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First President and CEO of National Society of Black CPAs Speaks About Its DEI Mission

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 19, 2021

Page 8 Darryl Matthews

Darryl R. Matthews Sr. is the first president and CEO of the National Society of Black CPAs (NSBCPA), an organization formed last summer. The group is specifically focused on Black CPAs and CPA candidates, seeking to increase the number of both. Matthews took the time to speak with The Trusted Professional to share some of his thoughts on the current state of play regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the corporate world. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

DEI discourse often focuses on traditionally marginalized communities as a whole. What do you think are the challenges particular to the Black community, specifically, in terms of increasing representation within the CPA profession? 

You’ve probably heard of the National Association of Black Accountants [NABA], which was founded in 1969. I ran NABA as COO for nine years. NABA was founded as an answer to, “Where are [the Black CPAs]? We just can’t find them. If we could find them, we would hire them.” Back then, up until about the middle 1960s, Black people were not hired by the Big Eight accounting firms. As a matter of fact, [to get certified,] some of those first 100 Black CPAs had to use some ingenious methods, including sometimes some subterfuge, because [they were] not allowed [to take the CPA exam]. [For example,] if their complexions were light enough, they’d go to a state where they could pass for white and sit for the exam. So we’ve got that history behind us. 

NABA has done a great job, historically, of bringing awareness of the accounting profession to students, and in helping to chart their course through the undergraduate years into that first entry-level job, but we saw a vacuum in terms of a focus, a laser focus, on the CPA exam. We were chartered in June 2020 because of the vacuum that exists because the denominator of CPAs is in the hundreds of thousands, but the numerator of Black accountants we can identify, it may be as high as 5,000, though we think it’s closer to 3,500, which is abysmal. So, in this respect, we are not in competition with NABA, but rather, see our efforts as complementary to its mission. 

[But] the very definition of DEI is one size does not fit all. … Some of these folks fit in more than one box so, yes, they are African American, they are Black, but they’re also in particular religious groups or genders or sexualities. So I think corporate America is saying we have to look at the whole of our employees juxtaposed with the whole of America, because America is just not one way or one size. 

In your assessment, what do you think are the main factors in why we see so few Black CPA candidates, and thus, Black CPAs? 

There aren’t many Black accounting students who have encountered CPAs who look like the people who grew up on their block or neighborhood. So first we need to get them to understand that you can do it. The people who are running this program have done it. ... Sometimes, you need that person standing beside you to remind you that even though it’s not going to be easy, you’re not the first one to face these obstacles. Our motto is, “If we did it, you can do it. We’ll do it together.” 

Another thing is that, in our assessment, schools can have a good accounting program or business program, but we still see A students, quality students, needing some enhancement of their study skills. We would like to see stronger studying skills for those candidates who want to sit for the CPA exam because this exam is the toughest exam probably of all the professional certifications. … But if you aren’t passing the exam, it doesn’t matter how great you were as a student; you’re probably not going to make it past five years in one of the major firms. 

Bringing DEI into the CPA profession is certainly an uphill battle, and much of the dialogue seems to be about how little progress has been made or how far we need to go. What positive developments have you seen over the years in this arena? What should be giving us hope that, with enough work, we  can succeed in our goals? 

A few years ago, a finance team at a Wall Street company was sent to San Francisco for a bond offering. The mayor of San Francisco at the time, Willie Brown, told this company, “You sent a team out here that doesn’t look like San Francisco, doesn’t represent the makeup of this city, and until you can send a team that reflects the diversity of this city”—and remember, this was a $600 million bond offering—“don’t come back.” When the powers that be take that attitude, diversity becomes important because if you don’t have it, it costs you money. 

The world is changing. We’re in a global economy, and we need to best the competition, so we’ve got to put the best competitors we’ve got on the field. … If we develop more CPA candidates, get more Black CPAs, it becomes difficult to say we couldn’t find these people. We’ve got to get the process started somewhere. We can sit back and complain and bemoan, but that energy can be better spent taking those who are interested and helping them become CPAs. If I were a preacher or a proselytizer, I’d say our cause is righteous.  

In what areas—for example, public accounting, industry, government, etc.—are Black CPAs strongest in terms of representation? 

There was a company in the Midwest that had a strong finance department; they had several Black CPAs working there, but no Black person had ever become an officer at that time. It’s not an uncommon story. … People in these situations, we’ve seen them transfer to marketing, transfer to real estate, transfer to another department where they can advance and become officers. Like anyone else, they want to be somewhere they can grow. 

A lot of them go into public practice from college, especially the Big Four, and maybe the second tier, but then a number of them decide, “You know, I’m going to hang out my own shingle, have my own firm.” There are a number of firms owned or managed by Black CPAs. I also know a lot of CPAs going into the entertainment and sports management business, branching out beyond the traditional historic white-collar professional office environment. They get their start there, but then that certification is the ticket to a lot of things, and what I’m seeing now is corporate America is looking to expand its board and add more diversity, and here the CPA credential is very helpful, too. 

Where do you think current DEI efforts are falling down? Where do you see flaws in the current landscape? 

With the killing of George Floyd and what we had over the summer, and the last couple of years with the advent of cameras and video phones letting people see up front and live that there is a tremendous injustice against Americans, there’s a consciousness right now that has been unlike anything I’ve seen since the Age of Aquarius in the late ’60s, early ’70s. An understanding that America is better than this, that we have a country, a society, that is open for all. Then and now there have been people who resist mightily; this is not a new phenomenon, but there have also been people who practice what they preach in diversity, equity and inclusion. Right now, I’m seeing what I think is a cyclical societal trend. I don't know how long it will last; maybe 25 years from now, we’ll look back and see that in the early 2020s [there] was a reckoning with the lack of opportunity and access in corporate America. 

I think there’s a recognition that we haven’t always been fair and haven’t always been equitable, have people here who aren’t treated right and that we need to support them, and that these things can make them more productive employees, which impacts the bottom line. If I can come to work and do a good job, then, obviously, the bottom line is going to reflect an upward trend. So while I think they were falling down, I think, right now, we are experiencing a lot of progress. 

One of the major challenges of increasing DEI is convincing leaders of the need for it in the first place. Generally, how have you gotten true buy-in from leaders who might be resistant to change? 

One of the first questions I ask when I sit down and have these discussions is, “Is this a real goal or is it a public image goal?” There are companies who have said to me that they just want this problem to go away, that they’ll give me money to make this go away because “that’s not real money to us.” … [Then] there are some CEOs who will have the conversation but don’t intend to change or they don’t see the actual challenge. But the good thing about corporate America is that it’s like a merry-go-round. ... There are some people you’ll never reach, and you don’t want to waste time and effort going after or converting someone like that. [But] there may be someone else who could be sitting in that CEO seat next year. Of course, you also have a true partnership with a great executive, and they wind up leaving for whatever reason. All I can do is tell the story, present the facts, present the evidence. 

Since I don’t have a stake in these companies, I can have frank conversations with division managers, with the C-suite, and tell them about some concerns I’ve been hearing from affinity networks of people. I can speak truth to power. How they react is on them. But my career won’t be ended just because I dared tell the truth to someone who didn’t like the story about how none of the people in their finance department are people of color or none of them are officers and how they're talking about leaving finance to make it on their own. If that’s the word on the street, they won’t be able to find diverse candidates for their finance department. 

There are many policies and initiatives addressing the challenges facing Black CPAs and CPA candidates, but what role do awareness and attitude play in this? 

Dr. King said you can’t legislate feelings. You can integrate schools, but you can’t make people all sit at the same table. ... What we need to see is a commitment by those who have the power to make sure that the training, the mentoring, the abiding culture for everyone is fair. Because, say, I’m starting my first day as the new controller and everyone is going out to lunch, but no one is inviting me for whatever reason, and I’m not a jerk. But if you’re not inviting me because I don’t fit the idea of what your friends look like—if you’re not perpetuating an inviting and inclusive culture—people are not going to stay around where they don’t feel welcome. I’m not saying it’s supposed to be a picnic, but ask: Am I providing the opportunities, like allowing time to study for the CPA exam? If you're really serious about DEI, you need that commitment.

This is a big part of why we want to increase the number of Black CPAs—when there is someone with the quintessentially ultimate certification, it becomes a much harder argument to say why this person was not good enough to fit your profile. I’m always looking for book recommendations. 

What was the last really good thing you read? 

I’ve got three. The first one is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. The second is The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. And the third is A White-Collar Profession: African American Certified Public Accountants Since 1921, by Theresa A. Hammond. 

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