New Jersey Society of CPAs CEO and executive director Ralph Albert Thomas is encouraging CPA firms and other businesses to expand their diversity and inclusion efforts.

During a speech Wednesday in New York at a meeting of the Accountants Club of America, Thomas stressed that CPA firms need to reflect the changing demographics in the U.S. population and within their own clients’ businesses. He pointed out that out of the 550,000 CPAs in the U.S. only 14 percent of the profession is people of color. Meanwhile, for the first time in the nation’s history, the majority of babies born in the U.S. are children of color.

Thomas is involved with the American Institute of CPAs’ Diversity and Inclusion initiative, and he also praised the work being done by the New York State Society of CPAs and his own group in New Jersey, the NJCPA.

“We’re working to move the needle on diversity and inclusion,” he said. But he added, “We’re not going to get there overnight on diversity.”

He noted that the profession has been working on the diversity issue since 1968 but has barely moved the needle, although he praised the work being done by the Big Four firms in promoting diversity and inclusion in recent years.

“Expand our minds beyond where we are today,” he urged.

Thomas pointed out that accountants are in a “people business” and they have to look beyond human beings’ surface features. “Don’t miss out on the richness of all those characteristics below the water line,” he said.

Thomas believes diversity is an imperative going forward for the profession. “When you have a diverse team, you get smarter decisions,” he said. “Having diverse teams really yields better solutions.”

Demographic shifts in the business world may force more CPA firms to diversify. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of minority-owned businesses grew 46 percent compared to 16 percent for all U.S. firms, Thomas pointed out in his presentation. Minority-owned businesses employed approximately 5.9 million people in 2007, up from 4.7 million in 2002.

“The statistics are telling us we need to change, but are we ready to change?” Thomas asked. “We have some work to do in the culture of our firms to make sure intolerance and discrimination aren’t prevalent.”

Thomas urged accountants to avoid “lazy brain tendencies” and make conscious efforts to understand those around them. They should develop more of a “global mindset” and develop “multicultural dexterity.”

Diversity also helps CPA firms with their efforts at recruiting younger accountants. “Putting together a diversity strategy is what we needed to do at the AICPA with the Pipeline Project,” said Thomas.

However, Thomas stressed that diversity is not the same thing as affirmative action. “It’s not about the numbers of how many do you have,” he said.

He encouraged firms to develop more sponsorship programs for younger accountants that go beyond traditional mentoring. He praised the NYSSCPA’s Career Opportunities in Accounting Profession (COAP) program for encouraging high school students, particularly minorities, to develop an interest in pursuing careers in accounting. Thomas said he would also like to see more CPAs get involved in teaching accounting in college rather than leaving the job to PhDs. He encouraged CPAs to get involved as adjunct professors at their local colleges.

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