The importance of Black representation in accounting
The many inequities and oppressions that Black Americans face is well documented, but lack of representation is one side of the story that isn’t always shared. Many of us are visual learners – what we see in our everyday lives subconsciously builds our personal expertise, interests, and philosophies.
Growing up in East Chicago, Indiana, I learned two things from the influences that I witnessed: hard work and consistency. There were countless men and women that I knew that worked in the steel mills, oil refineries, and casinos. Whether they worked day shift, night shift, or swing shift, they worked. Our parents, aunts, and uncles didn’t call off or take PTO, and they definitely didn’t turn to the next hot job opportunity, as our generation so commonly does in our own careers. The generations before us were proud of their lengthy careers in their professions and boasted joining their respective job “right out of high school.”
We see our parents work hard in the steel mills, and then we’d turn on the televisions and find role models in Black athletes and entertainers. This limited view of career options leads children in our community to believe that these are the only options. We wanted to be LeBron James and Jay Z, while not ever considering other lucrative and rewarding careers, such as accounting, because we did not see ourselves in those roles.
Being an accountant was literally the last thing on my radar. As a child, I was smart, ambitious, and full of personality. Based on my trajectory leaving high school, most of my teachers gave me the rudimentary encouragement, “go study medicine or law,” as if those were the only options available for a kid like myself. Sadly, for many Black students in my position, they seemed to be.
Later, when I stepped foot on Butler University’s campus, I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I knew I had an interest in business. As a freshman, one of my professors shared a list of careers in business, their median income, and the associated hiring rate. Accountants had the second highest median income and the highest hiring rate on the list. I’d seen my parents survive the recession of 2008 and college wasn’t cheap. They were making a huge investment and I knew I had to secure a career that would lead to a steady paycheck. Accounting it was.
I immediately changed my major and told myself, “If I learn accounting well enough, I can be an asset to any business across every industry.” 15 years later, that sentiment rang true. Unfortunately, though, this journey has been very lonely.
Now in my 9th year post-graduation, I’ve worked in public accounting, managerial corporate accounting, and now run my own firm. Despite making friends and respected colleagues in each of these areas, I’ve struggled to identify a mentor that looks like me.
This reality hit me early in my career when I’d go into offices or workspaces and feel like I didn’t belong. It felt like no one had my back. I’d watch my coworkers group up with people who looked like them and often felt like the odd man out. In these situations, you quickly learn to separate yourself. There wasn’t any sense of community, nor was there someone I could model success after. This ultimately inspired me to work for myself.
At least as an entrepreneur, I could begin to work in my community and allow those younger than me to see up close that being an accountant was a valuable career option. I opened a physical location in my hometown to show that this wasn’t just a career, but a business owned by a Black man from the community. I bought a luxury car and fancy clothes to show that the business was lucrative. I spoke in classrooms in my community, passing out cash for participation to encourage the students to embrace finances and accounting.
I am a successful Black accountant in East Chicago, Indiana – a representation that I never had the privilege of witnessing myself. The lack of representation in the accounting industry nearly pushed me to change my entire career path earlier on. However, I hope that my impact can be the exact opposite for someone else.
I don’t look like the stereotypical representation of an accountant – I present myself to completely obliterate that stereotype. It’s important for children who come from neighborhoods across the country, just like mine, to see that you can realize your dreams and live a good life through this profession, just as you are.
It’s funny because sometimes I find myself working the same shifts as my parents in the mills. During tax season, I may work overnight or, worse, pull a double. The difference is that this work is done from the comfort of my office. I can now think outside the box and dream bigger than the people who preceded me. Which, as a Black man in America, is of unparalleled importance.
Hollis Fullilove is an accountant and entrepreneur from East Chicago, Indiana. Formerly an accountant in one of the “Big 4,” Hollis is now the Founder and CEO of Crane Financial, LLC, where he provides efficient tax planning and strategy to educate and empower individuals and small businesses in his community. Follow Crane Financial on Instagram for helpful tips on tax and entrepreneurship.