CPAs are typical Canadians: a diverse group. And many have formed ethnic professional associations in order to share their common threads and encourage the next generation in the profession.
Members of the Black Female Accountants Network (BFAN) meet bright and early on a Saturday at a community centre in Mississauga, Ont. On this warm June morning, 25 women in business attire sit around tables in a U-shape facing a screen as presenter and BFAN founder Jenny Okonkwo, who hails from England and emigrated to Canada 11 years ago, chats about recruiting newcomers to join their growing network. It doesn’t take long to notice that the women share a host of commonalities — sure, they’re all black female accountants, as their group’s name so proudly expresses, but they’re also keen to build their personal and professional networks, learn best practices that they can take back to their firms and converse with like-minded peers who are passionate about their careers and their communities.
Lucille Radcliffe makes her way to the front of the room to talk about a small business conference she recently attended. She mentions the ways in which she got out of her comfort zone — she thanks BFAN for the ease she felt meeting other conference attendees during networking sessions. Radcliffe, a senior accountant at Grant Thornton in Beamsville, Ont., learned about the group through a friend and fellow BFAN member via a LinkedIn message. She went straight to BFAN’s site, where she learned more about the network’s core values. “After reading, I thought about attending the next meeting. Tax season was approaching and I didn’t want to take away time on weekends with my family, but my husband recommended I see what BFAN was all about; he thought it would be a great opportunity to connect with other professionals.” Radcliffe took his suggestion and joined the group; she attended her first meeting in March. “For many of us, we feel like we’ve gained greater professional support and are passionate about influencing the next generation — to let them know that we are a group of ladies who they can lean on for mentorship in getting through the CPA process,” she says. “Being part of BFAN isn’t only about representing our profession — it’s about creating a greater sense of community and cohesiveness.” She mentions that several BFAN members are industry leaders in the private and public sectors, and many are the only people of colour in their workplaces. “What Jenny has created in BFAN is a safe, candid and nurturing environment where no woman is an island.”
THE COMMON THREAD
When it comes to ethnically diverse accounting associations across the country, BFAN is a new kid on the block. According to Statistics Canada’s count in 2011, nearly 6.3 million people (or 19%) identified themselves as a member of the visible minority population. Back in 2005, Statistics Canada suggested that by 2017 up to 23% of the population could be a member of a visible minority. While there are no firm stats on how many of these Canadians work in the accounting profession or financial sector, the numbers are significant enough that the country houses several accounting associations created by and for various visible minorities. Radcliffe points to the underlying reason she believes there’s a need for these groups: “As individual professionals, we can sometimes feel underrepresented and isolated. However, as a group, we are able to learn from common experiences, share resources and network across the country because of our common thread,” she says. “Ethnical diversity within our accounting associations isn’t intended to further isolate; rather, it’s to further elevate specific groups of professionals within the accounting profession at large.”
The president of Mississauga-based Transform Consulting Inc. (which caters to clients in several industries), Okonkwo started BFAN late last year. “As a newcomer, shared experiences ranging from international credential recognition to barriers in professional development facing women, and specifically those of black African or Caribbean heritage, led to the concept of the network,” she says. Now, with more than 500 registered members, Okonkwo says BFAN’s current primary goal is to “bring on board ‘change agents’ and use varying forms of engagement to find breakthroughs that enrich the whole network.” Radcliffe says in the short time she’s been a member her personal development has thrived. “One of my favourite parts of being an accounting professional is connecting with clients and colleagues to reach a common goal. I love networking one on one, but I have a horrible fear of public speaking,” she admits. “I feel safe and supported speaking and standing in front of this group of ladies.”
Mora Olubobokun is the friend who suggested Radcliffe join the network. Olubobokun, a tax specialist at MNP LLP in Waterloo, Ont., was also invited to the group via LinkedIn. She says one of the many benefits of being a member of BFAN is that she’s part of a larger group of women who empower one another. “As a woman of colour and an immigrant, I realized that women who fall within my social and cultural group have not always been well represented in the professional world,” says Olubobokun, who studied in Nigeria and England. “BFAN provides me with an opportunity to be part of a unique group of underrepresented accounting professionals who come together to share knowledge and experiences that I can relate to on a personal and professional level. I have benefited from the experiences of women like me, especially when you see them breaking the glass ceiling at their jobs. Being part of BFAN gives me hope. I left my first meeting feeling so pumped up and very encouraged. I didn’t feel I was alone anymore.”
A HOME AWAY FROM HOME
It’s a sentiment that accountant Reynaldo Urbano can relate to. When he emigrated to Canada from the Philippines in 2011, he went online and Googled Filipino accounting associations in the Greater Toronto Area with the hopes of finding a group that would be supportive and offer assistance in his move from overseas. He came across the Association of Filipino Canadian Accountants (AFCA) — a nonprofit organization that he soon discovered “promotes the professional development of its members through conducting seminars and workshops. I thought, this is a great organization,” he says, adding that something that struck him the most about the AFCA was its scholarship program. “It was designed to provide financial aid to encourage Filipino students to pursue a career in accounting. I applied and was selected as one of the recipients.” Urbano, a senior auditor in the internal audit department at TD Bank Group in Toronto, says one of the main reasons he reached out to AFCA and eventually joined was to create a network of accounting professionals and increase his chance of landing his first gig in a new country. “As a newcomer to Canada, finding a job that matches your skills and work experience as an accountant is very challenging. Often, employers are looking for Canadian experience, which is unrealistic for someone who has just arrived in the country. As a result, most newcomers who are experienced accountants are underemployed,” he says. “When I came to Canada, I realized how difficult it was to get a job similar to what I had in my home country and I found networking was the best method to help find the right job that matched my skills and work experience.”
So he jumped right into AFCA. His first meeting with its members was the panel interview with the scholarship selection committee. “They were very friendly, welcoming, respectful and professional,” Urbano says. “At the end of the interview, I got a chance to talk to one of the panelists, who was a partner at a Big Four auditing firm, and I asked her if I could submit my resumé for future opportunities. That conversation opened the door to my first accounting job in Canada.” Urbano adds that ethnically diverse accounting associations act as a “home away from home where everyone is comfortable with each other. Members recognize and respect the work experience abroad, everyone speaks the same language and shares the same culture. This results in a more successful and lasting association that will benefit future generations.”
Ramon Guanzon was also born in the Philippines. He was 30 when he came to Canada in January 2004, landing on a day when the thermometer had plummeted to -20 C — 50 degrees colder than the weather he had left behind in his birth country. In the Philippines he was an accountant at PwC. After two years in Mississauga, Ont., working for the firm, he became a landed immigrant, then passed the uniform evaluation two years later. He was recruited to AFCA by a friend in his community, applied for membership and “the rest is history,” he says. Today, Guanzon, who lives in Cambridge, Ont., and owns a consulting business, is president of the association, which is celebrating its 39th year. What started in the ’70s with six local Filipino accountants — coincidentally, most of them worked at the Canada Revenue Agency — who wanted to build a sense of community and belonging when they found themselves in Ontario, has blossomed to 1,000-plus members. “It’s crazy how many Filipino accountants are migrating to Canada every year,” he says, adding that one of AFCA’s main jobs is to help these people integrate into the profession once they land. “People who are foreign-trained come here and don’t know what to do. We offer mentorship, provide help getting their CPA designation and bring them into the mainstream.” During his presidency, Guanzon plans to make AFCA the go-to organization where folks can get help finding work, information about life in this country and professional development courses. “I’m also working to increase growth and membership by expanding our recruitment efforts,” he says. Plus, he wants to be more visible and recognizable within the community (hosting family picnics, dinner and dancing events and sports tournaments), on social media and at conferences. “It’s like a full-time job but it’s what we do to help our community and give back. We want AFCA to be the premier Filipino accounting organization in Canada.” To get there, the association helped start a branch in BC, and it’s even trying to expand in Nunavut and Manitoba, where, Guanzon says, large numbers of Filipino accountants are gravitating. “It’s about giving members tools they need to succeed as CPAs, helping them find jobs and giving them an outlet and opportunity to give back to the community, and it’s about enjoying life here in Canada.”
When the Sri Lankan Accountants Association of Canada (SAAC) started 14 years ago, it had a similar mandate. Its objective was to bring all of the accountants in the Sri Lankan community in the Greater Toronto Area under one umbrella. “Networking and providing quality seminars through collaborative learning was the primary objective of the SAAC at the time of inauguration,” says Vina Devadas, an accountant and lawyer at Devadas Law Professional Corp. in Toronto, a member of SAAC for 11 years and its immediate past president. Back then, five accountants who had completed their exams and earned their CGA designation at the same time formed a bond while studying. “They felt that they were not going to see each other as often and they wanted to continuously learn the changes in the profession. That was when the idea of forming an association was put on the table and the SAAC was born.” When he came to Canada in 2006, Devadas says he wanted to “make connections with accountants from back home. Friends told me about the association.” The association often posts job listings that can only be accessed by members. “It’s a great way to find targeted jobs in areas of interest.” Today, with more than 250 members, as well as 20-plus students, members say enhancing their networks, taking charge of their careers and broadening their knowledge base are the key reasons the group is so necessary t o the community of Sri Lankan accountants. “Members share ideas, ask for advice, volunteer to be speakers and become committee members. They may find a mentor to help in their professional needs or they may be in a position to mentor someone else. Giving back can be the greatest reward,” Devadas says. With the reputation the association has garnered over the years, there are many organizations — most notably RBC and CPA Ontario — that have stepped up to financially support the group’s initiatives. “It allows us to bring in high-quality speakers who can present on technical subjects and soft skills at an affordable cost to members. These seminars help members blend themselves with mainstream Canadians and find more opportunities for jobs and businesses.” A key piece for Devadas is showcasing these opportunities to students of Sri Lankan descent and attracting them to the accounting profession. “SAAC spends time encouraging younger generations to embark on the path to getting their accounting designations.”
A group, association, network or organization such as SAAC or AFCA would have been beneficial for Whitby, Ont.-based Lennox Parkins when he was a newcomer to Canada finding his way in the profession. An accountant from Jamaica who emigrated to Canada in 2002 via the US, Parkins says there are plenty of reasons why ethnically diverse accounting groups make sense. Not only do these associations attract folks in ethnic groups to the profession, they “provide a go-to familiar, trustworthy ethnic group for advice and guidance, especially when faced with fears or disappointments in the workplace,” says the group controller at Atlantic Packaging Products Ltd. in Scarborough, Ont. An association specifically for black accountants, he says, could help members “focus on your passion, high professional standards, goals and doing the ‘right thing’ the ‘right way’” when “dealing with perceived or real discrimination on the job and in the profession as a black CPA.”
“An ethnic association would’ve helped me understand the CPA program and designation process earlier in my career, the importance of CPA networking and knowledge sharing to identify and pursue job opportunities, to learn the importance of mentors and how to conduct myself as an ethnic minority during interviews and on the job,” he says.
It would have also helped a younger Parkins figure out “how to achieve respect based on performance, values and behaviour instead of attention based on some ethnic quota or ethnic hiring requirements,” he says, adding that he is grateful for the support and recognition his Canadian employers have given him.
Helping young Indigenous accountants get into the business is a focus for Terry Goodtrack, the president of AFOA Canada (formerly the Aboriginal Financial Officers Association of Canada), which boasts more than 1,500 members. One of the association’s key mandates is to encourage Aboriginal youth to enter the finance and management professions. “With unification, AFOA Canada has ensured that its Certified Aboriginal Financial Management program aligns with and creates a pathway to CPA Canada’s Advanced Certificate in Accounting and Finance and, subsequently, the CPA designation,” says Goodtrack. He adds that AFOA Canada, which started nearly 20 years ago, believes the key pillars of its financial management strategy are “the relationships built with organizations such as CPA Canada, and our other corporate member partners in the accounting industry such as MNP LLP, BDO Canada and Deloitte. The health and success of our Indigenous communities can be linked to financial wellness and its management capacity. CPAs are critical in the journey toward economic prosperity,” he says. “Our relationship with CPA Canada continues to strengthen our ability to produce the top Indigenous accounting and financial professionals.” Goodtrack adds AFOA Canada ensures its members are on the “cutting edge of financial management practices.”
Keeping members up to date with the latest practices is something that each of the ethnically diverse accounting associations mentions as a priority. But what’s arguably more important is giving back to their respective communities, and acting as a bridge between professionals in Canada and their home countries. “I came to Canada in 2001 from China,” says Judy Lin, a partner in the China Services Group of Grant Thornton and cofounder of the Canadian-Chinese Professional Accountants Association (CCPAA). “After settling down and establishing myself in Toronto, I felt strongly that it was time for me to give back to the community and to my home country. I was heartbroken when I heard terrible stories originating in China. I knew I could not change the world overnight, but I did want to find a way to help.” Ten years ago Lin and two friends in the Chinese accounting community started CCPAA. “Professionals with a Chinese background are known to have solid knowledge and experience, but we are also known as shy and we don’t speak up for ourselves,” says Mavis Mu, an accountant at Kanish & Partners LLP in Toronto and the CCPAA Ontario chapter president. “We are building a platform to unite Chinese professionals — we want all communities to hear our accountants’ voices.”
The Korean Canadian Professional Accountants Society of BC (KCPA BC) was also seen as a shy bunch by some members — that is, until the social aspect of the group took off. Jai Namgung, KCPA BC’s secretary, who has his own firm in Coquitlam, BC, says the group’s first meeting included 13 CPAs who “did not know each other. My first impression was that we were too shy to become familiar and it would take a long time to be friends.” As one of the smaller associations, with 33 members, what it lacks in membership it makes up for in being one of the most social groups around. Little did Namgung know that in addition to holding professional development seminars, the association would soon host a year-end party, plan hiking trips and picnics and put on golf tournaments. “As time [went] on, more CPAs started participating in our meetings and we were too friendly to become competitors in a much shorter time than I expected,” he says.
A GREAT RECIPE
Meanwhile, cookies and coffee are served during the break at the BFAN meeting; the ladies schmooze before the next speaker is introduced. “We have an honest, encouraging, open forum that feels like a sisterhood, a family,” says Radcliffe, who adds she’s hopeful for the future of BFAN. “It’s like a great recipe — with the right ingredients the results are amazing and you want to share it with others. That’s what I’ve been doing since I joined the network — spreading the word.”
The CPA Profession recognizes the challenges faced by immigrants to Canada, so, to support them, CPA Canada has developed an interactive online course titled Guide to Accounting Business Culture: Adapting to the Canadian Accounting Workplace. CPA Canada also supports members who work outside Canada through its international chapters, which help members remain engaged with the Canadian profession.