Diversity in Accounting
Black accountants are underrepresented in the profession, which especially matters as companies look at candidates to promote on the path to CFO. Levongia Carrera of shares what can help Black executives feel more supported.
Steve: Hello, and welcome to Off the Books, where we're surfing the uncharted waters of accounting, finance, risk, and wherever else the waves take us. This episode is brought to you by Workiva, the risk, reporting, and compliance platform that simplifies your complex work so you can focus on finally learning how to make sourdough bread. Check it out at workiva.com/podcast. My name is Steve Soter, accounting enthusiast, Diet Coke aficionado, and today's host, and I'm very glad to have you hanging 10 with us. I'm also very glad to have Catherine Tsai hosting this episode with me. Catherine, can you please tell the fine folks who you are?
Catherine: I'm not an accountant or Diet Coke aficionado, but I made a career out of asking questions and writing about it later. So I'm here to ask more questions. So, Steve, what are we talking about today?
Steve: Well, we had a chance to catch up recently with Levongia Carrera, one of our most active leaders in the SEC Professionals Group. Levongia has been leading our efforts in multiple committees, including ESG and women's leadership, and she's also very active in the Black community and has had the unique experience of being the first Black female on multiple occasions throughout her long career in audit and accounting. So we wanted to spend some time.
Catherine: Let's catch that wave.
Steve: So Levongia, we really appreciate you spending time with us again and really looking forward to the discussion. I want to start out and just kind of mention for the audience. You've been a very active leader and contributor to the SEC Professionals Group, it's one of the best parts about my job, including your leadership on the ESG Reporting Committee and our women's leadership webinar series. Want to note to our audience that we recently had one of those at the end of last year and had a terrific discussion. But Levongia, I know also you've had a career of many firsts, and I'm wondering if maybe you can tell us a little bit about your journey.
Levongia: Hi, Steve, thank you, and thank you for inviting me here today. Yes, I have been the first in a lot of different things as it relates to accounting. What I remember very vividly when I graduated from college was that I wanted to go to a Big 4 accounting firm. It wasn't Big 4. I'm saying Big 4 so I don't outdate myself right now, but it was "big something" back then. And the reason why I wanted to is because I wanted to go to a firm that was international and would provide me an opportunity to do an international—it's international rotation. And so I went to a company called Coopers and Lybrand. That was before the merger of PricewaterhouseCoopers. And while I was there, I started to explore, once I got past a couple of years there, that opportunity. And as I was trying to do some research and find out who's done it before and who I could speak to, reach out to, I quickly found out that no one that looked like me had ever done it before. In fact, I was told I was the first Black person who had even requested information about it. And so I went through this process saying, "OK, well, I guess there's nobody I can talk to to ask, 'What did you do about your hair when you went abroad?'" Obviously, they didn't have our products there. And so it was an interesting kind of conversation, and I ended up just kind of talking to different people who been. But then when it was time for me to go, I was like, well, I'm on my own on this one. I don't have anyone I can actually reach out to, to talk about the cultural experience of going abroad as a Black person from the U.S.
The first stop for me was Bogota, Colombia. There were a lot of different challenges going to Bogota, Colombia, as you can imagine, because of the high security there. While I was there, which was interesting, I got people from the U.S. who were now thinking about going and reaching out to me because they were looking for someone who was Black that had gone abroad and interesting enough, their question is, "What did you do with your hair? How did you manage this with your hair?" I mean, and this is a real thing for African-Americans. What do you do about your hair when you go somewhere that doesn't know anything about the things that you need, right? And so I became sort of like that resource for others as the first going out into an area where there weren't others that look like me. The one thing about being the first in different things, and so that's just the accounting example. There's some personal areas, but the one thing about being the first is, one, you're isolated. You're kind of alone. You don't quite feel like you fit. You don't know what to expect. You don't know how to ask someone questions about the things that are important or things that you need because of your background to feel comfortable where you're going. And so you're just kind of a little bit going on faith and just trying to be confident in yourself that you can make it happen. But yeah, so to your question, Steve, that's one of the things that I can say about being the first in certain things is, it can be lonely, scary, intimidating, all of those things. But if you persevere through them, you actually become stronger. You become a resource for someone else.
Catherine: What helped you navigate being the first or the only?
Levongia: That's a great question. I mean, for me, it was, OK, I'm adventurous. I have never been one person to step away from an adventure. I was born a military brat, so I'm used to moving into different locations, meeting people for the first time, being around a lot of different backgrounds as a child. And so part of that, I think made it less uncomfortable for me to be around other people that didn't look like me. The other is, you kind of grew up in African-American families being coached about what's going to happen when you step out this door and you go into a world that doesn't look like you. You know, here are some of the things that they're going to be thinking on their end. So you need to be five times better, two times, you know, whatever it is so that you're not subjected to the assumptions that happen a lot of times that maybe you're not worthy, right? And so part of it is just, I'm going to make it happen. I'm going to do it. I know I need to stand or represent not just myself, but my community when I go out there, even as the first person, because if I mess it up, that's going to mess it up for the next person coming behind me.
Steve: Levongia, I hope I don't screw up the way I want to ask this question, so let me just preface that. When you talked about how they had brought up, hey, you're the first Black person who has ever even requested information, I have two reactions. And the one is like, why in the world would my race or my color even come into consideration here? Like, why are you even saying that? That is so weird. And of course, I'm doing it today with the hindsight that we had over the many years it's been since then. Not many. I don't want our audience to think that you're old or anything, but you know what I mean. Anyway, I have that reaction. But then the second reaction that I have is, well, actually, isn't that a good thing? Because doesn't that show that we're making progress? I mean, I'm curious, how did you react to that comment?
Levongia: So it wasn't a comment they made to me. It was I asked them, hey, I wanted to know, are there any African-Americans who've done this. I want to reach out to them because I want to use them as a resource so that I can understand what to expect when I go abroad and what are some of the resources I should be looking forward to — how do I get stuff for my hair? You know what I mean? This is a real thing. And so it was their response to me that said, you're the first who's ever come into one of these meetings to find out, and we've never had anyone who's done one of these before. So that's how that came up.
Steve: And did you react to that thinking, Hey, that's awesome. Like, this means we're making progress.
Levongia: In fact, I said, well, then that means you'd have to have a very good reason why I would not be the one going this time. And so they were like, "You're right!"
Steve: Well said. Very well said. Levongia, one of the things that I think about often is how my life experience and just my daily interaction with the bubble of people that I associate with on a daily basis about how that creates biases over time, including hidden racial biases that I might not be aware of. And obviously, I want to think that I am not racially prejudiced in any way at all. But how do I know that if I don't know, and let me take a second part of that to say, I recognize that even asking you this question implies that because you're African-American, you're in a position to share insights which by itself might actually be a racial bias. I mean, again, how do you know if you don't know?
Levongia: Yeah. You know, a lot of it is intentionality. If you are of a race that is the majority and the things that you do, the places you go, the things you see on TV, the systems that you are in already accommodate you, you don't see the need for accommodation outside of that. So there's an element of intentionality where you start to look outside of yourself and look at how other people are being treated around you. Look to understand and seek to understand people who look different than you. There's work on your side that you have to do in order to know. It's just not going to just be there for you. Whereas the folks that are from the minority who have to live in an environment that's not structured for them, they're already growing up being coached about all the things about YOU, right? About how your system works, about how the system doesn't necessarily think of them or incorporate their needs so that this is how they have to maneuver in order to first interact with you.
I don't know if you've heard of this, but there's usually, a lot of different terms, but the mask I wear. And so the mask I wear is usually about when we go into an environment where we're one of very few, there's a mask that we put on so that we interact with you in a way that you're accustomed to being interacted with. It doesn't mean that you're getting our authentic person. It means that we're trying to give you something that looks closer to what you're used to because we're in your environment, we're in your system, and we want to be able to prosper there, right? But you've not had to have that. You've not had to have that burden on your shoulders when you walk into a room because everything kind of is already structured to be there for you. So for you to get to that point where you're kind of aware that you are taking into consideration the people that don't look like you and their needs in your space, you have to have that intentionality to actually reach out, to actually go and educate yourself, but also start talking. I mean, a lot of the stuff that you learn is through conversation, like the podcast, right? A lot of the stuff is taking the time to have conversations with people to understand people because at the root, these are people who have pretty much 99 percent of them is the same as you. There's just the 1 percent that's a little different. And so it's getting to understand that 1 percent and to invite them over to your house, invite them to go somewhere, you know, socialize, go golfing with them. These are areas that a lot of us don't get invited to do.
So I can give you an example of a company I went to where there's three people on my team. And after a while, I started to to realize that the other two who were white, a male and a female, were actually being invited to go to our manager's home and interact with them. I was never invited, and so I started to find this out by just little comments that were being made. I was like, oh, well, shoot. No one's invited me, right? And so things like that where people just don't think about it, they're like, Oh, well, you know, I just get along with that person, so I'm inviting them. But if they reach out to people who are not being included and bring them in, that's one way, Steve, to kind of get to that point, where you're actually having more inclusion versus exclusion.
Catherine: You made so many good points there, and I'm so grateful that you're here talking about all this on the podcast. As an Asian woman, there's a few elements of your experience that I can identify with, but there's a whole portion of your experience also that is new to me and that I'm realizing I need to open up and be aware about and ask questions about as well. And I also like how you talk about there's an individual responsibility there to ask those questions and not just put the burden on the other person to explain it to me or to show me what I need to know.
I did want to bring up an article that Frank Cooper III wrote. He's the chief marketing officer of BlackRock, and he's held leadership roles at Def Jam Recordings, PepsiCo, BuzzFeed, among other places. But he's done research with Ranjay Gulati of Harvard Business School about what Black executives need and what they want, especially as some companies find themselves to be losing Black talent. He interviewed more than a dozen black executives during their research. They talked about some of the fears and challenges that Black executives have to deal with, and also some of their needs, like they want to feel safe, they want to feel supported. I know everybody has very different experiences, but I'm curious, Levongia, about the places where you have worked: What made you want to stay? And maybe what are some things that you wish you might have seen at some of those places?
Levongia: Yeah. You know, some of it we kind of talked about a little bit, so I'll bring it together here, and that is when you can bring your authentic self to a company and they create programs or they create an environment where they accept who you are, right? And they don't just say it in words, but they do it in how they structure their hiring, how they structure their promotions, how they structure their compensation, how they structure interaction within the organization and communication so that they're reaching out. For example, if there's something going on within the community like, for example, the Afghanistan refugees, that whole thing when they brought everyone back from Afghanistan and then you had all these refugees trying to find a place, some companies actually created communications out to their employees "in support of." And so same thing with when people were going after Asians because of COVID, a lot of companies were putting out communications about supporting the community, protecting people.
When a company can do all these different things that's saying, "I see you, I value you, I value what you bring," you feel a sense of security and safety being yourself in that environment because they see you for who you are. You can be who you are. And they back it up by the programs they have in place that help you advance in their organization. And so for me, it's not been that way in all the companies. I wish it would have been because I think my career would be a lot further than where it is today. And that's my experience, right? Some people that look like me have gone to a lot of different heights, but if you talk to them, they'll tell you about some of the key people that they've been able to connect with. And because of that, they were able to get where they went. They didn't get there by themselves, right? And so not everyone has a lot of those types of connections or experiences where there's people in an organization that really takes an interest in them. And it's harder for someone who's not looking like the majority and not already kind of built into the dynamics of hey, let's go golfing, let's go have a drink or let's do this where a lot of conversations happen, a lot of relationships happen.
When you think about success stories, they're built around relationships and relationship building, people understanding and getting and wanting to know who you are and taking an interest in you. But if you're in an environment where that's not happening, you tend to miss out on a lot of opportunities for personal growth and sharing of ideas. And so, for me, as an executive, I feel more safe if I feel seen. And I feel seen if I have evidence in the organization and in management where they're actually taking an interest, they're asking me, do I want to go bowling? Or whatever right? Or they're sending out communications that recognize different things that are going on in my community and they're showing that support. That's what I would hope happens in all organizations. But I know that's not the case.
Catherine: We're going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsor and then dive back in with our conversation with Levongia Carrera.
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Steve: Levongia, do you feel like in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder that companies by and large got it right? There was a lot of outreach. There was a lot of people making statements to that end. Did you feel like they got it right?
Levongia: Yeah, I think it was a hit, based on the company, right, and the leaders in that company, so certain companies got it right. I think some of them provided some of the lip service because that seemed like the wave at the time. I've been part of two companies during that time. I just recently transitioned to Airbnb. I was part of the response at the old company where the African-American network got together and we created opportunities to dialog through Zoom sessions, obviously because we were in COVID at the same time and we were able to ultimately get what we didn't have at the organization, which was a chief or, I should say, a leader of the diversity, equity, and inclusion part of the organization because it didn't exist. And so one of the things that we were able to do is put that in place. The company I went to already had that in place and was already responding in a lot of positive ways on not just George Floyd, but things that were happening in the Asian community, all these different communities that were being impacted, they were responding to. They were making statements that said, we're going to do this by this date. They were actually putting not just pen to paper, but they were saying, hey, you can measure us against what we said. And so it depended on the company really and the degree of how much of the rhetoric that was actually going to stay and be something that actually is part of the organization and how much was going to maybe just be there for the moment and then go away. Because one of the things that myself and a lot of folks in my community were sitting back thinking at the time was OK, hopefully this is not another Rodney King, right, because everybody saw it on video, everybody got upset and then it just all kind of went back to normal. Not normal for us, but normal for everybody else, right? And so we were waiting to see, OK, is this going to stick? Is this going to stick? You know, that was our kind of conversation. And so there's been some sticking, I think.
I think there's been a lot of different things that have changed for the better. Some of the systems have been responding to it. I mean, if you think about what's put out for boards, for example, where they said by a certain date, the boards of these public companies need to have a certain level of diversity, and if they don't have it, they run the risk of being delisted. That's a system change that didn't exist before. I think part of the ESG stuff that's coming out, a lot of it covers some of the D&I and some of the environment, some of these things that have not really stuck in the past. I think some of that is going to stick because certain things in the system are changing. I think to the extent that you see more system changes in relation to criminal justice reform, voting rights reform, all these different things that were locking people of color out ... So as long as you start to see those things change in a positive way, I think you're going to see the stickiness of this kind of move forward and its spillover into other areas. Now, obviously, there's some things going on in the whole voter suppression area that's kind of going in the opposite direction, but hopefully, you know, those things kind of flip. And come back around.
Catherine: Steve, I wanted to interject here because you asked an important question that stems from our first call with Levongia.
Steve: Right. So in our initial chat, Levongia shared something that was really eye opening for me. She talked about how a Black person's individual identity is intrinsically connected to the Black community, while for a white person, that's just not often the case. Again, I don't think many people would look at me and assume my actions are representative of every white person out there. So that's obviously really unfair. And I just wanted to ask Levongia what it was like to be continuously seen as a representative and champion of her community.
Levongia: Yeah. And that's one of the things of being "the first" that's part of the stress, right, is that, OK, if I mess this up, I'll be the only, right. There won't be nobody that they'll let in that looks like me afterwards because they'll think that because I messed up, everybody that looks like me will mess up. It's a true concern. It's always a comment in the community is that, you know, hey, you got to represent because we're coming behind you and we want to keep that door open, right? And yeah, it's exhausting. But it's one of those things you grow up hearing over and over and saying, OK, this is just a way of life for me. I just have to take it. Like last year with the George Floyd situation and all of the activities that happened after that, that big group of us at a company took on, we knew what we were doing was representing the whole community for that company that was looking at us, trying to get help because people were like, I want to talk to you, I want all these different things. And you talk about exhaustion. I would literally, at the end of the day, just sit and just look because I couldn't do anything else because I was just so exhausted from trying to think of all the different things we need to incorporate in these different avenues that we were trying to communicate and work with people in the organization. I mean, we had Zoom sessions. We have book reviews, getting emails from people throughout the day that just they just want to talk, right? And so, yeah, it's a burden for sure. I wish it wasn't. I mean, I wish I could just be carefree like a whole lot of other folks. But it's a reality that I think is not in our heads. I think it is something that's real.
Catherine: How do you recharge after days like that?
Levongia: I am a spa junkie. I love the spa. And I love to be pampered, and I love red wine, so that's me.
Catherine: All right. Well, you mentioned bowling, too. For the record, I want to go bowling with you sometime, Levongia.
Steve: Now you're talking.
Levongia: Bowling is fun. I'm not that good, but it doesn't matter. You know, it's just the activity.
Catherine: We've talked a little bit about some of the systemic issues, we've also talked a little bit about what are some of the small steps we can take to try to make a more inclusive work environment. What about encouraging more students of color to major in accounting or finance so that ideally you have more people in the pipeline to one day become chief financial officers or even CEOs?
Levongia: There's a lot of programs out there that are geared towards bringing information to students about accounting. So for example, for the African-Americans, there's the National Association of Black Accountants, so people in college can be a part of that as a student member. And so that's an actual great thing. The one thing I think is missing and maybe it's there at a certain level, but I think there needs to be more corporations coming into the schools and either teaching on different subjects or creating programs or providing internships at a more aggressive level in communities that are predominantly minority. I think there needs to be more of that because that's ultimately who's hiring, right? And it provides an avenue for students to start to create those relationships, because, like I said, a lot of opportunities happen through relationships. And so creating those relationships early on, I'm talking high school, I don't think you need to wait to college. I think you need to get in there while they're in high school and they're already kind of thinking about what do I want to do? And finding a way to connect at that level.
Steve: It's an interesting kind of conundrum, and I think you bring up a lot of really good points. Especially with careers like accounting that actually take that specialized education and training and certification, for example, if you're going to sit for the CPA exam, and so it really becomes almost this kind of funnel-like process, to your point, hey, how do we get them into the funnel as early as possible so that by the time it gets to the end, you have a representative population of diverse candidates to bring them into those roles because without that process, frankly, they couldn't be in these jobs otherwise. It's a very intensive kind of thought process to say, Hey, how do you solve it? Because now, you're right, we're talking about not just colleges, but we're talking about high schools, but we're also talking about companies who are going to be willing to make those hiring decisions when they get out of that process. It's going to take, I think, a lot of parties to get involved and to make an impact.
Levongia: Yeah, because if you think about it, students whose parents are already in this field, they're getting exposure all their life. They're more likely to follow in the steps of parents, right? But the folks who are coming from minority backgrounds that may not be in those areas, there's less of them that are raising kids who are able to see what they're doing and be able to go in their parents' steps. So they need somebody early on in their career because they're starting to make up their mind based on what they see around those ages. And so in high school, you start going into these different career-type courses. So who's going into accounting if they don't know anybody that's in accounting, right?
Catherine: How did you get into the field?
Levongia: So I really didn't get into the field in high school. I actually left high school thinking I was going to be a lawyer. When I got into college and I started doing my thing, a couple of years down the road, I was like, OK, let me go back and do some research on what careers are people getting good jobs right out of a four-year college because I was financing my own college education, using loans or whatever and working, and I was like, man, I can't continue this. And looking at the costs of law school, and I'm like, you know. I wasn't a straight-A student, I wasn't a straight C student. I was like, right there in the middle. I'm like, OK, I'm not going to get a whole lot of scholarship money either. So I said, I need money. So I went and I looked and I was like, accounting. Let me try that out. So I tried accounting and I was like, Oh, I can do this. And so I just kept doing it. And then I got involved in the organizations at school. They had like a school club for accountants, and I got involved in that and I was like, Oh, I really like this. And so I started to take on leadership roles in the club, and then I networked at a social event with a lot of different firms, one of them being Coopers and Lybrand, and made a connection, a really funny connection with one of the people there that had to do with an earring. And it was something that stuck. And so when he went back to his office and sent me a letter and we communicated and he's like, You know, would you be interested in coming to Coopers and Lybrand? And the earring came up in that communication. And I'm like, Yeah, I think I would. And so that was how I kind of made my way over to Coopers and Lybrand. And it was really that relationship building I made at a networking event at a club event from college for accounting. Yeah. So that was that was my story.
Steve: Well, Levongia, as we get ready to to to wrap up this episode, I do want to ask, and you know but our audience doesn't, I've asked you to do lots of stuff. I'm always asking for your opinion, always asking for you to jump in and you're always so kind and so generous and so willing. But as we get ready to wrap up, I mean, I am wondering, why did you agree to be on this episode? I mean, we're talking about some important issues. There's a little bit of vulnerability I think that goes along with talking about this. What made you decide to come and share a little bit about your story?
Levongia: So earlier you asked me a question about, from your perspective, how do you kind of break out of that silo where you're at? Well, part of that is the communications, the relationships, the talking part and just being open and having conversations and putting yourself out there, right? So for me, this is part of that work. You're not going to know what's in my head unless we talk about it. And if it benefits people outside this group because they're hearing something like, Oh, I didn't know that. And that may spur them to kind of do a little bit more digging or reach out to people they have never reached out to. I think that's part of the "how do we get better?"
Steve: That's a terrific answer. And and on behalf of me and Catherine, I'm sure, as well as our listeners, I'm sure, thank you for being willing to share.
Levongia: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it. I had a lot of fun.
Steve: Well, you're not off the hook yet. We still got the closing question.
Levongia: Uh-oh. Oh, that's right!
Catherine: Steve, do you want to ask it?
Steve: Well, and it's a terrific question. Catherine, will give you credit for this. So Levongia, if you weren't in your current role and money were no object, what would your career be if you could choose to do it all over again?
Levongia: The first one is when I was young like in high school, I remember watching TV and seeing how some African-American musicians and actors who didn't have a finance background were all of a sudden making money and not knowing how to manage it, and people were taking advantage of them. And so in my mind, I had come up with a plan that I wanted to develop what I call the Black Emporium, but basically what it was is an individual could come into this one location and I can help you with not only your taxes, but your finances. I could help you with your publicity. It would be a one stop shop where I would partner with other people and bring them together. And it was more about, "How do I help you be successful and keep your money and help you manage it in a way that you're not being taken advantage of?" I know we said where money isn't primary and it wasn't primary for me when I was thinking about that particular kind of role. I really was thinking, "How do I protect you?" So that was one. I never did make it to that. But that was one because that would have meant I would have had to—you know, that's a scary thing because you would have to be an entrepreneur. And that's a risk. And what if I lose it all right? So I didn't go that route. But if I didn't have to worry about losing my money, I would do that. The other one is being a teacher, and the reason why I say that is because one of the things that I struggle with for my son is I've always wanted him to go into schools that had really great academics and all that kind of stuff. But unfortunately, when you kind of go into that realm in some places, there's nobody that looks like you. Not even a teacher, not a student, nothing. And so I would love to be a teacher that could go into these organizations or these schools that are providing this higher education and be a representative for students that look like me who are looking for someone that looks like them.
Steve: I love it. Ever the altruist, Levongia, ever the altruist. Catherine, how about you?
Catherine: Oh goodness. Well, when I was a kid, I really wanted to be a zookeeper. But I have to say my current job is not that different from working in a zoo.
Levongia: It's like herding cattle.
Steve: Oh, my goodness. There's a lot of truth to that. Boy, there is a lot of truth to that.
Levongia: Steve, you're not off the hook. What about you?
Steve: Fair. That's very fair. So, actually part of the zoo that Catherine has to keep is dealing with people who pretend to be really good writers but who are terrible writers. We do a lot of writing behind the scenes, and if I could choose, I actually would love to be maybe not a journalist, maybe more of an author. I do enjoy writing. I like to think that I have some skill, but that's something I think I could enjoy doing quite a bit. And if it wasn't that I will actually borrow your second, which would be I have always wanted to be an adjunct accounting teacher at a community college, junior college, freshmen and sophomores, that kind of thing. The class that I took just like you, it clicked. I was like, Hey, I can do this like, this is pretty cool. And actually that kind of helped me start a career with it. So yeah, those would be my two. Author or accounting teacher.
Catherine: There's still time.
Steve: Well, you know what? It's not all about the money, but I got to be honest with you. Things would look a little bit different in the Soter house if I was an adjunct accounting teacher, I can tell you that right now.
Levongia: There's always that post-retirement job.
Steve: And with that, it's time to retire this episode. Another very big thanks to Levongia Carrera for joining us, for always being willing to help or share her thoughts when I ask, and for sharing a lot of candor in our discussion today. Levongia, thank you.
Catherine: And big thanks to you, dear listener, for surfing along with us. I'm Catherine Tsai. That was Steve Soter. And this has been Off the Books. Please subscribe, rate and review the show wherever you listen, tell your buddies if you liked the episode, and feel free to drop us a line at email@example.com. Surf's up, and we'll see you on the next wave.