Struggling actor to CPA firm owner: One leader’s unlikely path

Hosted by Jeff Drew

Orumé Hays, CPA, CGMA, didn't follow a traditional path to owning an accounting practice. From Africa to the Big Apple, she blazed a trail all her own.

Raised in Nigeria, Hays moved to Miami with a college degree in sociology and anthropology and a budding career in modeling and acting. Her pursuit of Hollywood stardom peaked with appearances in the 1996 movie The Birdcage.

She then discovered a new passion. Pursuing education and experience, she built her accounting career and launched her own firm in New York City.

The chair of the PCPS Executive Committee and also an adjunct college professor, Hays reflects on her career, shares lessons learned, and discusses some of the challenges facing small firms.

Resources mentioned:

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • How and why Hays transitioned from modeling and acting to accounting.
  • The ongoing role of education in Hays' life and career.
  • What Hays sees as the top issues facing small accounting firms.
  • What she has learned about college students during her years as an adjunct accounting professor.
  • What CPAs can do to bolster the recruitment of students into accounting careers.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

— To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Jeff Drew: Welcome to the Small Firm Philosophy podcast, produced by the AICPA's private companies practice section in partnership with the Journal of Accountancy podcast. I'm your host Jeff Drew, a manager with PCPS.

It would be an understatement to say that you don't find many accounting firm owners like our guests today. Orumé Hays is a Black woman from Nigeria with a degree in sociology and anthropology, who worked as a model and actress before moving into accounting. She is now the founder and CEO of Hays CPA, a New York-based firm that provides accounting, bookkeeping, tax, and advisory services to small businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs.

Orumé's rise in the accounting profession has seen her named among the 25 most powerful women in accounting. She also is the current chair of the PCPS Executive Committee. Orumé, welcome to the SFP podcast. Thank you for joining us today.

Orumé Hays: Jeff, thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Drew: So let's talk about your unique journey to the upper echelons of the accounting profession, and I guess we'll start at the beginning. Where did you grow up, and how did your childhood lay the foundation for your life and career?

Hays: I grew up in Lagos State, Nigeria. My dad was a hardworking civil servant, and mum was a very successful businesswoman. My parents, they give me a solid foundation for many of the skills and the principles that I use today, including hard work and an entrepreneur spirit.

They also broadened my horizon early on in life, as every year they took my siblings and I on summer vacations. We traveled frequently. We were going either to Europe or to America. This actually cultivated my ability to be able to network and mingle with various people, such as with extended families at home and abroad, and with people from different tribes, races as well as religions.

Drew: You had a lot of experience with diversity even in your own country and then with the travel on top of it, you were really prepared when you decided to move.

Hays: Exactly.

Drew: I mentioned that you worked as a model and actress and you also have a B.S. in sociology and anthropology. I'm not totally clear on the timeline for that, of which came first?

Hays: Yeah. I actually started modeling when I was an undergrad student at the University of Benin, in Nigeria. Immediately after I graduated from college there, I served in one year for what was required for every new graduate. It was a required National Youth Service program, where I went into military boot camp and then I got to sit in a desk job for an oil company for the duration of my one-year service.

After that, I immigrated to America as I considered my various career options. It was easy for me to sign up with a couple of modeling agencies once I got to Miami, where I had an older brother who lived there. I got into fashion modeling, runway modeling. I did some print and TV commercials. My modeling career was mainly in Miami, Chicago, and South Africa. What happened was that, as with many models, along the way, I took up acting as I loved it. One of the biggest movies that I actually participated in was The Birdcage. I don't know if you remember it. It was.

Drew: Yes, I do.

Hays: With Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. It was shot in Miami, and I had two scenes. There were two scenes in which I was featured. Featured, it can be what you make of it. I was actually an extra. One was the scene, I was on a beach in South Beach and then the other scene, I was in a nightclub, so that's my claim to fame.

Drew: Wow, I have to rent the movie and take a look.

Hays: Yeah, if you freeze the frame, you will see me.

Drew: All right. Now you also attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts?

Hays: Yes, I did. Between my modeling and acting gigs in Miami, I took off temp work as an accounting clerk, and that's how I ended up in accounting. So my first time job was actually at Miami Children's Hospital in the billing department. Then after my tenure as a model, I relocated to New York where I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, AADA.

What happened was after I left, I graduated from acting school, I continued with my temp accounting job because as I went around going for auditions and I took on the beautiful job of trying to be a struggling actor in New York. Since my big break did not happen within my first three years, I decided that I did not want the financial insecurity that frequently plagues the life of a struggling actor. At that point, I was making some really good money through my various accounting jobs because I had some really good contract jobs.

I worked with Bank of Nova Scotia. I worked with some fashion houses, so I was making some good money. I said to myself, Orumé, if you can make this money without an accounting degree, can you imagine how much further I could go if I actually got one? Fifteen years after I got my first bachelor's degree in Nigeria, and knowing that I had an aptitude for accounting and with some determination and grit, I went back to college for my second bachelor's degree in accounting and finance because I knew that if I got into it, I wanted to excel in the profession.

Drew: Remind me where you got your degree from in accounting?

Hays: The College of Staten Island, part of the City University of New York, part of the CUNY system.

Drew: Yeah. Then once you got your degree, did you start your own firm, or did you work other places first?

Hays: I worked actually with a couple of other places. I actually interned with two of my accounting professors at college, Professor Greg Cicero and Professor Steven Maksin. They were the guys who inspired me. And I knew that I wanted to become a CPA after I graduated college. I didn't know that I will be a business owner, but I knew I wanted to become a CPA. So those were regional local firms in Staten Island where I live. Then I worked with a bunch of other, in industry, for other firms, other companies.

Drew: When did you launch your firm, and what inspired you to launch Hays CPA?

Hays: I can say, I've worked in industry after I worked in those regional firms of Staten Island, and I rose through the ranks, started off as a bookkeeper, I became a controller, and I decided that I frequently switched between being an employee and being a contractor. What happened was after my last contract ended in 2014, I decided that I no longer wanted to return to the life of an employee. You realize that I had learned a lot from my various employers throughout my employment career, and I just decided that it was time for me to hang up my own shingle. I had a lot of knowledge that I could share with businesses, and I wanted to be able to also help small businesses who might not be able to afford the fees of a bigger CPA firm.

Drew: Your firm, how big is it?

Hays: Right now, we are a team of five people. I have two remote team members, and then two people work in the office with me. One of them is an intern. Usually I have an intern all year round. I love to give them the opportunity to gain some fundamental knowledge so that when they go out and look for another job, it will be easier for them to be hired by a bigger firm, and I also like to inspire them because I've heard from some of them, they said to me that with them working with me they're inspired, and they might want to open up their own business in the future after they graduate.

Drew: When you were opening your business, what led you to focus on tax prep and planning, bookkeeping, an on-demand controller and CFO services?

Hays: I noticed that there was a huge demand for the services. A lot of entrepreneurs, small and growing businesses, they have bigger and bigger needs for accounting and advisory services, tax services, and some of them, they do not have the resources that it needs to hire full-time accounting staff, and then there are other cases where they actually have the resources to have the enough staff, however, the expertise of the inner staff is limited. Well, this opened up the door for me, Hays CPA, to come in and provide this client accounting and advisory services, and this also gave me the opportunity to be able to help these businesses become more successful.

Drew: Recently, you went back to school and added another degree and got a masters in taxation.

Hays: Yeah.

Drew: How has that changed what you can offer through your firm, and how much does that change your skill set?

Hays: Yes. I remember when I went back to school some of my [siblings] said, "Orumé are you not tired of school?" and "How many degrees and you going to get?" Well, it has absolutely made a big difference in my firm getting my master's in taxation. It increase my specialized knowledge so that I can better serve more clients in complex areas of tax. Taxation is always evolving, always changing. I regularly apply the fundamental technical knowledge that I gained during my studies, and of course, up to today, every day, we're always continuously taking CPE courses so that I can stay up to date with all the changing regulations and the various tax laws that come our way. It's made a big difference in my firm.

Drew: Switching gears a little bit, you've been on the PCPS Executive Committee since 202,0 and you have served as our chair since May of 2022.

Hays: Yes.

Drew: What do you see are the biggest challenges facing accounting firms today?

Hays: I can speak to that. By the way, I want to say if anybody is out there, the AICPA has so many volunteer opportunities, if you're not involved as a volunteer right now, it's a great way for you to get involved, get on the list sometimes as a waitlist to get on some of the different committees, but you should definitely get involved.

I actually agree with a 2022 PCPS CPA Firm Top Issues Survey results. The survey is from practitioners from all over the country, and they usually identify some of the pressing issues that many firms are facing. Firms of all sizes. The ones that are underlined the most with is firms with two to five professionals, and my top five issues tweak slightly on the top are some of the results from the survey. So the number one issue is working with the IRS. Every participant knows that here. This has been a pain and continues to be a pain for all practitioners regardless of the size of their firm.

My second issue is keeping up with the changes and the complexity of tax law, as well as keeping up with the various COVID relief bills, various programs that were offered by the governments. Most of them are over and done with now, but we continue to have challenges with the employer retention credit program because there are lots of folks out there that are pushing this. I'm getting inquiries for my clients telling me that they qualify for this program when they do not qualify because somebody out there is trying to make a buck off them and telling them that they can fight for them and get some money from the government, so that continues to be a big issue.

Number three is finding qualified stuff. It's very difficult, especially I'm in New York City, in a city like New York where for small firms to compete with the bigger firms wage increases, still continues to go up, and so that is finding qualified staff and retaining them continues to be a big issue. I remember I've had a situation in which I was actually ghosted. A guy came and interviewed with me. We had a good rapport, good meeting and everything, I sent him the offer letter, he signed it, he was supposed to show up for work, and then what happens? He sends me an email on Sunday evening says, oh sorry, he took another offer, he's not going to come in, I was like what's going on. That continues to be an issue.

Number four is seasonality as the layering of the different deadlines that we've been dealing with. It seems as if we have had no respite since COVID hit in 2020. I think we might be turning the corner. I hope we're turning the corner and we can begin to have some respite. But definitely that has been an issue, and then the number five issue is actually keeping up with changes in technology and managing associated costs — things like upgrading hardware, updating software, and other issues.

Actually recently, Jeff, I listened to a podcast, I can't remember the name of the CPA or the experts who spoke on the podcast, that the name eludes me, but the discussion was about the fact that the recommendation is that where we should be updating our devices every two years, and I realized that that is something that I have not been doing. I need to start to do it because it's a best practice. It keeps you — it's just good on so many levels. If folks have not listened to that podcast episode, maybe Jeff, I'll look it up, and I'll give it to you so you can include it in the show notes. Maybe to give our audience some information.

Drew: Yes, that would be great. We also had, actually our last podcast. David Cieslak.

Hays: Yes.

Drew: Also known as Inspector Gadget, was on, he was talking about that same thing.

Hays: Yes, I think that was the very one that I listened to. Yeah, that's a good episode.

Drew: Well, we will definitely provide a link to that in the show notes. With you there's a lot to cover, so we will move on to — you are a Black woman who was a firm owner and a leader in the profession?

Hays: Yes.

Drew: What can the profession do to help promote more women and racial minorities into leadership position in firms? It has been a big talking point for years, but progress has been hard to come by.

Hays: Yeah, that's true. What I say is that every firm owner, no matter how small they are, they can make a difference. If you have women or people of color in your firm, be intentional. Lean in, be a sponsor and create leadership and advancement opportunities for them. If they often note they leave your firm after a couple of years, find out why are they leaving, and then develop some solutions to the problems. For example, is the issue that there have been some excess travel time or do they have babysitting issues, where maybe you want to consider offering them that they work 100% remotely.

Drew: Is the issues is that they work in excessive hours? Are they getting burnout? We want to avoid that. Maybe you want to think about hiring some part-time staff so that you can spread the work around and nobody gets burned out too fast. Additionally, I would say think about expanding your recruitment space. With today's remote working environments, you can pretty much recruit from underrepresented communities and from minority schools. Yes. Jeff, but yeah, it's true, progresses coming slowly, but we can make it so want to keep the momentum going.

You mentioned recruiting, and that reminds me that you are also, getting back to education, working as an adjunct lecturer at your alma mater in Staten Island. You've done that since 2019.

Hays: Correct.

Drew: Can you briefly tell us what courses you've taught, and then do you have any takeaways from your teaching experience that you can share with us?

Hays: Yeah, sure. I usually teach Introduction to Accounting levels 1 and 2, Accounting Information Systems, and then Intermediate Accounting. One takeaway that I have is, at the beginning of each semester, I usually pull the students to find out if they are aware of the CPA profession. Usually about 30% of the class they know what CPA is and what we do.

However, that number is even lower. When I polled the freshmen students, first-year students, that nobody is about 20%, which is not good. I noticed that the AICPA, they've set up their efforts to actually have accounting included on the STEM program and to be able to promote more awareness of the profession as they K through 12th-grade levels. I think that's a great idea.

AICPA also has a student's engagement toolkit. Practitioners can use this. They can use this to help promotes the profession when they're talking to middle school, high school, or college students. This effort, if more and more people get involved, it can help create a more positive platform for the profession and can help, too, with the pipeline issue that we're having.

Drew: I would think that individual CPAs and listeners to this could also contact their alma maters and reach out to local schools and do some things on their own to help get the word out about what the profession is, what the opportunities are.

Hays: Yeah, absolutely. I agree. Jeff, I always think about the fact that folks out there, we hear a lot about all the people who have the more "sexy careers" like being a movie star or an artist or things like that. When kids are young, parents are usually pushing they want their kids to be a medical doctor or be this or that. I don't hear kids [being] pushed, having them say, hey, I want my kid to be a CPA. I think it would be nice if we can have more parents push the fact that you can have a great career if you become a CPA and things like that.

Drew: You can also emphasize that aside from doctors, the most trusted profession and you're in a position to do a lot of good and help keep the economy stable because a lot of what the accountants work does is do that.

Hays: Yes.

Drew: Yep. Speaking of education, and we're going to jump back to actually the issue that brought me into contact with you directly was when I was working on our Busy Season Fun Calendar, which I will add a link in the show notes.

Hays: Yes.

Drew: You were one of many executive committee members who responded, and you had some great ideas for Black History Month in February. I was wondering if you could talk about some ways that firms can educate their people about the experiences and accomplishments of Black people.

Hays: Yeah, Jeff. There are some great ideas for the month of February and for businesses in that and the newly published the PCPS 2023 busy season calendar. It's a fun calendar, so I would say that folks should take a look at it. There's also an inspiration list that you can adapt for more activities in the firm. Both lists are available on the AICPA's website. I took a look at it, and so far there's been more than 581,000 downloads of the toolkit.

I want to say grab your copy so that you can do some fun things during busy season. In reference to your question, Jeff, so the National Society of Black CPAs, they recently, last year they published a list of the first 100 Black CPAs that were licensed in the United States. I would say something firms can do is organize a lunch and learn to learn about the first Black CPA in their individuals states. I also like the idea of maybe celebrating a successful individual from a minority-owned business in a local community. You can invite them to the office to learn a little bit about them. Maybe give them some kind of award or a certificate.

Then in addition to that, you can also support a minority-owned restaurant by catering lunch for your firm for the day. I would say if it's possible, order from a minority restaurant that no one in the firm has patronized in the past. You can always check out the reviews online and then select the minority-owned restaurants in your neighborhood or in a surrounding neighborhood if you don't have any or direct neighborhood. That way, everybody gets to have a new experience in the office. I would say for more ideas, you can check out the AICPA PCPS Busy Season Fun Calendar.

Drew: That link will be in the show notes. We covered an awful lot in 25 minutes, Orumé. Thank you so much for your time today.

Hays: Thank you so much, Jeff. It's a pleasure to be here, and it was a pleasure to chat with you today.