Life at DHG Podcast Series

Podcast Episode 28: Lifting as We Climb

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In celebration of Black History Month, Jina Etienne the President and CEO of the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) joins us to share her thoughts and perspective on some of the major issues facing our industry today.

Jina is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the national office of NABA, and provides strategic direction and leadership for the organization. To learn more about NABA visit www.nabainc.org.


Episode 28 Transcript:

AGH: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of our DHG Podcast series. I’m Alice Grey Harrison, your host, and I love this venue because we get to hear from our people about the things that matter the most to them: flexibility, careers, and people. This is a very special installment of our DHG Podcast series. It’s a celebration of inclusion and diversity in honor of Black History Month.

One of the organizations that we are a proud supporter of is NABA, the National Association of Black Accountants. NABA is dedicated to bridging the opportunity gap for black accounting and finance professionals by providing leadership and technical training as well as networking and career opportunities. I visited their website and learned about some of the cold hard facts.

According to the latest US census, African-Americans make up 13.6% of the total US population. But they only make up 10.8% of the employed market and less than 9% of those are actually classified as accountants and auditors and for analyst and financial managers it’s closer to 7%.

When NABA was founded in 1969, less than 1% of all CPA’s in America were black. We’ve made some great strides, but clearly we have a long way to go. I’m so proud of the work that DHG is doing in this area and was truly honored that NABA recognized us with their 2016 Corporate Diversity Award. Today, I’m pleased to share with you that we have a very special guest with us. Jina Etienne, the President and CEO of NABA is here with us to share her thoughts and perspective on some of the major issues facing our industry today. Jina is responsible for the day to day operations of the National Office and she provides strategic direction and leadership for the organization.

Without further ado, welcome Jina.

JE: Well thank you.

AGH: So, first tell us about NABA. I know I did a brief intro, but I’d love to hear it from you.

JE: NABA is an amazing organization. We’ve been around for over 46 years now and our role is to really help minorities — primarily black — understand what the opportunities are in accounting, get prepared for jobs in accounting, and actually put people into jobs in accounting with career opportunities. And then we work to develop them through their career all the way up to the c-suite of partners.

So it is the entire life cycle around accounting with career awareness, readiness, ongoing development — whether it’s technical or professional — for the minority of population, primarily black. But not everybody that’s involved is black, but most of them are.

AGH: Very good so why is it important to the accounting profession that we have minority focused organizations such as NABA?

JE: You know we get that question a lot. I would say, in all of the affinity groups and if you think about the accounting profession, it’s historically male predominantly white. I think that what we do know from studies that have been done recently, diversity helps business. It does improve the bottom line. It increases sales, it increases effectiveness and it increases retention. It increases the ability for, in the case of accounting firms, for firms and partners and staff to really understand their clients.

At the end of the day, a CPA firm can’t effectively serve, represent, understand, and consult with a client that they don’t understand. So if you look like your client in every way, then you’re going to have a stronger connection. So I think that, first of all, that’s the argument behind diversity in the profession and then you have organizations like NABA where what we do is help firms understand what that feels like.

Think of it as a double sided mirror. On one side, you’ve got a member who through our meetings and through our programming and through our networking, there’s an opportunity to speak I’ll say behind the wall, if you will, about the challenges we face when we work day to day as sometimes and often, the only black face in the room. So what does that feel like and how do we overcome that? We hear those stories at NABA.

The flip side is when we’re meeting with our corporate partners and sponsors who are looking to attract minority talent. We hear what they are up against. So we get to hear what they perceive about our members and we get to hear what our members perceive about their employers and what we learn then is where there are gaps of awareness. This enables us to communicate and educate in both directions. So I think that’s why organizations like NABA are so important because where else will you get that connecting point to close those gaps of understanding and awareness?

AGH: Sure, I completely get it. I had the honor of attending the national convention last year as a speaker and it was really — I live and breathe this stuff at Dixon Hughes Goodman, but it was just so eye opening to first hand witness all the things that you just described. So what are some of significant accomplishments of NABA that you like to highlight for us?

JE: Well we could start with the basics, which is just increasing awareness in the profession. We are proud of the work we have done for 46 years and we can speak to the fact that there are people who wouldn’t necessarily have their roles today NABA . You can look at our scholarship program for example and over our existence, we have given estimates of over $11 million in scholarships to students. These are students who wouldn’t have gone on to an accounting career. They wouldn’t have necessarily pursued an accounting degree. So that’s an important achievement.

We have something called the ACAP program, the Accounting Career Awareness Program. ACAP is about getting high schoolers onto campus for a seven day residency program. That actually has led to scholarships – that’s led to students getting accepted in the very college where they participated in the ACAP program and go on to pursue an accounting degree. We have four regional student conferences where students come together to learn about career awareness and job readiness. They get actual placements in the internships and permanent positions.

But I think the thing that I’m most proud about is on top of all of that, if that weren’t already enough, we have a program called NABA Cares. It’s an umbrella initiative, if you will. It’s at every level; the national level, the regional level and the chapter level where we go out, partner with local organizations and give back to the community. So I will say one thing – if you come from a disadvantaged community, you appreciate the work that needs to be done.

Speaking for myself, I’m the daughter of an immigrant. My mother is an immigrant and my father, I believe his great grandfather was a slave and so if you look at just that history and then I look at what I’ve been able to achieve, I want to give back to others so that others can share in that bounty and I think that all of our members have that spirit and we embrace that in our overall organization and do things like food drives and Vita and feed the homeless and there’s a lot of other initiatives that fall under the umbrella of NABA Cares and that’s really, really special.

AGH: That is really, really special and one of the things that I learned when I was at the convention is that even at the convention where you’ve spent three or four days in a learning environment, you’ve been in classroom setting, on the last day you take on a community service project and I remember that just stuck with me. It was so cool that everyone stayed an extra day to do that.

JE: Yes – we helped the food bank in South Florida last convention and I remember being there. We were actually sorting food that gets distributed in the food bank and I can’t tell you how many of us were in tears at moments throughout  the day. I might even get emotional now thinking about it because it reminds you of how grateful you are. Gratitude is sometimes lost in moments of stress or at times when we’re extraordinarily busy, let’s say I don’t know, tax season. Sometimes we lose our perspective of the gratitude. For that, “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be suffering through busy season,” for example.

AGH: Right, yeah.

JE: And so that was very special.

AGH: So it is Black History Month, another special thing that we celebrate. Why do you think that it’s important for firms and companies such as DHG to celebrate and recognize this month?

JE: Well I think there continues to be the question asked, “Why do we even need to continue to have a Black History Month?” And I think as long as the question gets asked, it in some ways is the answer to the question. I think that the recognition that there has been a gap, the recognition that we in the profession want diversity and we want inclusion, and we want to shift the culture so that it doesn’t matter your race, it doesn’t matter your age and we think diversity it’s age, it’s race, it’s gender, it’s sexual orientation, it’s religion, it’s experience.

All of that is useful and I think that any opportunity we have to leverage any one aspect of that and deepen the understanding, close the gaps so people don’t make assumptions, that’s important. Black History Month puts a time and a frame around having conversations specific to the black experience in America and for firms, what that means to your employees. It’s when you feel invisible, when somebody calls you out in a way that makes you feel included, that’s powerful.

I think that so long as the profession is still so predominantly male and predominantly white — let me correct that, so long as the profession is so predominantly white because we’re quickly getting to the point where we’re balanced from a gender perspective, then these conversations need to happen. I think that’s why it’s important to not only continue the Black History Month across the country in general but I think for firms to embrace it as you all are doing, I mean that is awesome. I salute you.

AGH: Thank you. It is a special month for us and I love how you framed that. I’m going to switched gears on this next one. One thing that intrigued me as I learned about NABA is that you have a leadership development institute. How does this impact the future of the profession?

JE: Oh, I love that question and I love that question for a couple of reasons. We just rolled out a new three year strategic plan that’s called “Vision 20/20” and anybody can find a copy of it on our website under the “about us” area and the reason that’s powerful is that historically, we’ve been an organization about job placement and job readiness. But what we’re recognizing is today, there are more and more opportunities for minorities to get jobs. Although we do believe there’s still an important role we can play there, we see an even bigger opportunity to help people keep the job and progress.

And so what do we know about accounting? You need to have the technical skills to get the job but what do we also know about moving up to partner? Or if you’re not in a public accounting firm, getting to be the CFO or any of the C’s in the C-suite. It takes a certain type of competencies, and those are leadership competencies because the technical expertise is a given. You know, to say, “Well I really know my debits and credits,” my answer would be, “Uh I would hope so.”

AGH: Right.

JE: So that’s not what’s getting you promoted and so often, particularly in a lot of chapter level programming that we do, we are really helping our members hone those technical skills and reinforce those technical skills. So our Leadership Development Institute is an opportunity to overlay on that, not to take away from it, but to overlay on that what else you need for career progression. What’s especially important about the LDI — that’s what we call it internally — is it’s broken up into three tracks.

So we have the Aspiring Leaders Track for those who don’t have a lot of experience but want to begin to be seen as and developed into future leaders. We have the Management Track, which is programming leveled at those who are effectively in management but wanted to now move to the next level, which is executive level. And then we have Executive Level Programming, which is, “So you’re at senior management level.”

One of the things that we know to be true regardless of public accounting or private industry, as you get closer to the top, the opportunities narrow and so how do you move up and continue moving up? And then, more importantly and something that I’m learning in this role, for me this is my first time at an executive leadership position.

I mean I ran my own firm for a long time but that’s different. Here I’m accountable to somebody other than my bottom line or my pocketbook. I’m accountable to the board of directors. I’m accountable to the membership, And I’m accountable to the stakeholders and I will tell you that — and this is just my personal lesson as it relates to the importance of LDI — you need a certain set of skills to make it to the top. You need a different set of skills to stay there.

So we have a really powerful three prong approach to helping our members build, grow, and maintain the muscles, if you will, and those competency areas that will make them an effective leader and it’s really powerful and it’s really something we’re focusing on building out across the country going forward.

AGH: That is just super information and a terrific program for our industry. I applaud you all for that.

JE: Thanks.

AGH: So, let’s pretend that I’m a young associate and just starting my career, I can’t help but ask you, what advice do you have for me?

JE: How much time do we have? I’m kidding! I am a big fan of animated films and those who know me know I’m a bit sarcastic, I’m a bit of a dry wit. But I also throw out quotes. I find them to be meaningful in so many ways and so the first thing that comes to mind, I don’t know if you saw the movie The Incredibles? There’s a character in there named Edna Mode, she’s a designer.

There’s a scene when she’s talking to somebody who is struggling with problems and they say, “Oh, I don’t know how I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do that.” They’re frantic. She says so casually, “Luck favors the prepared, darling.”

That’s a really important thing. You can just pass that over and not even remember that line in the movie, but it jumped out at me because you can be as prepared as you want to be. But if the opportunity never comes your way, what are you going to do?

Or, you can have all the opportunities in the world but if you aren’t prepared to take advantage of them, it doesn’t matter. So I’ve heard how ultimately success is the connection between luck and preparedness. I believe that. So my recommendation is: just be ready because you don’t know when you’re going to be tapped but when you’re tapped, you need to be ready.

AGH: Right.

JE: Nobody’s entitled to be tapped. Some people should be tapped and never are. Other people are tapped and maybe shouldn’t have been. But that’s not what I’m talking about. For each individual, we can only speak to ourselves.

Then the other thing that comes to mind is I know it’s a Henry Ford quote but I modify it slightly.

“Obstacles are something you see, when you lose sight of your goal.” I know this is true. If you’ve ever been trying to walk a straight line randomly — try this today when you go out to the parking lot. Try to walk a straight line along one of the parking lot lines. I promise you, you’ll be looking down. As soon as you look down, you stumble. And it’s true.

It’s true when often time’s people have too many expectations, they get so distracted with the expectations that they stumble. I think that if you’re young and you’re aspiring, what I would recommend is just have a dream for yourself. Have a dream that’s bigger than anything you’ll ever achieve. Hold onto that dream, and then don’t map how you’re going to get to it specifically. Because frankly, you can’t possibly have even predicted how to get to the space you’re standing in right now.

AGH: True.

JE: So what makes you think you can predict where you’re going to be in two years or five years or 10 years? Life is crazy that way, but what I can tell you is that although I couldn’t have predicted getting to NABA, specifically in terms of job, role, responsibility, I can tell you that the vision and dreams that I’ve had for myself since as far back as I can remember, are aligned with where I am today.

So have that dream, pursue it relentlessly, passionately, be prepared so that when luck comes your way, you’re ready and you know what – You won’t see the problems unless you stop and look at them. That’s when you trip and fall.

AGH: Terrific advice. Whether you’re just starting your career or someone like me who’s over 20 years in. That really is great advice, thank you.

JE: You’re welcome.

AGH: Okay, I’ve listened to this podcast and maybe now I feel inspired, how does one go about getting involved with NABA?

JE: Starts with, if you’re not a member, join. You don’t have to be an accountant, you don’t have to be black. You just have to care about the mission and the programming, so join. If you don’t have a chapter near you, we have a category called “At large”. Join NABA and if you’re near a chapter, join the chapter, attend the meeting, come to conventions, host an event, sponsor an event, speak at an event.

It’s really not hard to get engaged. We would love to have you in however you want to show up because together, it is only together, partners, stakeholders, regulators, members and the profession at large that we’re going to solve this diversity problem.

AGH: Terrific advice, terrific information. Thank you so much for joining us.

JE: Well, thank you for having me, I loved it. We could have talked forever, but maybe another time.

AGH: Okay, I’m signing you up. This was terrific. We’ll count on it, same time, same place next year right?

JE: There you go.

AGH: Thank you all for listening to life at DHG, our premier podcast series. If you like what you just heard, we hope you’ll tell your friends and colleagues. Be sure to check out our DHG blog, for more great stories about our life beyond numbers and our celebration of inclusion and diversity.

Join us next time for another episode of Life at DHG.


About NABA:

The National Association of Black Accountants (NABA, Inc.), is a nonprofit membership association dedicated to bridging the opportunity gap for people of color in the Accounting, Finance, Consulting, Information Technology and other related business professions. Representing more than 200,000 people of color in these fields, NABA, Inc. advances people, advances careers and advances the mission by providing education, resources and meaningful career connections to both professional and student members, fulfilling the principle of thier motto: Lifting As We Climb. For more information visit: www.nabainc.org.