By Adriana Rodriguez

Jackie Robinson. Michael Jordan. Roberto Clemente. What would sports be without these legendary icons? These players were able to break boundaries as well as records, impacting sports as well as history. Now, it may be rare for an accountant to have millions of cheering fans, but our growing importance to the business world – and the opportunities inherent for minorities – are undeniable. And as U.S. demographics continue shifting toward greater diversity, there is greater need for representation from diverse ethnic groups.

Since it’s not always as easy to see minorities’ contributions to the CPA profession as it is to see our sporting achievements, I’ve got a quick comparison I use to help people connect the dots: I just tell them I want to be the “A-Rod” of public accounting. It works, and it’s true – I’d love to see my work symbolize that type of greatness and change. Consider Jackie Robinson’s selfless approach to baseball: He once remarked, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” That same philosophy is behind my sharing of what I’ve learned here, in hopes that it will have a positive impact on your journey into public accounting and that, together, we will one day revolutionize public accounting.

Seek advisors: Mentors and a personal “Board of Directors”

There were times in my student career, quite a few of them actually, when I wished my parents were accountants. That way maybe I would know how to best prepare for certain things, such as a networking event or an internship. Corporate America seemed quite different from the predominantly Hispanic community in which I grew up. Just as I’d instinctively start to greet someone with a kiss on the cheek, I’d have to stop myself and extend my hand to shake instead. Things were even more challenging because for a large part of my academic and professional career, I did not have a mentor to advise me. I made mistakes along the way, some that I didn’t even realize were mistakes at the time. Once I realized it, though, I always made it a point to learn from my errors quickly and move on. In addition, I spent a lot of my time doing research online and attending “corporate” events to give myself another chance to get it right.

It wasn’t until I became a mentor that I realized the impact and value of that relationship. For the first time – and only time – I was grateful for my past mistakes, since I could use the experience to advise my mentee. After all, I’d been there. The mentor-mentee dynamic does involve a lot of time and effort from both parties, though. A good mentor isn’t always easy to find. When you’re fortunate enough to establish this relationship, don’t let the opportunity pass. For myself, I always aimed to have a Latina mentor, but could never find one in the tax practice at my firm. I remember being so excited upon hearing there was actually a Latina partner. Then, of course, I found out she practiced in Florida. Eventually, I realized this type of thinking was just limiting me in my search.

Cultural and gender differences aside, it’s pivotal to find mentors to guide you – even if they have very different backgrounds from your own. You can look for these prized individuals within your company via support groups or colleagues, through professors or student associations, within organizations such as NABA or ALPFA, or through community service projects. Once you realize that mentors come in many different forms, it’s easier to understand and appreciate the value each one offers you. Some mentors are meant to help you navigate, others to inspire and motivate. The good ones all share a common thread, though: They’re happy to advocate to others on your behalf.

Find direction: Career vision and action plan

In my sophomore year, my professor urged me to attend “Meet the Firms” Night. I took the advice, but had second thoughts as I walked into one of the campus’s largest networking events and looked around at more than two hundred other students there for the same reasons I was. I quickly realized the importance of knowing what made me unique and of being able to succinctly express why someone should remember my name. It was my first hard lesson in recruiting. Preparation and self-awareness are essential; before you start recruiting, I urge you to create your career vision and construct your action plan. An action plan is similar to an academic curriculum in that it outlines how you intend to obtain an internship or job. More importantly, it helps you build commonalities with great ease, since once you’ve completed it you’ll be able to communicate your value within seconds. Just make sure to practice your pitch!

Your ability to connect with a professional after you’ve given your 30-second pitch is crucial. You want them to walk away thinking of you as someone they could work with and who could be an asset to their team. This isn’t always easy – at first I found networking difficult, especially when the conversation steered towards topics such as art, wine, sports, or world travel. Those things didn’t come up very often in my household. Over time, I learned to ask more questions and listen attentively to the answers, finding openings where I could add value to the conversation. It’s also helpful to find ways of steering the conversation back to topics you know more about! However, I have made it a habit to now read magazines online about topics such as wine, watch ESPN highlights, and be up to date with world events and business news, including pop culture. The best approach, I feel, is to view every encounter as an opportunity to develop your interpersonal skills.

Create visibility: Personal branding and networking

In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act. It is a habit.” It’s critical to understand how you represent yourself to others; with networking your ability depends largely on your visibility. Think, “How can I persuade others to invest their time toward help me achieve my vision?” Studying carefully, asking insightful questions, listening well and managing expectations are all good starts. In the end, it’s your strong brand that builds your network – which equals your net worth.

One way to positively build that brand is by engaging in volunteer and service projects you care deeply about. It shows leadership, commitment, and a spirit of kindness. It can also help you make connections to other professionals – even ones who care about the cause, but don’t have time to volunteer. Personally, I volunteer my time to speak to high school students. I tell them, “I may not wear my Frida Kahlo earrings to work, but it doesn’t mean my activist spirit is being silenced. Instead, I maintain my cultural identity in other ways. You have to be inside the box to be able to change its shape.”

Demand excellence: Earn CPA designation

Two years ago, I overheard a student discussion about the great “ease” minority students have in entering public accounting. One student commented on how he wished *he* could be a minority, so he too could receive the “red carpet” treatment. Hearing those words, I felt completely robbed of all my hard work. Although I knew their claims were false, it enraged me that these students believed them to be true. Today, those words have become my motivation to continue demanding excellence from myself and to earn my CPA designation. Diverse ethnic groups make up only eight percent of the CPA profession – my certification is my way of helping advance the whole profession, as well as my community at large.

For me, obtaining the CPA is just the starting point. It makes all my other goals and hopes possible. I start my first job in public accounting this fall and will be studying for the exam at the same time. I have no doubt it will be a challenging adjustment, but I’m confident that I can thrive, even with the demanding schedule. I will strive toward my goal of being the “A-Rod of public accounting,” even if it never gets my name on a jersey. And as my career continues, I will continue learning – and sharing my story with others.

To meet some other students who are triumphing in the accounting profession, check out profiles of AICPA scholarship recipients.