In 1969, as the accounting profession grappled with a staggering lack of diversity, at a time when Black CPAs comprised less than 0.2% of the profession, Frank K. Ross embarked on a groundbreaking journey. Ross, alongside eight visionary colleagues, co-founded the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA), a pivotal step aimed at addressing the challenges faced by Black individuals within the accounting field. Fast forward more than half a century and the representation of Black CPAs has only marginally increased, to 2%, underscoring the enduring hurdles to inclusivity in the accounting profession.

As a passionate advocate for promoting diversity within the accounting profession, I had the privilege of engaging in an enlightening interview with Frank Ross, which is presented below in edited form. Together, we traversed through time to examine the past, dissected the dynamics of the present, and cast our gaze upon the future of the accounting profession, all in pursuit of fostering more significant equity and inclusivity.

Becoming a CPA

Adrian L. Mayse: Why did you become an accountant?

Frank K. Ross: I always wanted a career in the business world. When I entered college, I was thinking of becoming a lawyer—corporate lawyer—but the more I learned about accounting and the many opportunities that the field offered the more I became interested in becoming an accountant.

During my last two years as an undergraduate, I worked at one of the anti-poverty programs as a bookkeeper (Bedford Stuyvesant Youth in Action) and got an opportunity to meet the first Black CPA that was not a professor. I was one of about four Black college students to be hired. Emsar Bradford took a special interest in the four of us and always made a special effort to speak to us when he visited his client. This inspired me to want to be like him—in short, he became a role model for me.

Mayse: How was your first day at your first accounting job?

Ross: My first job out of college was for Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG). Although I spent two years as a bookkeeper and got pretty good grades in college, I quickly learned how little I knew about auditing and what was expected. Although I was encouraged to ask questions, I would hesitate and because of that I would spend more time than expected doing the task that I was assigned. However, I quickly appreciated that the people I worked for was always willing to reach out and help me.

Mayse: What was your path to becoming a CPA?

Ross: Nothing out of the ordinary. I took the parts of the exam that I was able to take the first time they were given after I graduated, and I was lucky that I passed all three parts. I then was able to take the fourth part after two years because I not only got the experience required at that time but also my MBA. Again, I was lucky that I passed the exam and got my New York State CPA in February of 1969.

Changing Times

Mayse: How have you seen the accounting profession change since you were an accounting graduate?

Ross: When I graduated in 1966 many people were saying that “computers” was going to take the place of accountants and they were suggesting that we not go into accounting. However, computers opened many new doors and opportunities for accountants and the field expanded rapidly. Also, because of the Civil Rights movement, the various firms as well as government and corporations began hiring Black accounting graduates. None of the major CPA firms had hired Blacks prior to 1965. Now, the opportunities available for people of color are unlimited.

Mayse: As a NABA founder, what are some of the best accomplishments you have seen?

Ross: Opportunities are now available at the highest levels of the profession for qualified individuals regardless of their race. In the late 1990s, PwC had a Black vice chairman, Woody Brittan was his name—the No. 2 partner. This was unheard of at the time. He was the partner leading the merger of Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand. Now several of the major CPA firms have Black senior leaders—it no longer is a novelty. Also, the number of Black CPAs that have successful practices or senior financial positions in corporate America is no longer the exception. We can do better, but we have come a very long way.

Mayse: As the former Director for the Center of Accounting Education (CAE) at Howard University, what are some of your best accomplishments?

Ross: Developing the “We’re About Success!” program. Because of this program, many of the participants decided to remain with their firm and ultimately become partner. CAE also helped to make diversity a major issue within the profession and helped or even led in developing solutions to the lack of diversity in the accounting profession.

Mayse: How do you see diversity within the accounting profession?

Ross: I believe that the leaders of the profession are finally serious about diversity in the profession. Each of the major firms are now increasing the number of Black partners they make every year. This requires that they increase the numbers they hire, and that they advance. To do this they have to provide them with the experience needed. They are now recognizing that this is very important if they want to have a larger number stay and advance within their firm and ultimately become a partner.

Mayse: How do you see the accounting profession in the next 50 years?

Ross: As long as the profession stays current with the changes that will be occurring, the profession will remain one that offers many opportunities—as it will be growing significantly to meet the demands that will be placed on it and the people in the profession.

The Road Ahead

In closing, Frank K. Ross, a determined advocate for diversity within the accounting profession, has dedicated his life to breaking down barriers and inspiring change. My insightful interview with him is a poignant reminder that the journey toward a more inclusive accounting profession is far from complete. The road ahead is both challenging and promising. Several strategies can be employed to usher in a future where diversity thrives in the accounting profession.

Firstly, we can begin by introducing accounting concepts to children at a young age, making it an accessible field of interest from their formative years. Incorporating accounting education into the elementary and high school curricula and inviting accounting professionals to share their experiences in the classroom can foster early interest and understanding.

Moreover, we should explore innovative approaches to present the accounting profession to young minds, tapping into creative methods to showcase its relevance and potential. This could involve gamified learning experiences, interactive workshops, and engaging initiatives demystifying the accounting world.

To ensure that aspiring accountants from underrepresented backgrounds have ample opportunities, we must increase funding and recruitment efforts at all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSI). This investment in talent will yield dividends in the form of a more diverse and dynamic profession.

More comprehensive representation of accountants in popular culture, such as books, TV shows, movies, and other media, can further inspire individuals to consider a career in accounting. Positive portrayals and stories of accountants from diverse backgrounds can shatter stereotypes and spark interest.

In parallel, addressing practical challenges within the profession is essential. This includes raising salaries, reevaluating work hours to compete with emerging industries, and eliminating or providing support for barriers to entry, such as the additional 30 hours required for CPA licensure.

In addition, creating policies and fostering inclusive environments that actively promote the recruitment, retention, and advancement of minorities within the accounting profession is crucial. This encompasses mentor-ship programs, diversity and inclusion training, and initiatives to break down systemic barriers.

In conclusion, Frank K. Ross’s tireless dedication to advancing diversity within the accounting field serves as both an inspiration and a call to action. The road ahead may be long, but with concerted efforts to ignite early interest, expand educational opportunities, and address structural challenges, the way can be paved for a more diverse, equitable, and vibrant future in the accounting profession.

Adrian L. Mayse, PhD, CPA, is the dean of business administration and professor of accounting at Talladega College, Talladega, Ala.