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BPM’s Jessica Hekmatjah Discusses DEI in the Accounting World

04.07.20

Jenga BlocksThe article “Being Authentic Priority in Building Relationships with Underserved Communities” originally appeared in the spring 2020 edition of The Association for Accounting Marketing's quarterly Growth Strategies publication.

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities,” according to Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

For accounting and advisory firms, these words define a path to growth and success that many are traveling. As firms reach out to connect with more diverse client groups, they are finding success – and learning important lessons.

The concept of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the accounting world has most often taken the form of internal programs to recruit, train, mentor and advance professionals who belong to groups traditionally underrepresented in the profession. These include women, people of color, immigrants and LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, and asexual or allied) individuals.

But there is an important role for DEI initiatives to play outside the walls of a firm, as well. During the past two decades, many firms have taken up the challenge of reaching out authentically to serve underserved business communities, and they are eager to share the lessons they have learned along the way.

“You’ve got to be where they are – chambers, trade associations – and find ways to be an asset to them,” said Fernando Ayala CPA, a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Riverside, Calif., where he is a shareholder at RP&B CPAs. “Through the events I’ve been to and people I’ve met, I’ve answered phone calls and given an hour or two of my time to provide advice at no cost to them. It builds trust and good will.”

Many Hispanic business owners in the area built their restaurants, small construction companies, cleaning companies and other businesses with no help from outside advisors, Ayala said. Often, they have their taxes done by a preparer, unwilling to incur the extra cost for a CPA firm.

“We try to educate the community that there are services they are missing out on,” he said. “Their businesses have potential, but they don’t know where to go from here.”

Ayala’s group partnered with the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce and Bank of America last year to present a conference for Hispanic business owners. A large crowd of attendees heard about how to scale a business and the importance of working with advisors who benchmark and analyze their key performance indicators.

Authenticity
Building an understanding of what it means to connect authentically with underserved business communities is the foundation for eventual success. Firm leaders, marketers and business developers need to accept it doesn’t come quickly. Language barriers must be overcome. As Ayala noted, being fluent in Spanish isn’t enough in his role as a CPA. It’s essential to be fluent in business Spanish, knowing the right terms for deductions and credits, and how to explain complex tax and financial concepts.

Building the trust that will lead to business relationships also requires authentic and sustained involvement. “Writing a check is not a relationship,” said Joanne Cleaver, producer of the Accounting MOVE Project, an independent research and advocacy project focused on diverse talent at CPA and advisory firms. “Don’t just sponsor the local Middle Eastern Food Festival; get someone from your firm involved on the organizing committee.”

“Accounting firm leaders also need to reach out to natural allies,” Ayala said. Building relationships with intermediary service providers such as attorneys and bankers who serve minority business communities will support that effort.

Business Case for DEI
The group of Americans who identify as ethnic minorities is expected, collectively, to become a majority of the U.S. population by 2024. The business community increasingly is reflecting this trend, with the number of minority-owned businesses growing by more than 5% annually, fueled in part by an increase in immigration to the U.S. during the past two decades. There are about 1.1 million minority-owned businesses in the U.S., including 360,000 Hispanic-owned businesses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s2017 Annual Business Survey. Women-owned businesses also number about 1.1 million.

While the data support the business case for a culture of DEI internally, firms that thrive in the 21st Century also will explore the interconnectedness of their internal commitments to the diverse clients they represent. The key question for accounting and advisory firms is how to leverage their staff’s diverse perspectives, lifestyles and backgrounds to ensure client-facing teams are well-connected within their communities. With more than 350 languages spoken by nearly 3 million people throughout the U.S., according to Census figures, how can accounting and advisory firms understand the multicultural nuances that enable teams to better connect with the populations they serve?

Opportunities and Challenges
Engaging with minority-owned businesses presents opportunities and challenges for accounting and advisory firms and their marketing professionals.

The opportunity is in the numbers. Minority-owned businesses generate more than $1.5 trillion in annual gross receipts and employ more than 10 million workers, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Amid the strong economy, these businesses are growing and need the tax, assurance, consulting, and managed accounting and advisory professional services that accounting and advisory firms provide.

The challenges come into play with cultural differences, language barriers and simply not knowing how to communicate effectively with business owners of different cultural backgrounds.

Cleaver has guided firms through these challenges, both internally and externally.

“I learned that in Hispanic family businesses, the women often are the CFOs,” she said. “Traditional male partners might walk in to talk to a business owner and assume they should talk to the man.”

It is hard to separate the issues of internal diversity – recruiting and retention of minority and women accountants – and business development. A 2015 McKinsey study showed that companies with a high degree of internal racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry means, reflecting greater success in business development.

Though accounting and advisory firms have made significant progress with diversity and inclusion initiatives in recent years, the profession still is about 75% Caucasian, according to Census data. So how do firm leaders reach beyond their personal experience and establish authentic relationships with minority business communities?

Mandarin Outreach
At Clayton McKervey, a Southfield, Mich., firm of 80 employees, the commitment to serving a minority business community started 30 years ago as an outgrowth of the firm’s international business practice, said Denise Asker, the firm’s director of marketing and practice growth.

Serving the automotive ecosystem of the Detroit area, the firm recognized about 10 years ago that Chinese-owned companies were moving into the market to supply the major automakers. They hired a Mandarin-speaking CPA, and then three more, all native-born Chinese individuals. Together “the Chinese team” guides the firm’s market outreach and bridges the cultural divide.

Today the firm has a Mandarin language website and even a Mandarin name, “Ker Li Wei” which loosely means beautiful branch. Asker said the Mandarin team has led Clayton McKervey’s business development efforts in directions it never would have gone without their insight. They also convinced the partners the Chinese name was essential.

“Our Chinese CPAs are great educators,” Asker said. For instance, the Chinese team made the partners aware of differences in the ways Chinese and American companies negotiate terms like fees and timing.

The Chinese team also does a lot of client entertaining on weekends involving families, including invitations to children’s birthday parties.

“Those investments of time are appreciated by the Chinese,” Asker said. “Without the Chinese team guiding us, we wouldn’t have thought to do those things. We trust them.”

Clayton McKervey’s strategy is on target, Cleaver said.

“The most productive dynamic is working with communities as a long game. That’s how you learn the nuances that Caucasian suburbanites may not be aware of.”

Client Expectations
Clients and prospects notice effective outreach to minority business communities, as well as internal diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, said Daniel Figueredo CPA, CGMA, a partner at BPM LLP in San Francisco.

As leader of BPM’s nonprofit industry group, Figueredo is hearing more prospective clients ask the firm to provide evidence of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. For example, RFPs specifically ask service providers to outline polices on equity and diversity, measures to engage people of color and other ways the company promotes a culture of inclusion and belonging.

Part of BPM’s annual growth report includes a section on its Inclusion Now! initiatives, which list key accomplishments the firm has made for working parents, women leaders, advocacy for future partners and promotion policies. The report also outlines year-over-year numbers across the makeup of its workforce and diverse leadership.

Where Do We Go?
The good news is most firms have established DEI programs internally, recognizing the transformational cultural and business needs that lie ahead. Every firm and every community is different, so the best DEI initiatives for your firm must address your unique needs. But we hope this article has outlined areas you may want to explore with your communities and clients.

Resources such as the AICPA’s Accounting Inclusion Maturity Model (www.aicpainclusion.com) provide firms with free assessments, indicating their current diversity and inclusion efforts based on four core areas: workforce, workplace, marketplace and community and supplier relations. Creating a brand that is inclusive is no longer the exception but the new norm.

As change agents, marketers and businesses developers have an exciting opportunity to lead DEI initiatives that actually make a difference not only in their local communities but around the world.

Recruiting Perspective
As the accounting and advisory profession evolves, so does the need for diverse talent and skillsets. The portion of diverse enrollees in accounting bachelor’s degree programs rose to 44% in 2018, an all-time high, according to a recent study by the Journal of Accountancy. This means accounting and advisory firms need to think outside the box when it comes to recruiting and retention.

Students from diverse backgrounds seek to join accounting and advisory firms where employees look like them and understand their values. Firm recruiters need to understand the cultural norms of the students to build connections and increase engagement. Sometimes those norms include building careers “back home” near family, even if they have chosen to attend a college away from home. Recruiters in the college town need to ask the right questions to ascertain if diverse students envision themselves remaining in that area.

“Firms miss out on local talent all the time because they are looking in the wrong places,” said Joanne Cleaver, producer of the Accounting MOVE Project, an independent research and advocacy project for diverse talent at accounting and advisory firms. Firms that focus their recruiting at private colleges and large universities may find themselves frustrated when their recruits leave after a couple of years to return to their hometowns. “In many non-American cultures, students make decisions with the long game with their families in mind. Why recruit people who don’t want to be where you are?”

Instead, Cleaver advises firms to start building relationships with students while they are in high school or at local community colleges through corporate sponsorship programs and neighborhood organizations. Programs such as the AICPA’s Accounting Program for Building the Profession (APBP) allow CPAs to serve as APBP trained educators to introduce high school students to advanced content, giving them a more realistic idea of accounting as a career.

Dana Bottorff, principal, Anadon Marketing/Communications. Contact at 781-856-3262 or dana@anadonmarketing.com.

Jessica Hekmatjah, director of marketing and corporate development, BPM LLP. Contact at 415-288-6228 or JHekmatjah@ bpmcpa.com.