2021 marked the 10th anniversary of the start of the INCPAS Scholars program, an initiative that has since become a critical pillar in our efforts to make meaningful impact in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
Since its creation, 216 Indiana students have completed the year-long career awareness and mentoring program to get an up-close look at the CPA profession. And it isn’t slowing down anytime soon! As we arrived at the 10th anniversary of the first Scholars class successfully completing the program, we wanted to look back to the beginning and how it came to be an INCPAS program.
Celebrating 10 years of the INCPAS Scholars program in 2021 at lunch with several Scholars from the 2011 class
Rising to the Challenge
In the first decade of the 2000s, the INCPAS Board of Directors began to more actively examine issues around diversity.
“We were looking at the numbers of minorities and underrepresented groups in the profession and it was almost like the needle hadn’t moved in forever,” said Charles Johnson, CPA, retiring managing principal of Engaging Solutions, LLC, who in 2011–12 served as the INCPAS Board Chair. “The numbers were just horribly low.”
The board and INCPAS staff team questioned why, for a career that presents opportunity and multiple career path options, more people of color weren’t moving toward becoming a CPA.
Through conversations with CPAs, they knew individual firms and organizations were working to address diversity issues, but one firm partner, Jeff Fusile, CPA, suggested INCPAS take action to bring the profession together to work toward a common goal.
“We’re uniquely positioned to gather the profession and help facilitate a profession-wide commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Ali Paul, CAE, INCPAS Vice President – Pipeline & Outreach. “One of the challenges for organizations can be follow through and consistency. People get promoted, they change roles or even leave. That makes it difficult when you are working to create a talent pipeline.”
The solution that came to the forefront was focusing on how to get students interested in the profession to create a diverse pipeline of talent.
As we worked to develop an impactful program, we knew that to see real movement it would require the support of Indiana CPA firms, organizations and colleges/universities. Their buy-in was essential. We needed these organizations to provide not only funds to support the program, but mentors as well.
Through the years, INCPAS efforts to inspire interest in the profession had focused on reaching out to college students. But by the second or third year of college, most already have settled on a major and career path, making it too late to inspire a career trajectory change.
By focusing on high school students, there is more time to educate on what the CPA profession looks like and, hopefully, inspire change.
“We started looking at the exposure of our profession to high school students. Maybe that would light a spark or start something,” Johnson said. “I often tell people we all want to make a big splash and draw thousands, but if we could just get one, maybe two to consider becoming a CPA, we’ve moved the needle a little bit. And maybe that one or two brings another one along.”
The first effort to engage high school students was the now-retired Game On program. Johnson approached the IPS superintendent to get a sense for if students would participate in the planned one-day program that would introduce them to being a CPA. Participants would have the opportunity to learn, ask questions, visit CPA offices, and, hopefully, have a little fun in the process.
Once Game On was developed and interest built, the program was able to expand from Indianapolis to other regions in the state. Giving diverse and underrepresented groups in the profession a basic introduction to the CPA profession was a big step forward. But was a one-day event really enough to get students invested in being a CPA?
The idea for the Scholars program helped check off these boxes: a yearlong program that focused on college and career readiness while providing students in-person exposure to CPAs, firms, organizations and college programs.
From Spark to Scholars
When considering how students became interested in a profession and how they made their college decisions, Paul said two key things stood out: mentorship and frequent in-person exposure.
While Game On events helped create some exposure, they were quick one-and-done days. “There are so many opportunities in the CPA profession and we need to continuously reinforce that message,” said Paul.
The idea for the Scholars program helped check off these boxes: a year-long program that focused on college and career readiness while providing students in-person exposure to CPAs, firms, organizations and college programs. Paul approached the board with the idea, one Johnson said everyone immediately saw as a promising way to keep the profession at the forefront for interested students.
“If a student has a real interest, linking them with a mentor, someone who can show them a little bit of a deeper dive into what the profession is all about, giving them a chance to go to some colleges and visit on campus, talking to some students in the accounting field and what all it entails helps to move that needle.” Johnson said.
The 2011–12 INCPAS Scholars cohort was the first group to complete the full-year program, with 15 students participating from Indianapolis and the surrounding areas. The program has since expanded to include a South Bend cohort and around 30 students a year.
Since the beginning, the program has been structured in two parts. The first half of the year generally focuses on college readiness, complete with college visits and a College Night that welcomes representatives from financial aid offices and accounting programs in Indiana. The focus is developing opportunities to help students envision themselves on campus during a particularly crucial time in their high school careers—right before and during their college application process. Scholar alumni return to share their experiences and offer guidance and insight into what it takes to be successful in college.
The second part of the year is focused on career readiness and helping the Scholars better understand the possibilities in the CPA profession. They visit firms and other organizations in Indiana that hire CPAs, like Lilly, Cummins, the Indiana Pacers, and OneAmerica.
“It’s one thing to talk about what it’s like working as a CPA, but showing
it makes all the difference for these students,” said Paul. “Getting to see where CPAs work—their buildings, offices, on-site perks—and being able to ask them questions about what they do in their organization is the experiential part that enables them to truly envision the opportunities as a CPA.”
Throughout it all, they also engage and build relationships with their mentor. In general, a different topic is covered every month at various events, and mentors are provided talking points and questions to ask their mentee that coincide with the monthly topic.
Mentoring to Impact
The mentorship element has been one of the most impactful parts of the program, with many relationships lasting beyond the one-year mark. Scholars have leaned on their mentors as they navigate college, land internships and their first jobs, prepare for the CPA Exam, and weigh career transitions.
“My number one highlight of the program would be the relationships I built, specifically with the professionals,” said Nailah Owens-Johnson, CPA, a deals associate – CMAAS at PwC in Chicago and INCPAS Scholar 2014–15. “My mentor actually worked at PwC. It was full circle when I went through recruiting as an intern and then accepting my full-time offer because I got to meet a lot of the PwC professionals through the program.”
“The mentors are invested in the success of the Scholars and by spending time each month listening to them, answering questions and providing guidance, they really become part of their success team and this often lasts well beyond the initial program year,” Paul said. “Especially for those who do eventually become CPAs or are working toward their license.”
Building professional relationships and connections is an important lesson instilled in participants throughout the program, including those with fellow students, alumni and professionals they meet along the way.
My number one highlight of the program would be the relationships I built.
–Nailah Owens-Johnson, CPA
“At every event, the importance of networking was always stressed,” said Dayon Gill, a junior accounting and finance student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and INCPAS Scholar 2018–19. “That was one of the most meaningful takeaways for me that has helped me start my career.” Gill credits landing his internships with networking and taking time to engage and connect with professionals when he had the opportunity.
“The Scholars meet so many professionals throughout the program and a lot of time is spent talking about building and maintaining a professional network,” Paul said. “As they go on to college, they continually check-in not only with their mentors, but also with other CPAs they met.”
This is an important opportunity not only for Scholars like Owens-Johnson and Gill who took the CPA path, but also for those who don’t go on to become accounting and finance professionals. While it isn’t expected that every INCPAS Scholar will become a CPA, the college readiness aspect of the program alongside the network building is incredibly significant no matter where they end up.
“There is a family feel to the program and they develop significant relationships with the students in their cohort, our staff, mentors, Scholar alumni and other CPAs they’ve met through the program,” Paul said. “I think it’s good for them to have that additional support system as they go into college.”
Johnson agrees that the college readiness part is significant. The guiding hand can be valuable to share what they need to do to get to college or other paths they should explore.
“For me it was an opportunity to impact one’s life and give some guidance that I probably didn’t have in terms of how to prepare,” Johnson said. “A lot of students may not have that guidance.”
Launching DEI Conversations
The Scholars program hasn’t just helped boost interest in the profession among students. It also helped propel DEI conversations among Indiana firms. Johnson said he started to see firms take note of the Scholars program and look at their own DEI initiatives, more readily seeing diversity as good for business.
“It does bring value to have a diverse staff, to provide equity to all of your staff, to include your staff,” Johnson said. “It only benefits you to have a diverse group of people collaborate on any project in any firm.”
Younger generations are also taking note of what firms are doing in terms of DEI initiatives. Gill and Owens-Johnson were quick to recognize programs major firms offer, including opportunities to gain credit hours if they’re short toward their 150-hour requirement to sit for the CPA Exam, professional development opportunities within firms to learn more about racial and social justice, and retention programs that help new hires better connect to their team.
“It’s not just about hiring diverse employees, but also helping employees who are diverse feel included,” said Owens-Johnson.
“There needs to be action taken,” Gill said, noting words about supporting diversity aren’t enough if there’s no action behind them.
While there’s still significant work and opportunity in the areas of DEI, the needle has moved over the past few decades. As he ends his career as a CPA, Johnson is particularly excited to see these changes and interest in diversity among firms and CPA professionals. His career started at a time when large firms, particularly in Indianapolis, were not as welcoming to hiring Black and minority CPAs.
“When I was first looking for jobs and at firms here in Indiana, there were firms in which I knew I wasn’t going to be hired when I walked in the door,” he said. “Now that has turned to firms reaching out, especially the larger firms. It’s a new day and I hope it keeps heading in that direction,” he said.
Support INCPAS Scholars and Get Involved
You can support the program by contributing at incpas.org/Scholars. If you’d like to get involved as a Scholars mentor, you can email Ali Paul, CAE, VP – Pipeline & Outreach, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.