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Celebrating and honoring Black History Month: A roundtable discussion

How does history influence the way accounting and bookkeeping professionals run their practices? How does history inspire all of us to learn from others and excel in our personal and professional lives?

To celebrate and honor Black History Month, I sat down with three leaders in the profession to discuss these topics—and much more: 

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Scott Cytron: Having talked with each of you separately, I know discrimination was part of the reason you started your own firms. What happened?

Nayo Carter-Gray: I started my firm full time in 2009 because I got the push by being laid off during the recession. It was the last job I allowed myself to work for someone who was actively discriminating against me.

In that last corporate company, I was discriminated against for an empty controller position. I started at the company because a former boss brought me in to help streamline the processes, but when he was let go shortly after I arrived, the company replaced him with the most senior person in the department. My new boss asked me to help; he had no clue what he was doing. I agreed to stay, but a few years later when he left, I made the mistake of assuming I would automatically take over his role because I was now the most senior person on the team and was supervising more than half the team as the accounting manager. 

Instead, I had to interview for the position and then was told the position wasn’t going to be filled. However, a few weeks later, a friend of the regional boss was sitting in that office telling me what to do. That was the moment I knew I would never advance in that company.

Jeff Wilson: I also felt discrimination. There was a series of events over my career in public accounting that eventually made me start my firm. The first was working at a major firm and not fitting in with my immediate team. I was a Black student from a small historically Black college or university (HBCU), and the "White guys" were from predominantly White institutions (PWIs) with little exposure to minorities not from elitist backgrounds. It was a culture clash, and because I was a staff member and not in a position of influence, it made for a very unsettling time as an auditor. I wasn't promoted and considered not technical enough at the time, even though I was one of the first in my class to pass the CPA exam. At that time, diversity and inclusion were not significant initiatives, something that was very much needed in public accounting. Due to that lack of diversity and an uncomfortable environment, I decided to leave.

Ibi Ojo: I felt discrimination on several levels, and it had more to do with me being a woman and a mother—not a good combination to start my career in accounting. While I started my firm in 2005 with three children, ages 9, 4, and 1, in the beginning I needed a job where I could use my skills as an accountant, and a job that was flexible enough to allow me to be a wife and a mother. 

To complicate matters, we just moved from New York City to a very small town. I practically knocked on accountants’ doors to introduce myself and drop my resume. While I got a few interviews, I was unable to secure the job because, according to the principal partners, “I was overqualified.”

My passion has always been to help small business owners who did not, and could not, afford a full-time professional and felt unworthy of the attention of big firms—that was conveyed to me in discussions with these small business owners. However, while I did not see how I could make it possible in a new town where I was unknown, another bulb turned on in my memory. 

While we were growing up, my father always told us to go to school and learn a trade or profession, so that if no one hires you, you can hire yourself. That’s exactly what I did—and the rest is history.

Jeff: Later, I realized when mentoring other minority students from HBCUs that there was not a lot of opportunity for minority students to get the same exposure and training as other students attending PWIs, due to the lack of recruiting by large firms at small HBCUs. I realized there was an additional need for minority firms to be created to be able to recruit and support students' career goals in accounting.

Scott: As a Black business owner in your community and in the profession, tell me about the struggle you’ve endured to get where you are today, especially in terms of being recognized on the same level field as your White or other ethnic counterparts.

Ibi: My story may be different than Jeff’s and Nayo’s because I was not born in the United States; I was born and raised in Nigeria, and left as a young, educated professional. Nigerians value education, so Nigerians are highly educated people. In fact, according to Rice University research, Nigerian Americans are the most educated group in the United States and are known for their contributions to medicine, science, technology, arts, and literature.

My parents trained me to be kind and respectful of others, and to be a person of faith, trusting God with my life. I was told I am loved, highly esteemed, and priceless. Confidence, resilience, hard work, and perseverance had been built in me before I ever stepped on to U.S. shores. 

This, however, did not exclude me from racial discrimination. I only fought it from an understanding of who I am, and no one could mess with what was already drilled in me as a child: precious, loved, valued, worthy of respect, and not a second-class citizen, no matter where I found myself. That also comes with the responsibility of being a law-abiding citizen, hardworking, honest, kind, and respectful—treating others the exact way I would want to be treated.

My days of experiencing discrimination started way back in England in 1995, when a group of White youngsters in a moving vehicle shouted “Negro” at me while I was waiting at a bus stop. That sent chills down my body, and having read so much about the attacks on Black people, I became very fearful for my life. I sprinted to a train station out of fear that the group may come back to hurt me. 

Jeff: As an African American with parents from the Jim Crow South, I was told that being “good” would not be enough, when compared to a White person in a competition for employment, because of my color. My household's standard was high, and your best would be needed to compete for a job with a White counterpart. Unfortunately, that same ideology sometimes still exists from customers who compare business operations based on race. African American business owners will be held to a higher standard in their community when compared with their White counterparts.

Nayo: Let me start this one out by saying I’m still not recognized the same as my White counterparts. I constantly must raise my perspective and expertise to the forefront. The thing about me, however, is that I’m very vocal, so this isn’t hard for me, but it is tiring. Often, I’m asked to speak on behalf of the Black community as if I’m the only member of the community and we have a monolithic experience. I don’t shy away from being a mouthpiece because I understand my role is to help shine a light on issues I am passionate about—and being a Black accountant is one of those issues. I often am making introductions for other Black accountants, so that there is not only diversity in selection, but also that the larger accounting community knows I’m not the only one. 

Scott: That’s a good point. Recognition is really important.

Nayo: My personality allows me to get to know people, which puts me in rooms where I can make suggestions on things that my White counterparts may not have realized were discriminatory or biased. My personality also allows me to meet allies I can count on to help defend a point of view to people who are more willing to listen to someone who looks like them. 

Jeff: Being an African American business owner, you can also see the differential in client expectations, which affects the bottom line due to pricing. Being a firm of color, there are also expectations that your pricing will be lower than your White competitors or more open for negotiation. Studies have shown that the pricing from minority businesses tends to be lower than similar organizations that are not owned by minorities. As a result, to maintain any pricing pressure, I must ensure our organization consistently delivers a product that exceeds current expectations to fight the pricing pressures that come with being a Black-owned business.

Ibi: The biggest test came when I started my firm in Lima. I had no prior work experience with any firm here, so I had no client rapport or loyalty. As far as I know, I am still the only female, African American-owned accounting firm, and also the only one with an accent, so nothing was working in my favor. 

I took the Yellow Pages, looked up businesses, and would make cold visits. That resulted in little or nothing, so I counted on the goodwill of my local chamber of commerce to refer business to me. I am also grateful to the White businesswoman who trusted me enough with her books. She was my first client. She does not hold back describing how she feels about the work I do for her, and thus brought clients my way. She remains a client and friend today.

I recall a time when I told a small business owner that the previous accountant did not do something right. He argued and questioned my knowledge and integrity. It took a state audit for him to accept, and finally agree, that I had some brains in my head. 

Scott: So what did you learn from these experiences?

Ibi: Looking back, it took at least 12 years for my business to start heading in the right direction, with small businesses engaging our services. 

You see, I had to be tried and tested on my skills, my conduct, my temperance, and my integrity, while my White counterparts opened shop and turned clients down in a few years because they did not have any more capacity.

The confidence and resilience my parents had planted in me paid off. While I was waiting, I was continuously developing, training, and improving myself, always hungry for more knowledge and fighting off obstacles in my way. While I was waiting, I was building a better me, which is the reason I am here at this roundtable today. I give God all the glory and honor! 

Jeff: One of the more exciting things I found about being a minority-owned business is the procurement opportunities available at the Federal and state government levels. But keep in mind that these programs are helpful in theory. A Black-owned business can become certified as a minority-owned business at the state and federal government levels. Business development opportunities are available for minority businesses to gain large customers and grow with state and Federal government businesses.

However, the requirements for minority-owned companies to be certified as minority-owned are more like barriers to entry rather than opportunities for access. These programs tend to be arduous and hold minority firms to specific operational standards that typical organizations do not maintain regularly. So, it is tough being a Black-owned business because of the amount of red tape; in some instances, you must cut through to grow past the proverbial mom-and-pop shop business. 

Nayo: And since I know being recognized in this space is a long shot, I started my own virtual event, the Taking Your Firm Virtual Summit, to showcase what a diverse event can look like, with the intent on acting as inspiration for long-standing conferences and events that aren’t reflective of our world at large.

Scott: Since Black History Month is just one month of the year, what initiatives do you think firms can take to celebrate employee and/or client achievement throughout the year? 

Nayo: Client achievement is accomplished when firms encourage growth in their staff. Firms should think about how they can empower their staff members of color with the resources and tools to become leaders in their roles. Think about training, equipment, and supplies that allow them to work better, and open them up for opportunity. Give them chances to lead projects or ask for their opinions on how things can be run better. Give them a voice and a space to feel comfortable sharing that voice, and you will celebrate wins all year long.

Jeff: One thing firms can do to celebrate Black History Month is educate staff and leaders about the journey of the first Black CPAs. An excellent book is “A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants since 1921” by Theresa Hammond. It is enlightening to understand the history of Black individuals in our profession. We can gain an understanding of the injustices that have been done and learn just how impactful people of color can be to their living communities and the accounting community. 

Ibi: We all know that the history of any people’s nation or culture cannot be learned in a month. However, we could create a starting point. These actions would boost the morale of the employees and further company loyalty, leading to long years of employee devotion, which equals stability for the company:

  • Firms should commit to actually relaying Black history to their employees through a symposium that all employees should attend. If it is a smaller company, the company may ask one of the employees or a local person to give a presentation. I would recommend going way back to the beginning of the journey in Africa, and build on that every year, highlighting the life and experiences of African Americans up to this point. No part should be left out. I would also recommend an open session for questions and answers. When we know the background and culture of the people we are working with, it helps to understand them: Why they behave or respond in a certain way. It compels us to respect, not judge, and fosters a good relationship that promotes teamwork and makes the company a better place.
  • Companies that truly want to celebrate Black history should consider the Black individuals in their establishments. What position do they hold? What roles do they play? How would the company fare if no one did what they do? How are they compensated in comparison to their White counterparts who do the same jobs? Using the findings to make the right decision of equity and fairness across the board would be the true celebration. A public display of intent to do this and a statement of accomplishment should also be made once the set intent is realized.
  • Centuries-old gaps cannot be easily filled up, but starting to fill them is a step forward. I recommend that companies assist their Black employees to further develop their careers.

Nayo: Let me add that my mission in life is to create a safe space for people who look like me to find and work with accountants who look like me. I created to do just that. It’s a directory that allows people who are looking to work with a Black accountant to easily find one. And while this may seem discriminatory, to some it's not. It’s a way for us to work with clients that have unique financial issues because of their skin color and socioeconomic background.

Scott: A big thanks to all three of you for taking the time to talk about Black History Month. I’m confident our readers will benefit from your experiences and wisdom.

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