The field of accounting is overwhelmingly white, a racial group that makes up 84 percent of all certified public accountants in the United States. Of the nonwhite groups, just 2 percent are Black, according to a report published in 2019 by the Association of International Certified Public Accountants.
Rumbi Bwerinofa-Petrozzello, a forensic accountant, wants to change that dynamic. Earlier this month, she became the first Black woman to become president of the New York State Society of Certified Public Accountants, an organization that represents 24,000 lawyers, bankers and other professionals from associated industries.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Ms. Bwerinofa-Petrozzello has spent her career challenging the status quo and pushing for greater representation in her field. After graduating from Mount Holyoke with degrees in economics and mathematics, she worked as an auditor at Deloitte in Zimbabwe while also studying for a bachelor’s in accounting science at the University of South Africa. She returned to the United States in early 2000 where she worked as an accountant for several years before becoming a certified public accountant.
I recently talked to her about her trajectory, her leadership and how her work might inspire young Black students to find a career in accounting. Our conversation has been lightly edited.
How did your upbringing inform your career choice?
My parents were both professionals who were quite educated. I knew that essentially my life was going to be that of a professional. At no point was the fact that I was Black and female ever supposed to be any kind of barrier to anything I wanted to do. I went to an all-girls high school in Zimbabwe and then an all-women’s college. The fact that it was a women’s college wasn’t a factor. I came out of it thinking I could do what I wanted to do.
What were your career obstacles?
I left Deloitte in Zimbabwe after three years because I was tired of fighting the many inequalities. Black accountants would be given the worst assignments. When I was leaving, I told the manager about various incidences and he told me that I was seen as aggressive, which was why he did not hire Black people.
When I moved to the United States, I was hired for accounting jobs, but in the early 2000s after the tech bubble exploded, unemployment ticked up and it was hard to get a job because I had a degree from South Africa. It was used as an excuse to not hire me or to pay me less. So I thought if I got my C.P.A., there would be no question since it has a certain cachet and everyone has gone through the same process.
What do you want to do with the position? What are your priorities in terms of working with young people, and what is at stake?
Often when people talk about the lack of diversity in the profession, the excuse is because of a lack of education instead of the barriers to entry. Black students may not even know that path exists. This is where the (organization) steps in.
Historically, the C.P.A. profession excluded people of color because you need to work under the supervision of a C.P.A. in order to become a C.P.A. So if C.P.A.s were not hiring people of color and women in the past, then their chances of getting that experience was very low. To put it in context, this is a profession that is over 125 years old and the 100th Black person to become a C.P.A., Bert Mitchell, is still alive to tell the tale.
Many C.P.A.s of color take what is referred to as a nontraditional path. They may not have heard about it growing up and may come across a C.P.A. later and decide to pursue it. I feel strongly that there is inadequate support for people who decide to take that route. I don’t have the answers for all of this but I have deep admiration for the nontraditional-path C.P.A.s. If you are deciding to go back to college, to take these hard exams, that’s a level of commitment.
We are thinking of building a pipeline not just of very young people, but one of talented C.P.A.s. If this is your career goal, that should be open to you. What should keep you from being a C.P.A. is if you can’t pass the exams, if you can’t understand debits and credits. It shouldn’t be because you are too old or you are a person of color or you are a member of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.
Your appointment comes one year after the murder of George Floyd, and as companies have pledged to improve diversity in their ranks. How will you, and your organization, meet the moment?
With as much support as possible. The state society within the organization now has a diversity, equity and inclusion committee on staff, which is something that didn’t exist two years ago. The big accounting firms have made a commitment to D.E.I. Several have put out transparency reports about their numbers, especially in leadership. One of the things they found was when you are on the path to partnership, you work with challenging and high profile clients and run those client engagements. If you are not getting those clients, it’s a barrier to various levels of partnership. What they were finding was that people of color were not being assigned those engagements. It is something that has been acknowledged and that they are working on.
I admire the ability to take an honest look at what you are doing and how you are doing it, because a lot of the firms have had D.E.I. initiatives for decades and being able to stop and look and say, what we have been doing hasn’t been working and what do we need to fix and also let’s be open about this process, those are things to applaud.
What does success look like?
If we get to a point in the industry that is reflective of the society that we live in, at all levels, including making partner. People of color have been getting an education for a long time and they have been going to work for a long time, so there is no good reason why we are not seeing those people of color in positions of leadership.
The power of sponsorship is incredible because in a lot of workplaces, a lot of people get to where they are because of that. They have people who lift them up to those spaces of power. I know I have benefited from sponsors.
Everybody does better, businesses do better, when you are inclusive. It is a process that benefits everyone and everything.