By Jen Leary, CEO of CliftonLarsonAllen LLP

We all know that many CPA firms fail at representing the diversity that exists in our communities. In a profession that does not reflect our country’s changing demographics, there is ample opportunity and need to address the lack of diversity.

The profession’s diversity dilemma is especially daunting when it comes to Black representation. According to the most recent AICPA Trends Report, only 2% of partners and 2% of CPAs identify as Black. It gets slightly better at lower levels — but not much. Among staff and new hires, 5% are Black, while for new accounting graduates, it’s 7%.

At CLA, we face challenges similar to other CPA firms and have been taking impactful steps to increase our diversity, to some success. Consider these steps to begin building a culture of inclusion in your firm.

Conduct an external DEI assessment: It can be challenging to perform a comprehensive DEI assessment without an objective perspective. Consider engaging an experienced third party to gain more insight into your DEI activity to help identify areas for improvement.

Create employee resource groups: Employee resource groups can help Black employees find community, including opportunities for networking, professional development, and mentoring. If you’re a large firm with multiple offices, look for ways your employee resource groups can create virtual communities and consider opportunities to bring these groups together in person for education and connection.

Expand recruiting efforts to HBCUs: To increase diverse candidates and employees, become active in career fairs and develop relationships at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other higher Minority Serving Institutions. Consider hiring a recruiting director focused on diversity if you don’t already have one.

Work with diverse professional networks: Connect with the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) and your local NABA chapters. At CLA, we’ve deepened our relationship with NABA, including sharing office space, recruiting at its annual conference, and committing $1 million over five years to seed its Pathway to College program, which works to bridge the opportunity gap for Black accounting and finance professionals.

Advocate for alternative pathways to CPA licensure: Earlier this spring, I had the chance to meet with several NABA and HBCU leaders. Chief on their minds was the financial hardship to obtain 150 credit hours to become a CPA, particularly for Black students. To tackle declining numbers of new talent and be sustainable well into the future, we need to double or even triple the number of students who choose accounting as a major and stick with it through graduation and beyond. Broadening the pathway to become a CPA has the potential to increase the number of CPAs overall and encourage hard working, diverse talent to join the profession.

Hire and train non-college graduates: There is a wide racial gap in college graduation rates (68% for whites and 48% for Blacks, according to the U.S. Department of Education.) To increase diversity in the profession and give more people opportunities, firms should consider hiring and training more non-college graduates. At CLA, we’re looking into creating an accounting certification program like popular IT certification programs, which are online and in-person courses aimed at getting more people trained for entry-level IT jobs. Such programs can provide accounting training for people who didn’t attend college or who want to change fields.

Increase diversity in your succession pipeline: Increasing Black representation among leadership starts with getting more Black professionals in your succession pipeline and promoting them through the pipeline. We know one of the important drivers for retention for Black professionals is the ability to see themselves reflected at all levels of the firm. Consider connecting employees with mentors or sponsors who can help them pave their career path — and look outside their existing reporting relationships. Mentorship is often key to advancement and helping more Black employees become connected within their firms coupled with becoming managers and directors will put them in line to become principals, managing principals, and executive officers.

Incorporate inclusive messaging and representation: Revisit your firm’s messaging to add language and diverse representation that reflects the actions you’re taking to create an inclusive culture. Bring Black team members to the forefront of recruitment — in person and digitally. Help individuals at all levels feel more empowered by showing others who have been successful in these roles.

Implement diversity retention initiatives: Consider hiring a retention professional tasked with connecting with and fostering relationships with your diverse employees to help retain diverse employees in your firm.

Improving DEI efforts — particularly Black representation in accounting — is a journey and one that requires the involvement of a lot of stakeholders, including and especially your firm’s leadership, your diverse employees, and outside professionals. One of my first priorities as CEO was signing the CEO Action Pledge — a pledge for CLA to be a living advocate in the business community’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s a goal we work on every day and a goal the accounting industry needs to fully get behind to help secure a thriving future.

The information contained herein is general in nature and is not intended, and should not be construed, as legal, accounting, investment, or tax advice or opinion provided by CliftonLarsonAllen LLP (CLA) to the reader. For more information, visit CLAconnect.com.

CLA exists to create opportunities for our clients, our people, and our communities through our industry-focused wealth advisory, digital, audit, tax, consulting, and outsourcing services. CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP) is an independent network member of CLA Global. See CLAglobal.com/disclaimer. Investment advisory services are offered through CliftonLarsonAllen Wealth Advisors, LLC, an SEC-registered investment advisor.


Jen Leary is chief executive officer of CLA (CliftonLarsonAllen LLP). She leads CLA’s firmwide strategic efforts to fulfill the CLA Promise and its purpose — to create opportunities for its clients, people, and communities. In addition to supporting various advisory councils within the firm, she is a member of the CLA Board of Directors, the CLA Wealth Advisory Board of Directors, the newly formed CLA Global Board of Directors and leads the firm’s senior leadership team. She has been serving clients for over 20 years in the United States and Europe. Her background includes assurance, consulting, mergers and acquisitions and global advisory services. She has previously served the firm in various roles such as chief strategy officer, client service leader and managing partner of various geographies before taking on the role of CEO in January 2021.

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