CLA partners with NABA to increase diversity in accounting


CliftonLarsonAllen is teaming up with the National Association of Black Accountants to encourage more diversity, equity and inclusion in the accounting profession.

The partnership represents a first of its kind corporate sponsorship for NABA. As part of the effort, CLA is committing to increase workforce diversity, expand its talent pool and improve the representation of Black individuals within the profession. The Top 10 Firm is also providing office space to NABA at its Greenbelt, Maryland location and other CLA offices around the country.

Only about 5,000 of the 650,000 CPAs in the U.S. are Black, according to NABA.

“What we’ve decided to do together is to focus on what it means to expand the visibility of accounting as a thrilling, thriving, exciting field for Black people and a place where they can really see that there are multiple disciplines that can come together,” said NABA president and CEO Guylaine Saint Juste. “It’s the idea that it’s broadening the perspective for Black people, that accounting is a viable field and that accounting is a variety of things, not just audit. Not that audit and taxation are not important, but it is much more than that.”

CLA is planning to expand its workforce and make it more diverse with the help of the NABA partnership. “If you think about the demographics of our country and community shifting, it’s the same thing with the demographics of our workforce,” said CLA CEO Jen Leary. “We’re really building the workforce of the future. CLA will welcome over 2,000 people per year into our firm. We’re really excited about that. Of those 2,000, approximately 30% come from diverse backgrounds. That will continue to increase. The relationship with NABA, and welcoming more talent from the Black community, is a priority, and I think it’s going to be really important for us to think about not only how we recruit great Black talent, but how we retain that great Black talent. That’s going to be really important going forward.”

CLA compliance and ethics director April Sherman has been asked to lead NABA’s newly created Ethics Task Force and she will create a code of ethics for the national organization.

NABA hopes to get more Black people interested in going into the accounting profession and to advise Black-owned businesses on achieving success and passing on their assets to future generations.

“We know that there is a perception of what accounting is among Black people that we need to transform,” said Saint Juste. “So there’s an attraction of talent, there is a retention of talent, and there is an advisory piece because what NABA wants to be known for is helping with that idea of Black business leaders finding their voice. They want to excel and contribute in places where they experience belonging and relevance. And we know that working with CLA, we will certainly get into the opportunity to grow the advisory piece of our practices. As to how we create spaces in places where Black people find belonging and relevance and that will drive retention, there’s also a piece of upskilling so that people can get promotion and advancement. And then there’s a place of also supporting CLA in wanting to work with Black-owned businesses so they can get the right support that they need to grow and scale. It’s beyond just talent. NABA is transforming to be more intentional around talent, to move it from sourcing to attraction, retention, promotion, advancement continuum and also supporting Black business leaders as they seek to own businesses. And then, under wealth advisory is also our quest for being part of the conversation around generational wealth, that folks have an opportunity to really focus on what that means.”

CLA hopes to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in its ranks through the partnership. “We talk about getting DEI into our DNA,” said Leary. “This starts with our board and it goes throughout our entire organization. We are looking at things not as a DEI initiative, but really a lens through which we make decisions for the organization. That’s a little shift from having it be a team to really the lens. We look at how we advance people in the organization with sponsorships and mentorships. We look at opportunities to work on great engagements and committees at a local and national level. And then we also look at making sure we’re creating the environment — we call it the vibe — where everyone belongs. Moving from inclusion to belonging and really feeling like you can show up as your whole self, that’s what we are after right now, and that’s what I believe NABA can help us with.”

NABA has been working over the years with other firms as well, especially Deloitte. The organization also partners with PwC, KPMG, EY, and Crowe, along with other accounting firms and banks. But Saint Just sees the partnership with CLA as going beyond the other arrangements, including the use of office space.

“I just think that Jennifer Leary is an incredible leader, and we will forever be grateful to her warmth and her grace and the way in which the CLA family has welcomed us into not only sharing space for our office, but making all 120 offices around the United States available to us, and we’re excited about what we’re cooking up,” she said.

CLA hopes to recruit more young accountants to the firm through the partnership, especially as the talent pipeline has become difficult for many firms to fill, and its Baltimore office is piloting a program geared toward high schools.

“We have a declining number of people interested in the accounting industry,” said Leary. “Even when you look at college majors, there’s a declining number in accounting. So, I think we have an opportunity at CLA to be a part of the solution for the industry, which is to welcome more talent because the country needs more accountants. That is for sure. And so then as a part of the Black community specifically, my opinion is we need to start younger. If we wait to reach this community in the colleges and the universities, I think that we have missed an opportunity. Our vision is that we take the network and go deeper, go into high schools and maybe even grade schools to show people the opportunities available with an accounting degree.”

NABA also hopes to attract more Black students into entering the accounting profession. “We have a long way to go with parity and equity in this profession,” said Saint Just. “We know that roughly 2%, within a margin of error, of CPAs are Black. At least that’s the data that we have. We’ve heard a variety of comments around why people don’t self-report race and gender on the CPA Exam, so we don’t know if the data is accurate or not because there’s an absence of the data. We really would like to understand that better because we don’t want to quote numbers that are not correct or maybe inaccurate, but we need to figure that out. Why isn’t the accounting profession attractive to Black people? The AICPA published numbers in 2019 that, of the 340,000 people who were in the game for achieving an accounting degree, 25,000 of them were Black. That’s not a large number. Firms were able to hire less than a total of 1,300 Black people in 2019. We’ve got to broaden the pipeline and that means going as early as high school, if not before, making sure that we are partnering with firms to identify the roles and exposing Black business leaders to those roles so that they can begin to see themselves in those places and spaces and realize how exciting a career in accounting or in the business field can really be.”

One way she hopes to improve the recruiting of young Black people into the accounting profession is by emphasizing the role of technology. “I wonder if we’ve made the connection that accounting encompasses a lot of technology,” said Saint Just. “I don’t know anybody that’s not auditing on cyber risk or total ERM risk and all that we know is happening in the ESG field. I think that there is a PR campaign for the field as a whole that has been missed, and NABA sees itself as being at the center of that work in terms of making sure that we are exposing the generations of Black business leaders that are coming up, that this is a great place to have a career. And even if they are interested in technology, they can certainly consider accounting and technology to make a great pair.”

“I don’t know that you can build a career right now without good technology training,” said Leary. “It cuts across every career, certainly accounting, and I think that we have the opportunity when we think about the workforce of the future to really embrace a number of different majors. The primary is accounting for CPA hopefuls, but there’s also data scientists and data analytics. There’s also the opportunity to bring in more economics. We are looking at two-year degreed individuals for part of our practice, so we believe we can play even a more impactful role to the community college network in the country. Not only are we going to expand majors, we’re going to expand where we are able to source talent.”

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