility within a firm. We’ve all heard before that mentors and sponsors are crucial to an accountant’s career, no matter what their background is, but I think it bears repeating.

In his memoir, Quiet Guys Can Do Great Things, Too, Frank Ross is quick to credit mentors and sponsors with helping him succeed. He also makes the point that mentors and sponsors do not have to be the same race as the person they mentor to be effective. Some of the key mentors in his career, he said, were white men at KPMG.

Ross: I think to this day, as I think back to my career, I don't hesitate to say that one of the reasons I think I was successful is nothing to do with me, per se, but it had to do with the fact that I did have a series of mentors and a series of sponsors at all the different stages of my career. I think I mentioned when I joined the firm, there was a partner — I think he was the first Jewish partner in KPMG at the time. He, a partner by the name of Sy Bohrer, was the partner in charge of the entertainment industry in the New York office — primarily entertainment.

He took me under his wings. I didn't know it at the time, but as I look back at my career, in the first four years, I worked on engagements that were in his group. I never worked for him directly, but I worked for partners that worked for him, in effect. My first series of engagements — United Artists, Revlon — were some of the larger clients in the office.

When I went into the management group, again I had a mentor named Jim Powers, partner for the merchandising group in New York. I found myself working pretty much for him and another partner in the group, two other partners in the group, but I got on some of the larger engagements.

In Washington, I was very fortunate in that I had — over my period growth in Washington. I had two very good managing partners who took me under their wings and helped us transition: Steve Harlan and then James Boyle, who I ultimately succeeded as the managing partner in the office.

But they again were individuals that I would say were there to give me advice, help me. I always felt comfortable talking to them. They're also behind the scenes pushing me and putting my name forward to give me increased responsibility. I am firmly supportive of mentoring. I'm firmly supportive of sponsors. I think if we can't get that straight, we won't solve the problem of increasing the number of minorities in the accounting profession.

Vien: Another reason that it is so important for Black accountants to have mentors and sponsors, Frank Ross points out, is that they often lack an informal network in the workplace.

Ross: By informal network, I mean it could be you've come out of the same schools. Somebody from KPMG would hire a large number from the University of Virginia, UVA.

They might hire just a handful of individuals from a school like Howard. But UVA, you come to KPMG, you have a network. You're built into a network already of UVA graduates. They have their connections with their friends, etc., in their profession, etc. So you immediately get into that informal network.

Out of that comes the assignments that you get. “I know you so I'm going to select you to go on my engagement. I know you come from UVA. It means you had some of these same tough professors I had. You must be good.”

We have to find a way that minorities can get into some of these informal social networks. As a result of getting into those networks, you get an opportunity to prove yourself. As you prove yourself, people then want you on their engagements.

Vien: As we’ve seen, the issue of the underrepresentation of Black people in accounting leadership is an issue with deep historical roots. Frank makes the point that it will take time for it to improve.

Ross: This is not an overnight solution. You're not going to solve the problem overnight. It takes 14, 15 years to become a partner in some of the firms. It takes 15, 20 years to become CFO in a corporation, controller, one of the key financial positions in the corporation. That takes time, and you have to stick with the plan you put in place. Don't get discouraged, and just keep at it and you will start to see the results. Don't expect an overnight solution.

Vien: Choices made at the firm level help create the conditions for Black CPAs to succeed. But it’s also important to look at the educational pipeline and how young people enter the profession to begin with. Accounting may not as visible to Black students as other learned professions are, Theresa said.

Hammond: Many, many high school students have never heard of a CPA. Medical and law professions are much more visible. STEM professions right now are much more visible than CPAs. And yet becoming a CPA is a very safe, lucrative position that is perfect for social mobility. In fact in the past the CPA profession has provided social mobility to many people who grew up working-class, but now we need to expand that by reaching out to high school students.

Vien: When they get to college, students don’t see many Black faculty. Only 6% of college professors and educators are African American. And that matters because faculty are often role models to students and they have a big impact on their choice of career. Frank Ross recalls one instructor, a Black CPA named Emsar Bradford, who was instrumental to his choice to pursue accounting.

Ross: Emsar Bradford was the first Black CPA that I met that other than an instructor — a retired military officer that was an instructor teaching accounting at Long Island University. So he was really the first practicing CPA that was Black that I had a chance to meet.

In college, I was able to take a job as a bookkeeper at one of the first antipoverty agencies, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Youth in Action. I was a bookkeeper there. Emsar Bradford was the CPA that partnered — it was his firm that did their audit.

Emsar Bradford was the type of person that took an interest in us as college students. Actually, every time he came to the office to visit with the director and the CFO, controller, etc., he always stopped down to where the students were bookkeepers, etc., and paid an interest in us, etc.

And I got impressed with him because here was the individual that I'd never seen anybody dress as fancy as he was dressing. He was a real fancy dresser, and he drove a big Cadillac and had parked it right in front of the office.

Bedford-Stuyvesant Youth in Action was in one of the worst places in Brooklyn at the time. That impressed me.

One, he paid attention to us. He was a well-dressed person, drove a big car. That's who I want to be like when I grow up, I kept saying.

Vien: Ruth Harris taught accounting at Virginia Union University in Richmond, a historically Black university, for 48 years.

As a Black faculty member, she saw how important it was to set a good example for her students. She became the first Black woman to get a CPA license in the state of Virginia, and she did it because she wanted to know what her students experienced when pursuing state licensure.

Vien (interview): So in the 1960s, you decided to go back and pursue your goal of sitting for the CPA Exam and pursuing CPA licensure. Can you tell me why you made that decision?

Ruth Harris: Yes, because opportunities in business, industry, government were beginning to open up for people who looked like me. And although I had not had those opportunities, I wanted my students to be prepared. But I didn't feel that I could ask my students to do anything that I wasn't willing to do. And, of course, they had always heard how hard the CPA exam was and how low the pass rate was. So I figured I can't tell them to do this and then I'm not going to do it. So that's what inspired me to go sit for the exam, at that point.

It was a little late for me to think about going into public accounting, although I hadn't given it up completely. I did practice part time for 10 years, but that's why I went back. I wanted my students to believe it could be done. And I said if I go pass this exam, then they'll know that it can be done.

Vien: As a Black faculty member, Ruth also understood the obstacles her students faced due to their race. Thus, she was able to advocate for them when they were seeking jobs.

Harris: I tried to get internships for my students with some of the Big Eight firms and they told me that their local offices were so small that they didn't hire interns.

My friends over at Virginia Commonwealth University were telling me that most all of their accounting majors were being hired for interns in the local offices. Now my students had to go to New York, Boston, Chicago, and one, who is a partner at KPMG here in Richmond, had to go all the way to San Francisco area.

And they had 10 interns at Nestles that year nationwide, and she didn't want to apply because she said, "They're only going to have 10, so I'll never make it." And I insisted that she apply, and she did, and she was chosen. But she had to go all the way to California to do an internship because no Richmond firm would hire her.

So my students didn't have it easy, but I thought that it was my responsibility to help them overcome all of these barriers, so I did everything that I could to make it easier for them, and for those who came behind them, and for those who are still coming along. So I guess I'm proud of being a pioneer and paving the way for others.

Vien: Thanks for what you've done for the profession.

Harris: It’s my pleasure.

I had a number of opportunities to go work at other institutions, and I had actually signed a contract to go to one, but then the night before I was to send it in, I tore it up and put it in the trash can because I felt that I could make a greater contribution at Virginia Union. Otherwise, I would not have been there for 48 years.

Vien: Though the number of Black faculty in accounting is low, some initiatives have been put in place that have made an impact. One of these is the PhD Project, a program started in 1994 to financially support doctoral students from minority backgrounds who aspire to teach business and accounting.

Hammond: The PhD Project is the best thing, in my opinion, that’s happened to the profession in terms of diversity. It funds doctoral students who are African American, Latino, and Native American to become professors because there’s been a lot of studies that show students major in something where they see someone who looks like them as their professor. So having more Black professors in front of the classroom will definitely lead to more accounting majors.

Vien: Another thing that can help to get students from minority backgrounds interested in accounting even before they enter college. Some CPAs and faculty participate in programs where they speak with high school students about their careers.

Hammond: We have a group of high school students at Oakland High that we meet with and also we take them to various organizations. When we go to the Kaiser Permanente, we see many, many African Americans in leadership. They see a Black CEO. They see two African American vice presidents in finance. And it just makes a big impression on young people to see that I can imagine doing that because I see someone who looks like me in that role. We get many, many professional volunteers to come out, and I think that’s wonderful. I hope that would be something that everybody, that more people get involved with is adopting a local high school.

Vien: All our guests had some excellent advice for how firms, educators, and the profession at large can help further the success of Black accountants. But I’d like to leave off with a message for individuals. Here’s Ruth Harris’s advice for future CPAs, especially potential CPAs of color.

Harris: Yes. I would say to them what my husband used to always tell me. He said, "There are no obstacles. There are only opportunities."

So look at every obstacle as being an opportunity. He was most supportive of me during my struggle, and so were my children. My children thought I could walk on water, but they encouraged me every step of the way. And I think that's still good advice.

I would also say to them be very serious about your education. Do the best that you can all the time. Always perform to the best of your ability. And I think the advice that my college accounting professor gave me is still good today. Get prepared so that when the door of opportunity opens, you'll be ready to take advantage of it.

Vien: I’d like to thank our guests once again for sharing their stories and insights. This edition of the Journal of Accountancy podcast is dedicated to the Black CPA Centennial Campaign, a yearlong celebration and recognition of the impact of Black CPAs upon the profession. To learn more, visit the campaign’s website at BlackCPACentennial.cpa. Thank you for listening.