Yesterday, I was honored to be the first recipient of the AICPA’s Maximo Mukalebai Award. The award was established to “recognize a deserving CPA under the age of 40, for his/her passion and contributions towards building the CPA pipeline, serving as an advocate of the accounting profession, and performing outstanding community service.” It was quite moving (I actually cried) to actually have Patience, Max’s widow, present the award to me. It was also heart-wrenching to see how touched she and their two daughters were with how much the AICPA was doing to honor Max’s name.
When I found out that I had received the award, I was quite touched, and honored, and sad at the same time. Touched that Patience was going to be there herself to present me with the award and to bring the spirit of Max to the conference. Honored that my contributions were being recognized and applauded by my peers. And sad, because it reminded me of how great a loss Max was to our profession.
Personally, he and I shared a passion for volunteerism and giving back, which was the start of a bonding point for us when we met at the first Leadership Academy in July 2009. In October of that same year, our bond was solidified when we realized how much the AICPA lacked diversity while attending the AICPA Governing Council Meeting in New Orleans. After the first day of meetings, Max and I met in the lobby of the hotel and discussed our concern with the lack of racial, age, and practice diversity in the representation of the Council. We talked about what we could do to change this. We didn’t have any answers, but we vowed to work on this together: Max in the East, me in the Pacific/West. We were compatriots with a cause. We didn’t know how we were going to do it yet, but we were going to enact change.
Last year, when I received the call to let me know what Max had passed, I was saddened and in shock. He was healthy and the accident that killed him was truly tragic, unexpected, and unpreventable. He was the same age as me, he had a young family, and he was so involved in his community and our profession. And then it hit me–our profession–my compatriot in changing our profession was gone. There was only me…
This meant that I had to work even harder to ensure that change would happen. This meant that I now had to work twice as hard to help open doors for other young CPAs, and help to get them into positions where they could help to influence change in the profession. I know that there are many veteran CPAs and AICPA leaders who “get it”, but there is a difference between someone from the majority “advocating” for a change, versus Max and I, who actually represented the change itself.
There has definitely been some progress. Whereas earlierI was always the youngest and often the only non-white CPA on committees, there are now sometimes others around my age or younger on the committees. Yet at a AICPA Thought Leadership Committee Chairs meeting in February of 2012, I was dismayed to look around the table and find that of the chairs present, there were only two of us representing a diversity element. A white woman veteran CPA (which sometimes I think doesn’t really count in the diversity realm) and myself, the only younger and ethnic minority CPA. There were other women and ethnic minorities in the room, but they were either AICPA staff or meeting facilitators, and were not one of the chairs. When the topic of changing demographics came up, the discussion was the same as you always hear: yes there is change needed, yes we need to do something; but that’s where the conversation stopped. No one was really sure what the solution was, and when I tried to share my thoughts on why I left public accounting and why some minorities and younger CPAs may also be doing so, a tangent was picked up and the discussion transitioned into one of maybe we don’t need to change anything in the profession because the changes needed would be unrealistic for the profession to make. Then we moved on to the next topic. I considered trying to move the topic back, but looking around the room, I was outnumbered and I could tell that there wasn’t really a desire to explore the topic more.
Then at the Council meeting this past May, Vice Chair Richard Caturano announced his intention to start a commission for the AICPA that would investigate the issue of diversity more and look deeper at what needs to be done. I am very curious to see what this commission comes up with, and to see if it leads to some meaningful change when Rich becomes Chair in the coming volunteer year.
As part of my acceptance speech for the award, I charged everyone at the EDGE Conference lunch with helping to increase diversity in the profession. Perhaps the young CPAs can develop a grass roots effort to complement Rich’s top-down approach. As a result of that speech, three people actually came up before the end of the conference and told me that they want to get involved with the diversity effort.
With Rich’s top-down efforts and if the Young CPA Network can complement that with a grass-roots effort, I think we can start enacting some meaningful change. From the discussion at the Chairs’ meeting, I can tell this will be a significant effort. And I want to ensure that this is a balanced change–I don’t want it to go too far and ending up creating a reverse discrimination situation. It needs to be done in a way that is fair to all.
Thank you again to everyone that gave me the opportunity to serve and who has helped me to get to where I am today. I am honored to have received the award and hope that I can continue to honor Max’s legacy and enable a change that was so near to his heart.