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A Mid-Career Professional's Journey to Obtain the CPA License

Dec 6, 2021
ZeNai Brooks, CPA
I have been an advocate for the CPA profession ever since I graduated college in 2008 and started my career in public accounting.

I spent a lot of time in my early career working with high school and college students through INCPAS and NABA (National Association of Black Accountants) and encouraging them to enter the profession. I mentored, spoke at schools, helped host conferences, etc., all while not actually having the CPA license myself.

What became more and more evident to me as I moved up the ladder in my own professional career was that 1) not having the CPA license was a barrier (whether I agreed or not) and 2) there were not a lot of resources available to encourage and support the mid-career professional.

I should also note here I am not the typical working professional. In addition to having a demanding career, I sit on several boards, assist my husband in pastoring a church, and more. My full schedule wasn't conducive to studying for the CPA Exam.

However, I am happy to report that, in early 2021, I earned my CPA license and finally ended my 12-year journey to becoming a CPA.

That’s right, 12 years.

When I first started my career in public accounting, I began to study for the CPA Exam right away. I failed my first part and was devastated. I had never failed anything like this in my life, especially considering the numbers of hours I put into studying. I was an honor roll student in high school and college, a star athlete and was considered a leader in many areas of my life. It was embarrassing and it took me a long time to recover.

I registered over 20 times for different parts of the CPA Exam; some of them I showed up to and failed, and some I didn’t show up for. I did pass Audit on the first try though, twice. But, if I'm honest, I was just going through the motions, based on what the profession was saying I needed to do. I wasn’t truly invested in obtaining my license any longer, I was frustrated by the process, I was running out of time, and I was considering leaving the profession.
I was reviewing the CPA materials as if I was a college student and not a working professional who is now a practical learner. Watching hours of lectures was not productive for me and I would forget the material. I didn't have eight hours a day to commit and stay on track with the prescribed study plan; I had to create my own. It was also a very lonely process, so I had to find other candidate friends.
At an internal crossroads in 2020, enter the COVID pandemic, and suddenly I had a little more time to dedicate to studying. We were not allowed to travel or go outside very much, so what else did I have to do? I started studying once again, and, once again, failed the first section. I was seriously beginning to question my own intelligence. I started seeing a therapist, I hired a CPA coach and I even got tested for ADHD. What I learned was that I was actually very intelligent and didn't have a learning disorder, but rather, I had to relearn how to study. I was reviewing the CPA materials as if I was a college student and not a working professional who is now a practical learner. Watching hours of lectures was not productive for me and I would forget the material. I didn't have eight hours a day to commit and stay on track with the prescribed study plan; I had to create my own. It was also a very lonely process, so I had to find other candidate friends.

Long story short:
  • I switched my approach to studying and tailored a technique for myself.
  • I created an online study accountability community (NABA CPA Bound).
  • I learned failing is not the end but part of the learning process.
  • I became laser focused on my "why" and remembered why I was pursuing the CPA license in the first place.
I learned failing is not the end but part of the learning process.
After 12 years of starting, stopping, failing and retaking the CPA Exam, I completed all parts in seven months. I go into more detail about all of this in my book “FINISH! Leveraging Career, Sport, Faith and Failure,” which I wrote as soon as I obtained my CPA license. My goal in documenting my journey is to be as transparent as possible to encourage other professionals to accomplish their goals, especially mid-career professionals. To be in control of our careers and have an impact on community (if that’s a goal), we must position ourselves and remove any barriers or obstacles that could potentially hold us back.

While I have concerns about the future of the CPA profession, as well as the pipeline and inclusivity, I do believe in the CPA profession as a great career choice and rewarding experience. We have a lot of work to do in communicating the value of the CPA license, but in the meantime, let's play the game as it's presented to us today. We need more black and brown people in the CPA profession and at the "proverbial" table: as CEOs and CFOs, partners, corporate and non-profit board members, professors, etc. We need to find a way to encourage and support the thousands of accounting, finance and tax professionals who are working without having their CPA license.

I will always encourage students to sit for the Exam as soon as they possibly can and do whatever it takes to pass it. Even if you are not sure of your career path, it's better to have the CPA license and not need it, rather than to need it and not have it. Trust me, I was passed up on several job opportunities and promotions because of not having license, even when I was overqualified.

And to any working professionals: it's not too late to obtain your license. Be encouraged and stay focused. When the journey gets a little bumpy, remember why you started and keep going until you finish!

You can purchase my book “Finish! Leveraging Career, Sport, Faith and Failure” on Amazon and follow me at LadyZSpeaks.com.


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ZeNai Brooks, CPA
About the Author

ZeNai Brooks, CPA, is a millennial leader with extensive business and civic experience. She has combined her passion for community advocacy and her professional career as the controller of the corporate responsibility function of Cummins, a Fortune 200 company and treasurer of the related foundation, which provides funding to grassroots initiatives and strategic programs around the world. Brooks also serves as a board member for the Indiana CPA Society and central region president & national director for the National Association of Black Accountants. In 2021, Brooks was identified as a 40 under 40 Black CPA Award winner. She is also the author of "FINISH! Leveraging Career, Sport, Faith and Failure."