Tag Archives: history

Paying It Way Forward

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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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Over My Shoulder

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I was in high school before I realized how much I love history. Even though I read many historical adventures and would get so caught up in stories that I would find myself being moved in ways movies and television could, I never attached that excitement to any history I ever learnt in school. There was a separation of story and history until I ended up with a history teacher who was so gifted at bringing history to life that I didn’t even really feel as though I was in class.

What has taken a while to sink in is that history is not just about other people’s stories and what they might mean, but it is also about my own stories (along with people around me) and how what I have done, thought and felt in the past is something that I should not only want to record, remember and recognize but also find importance in. In 2013, I started a new approach to beginning my year. Since then, I have given my year a theme, encapsulated in three words. In order to better think on what I would like to make as my theme for next year, looking back at where I have been is invaluable. So, I am taking a moment to take a look at how 2016 went – to learn, to appreciate and to give myself a pat on the back where needed.

Throughout my year, I continued to be amazed by and grateful for the people I crossed paths with – friends, strangers and those in between. It may have been someone telling me not to give up at moments when the thought was threatening to become action. It may have been someone sharing words of wisdom that kept me and my fear, anger or ego acting out irrationally.

In 2016:

  • I moved to a new neighborhood. This was a big deal as I had lived in the same neighborhood for 16 years (my husband had been there for 20), we had many friends that lived conveniently close and more amenities than we knew what to do with. I miss it all AND I am excited about our new path forward.
  • A college friend invited me to take cello lessons with her and another friends and I said yes. We love it – we dream big and take small steps every week toward living those dreams. I know those around us, who get to hear us practicing, hope that we live those dreams sooner rather than later.
  • I was accepted into New York Community Trust Leadership Fellows, a program in non program that has both expanded my mind and exposed me to some truly inspiring, passionate and motivating people and organizations.
  • I had great conversations with high school students, college students and fellow professionals about forensic accounting, careers in accounting and working to do what we love, even when we have doubts about it.
  • I was part of a very exciting launch of the New York State Society of  CPAs Women’s Initiative and, at the end of the year, I became the Chair of the NYSSCPA Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Through the efforts and enthusiasm of my colleagues and the NYSSCPA, I am fortunate to be involved with such important initiatives and committees.
  • I have seen friends stand up for what they believe is right; I have experienced my communities come together in ways that renew my belief in humanity; I have applauded the sheer awesomeness of my people!

The night of 31 December 2016 turned out to be an incredibly windy one. My husband and I had planned on walking around the neighborhood, discovering the various New Year’s Eve celebrations in our new space. However, gale force winds led to a change of plan (isn’t that how life works?) We made dinner and spent the evening talking, laughing and watching various celebrations on television. I made sure to dance before and after midnight

Growing up, my father gave me a diary for Christmas, every year. I was always excited to get mine and, even as I moved away for college and started living away from home, I still got my diary. In yet another chapter of – Parents are Sneaky and Wise – I have discovered the power and importance of being able to look back and how much that helps in looking forward. So, farewell 2016! I am now turning my head to look ahead to 2017. Hello!

 

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True Tone at the Top

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I am reading “Tragedy of Fraud – Insider Trading Edition“, a book recently released by James Ulvog. This is the story of Scott London‘s journey from KPMG partner to prison inmate. James Ulvog covered this story in depth, from the moment it broke up to when Scott London went to prison. I would not be surprised if Jim picks up the story again when London is released from prison. In the book, Jim has spoken about the possible consequences of London’s crime and a lot of these stretch well into the future, potentially affecting him both professionally and personally. It is always a big disappointment when members of the CPA profession completely disregard the ethical and professional standards that have been set by the various governing boards. It is, therefore, important when people like Jim of Attestation Update and Francine McKenna of re: The Auditors
call out the CPAs who are setting a terrible tone at the top of their profession.

It is equally important, if not more so, to recognize those who have provided a positive contribution to the CPA profession. We are trusted professionals for a reason; it’s not just empty rhetoric. A little over a week ago, I had the indescribable privilege of meeting Bernadine Coles Gines, CPA. I am pretty sure this is not a name you have heard before, but she is a woman worth learning more about. I met her at a New York State Society of CPAs (NYSSCPA) ceremony honoring the 60th anniversary of Bernadine Coles Gines’ CPA license. This is a big deal because Gines was the first black woman to receive the CPA license in New York State. It becomes even more of a big deal when you learn more about the challenges she faced, both while working towards becoming a CPA and beyond.

Bernadine Coles Gines moved to New York City from Virginia, where she is originally from, to get her master’s degree at New York University. She moved because, at the time, Virginia’s segregation laws kept her out of graduate school in that state. Once Gines had graduated and passed her CPA exams, she looked for work. She found that she could not find work with a black CPA firm in New York City because they would not hire women. She also found that she could not find work with white CPA firms because they would not hire black people. While interviewing at a white firm, one partner told her that, even though he could not hire her, perhaps Gines could help his wife, who was looking for a maid. She was finally hired by a two-partner Jewish firm, but only after she had convinced them that she was not a communist. Of course, getting work was in no way the end of her challenges but at no time did Gines give up or compromise. She persevered and continued to work toward achieving her goals, despite (or perhaps more resolved, because of) the challenges in her way.

I read a little about Bernadine Coles Gines before I met her, but when I met her, I was even more impressed. She spoke of her principles and her determination and her story is living proof of both. To come to face to face with a person who epitomizes unwavering grit and the drive to stand by what she believes in is truly motivating. To learn about people like Bernadine Gines reminds us about the types of people who have made CPA the trusted professionals that they are and they also show why we harshly judge those who give us a bad name. They are a reminder to us and to those we serve of those of us who are professional, ethical and will stand strong, despite the pressures put upon us.

You should go out and learn more about Bernadine Gines and others like her. As though her achievements were not enough, she shared during her interview, that her sister, Ruth Coles Harris, was the first Black woman to be certified as a CPA in Virginia, in 1963. Ruth Coles Harris faced challenges of her own when she decided she wanted to be a CPA. I wonder what those family reunions are like – I would hate to be the black sheep in that family (if they even have one). I am truly fortunate that I had this incredible opportunity to meet Bernadine Coles Gines and that I was reminded how important it is to uphold ethics and principles and that I should not compromise, especially when things are very challenging.

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