CLA grants $1M to NABA to build Black talent in accounting


CliftonLarsonAllen’s CLA Foundation has committed $1 million in grants to the National Association of Black Accountants to seed NABA’s new Pathway to College program, support human capital needs, and create scholarships.

The grant, announced last week during NABA’s national convention in Hollywood, Florida, expands the Top 10 Firm’s previous commitment to the group. Last October, CLA announced it would be donating office space to NABA in Greenbelt, Maryland, and other CLA locations and becoming a corporate sponsor of NABA in an effort to expand diversity, equity and inclusion in the accounting profession (see story). NABA also received funding at last week’s conference from Deloitte and the Center for Audit Quality. (Read more about Deloitte’s commitment here.)

NABA’s Pathway to College program is designed to support Black high school, community college, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities students’ entry into the accounting and advisory profession, offering work experience along the way. In addition to supporting the Pathway to College program over the next five years, part of the grant funds will be set aside to create a base for scholarships. CLA also intends to offer paid internships to students throughout the five-year grant commitment. The internships will give students real-world work experience to support them on the road to becoming accounting professionals.

“CLA is very passionate about making a difference in our workforce and in the industry as it relates to welcoming more diverse talent, and we believe that NABA’s vision will be an accelerator for CLA, as well as for the industry,” CLA CEO Jennifer Leary told Accounting Today. “We want to help build a strong NABA so we can help build a strong community of more Black professionals in the accounting and finance industry. In order to do that, we welcomed them into our locations. We’ve been pouring into NABA, and they’ve been pouring into us across the country in various events in various geographies, so we thought it was fitting to increase the partnership by executing a $1 million, five-year grant, which would go for two main things: Number one, human capital, to continue to build a strong NABA, so they can execute on their vision. And the second one is on scholarships. We want to get dollars into the hands of the students that want and need it. We’re also going to be giving internships as a part of this process as well.”


NABA conference with (left to right) NABA Inc. president and CEO Guylaine Saint Juste, CLA CEO Jennifer Leary and NABA Board of Directors chairman Hershel Frierson.

The program aims to increase the pipeline of young Black accountants in the profession. “What we are launching is a pathway from community college to college,” said NABA president and CEO Guylaine Saint Juste. “We’ve got to build the infrastructure of NABA to be able to do the work. We’ve got to hire people, and we’ve got to have the right technology. The money’s got to come from someplace, so part of the grant will support that, and then the rest of it is really about program costs. We know that students in community college have very distinct needs. We know that in community college the rate of homelessness is higher than elsewhere, with food insecurity and health insecurity. In fact, some folks in community college call it the three H’s: health, hunger and housing. Understanding that we’re not a social service organization, but how do we create the availability of resources so that community colleges that will partner with us have that?”

CLA and NABA hope to increase the number of students entering the accounting profession, especially Black students, with the help of internships. 

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of internship opportunities we have across the country, and in the diversity of talent that we are bringing in,” said Leary. “It is remarkable, but I also am very aware of the trends we see in this country with the decrease in the number of students choosing accounting.”

The program will help young people as they progress from school into accounting firms like CLA. “The first time they take an accounting class and realize, oh, that’s difficult, or the professor’s not making it come alive, they’ve got another way and another set of resources so that they stick with it and we implement it through scholarships,” said Saint Juste. “We begin to alleviate barriers of entry. We stay with them to go from community college to transfer to an HBCU or what we call a high minority majority school, so they then continue to be able to persist to achieve that accounting degree.”

The impact probably won’t be immediate, but in the long term it may draw more students of various backgrounds into careers in accounting. “The decisions we’re making today really will hopefully impact three and four years down the line,” said Leary. “It’s not indicative of what we’re seeing at this moment at CLA. We’ve brought on 2,800 new hires in the last 12 months. Offices across CLA will have as few as two to three interns. Our largest location had 84 interns. It really runs the gamut. Finding great talent at that entry level is not the issue today, but we are very aware that that will be a continued issue moving forward, so that’s why we’re making this grant. That’s why we’re also focusing on finding talent in new places and telling the story of how great a career in accounting and finance can be to high schoolers and community college in particula
r. This partnership and grant will help with that.”

The programs should start having more of an impact next year at CLA. “Right now we have a couple of programs in development, and 2023 will be the time where we will launch those programs, but we are actively developing a program for a high school internship in 2023, in a number of locations,” said Leary. “The way we’re creating that internship experience is by asking high school students themselves and their teachers: What is it that attracts you to a profession, and how can we make sure our message resonates with that group? So rather than CLA trying to figure out what a great internship experience looks like based on our history, we are opening our eyes and ears wider, and listening to the high school students themselves and doing our best to create a good experience, which we expect to launch in the summer of 2023.”

Recruitment is only one part of the problem, but retention of young Black accountants is also an issue. “We know the pipeline is really low,” said Saint Juste. “There are lots of reasons. The part of the data that’s even more distressing to us is the retention of Black people in the accounting profession. What we’re trying to do is not only broaden the appeal. We’ve got to tackle retention and so we’re going to be testing this. Thanks to Jen’s incredible support, along with Deloitte and CAQ, we’ll learn a lot, and then the goal is to continue to expand that throughout the country and that we can secure the funding. I think that four or five years from now, not only will we see more people entering the field, but we will have tackled the attrition effect. I think that together, along with what we’ve got to do to create a better workplace, better culture and better representation and progression, at least from the entry point of the pipeline, it will be a lot more robust than it is now.”

“We’ve got to retain people,” Saint Juste added. “We already don’t have enough people that express interest. At least let’s retain what we’ve got and give them the best chance of success. That’s part of it.”

NABA has also made its scholarships more accessible to aspiring accounting students. “We eliminated the idea of the 3.5 GPA for the scholarship season,” said Saint Juste. “It was mind-blowing the backlash originally when I said we were going to lower the GPA for national scholarships from 3.5 to 2.2. People thought we were lowering our standards. No, not at all. We’re just trying to change the way we measure people. So magical things happen. We took in 300 applications and out of the 300 applications, 200 were complete. But here’s where the magic happened. Of the 200 that were complete, 144 students had a 3.5 GPA or higher. Less than 10 had a GPA below 3.0 and nobody was below 2.8.”

Just as many colleges and universities are doing away with their requirement for students to take the SAT to test their scholastic aptitude, measurements like the grade point average may need to be more flexible as well. “This is the framing that we have when we tell people the way we measure talent in this country, we decide that it’s a certain GPA and a certain test score,” said Saint Juste. “We know that a lot of Black people have to work to put themselves through school. People like my kids who get to go to school for four years and their job is to go to school, this is not the majority of Black people in America. We’ve got to really look at talent, so we’re also looking at what else are we learning from the data around GPA and skills. We’re touching this broadly and engaging broadly because part of the work that Jen and CAQ and Deloitte are funding, we also want to go to people who are in what I call ‘nonarticulated degrees’: people who are in and out of general studies or those kinds of fields. How great would it be if we can get them interested in accounting? Because now there’s the support. There are so many opportunities in the field, so we’re looking broadly and we’re not going to stop.”

The NABA conference last week attracted a wide pool of approximately 2,500 attendees. “It was great content and inspiring panels, with a huge representation from major firms across the country, sending their C suite,” said Leary. “It was a really powerful event, and I left that event lifted. I think there’s so much great work that is going on within NABA, and I personally encourage leaders of firms to spend more time to get to know what NABA’s vision is and how they can be a part of it. The Center for Audit Quality, Deloitte and CLA have all given million-dollar commitments in the last few months. That is a significant amount for an organization like NABA. The feel of that conference and the power of the talent in that room was remarkable. We’ve got a lot of great talent. We just need to do our best to continue to attract them into accounting.”


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