Nina Cordier recently joined the ranks of a very exclusive group: The 22-year-old graduate of Louisiana's Dillard University is an accountant at one of the Big Four firms, and she is black.
She is hoping to join an even more rarefied world by passing the certified public accountant's exam in coming years, making partner at Ernst & Young LLP, and succeeding in a profession that remains one of the least racially diverse in the nation.
"I don't think it is like it used to be," said Cordier, who pursued the profession even though many of her friends "didn't understand."
"I loved the debits and credits. I know it is weird," Cordier said.
For an industry focused on the veracity of numbers, one in particular has prompted a bit of soul-searching: Only 1 percent of CPAs in the United States are black, and the numbers for Hispanics and other minorities are similarly low.
Cordier and 119 other first-year accountants and auditors got a boost toward nudging that percentage upward this week during a six-day leadership program sponsored by Howard University's Center for Accounting Education.
The Big Four, as well as a few of the major black-owned accounting firms, are helping pay for the event at the Westfields Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in Chantilly. They also are providing speakers and mentors who offer tips on how to network, how to deal with bosses and career pitfalls, and, crucially, how to pass the CPA exam. Similar to the bar exam for lawyers, the CPA test qualifies people to, for example, perform certified audits.
"Studying for the exam is crucial," said Allen Boston, Ernst & Young's director of campus and diversity recruiting, imploring his firm's "Staff 1" employees, those who have started their accounting careers but have yet to take the test.
Once again, numbers tell a disheartening story: Even though blacks constitute 12 percent of students enrolled in accounting courses, they make up only 8 percent of accounting graduates and only about 4 percent of those who sit for the CPA exam. According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the industry's leading professional organization, blacks constitute only 1 percent of their membership. Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 4 percent and Hispanics represent 2 percent.
The number has remained stagnant for almost a decade, while the representation of blacks in comparable professions such as law has inched slowly upward.
"If there's a little decline in law school graduates, a lot of people care about it," said Theresa A. Hammond, author of "A White-Collar Profession," a book that chronicles the stories of the first 100 black CPAs.
The accounting profession has been comparatively hands-off about the issue, until now. Seminar sponsors say that the diversity push isn't about quotas. A more heterogeneous workforce, they said, brings a deeper talent pool and a broader range of thoughts and perspectives.
First-year staffer Michael Reid, who works out of Ernst & Young's Houston office, resembled many of his 25 or so colleagues assembled for a Monday night networking dinner: not only planning a long career in the accounting field, but enthusiastic in a way that might shock those who consider accounting the realm of introverted bean counters.
"I started in September. Since then, I've seen seven different companies in three different industries," said Reid, who particularly looks forward to the chance to travel as he moves up in the profession.
Reid said that being a person of color hasn't been much of an issue so far. "Have I suffered from it? I don't think so," said Reid, who is originally from Jamaica. "But I am conscious of it."
Reid and his compatriots listened intently at dinner as Jerome Broadus spoke to them. Broadus is one of the black CPAs Hammond wrote about and is also a member of what she dubbed the "D.C. Four" -- a group of young men who supported each other as they broke into the profession.
Broadus said he faced a much different environment when he tried to enter the accounting industry in the early 1960s. He wasn't wined and dined with lobster bisque, filet mignon and chocolate torte like those who attended Monday night's Ernst & Young-sponsored event. He wasn't even able to take the CPA exam in the District because he needed two years of experience in the field, and no accounting firm would hire him.
Hammond told the new accounting professionals that there are several reasons diversity has been sluggish in the accounting industry. Big business was resistant to integration even after the civil rights movement. When the Arthur Young firm hired Robert Hill in 1961, making him the first black CPA at what was then the Big Eight, the firm checked with clients to make sure they were comfortable working with him.
Hammond said that while the resistance of clients has always been cited as a reason for the low number of black CPAs, that might also be an excuse. In her book, she writes that half of black CPAs surveyed in one 1990 study said that lack of opportunity stemmed from bias on the part of their employer.
But according to Cordier, the profession is starting to catch on among her peers.
"The number one major is accounting now," she said. "I think we are pretty hip."