With 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of the first Black accountant to be licensed as a CPA in the United States, various organizations have come together to produce a year-long national awareness campaign to recognize Black CPAs and push for greater progress to be made in achieving diversity, equity and inclusion in the CPA profession. Hear from Crystal Cooke, the director of diversity and inclusion at the American Institute of CPAs, about the Black CPA Centennial celebration; what firms and individuals can do to enhance the recruitment and advancement of Black CPAs; and her advice for Black prospective CPAs.
Don Meyer: Hi, I'm Don Meyer, chief marketing officer at the New Jersey Society of CPAs. And welcome to the IssuesWatch podcast. In 1921, 25 years after the first certified public accountant certificate was granted in the United States, John W. Cromwell Jr. became the first Black CPA. Following Cromwell, it took a staggering 45 years for the first 100 Black accountants to be licensed as CPAs. While there has been progress, it has been slow. In 2019, an AICPA survey found that, among all CPA firms that responded to the survey, only 2 percent of CPAs were Black.
With 2021 marking the 100th anniversary of Cromwell’s landmark achievement, various organizations have come together to produce a year-long national awareness campaign that recognizes Black CPAs in the U.S. and push for greater progress to be made in achieving diversity, inclusion and equity in the CPA profession. Here with me to discuss the Black CPA Centennial and the rich history of progress Black CPAs have made in the profession is Crystal Cooke, director of diversity and inclusion at the American Institute of CPAs and vice chair of the National Commission on Diversity. Crystal, welcome.
Crystal Cooke: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Black CPA Centennial Celebration
Don Meyer: So tell us about the Black CPA Centennial celebration.
Crystal Cooke: Yes. Before I start though, I do want to share, this is a typical thing that I do before I speak at different events, just to kind of bring the environment in and make it more inclusive. And so I want to share that my pronouns are she and her. I am an African American woman with latte brown skin, I'm told. And I have short, curly, dark hair. On the sides, it's shaved a little bit, longer on the top. I have light highlights throughout it. I typically stand about five feet, 11 inches tall, that’s without my heels. Yes, I do wear heels and love them, even though I am that tall. But today I'm sitting at my home office in Bowie, Maryland. And I will also say I'm excited to be home all alone by myself for the first time since early 2020, because my boys who’ve been home with me throughout this entire pandemic, started school today in person. So it's a little surreal moment for me today because I'm actually working from home by myself, like I should be. So, anyway, kind of wanted to start that way.
Don Meyer: It’s a weird feeling, isn’t it, when you are finally in the house by yourself?
Crystal Cooke: It is. I'm like, wow, it’s eerily quiet.
Don Meyer: Well, I guess, congratulations?
Crystal Cooke: Thank you. Thank you, I'll take that. I'll take it.
Don Meyer: And thank you for that information about you. I appreciate it.
Crystal Cooke: Sure, no problem. So I know there’s the intro kind of walked through the campaign pretty well, but just to kind of put it all together in my words I guess I could say is, the AICPA, the Diverse Organization of Firms, the Illinois CPA Society, the National Association of Black Accountants and the National Society of Black CPAs have all come together as partners because we all thought it was important to take the time throughout 2021 to celebrate the Black CPA Centennial. And so we came together and thought of three main goals that we wanted to accomplish through it. And the was first honoring the past. We do that through education. If you read the different articles, we wanted to make sure that people understood the history of the Black CPA, where it came from, how it came about, how the Black CPAs in our history and our past have worked to get us where we are today. How they overcame hurdles, barriers. And then we thought we should share their stories because a lot of people didn't know them. I actually learned a lot throughout the series myself around the history.
And then the second goal is celebrating the progress we’ve made. I think you mentioned in the intro that the progress has been slow, which is correct. But I always tell people, imagine where we would be if we didn't even have the progress that we’ve made. And so there’s been work, amazing work that’s been done to date. And while we do recognize that there is more work that is needed, we just want to spend some time recognizing the Black CPAs who have influenced the profession to where we are now and broke barriers. So that’s the celebrating piece.
And then we want to work on building our future. This is all, all this work is to make, create a place that we all want to see ourselves in. And so we want to continue to motivate others to work together, to continue building Black CPAs in the profession. And so during this campaign, we highlighted a few members of the profession who are blazing trails and creating legacies and becoming the first achievers in all of the different areas of the profession and in the society. And so we just want to build on that and keep growing momentum.
And I think Dorri McWhorter said it best in one of our articles, I think it was our July article, it was called, “Learning from Black CPA Career Role Models.” And she was basically talking about how, in order to build, there has to be a first. And we have to open doors so that we can be able to have a place at the table and participate. And if you are the first, the goal is to then have a second and a third and so it goes on and on. So there we are, have to keep saying we are the first. And so that’s how we build our future. And so that’s kind of how the campaign came together and how we decided to frame it so.
Don Meyer: You mentioned the stories of Black CPAs. To me, that’s the most fascinating part of the celebration because the stories are really, I guess you would expect that all of these CPAs took different paths to becoming CPAs. Some it seemed were destined from a very young age to become CPAs where others didn’t really know what they were going to do until they got to college. Then it might’ve been a course or a professor or someone else who influenced them. What did you take away from those CPA stories?
Crystal Cooke: Yeah, it’s funny. I feel like I know when you talk about, when you’re saying the very young age, Kimberly Allison Taylor, who says she —
Don Meyer: Yeah, that's the one I was thinking about.
Crystal Cooke: Yep, I knew it was. She talked about how she found about it in elementary school from her counselor in third grade. That story always blows my mind. I’m like, really? In third grade? I don't think I was even thinking about that, but that’s just the kind of person she is. But yes, that’s the great thing to me about the profession is that there are so many different paths and there are so many paths to success really. And that’s kind of part of the goal was to share all these stories so that people who are aspiring to be CPAs can see there’s no one defined path. I think I’m even an example. My path, I never thought that I would be where I am today, which I’m proud of my path. But it’s just, there’s no straight path that you can go. You can go whatever way you want.
And I think young, Black CPAs need to know about that. They need to know about all the various opportunities, and they need to see other successful Black CPAs walking those same paths as well. And so I think as far as the consistent, one consistent message that I heard from the many leaders and it was throughout all the articles, throughout the whole year, and I completely agree with it. And it’s how we need to start earlier to get minorities interested in accounting. Like Kimberly, before college, I don't know that at elementary moment, maybe elementary is where it needs to be, but I'm fine with even going just to high schools. I think one of the articles mentioned, there’s a lack of exposure to the profession and all it has to offer as well as the people within it. And it is a significant hurdle for ambitious Black professionals.
And then we also heard that because of the small number of Black CPAs, school counselors also don’t think to direct Black students into the profession. And so, to me, these type things translate to us needing to go back into high schools and provide more education and widen the pipeline from the various earliest level. And I think I always steal from NABA’s motto, we all need to go back and lift as we climb, we need to bring somebody else with us. And I think at the AICPA, we’re actually looking into, through our National Commission on Diversity and Inclusion, we did a lot of focus around colleges today. And we think we need to go back into high schools and how do we create the program where we can just start educating and going back. I know we have programs to help with accounting AP courses, but I mean basic accounting 101. What is accounting? What are the benefits? What does it mean? How do you become an accountant? That kind of thing because people, there are a lot of research that shows, and even we’ve done a research that shows any student, no matter what background they are, they don’t hear about accounting unless they either know somebody or they took a class in high school. And, unfortunately, a lot of our ethnic minority students, they won’t know anyone in their family who has been an accountant and their school may not even have an accounting course. So then they would never even hear about it. And so that’s kind of why I think we need to go back into high schools.
Demonstrating the Benefits of Becoming a CPA
Don Meyer: The state CPA societies and the AICPA have spent probably the last 20 years, we’ve gone into high schools. We have a high school scholarship program. There’s been a lot of money and effort put into trying to bring all kinds of people into the profession, particularly African American students. It makes you wonder, are we focused on the wrong things when we try and speak to these students about the benefits of becoming a CPA or even just becoming an accounting major? We focus a lot on the money. We focus a lot on, if you become a CPA, you can work with professional athletes and entertainers and things like that. And we showcase our members who have those types of jobs. Do we need to focus on other things in order to bring more Black students into this profession?
Crystal Cooke: I think those are all the right things to focus on. I think it’s really just helping them understand the benefits of a career in the profession. And I guess you have to highlight those things as well. But to me, I like to say that it’s really, accounting is, not to sound like cliche but it’s the language of business. And whatever you literally want to do, you can do with an accounting degree. There are people who may go into, I don’t want to maybe pinpoint them as a career, but you may go into something else and you want to switch and you can’t because your skill is that specialized. But with learning accounting, there’s pretty much everything you do in the financial way. I mean, having that background as your foundation, if you want to open your own business, you’re going to need to know accounting. If you’re going to be a CFO, you’re going to need to know. Every direction, if you want to, I know a lot of people who want to have their own businesses and things like that, or they want to help their families business, having a accounting background, that helps as well.
And so I think all that you are talking about is right. I just don't think we do enough of it. I think, I feel we need to all get together, some kind of campaign where we go into schools. And I also think it needs to be the basic, I mean, you’re counting money and it’s not for everybody. And that’s the other thing too it’s, you have to find those who have that niche for finance or understanding business or those kinds of things. And you don't even necessarily have to be great at math. I know a lot of people who do not like math who are accountants. They are auditors or you can do other things. And I think back to the other thing too, a lot of people think that accounting is just tax. It’s a huge, tax is a big, big piece of it, yes. But there’s, I don't even, the only time I do my taxes is April every year. So that’s the kind of, those kinds of things. And so I think it’s, like I said, just us broadening and scaling our reach is probably what’s necessary.
But I’ve seen change from when we’ve gone into high schools and talk to people and or students who had no idea what it was. And then we tell them and they’re like, “Oh, this sounds pretty cool,” or, “This sounds like something interesting that I could use.” The other thing about accountants or accounting-minded type people, they want to choose a career that’s going to last and a career that’s going to have job security. And those kinds of people, they go into this because this is one of those careers. I said the job security because everyone is going to need an accountant. It’s not going to go away or everyone’s going to need auditor or those kinds of things. And so that I think is the message that we have to communicate.
Don Meyer: Yeah, I always like to tell students that, and I can say this as a non-CPA, that what amazes me about the CPA licenses is the number of doors that it opens and the opportunities it provides for anyone who gets that license. You can work for a Fortune 500 company in New York City. Or you could own your own a firm or work for a small company in New York, Pennsylvania or Stowe, Vermont. And you’re still going to get as much value out of that CPA license. So I've always said you can work wherever you want. You can do whatever you want. Once you have that license, it just opens up a lot of doors for you.
Recruiting and Advancing Black CPAs
Don Meyer: So, we’ve talked a lot in the opening about achieving progress in diversity, equity and inclusion. It's been slow, obviously the best way to achieve any type of change is to change the “system.” But we also know that systems are difficult to change, and a lot of change comes at the individual level. So what can individual CPAs, accounting firms and companies learn from the Centennial celebration that can help enhance the recruitment and advancement of Black CPAs?
Crystal Cooke: So I get this question a lot, just in general. I know you’re speaking specifically from the Centennial celebration, but people are always asking, what can we do to help change? And I think the hard answer is there isn’t really one thing that can be done to miraculously change everything. There are so many things that need to happen on parallel tracks for this dynamic to change. And when I say that I mean, so I was just talking about the pipeline from the earliest levels, going back into high schools. I think individuals definitely, we all can do that. We can go to our neighboring high school, or I can go to my kid’s school on career day and talk about accounting and those types of things. And so that’s at the earliest level.
But then when you get into colleges, we need to improve the classroom experience for diverse professionals. We learned in our May article that diverse faculty attracts diverse students. And so that all contributes to it. And I think the way individuals can help there, too, I think is finding a mentor, finding a student or a young professional who is in the profession or has interest in the profession and mentoring through them. I think when we interact with students a lot, we find that they’re just kind of scared of the career. They don't really know about it and they’re unsure what steps to take in their career and how to navigate it and things like that. And once they understand, and they have someone to talk to who’s not going to judge them for not knowing, it’s half the battle and they have that support that helps guide them through. So that’s the college level.
And then I think on the professional side, we just all have to come together and make our workplaces more inclusive. I mean, we need to address hiring, promotion advancement. I mean, ensuring that there is a Black CPA, or I know this was for Black CPAs, but all ethnic groups, there needs to be someone represented in that organization that they, the early career professionals, can look up to and aspire to and feel they have a sense of belonging and inclusion in that workplace. And so I think all of those things need to happen together and they can’t happen in isolation because if someone in the pipeline doesn't see themselves in the profession, why would they even come? So, I mean, it’s hard, it’s a hard thing. I know it’s a lot of work, but I think it all has to happen together to make change. I think we’re all doing little pieces. It’s just, we got to figure out a way to be more impactful. And again, it’s all about scaling everything and who’s working on what.
Don Meyer: Right. And, of course, the first challenge is getting those Black students to major in accounting, hopefully graduate with that accounting degree. But then from the AICPA’s perspective and NJCPA’s perspective, we’d like them to take the next step, which is to take the CPA Exam. And we had Todd Shapiro, who’s the CEO of the Illinois CPA Society, on a couple of weeks ago talking about the research they had done and some of the concerns they have about the decline in the number of CPAs. So, what can be done to encourage those Black accounting majors, those graduates to take the CPA Exam?
Crystal Cooke: I think in our June article that was titled, “Coming Together to Advance Black CPAs,” I think it talked about some of the things our partners are doing to increase the number of Black CPAs. I think, and they offer it throughout that whole article, they offer all kinds of suggestions. So if you haven’t read it and you’re watching this, go read it. But I think specifically, like NABA mentioned, a CPA-bound initiative and that’s to address those barriers like the ones that Todd found in his article to help students obtaining their CPA license. The National Society of Black CPAs also has a CPA bootcamp program where it’s like a review course that they’re helping them with. I think these all give them the tools they need to pass because I think a lot of it is fear. That’s one of the things.
A lot of it is time. I think that’s one of the biggest, our research shows that the biggest barrier is time. So I always even encourage students when I talk to them, if you can take it before you start working, do not start working. Unless, I mean, there’s, if you have an opportunity to move home with mom or your sister or your cousin, take it, do it. I understand everybody can’t do that. And maybe if you can’t, work with your employer. I know a lot of employers are working with their young professionals to give them time to be able to pass because you’re more valuable, even more valuable to them as a CPA. And so they are setting aside time to give you that if you, I think they would understand if you were a hardworking, young professional who had take care of their family and couldn’t take off to study, they would be willing to help you do that.
And so I know the other way we encourage CPA candidates is, I know Illinois CPA Society has their Mary T. Wylie internship preparation program that helps. I know a lot of the state societies are doing programs like that. Through our AICPA Foundation and the AICPA, we award, I think in the last year we awarded over $800,000 in scholarships to help ethnic minorities and students with their accounting education and earning their CPA. And so we have scholarship boards, we help doctoral students. We have our version of the internship programv where we have 10, this year we increased it to 10 students and 10 firms. We set up internships with them. They get a scholarship and an internship, ethnic minority students where they can intern with the firm for a busy season and get the experience of what it’s like to be a CPA. It’s been a very successful. Usually those students go on to get their CPA if they don't have it already. Some of them may be rockstars and have it already before they graduate. And then there’s what they get to learn what it’s like. And they’ll, they end up getting jobs at these firms who are also looking for diversity. So it ends up being a win-win for them. Last year, we even announced our new scholarship. We started giving out scholarship money for CPA Exam fees to help with students with that. And that was for anybody, you didn't have to be an ethnic minority. But we also had our new scholarship to support some students in Minneapolis around all the things that were going on there.
We have our Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop that we do as well. And that’s a, we’ve been doing that for the last 25 years. And we have 100 students, at least 100, this year we did more than 100 since we had to cancel last year for COVID. But we bring students into a location and we just educate around the benefits of being a CPA. It’s ethnic minority students. We link them up with professionals so that they can get mentoring, networking and just talks about, we just tell them the value of the CPA Exam and how you should have the benefits of it, kind of to your point earlier. But these are not instead of high school students, they’re college. And so we’ve been doing that every year.
And then I think this year, we also had our first We’re About Success event. It’s called We’re About Success but it's done in partnership with Howard University Center for Accounting Education and the AICPA Foundation. And it an event for early career professionals. And so we did it at accounting firms this year. And so we invite each firm, each of our member AICPA firms can have the opportunity to invite two to three or so young professionals who are ethnic minorities who want longevity in the firm. And it kind of helps, we provided tools and resources. And how do you navigate being in the profession as a minority. What are the different challenges that you may encounter and how do you overcome them? We kind of wanted to give them support so that when things get hard, because at some point things get hard for everybody, but it's how do you navigate it and how do you overcome it. And we wanted to give you tools that some that may be unique to an ethic minority on how to navigate that. And we gave them a whole network of people who they can reach out to if they need help, those kind of things. And it's just around the whole of, we want to see more of them in leadership. We want them to stay in our profession. And so how do we give them what they need? And so those are some of the things I think all of our partners in this campaign have a bunch of things going on that we're trying to do. And it's like, we all want to do so much, but we can only do so much. And so hopefully these different programs and activities will continue to reach and expand what diversity in the profession looks like.
Interacting with Students
Don Meyer: Right. And it sounds like AICPA, state CPA societies, I should've mentioned the financial support you were talking about. The NJCPA also provides assistance for CPA Exam fees. We also have a student loan debt repayment program that takes place in the fall. So there's a lot of money being put into these various programs, which is great, a lot of tools out there. But it sounds like the AICPA is putting a lot of effort into face-to-face interaction with the students. And it really from an individual level, that sounds like that might be, and I know the results aren't quite out yet, but it sounds like that might be the, ultimately the best method of getting these people and these people in.
Crystal Cooke: Right, I mean, I think, yes. Putting, giving money and supporting their CPA Exam fees, which again, is one of the other barriers. Supporting that is great yes. But I think actually getting in front of the students and our young professionals and talking with them is almost even more important. Having somebody who they can see that looks like them, who went through the path, who can mentor them, talk to them through how to do it, who can help them understand things, help them understand how to navigate. Sometimes even if it's unconscious biases that you have as an ethnic minority that might exist. And how do you shape your thinking and how do you, it's hard being the only one in a room. And so how do you navigate that.
For me, it probably wasn't necessarily as hard because I'm an outgoing person, but a lot of our ethnic minority groups are not outgoing people. Just culturally, they aren't. And so that can be very hard. And so they, instead of leaving the profession, figure out how can we navigate that and talk to somebody else who had to go through it and maybe they can give you tips. And so it's just, I think it has to be more of a community to help provide a more inclusive environment as well, so that we can all work together and talk together. And if we're struggling, figure it out together and those kinds of things so.
Don Meyer: Right, I think everyone's always more responsive to an individual interaction or individual ask as opposed to something that's a little bit more general and non-specific.
Crystal Cooke: Very true.
Advice for Prospective CPAs
Don Meyer: So most of the people listening or watching this podcast are CPAs already. Hopefully they're picking up some things that they can do in order to bring more Black students, Black CPAs into the profession. But we might also have some student members who are listening to this. So what advice do you have for any Black prospective CPAs who may be listening to this podcast?
Crystal Cooke: Yep, a few things. One, we need you!. It's not advice, but we need you.
Don Meyer: Very true, very true. I echo that.
Crystal Cooke: So that's my first thing. And I think it's really, if you need help or if you need guidance, just please reach out to someone when it gets hard. If you have, like I mentioned before, you have a whole community of people that wants to see you succeed and we want to help you succeed. So please reach out, find somebody, call me and I can put you in touch with somebody. I'm on LinkedIn, find me, find a mentor. I mean, there is a place in this profession for you. You belong here and we want to see you here. So that's my first thing.
I think we already talked about how accounting is just a career you can't go wrong with. And so I won't belabor that, but I think I don't want to make it sound like this is an easy career because it's not easy, but it takes hard work. But that's a good thing. If you can make it in this career, you are a pretty awesome individual. I think to quote the late great Kobe Bryant, he says great things come from hard work and perseverance. You don't make excuses. You do it. And so I think that's how this profession is. And how, if you want to be great, you got to put in the hard work. I think a CPA is like above, it's a badge of honor and you have to work hard to get a badge of honor. And I think once you accomplish that, no one can take that away from you. And so it's great. It's, like I said, I want to just be clear. It's a great thing, I think it's a great a career and it's going to take hard work, but then once you've accomplished it, you'll be so proud of yourself. And to me, frankly, the benefits and the salary, I know we shouldn't talk about the salary, but the salary down the line makes it all worth it to me. But I know we don't want to talk, people don't tend to talk about the salary, but it can be very lucrative as well.
Don Meyer: Indeed, indeed. And like you said, it can be hard in the beginning. That's what makes anything, especially this profession, great. If it were easy, everybody would do it and it wouldn't be as special as it is.
Crystal Cooke: Exactly, exactly.
Don Meyer: Crystal, thank you so much for joining us today and for all of your DE&I efforts for the accounting profession.
Crystal Cooke: Thank you, you're welcome. I appreciate you having me.
Don Meyer: Thank you all for listening and watching. To learn more about the Black CPA Centennial, visit blackcpaentennial.cpa. And to learn more about the AICPA's DE&I initiatives, visit aicpa.org/diversity. And we encourage you to attend the diversity, equity and inclusion conference on October 21 that the NJCPA is partnering with the New York State Society of CPAs to present. Learn more at njcpa.org/conferences.