#AICPAENGAGE kicked off this morning with Maria Contreras-Sweet, former Administrator of the Small Business Administration, speaking on The Power of American Businesses and Entrepreneurs. She opened her keynote with an effusive thanks to all of us CPAs because we are the ones helping small business owners pursue their dreams and also advising and holding big business accountable. Wow, that really hit me right in the heart…yes, that is why I do what I do because I help people make their dreams come through!
The American Dream is Alive!
Maria went on to tell us the story of how she came to America as a young girl. Her family gave up all that they had in Mexico to go to the land of opportunity. On the morning that they left, her grandmother hugged her and told her essentially: no matter what happens be sure that you are not taking handouts. (Contrary to what some people may think, all immigrants are not coming to American to take advantage of our social services.) So when they came to America her family focused on being contributors to their community and she worked in several small businesses on the main street of their town. In doing that she learned what many of us know to be a small business standard: “cash flow is king”.
She also learned an important aspect of American Dream: In America we don’t all have equal talent, but we all have the equal opportunity to pursue what we want to do in life. Yes, we are all free to dream big dreams and to pursue those dreams.
Freedom to Express Our Individuality
As Maria shared with us her stories of working her way up in the big corporate world, she said that we all need to be wary of institutional biases that are integrated into the corporate community and government that limit women and people of color. Maria talked to us about how a lot of policies are about forcing people to conform and “look like” everyone else that was in the corporation or community. She stressed the importance of being able to express our individuality.
This message also resonated with me a lot. I’ve been spending about half my time in Houston over the last year, and Houston is a very conservative community. Suits are still very much the norm for business meetings, and unlike in Los Angeles or New York, it’s still the traditional blue straight cut suit with a relatively plain shirt and tie. Around the office, jeans are acceptable, but men still wear long sleeve, mostly plain (not patterned) shirts with the sleeves buttoned at the wrist rather than rolled up to the elbow.
Well coming from Hawaii and having worked a lot in San Francisco before coming to Houston, my wardrobe definitely isn’t that conservative. I have one full tailored-cut suit (which I usually wear without a tie), and my sport coats all have non-traditional cuts or lapels, and I wear them with designer jeans (not khakis, or traditional blue jeans). Even my tux is non-traditional with a mandarin collar and no lapels (which you can see in the picture to the right).
About three months ago, a referral from one of the CPA firms that I work with declined my proposal to help them. When the partner at the firm got feedback from the referral for me, one of the comments the referral (a woman probably in her late 50’s) mentioned was “and he didn’t even wear a suit”. Since then, I’d been thinking…hummm…maybe I need to start conforming more to the Houston community standard and dressing more conservatively.
I’m so glad to have heard Maria’s message today. It made me realize that I shouldn’t conform to the institutional biases of Houston, but rather to continue to express my individuality and sense of style—an important part of my personal brand and an integral part of my American Dream.
I left Maria’s keynote feeling re-energized. It reminded me why I became a CPA—to both live my own American Dream, and to enable other entrepreneurs to live their American Dreams. She also empowered me to maintain my individuality, at a time when I thought I was ready to start conforming to institutional biases. I think that doing that would have probably killed my spirit. Thank you Maria for your inspiring words today and for reminding us of the important role that CPAs play in keeping the American Dream alive!