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At the Movies Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The News Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props

Choosing to Challenge

Lilly Ledbetter at the NYSSCPA Women’s Leadership Forum

If this was a movie, it might start, in 1998, with a woman coming into work and walking over to a cubby hole, maybe one with her name on it. When she reaches in and to get her mail, she spots a scrap of paper among the envelopes. She pulls out the piece, sees the name Lilly at the top, followed by the names of 3 men. Next to each name is a dollar amount, next to Lilly’s name is $3,727, one of the men has $4,286 next to his, and another has $5,236 next to his. Maybe we see an expression on her name, or maybe we don’t even look for her reaction (I haven’t decided yet) but it is then we go back to 1979, where the same woman is walking in to her first day of work with Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

Lilly Ledbetter left her job as a manager at an accounting firm to pursue her dream, the love of radial tires. Even though her husband initially objected to this pursuit and even though the only women Lilly saw when she went to apply for a job were secretaries, she was undeterred and soon hired as one of the first women in a management position at Goodyear. When she started working at Goodyear, as they did with other employees, Lilly Ledbetter was told that she was prohibited from discussing her pay. She was told this even though, as is the general case, it was illegal to make such a prohibition. It took 19 years, and an anonymous note, for Lilly Ledbetter to discover that she had been paid less than her counterparts throughout her career with Goodyear. When she took her case to court, Lilly Ledbetter initially won her case but then Goodyear appealed. Their stance was not that they had not discriminated against Ms. Ledbetter but that she had taken too long to bring her claim forward. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court where the Supreme Court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter in a 5-4 decision. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was unimpressed enough by this decision that she read her opinion from the bench.

At the New York State Society of CPAs, when we started planning our first Women’s Leadership Forum, we knew we wanted to have a session that discussed pay and wondered who we might have. A committee member suggested Lilly Ledbetter and I thought (and stated) it would be amazing, but would she really come to our event? Well, she did, and the story she shared was even more powerful and instructive than what I had read. When Lilly Ledbetter looked at that piece of paper, she realized that the impact went way beyond the current pay discrepancy. The impact hit every single one of those years that her employer paid her less than her peers, while her boss told her that he didn’t think that a woman should be working there. The impact hit the pension she would be receiving when she retired. The impact was going to hit what she was going to receive in Social Security payments. The discrimination was not a point in time in the moment at her cubby hole, it was cumulative over 19 years and the ripples spread wide.

Because Lilly Ledbetter lost her case in the Supreme Court, while not disputing that they discriminated against her, Goodyear never had to compensate Lilly Ledbetter. Inspired by her case and by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s powerful dissent, the first act signed into law by President Barack Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Now the clock resets with each discriminatory paycheck and, in a work environment where the discussion of salaries is still frowned upon and it is often a mission requiring Sherlock Holmes-like skills to find pay data, it brings some comfort to know that, whenever it is that we get that torn piece of paper in our mailboxes, it won’t be too late.

As I mentioned, Lilly Ledbetter ultimately lost her case and Goodyear never had to make up in any shape, way, or form for their years of discrimination. Lilly did decide that she wanted to do what she could to make sure her fate would not be the fates of others facing pay discrimination. She decided to Choose to Challenge, not just for herself, but for us all. She opened the door so that the rest of us can challenge too. So when you think about the rights we now have to challenge pay discrimination, don’t forget, Lilly Ledbetter did that!

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props

Black History is Our History

That’s My Mom! Photo Credit: James Petrozzello

When I was in about the fourth or fifth grade, I was invited to a Halloween party. There was a costume contest and each of us had to say who we were and give some kind of blurb. Inspired by my mother I went as an official, working for some department (I can’t remember now) and my work had to do with justice and equality. I received the prize for most original costume. At a party full of superheroes, fairies, and movie characters, perhaps a public servant was a truly original costume. Often, though, when I think about it I feel that those parents felt sorry for my quite nerdy self. I don’t regret it – my mother continues to be my shero.

At this intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, I think about how histories, ancient and as modern as just yesterday impact our present and our future. Then I got to thinking about my mother and her sisters and their influences on me, both overt and covert. They figure among the building blocks that make me.

When my grandmother was a young woman in pre-independence Zimbabwe, she traveled to the United States on a trip organized by the YWCA. When she returned home, her telling of her experiences, especially her trip to the Statue of Liberty, inspired her daughter, my mother, to go to the United States for college. I write this casually, like it was an easy thing for my mother but at the time, in her own country, she did not even have the right to vote, and needed permission to get a passport. Somehow, she figured out a way and she started out at the University of Rochester before she transferred to Mount Holyoke. It would be cute if she decided to attend one of the Seven Sisters because she herself was one of seven sisters but I am guessing her decision had more to do with her boyfriend, a fellow Zimbabwean whom she had met at a party in New York City and was getting his master’s in geology, down the road, at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After Mount Holyoke, she too went to UMass Amherst and got her master’s in education, and they soon embarked on their next adventure. My parents moved to Zambia where my father worked as a geologist for an American company and my mother taught high school history at the International School of Lusaka. I once came across a yearbook from the International School in one of my mother’s storage trunks. In it, under her photo, her quote was “I am a citizen of the world” and I imagine one reason she felt that way was because she was barely seen as a citizen of her own nation.

After my little sister passed away, in February 2019, I spent several months in Zimbabwe with my mother and her sisters, appreciating anew what phenomenal women they are, and learning more of their histories. After my parents attended university, they decided to pay it forward, each helping a sibling to get to the United States for university. At the time, Zimbabwe was still not independent, and my mother’s younger sister could not get a passport. But she was determined to get out and go to school. At a point in her journey across the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, she was hidden in the back of a long haul truck, among crates of dried fish and rice. When she finally reached Lusaka and my father went to pick her up she was so frighteningly unrecognizable that my father, fearing the experience might cause a miscarriage, took my aunt to get washed up and changed before my then heavily pregnant mother saw her sister. After my aunt made it to the United States and university, she too paid it forward and brought another sister over for school.

Hearing the histories that my mother and her sisters shared I realized that, as with many marginalized peoples, we often do not hear about their struggles but we reap the benefits of their perseverance. I was with my mother during an impossible time and it was also a time to look at my grandmother’s daughters and see how I what they have done has made me. It was a time to be reminded how they have lived lives where, like the Coles sisters, they follow their desires and won’t be deterred and that is a spirit they have encouraged in their children. It is also a spirit that stands strong for what is right and a spirit that believes in the power of community. When my mother visits us in New York, she loves to take daily walks alone. I have no idea what she gets up to but it must involve a lot of chatting because, long after she leaves the subway station guy or the grocery store employee asks after her. She builds and maintains communities, believing that this is how we all help each other achieve what we seek. And she does do this, starting with the formidable core of her sisters.

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AICPA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion In The News Inclusion Matters Inspiration Props Where We Are

The Past, The Present, The Future

John W. Cromwell

If the way things are had nothing to do with what has come before, history wouldn’t be something taught at school. However, we learn in many arenas that the past plays a big part in shaping the present and the future. Both graphite and diamonds are carbon, nothing but carbon, yet they are very different from each other because of the environment in which they are formed. What happened to the carbon in the past, determines whether is a diamond or graphite today. Is there any story that we can tell that does not involve cause and effect?

On April 17, 1896, the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) designation was established in law in New York. 25 years later, in 1921, John W. Cromwell became the first Black CPA. This year we celebrate the centennial of his achievement and the doors Cromwell opened. When, as a member of the class of 1906, Cromwell graduated from Dartmouth, he was its top science student and then went on to get his masters, also from Dartmouth, in 1907. Despite these achievements, it was 15 years before Cromwell became a CPA, and not through any fault of his.

A native of Washington, D.C., Cromwell had returned home after graduation and discovered that he faced two barriers. First, because he was Black, he was not allowed to sit for the CPA exam in Washington, D.C., Virginia, or Maryland. He also faced a barrier, that would stymie many Black people who wished to become CPAs – the experience requirement. In those states, in order to become a CPA, you were required to work under the supervision of a CPA, something that became the biggest barrier, for Black people, to become a licensed CPA. Even as recently as the 1960’s Bert Mitchell, who was the 100th Black CPA in the United States, struggled to find a job with an accounting firm. Despite graduating at the top of his class, 25 firms would not hire him, using their clients’ attitudes (it could never be their own) toward people of color as an excuse. A window opened for Cromwell in 1921, when New Hampshire instituted CPA laws that did not mandate the experience requirement, and Cromwell took advantage of the opportunity. He traveled to New Hampshire, sat for, and passed the CPA exam in 1921.

Fulfilling the academic requirements of the CPA license is difficult enough – right now, only about half of those who take the CPA exam pass it, and back then an even smaller fraction passed. Now, imagine that you had to wait 15 years, and travel over 500 miles, just to be allowed to even try to suffer through it, despite having graduated from an Ivy League school, at or near the top of your class. Because of their race, the first Black CPAs faced and overcame groundless barriers that had nothing to do with their abilities and everything to do with people’s biases, discriminatory views, and actions.

100 years ago, when Cromwell became a CPA, he became an example of the possible and opened the way for others to follow. Perhaps in 1926, when Cauncey L. Christian took the CPA exam in Kentucky, Christian was braver because Cromwell had shown what was possible. Christian sat for the exam at a time when the exam was not open to Black people. So, in that exam room, Christian had a concern that the other 49 White men taking that exam did not. Although Christian was light skinned enough to pass for white, he must have been fearful of his race being discovered. But, because of his courage, out of the 50 men who took the CPA exam, Christian was one of 7 who passed and, by doing so, became the third Black CPA in the United States. As each Black CPA was licensed, more Black students saw a path to the profession opening up for them as well.

2021 is the Black CPA Centennial and, in commemoration of the trail that John W. Cromwell blazed a century ago, several organizations, including organizing partners the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), Diverse Organization of Firms, Inc., Illinois CPA Society, National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), and National Society of Black CPAs (NSBCPA) will recognize Black CPAs and push for greater progress. The themes of the centennial are honoring the past, celebrating the progress that has been made, and continuing to build the future.

As we learn about the history of our profession, the pioneers, the challenges, and the triumphs, it should help us better understand its current state. The more we know about the history of exclusion, the better we can understand the lack of diversity and the lack of inclusion of various demographics, especially in leadership positions. We should think harder and question if the status quo exists for any better reason than the environments that existed in the past. We should remember and honor those who, in addition to having to work hard had to find their success, had to navigate around or through the arbitrary biases of others. Most of all, we should look at our present and what we can do now to create an environment that builds a future of belonging, equity, and inclusion in our profession.

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Inspiration Props PSA

One Team, One Dream

 

Pyeongchang Olympics Cross Country Men

The Winter Olympics are going on and I am filled with joy. From the opening ceremony until the end, I am inspired over and over again. Just the other day, Ester Ledecka, from the Czech Republic, won a gold medal, on skis she borrowed from USA’s Mikaela Shiffrin. Athletes, representing their countries, come together to compete against each other while, at the same time, showing incredible sportsmanship, teamwork and support of each other. Four skiers from so-called “tropical” or “exotic” nations (Colombia, Morocco, Portugal and Tonga), who were among the last to finish, waited for the last athlete, from Mexico, to finish. They cheered him across the finish line and raised him in exultation. How incredible is all that?

Since I stepped out and started my own company, I have been spending a lot of time alone. Honestly, even though I was working in offices, my last few positions had me working mostly on my own. Seriously, I could go for weeks without talking to anyone about what I was working on. I would sometimes wonder if anyone cared. I started working on a project a few months ago and I am being reminded how powerful a great team can be.

Modern offices are designed to have more interactions among people – offices are more open, there are games set up in the office and people can hang out on couches. Imagine that, comfortable furniture in the office. With all of that, though, I am finding that the real trick to interaction and successful communication at work sits with the people. I have been in open office spaces where, for days on end, people say barely a word to each other. I have walked down hallways where the person heading towards me will risk breaking their neck by looking anywhere but at me – the horror of a greeting is strong, apparently. The Inner Auditor kept me thinking about the priority of people in a business and on a team.

In the work that we do, we are often under pretty stressful conditions – clients are almost never happy to see us, we have tight deadlines and we are often trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense to the people doing those things. Each of us is incredibly busy and run the risk of keeping our heads down just get through everything assigned to us, while staying within budget. With that kind of pressure, the temptation is high to just put our head down, plug in our earphones and only engage when absolutely necessary. I am sure that approach can get the job done but I know, without a doubt, that the structure of the team that I worked with ensured that we excelled.

We did not choose our team, but I ended up working with three incredible women who have made me better at what I do and how I do it. I believe that we all agree that we have benefitted from our experience together. Each member of the team has a knowledge strength and is more than willing to share what they know and help us get a little stronger too. Even as deadlines have loomed and hours have stretched, our team has prioritized wellbeing. We have been taking time to read more, laugh more and talk to family and friends more. Because our team has come together on these various levels, we are also able to communicate the difficult information that comes up during our work. Sometimes, a person may come across information that will either upset the client or lead to more work. Sometimes a person may realize that they missed something. In these cases, if communication is not good, that person may choose to remain silent. Instead team members may end up spending energy on hiding issues and hoping that they are not discovered. That is never a good thing. Not only did our team feel comfortable about bringing up the issues, we were always willing to brainstorm and work together to resolve them.

Although this may sound like I am seriously crushing on my awesome team (which I am) it is also a great lesson in the incredible value of having a team that is talking to each other and working together in order to produce great work. In an office where no one is talking, and people are not interacting, how long do you think it will take to realize that something is wrong? If people view saying good morning as something to be avoided at all costs, who are they going to tell when they think the person in the cubicle next to them is doing things that they shouldn’t? If people are not talking about what their fellow work mates are doing, how are they to know who to turn to for assistance and will they even feel comfortable approach Janice who barely grunts when they come across each other in the office’s common space? And then, when fraud or error is found at the company, can you really be surprised that it took as long as it did for it to be discovered?

The time you take to get to know the people you are working comes with benefits that are worth far more than that time. It takes more than knocking down walls and providing great coffee. We spend a lot of time talking and reading about the impact of communication. We know this in theory but how often do we put energy into putting this into practice? I know that each one of us stepped outside our comfort zones in order to get to our Dream Team status. Each one of us made a conscious effort to reach out and share of ourselves. Each one of us was determined to produce exceptional work and communication was a key element of achieving that. I have been inspired by these women that I have worked with. I have laughed, been moved and been brave with them.  I shall be truly sad when this project is over and eternally grateful for the great experience. #OneTeamOneDream

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Inspiration NYSSCPA Props

Paying It Way Forward

Bert_Mitchell
Bert N. Mitchell

Last night I attended the New York State Society of CPA’s (NYSSCPA) Moynihan Fund Gala. I was looking forward to a fun night with my colleagues, looking out on the water as the sun set and enjoying good food and drinks. What I did not expect was the incredible history lesson that I received from Lifetime Award Honoree, Bert N. Mitchell. In 1987, Mitchell became the first black president of the NYSSCPA and, during his tenure, the NYSSCPA launched the Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program. I was already aware of these very impressive aspects of Bert Mitchell’s career, but, as he shared his life story, I found that these achievements were only scratching the surface.

Mitchell shared, last night, that he was the 100th black CPA in the United States. This statistic hit harder when he shared that he earned this qualification in 1965, a little more than ten years after Bernadine Coles Gines became the first black woman to become a CPA in New York and the 34th black person to become a CPA in America. Even though it was 11 years after Gines had encountered many obstacles on her journey to becoming a CPA, Mitchell did not find things to be much easier when he graduated, at the top of his accounting class, in 1963. Despite his top-notch qualifications, Mitchell spent two weeks seeking a position at one of the top accounting firms, preferably, one of the Big 8 (at the time). He travelled from lower Manhattan and worked his way to Midtown, stopping in at every major CPA firm and, over and over again, he was turned away, with the excuse that their clients’ attitudes regarding hiring a black person were why they wouldn’t give him a job. In 1968, the AICPA launched the Committee on Recruitment from Minority Groups and Mitchell was one of the five black members of the eleven member committee. A year later, in 1969, Mitchell published a study entitled “The Black Minority in the CPA Profession” and this study found that underrepresentation in the CPA profession was worse than in law, medicine and other professions. This study found that out of 100,000 CPAs in the United States, fewer than 150 were black and firms claimed, as they had to Mitchell when he was seeking employment, that the barrier to hiring African Americans was not their own bias but that of their clients.

In a follow-up to the 1969 study, Mitchell published a study in 1975 that showed that the number of black CPAs had tripled to 450. As encouraging as this information was, there was still much to and, as became apparent, Mitchell was nowhere near done. When Mitchell became president of the NYSSCPA in 1987, the stats were depressing. Black people made up almost 13% of the population, yet they made up less than one percent of CPAs. In comparison to other professions, only airline pilots had lower representation. Representation by other peoples of color was not much better – Latino representation also hovered around 1% and Asian representation was about 3%.

When I heard Bert Mitchell’s speech last night, I knew I needed to know more and when he mentioned that he was the 100th black CPA in America I, fortunately, knew exactly where to go. When I met and was moved and inspired by Bernadine Coles Gines, I went out and bought the book “A White-Collar Profession, African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921” by Theresa A. Hammond. This book, published in 2002, tells the history of African Americans in the profession. I knew I would find him in there, not only because of the incredible work that he has done to expose people of color to the CPA profession, but also because I remembered that the book included a list of the first 100 black CPAs in the United States. I got home and there he was – “100. Bert N. Mitchell 1965 New York”.

At the Gala, as three alumni of the COAP program took to the stage and shared their stories of how the program and not only exposed them to the CPA profession but also made them believe that this was possible for them, I was deeply moved by the work and efforts of Bert N. Mitchell and others who, like him, have been dedicated to diversity and inclusion in our profession. Pick up the book, read it and learn more about Mitchell and the other first 100. This is not ancient history, it is actually amazing how recent this history is. It is hard to pass the CPA exam. It is a daily challenge to maintain the standards and knowledge that make us trusted professionals. It should never be a struggle to be hired because of your race, gender or sexual orientation. I am truly in awe, as Bert N. Mitchell, truly has dedicated his life to advocating for diversity and fairness in the profession.

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Inspiration Props The Nitty Gritty

Oh Yes, She Did!

james_ano_silly

In previous posts, when talking about the importance of controls in a system to help prevent fraud, I discussed the case of Amy Wilson. These posts were specifically about how trust is not a control. Regardless of how nice a person seems to be (or is) or how long someone has worked for you, you should never decide that you can trust them enough to forgo system controls. It really cannot be said enough, trust is not a control. It does not matter how good a person is or how long they have worked without ever considering defrauding their employer, there may come a time when they face great pressure to commit fraud. It is important that, should this time arise, there are controls that deter them from giving in to temptation.

In my first post about Amy Wilson, I discussed how many controls I come across when I run a race compared to how few controls I have seen in many businesses. I continue to be amazed by this; people will put so much into making sure folk aren’t fabricating their running times, yet they are willing to trust those very same folk with their money and assets. The second time I wrote about Amy Wilson, I had watched her enlightening interview on the Attestation Update website. Here and in the articles she has authored, Amy Wilson speaks very clearly about what she did and how she could either have been caught or have never had the opportunity to perpetrate the fraud.

Well, fast forward to today. I received notification, this morning, that Amy Wilson had visited my website and left me a comment. She was very complimentary (whew!). I am glad because Ms. Wilson does have great lessons to impart and I appreciate that she does not take issue with how I have shared her story and lessons. To have real life examples of where the weaknesses in a system were, how they were exploited and the ultimate consequences of all of this is absolutely priceless. When it comes to designing and instituting controls in a financial system, it is imperative that this is performed effectively and consistently. In order to make sure that this process is correctly implemented, the stories must be told clearly, correctly and honestly. It is fantastic that Ms. Wilson is unflinching when she talks about what she did; that kind of thing does not happen often. This kind of honesty helps forensic accountants get better at what they do and, hopefully, businesses get better at deterring, preventing and detecting fraud. Finally, feedback like Amy Wilson’s helps me feel happier about what I do.