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Accounting for the new generation

As two of the founders of New Gen Accountants, Alice Olafare and Aaron Townsend are building a network that champions and supports diversity throughout the profession. William Ham Bevan speaks to them about their hopes for the future of accounting

Qualifying as a chartered accountant is a long, tough process. And for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates, there may be additional chal - lenges along the route to passing the ACA. “My cousin and I had been the first in my family to go to university,” says Aaron Townsend, financial control - ler at online mortgage broker Habito. “There was always awareness that our family had left Jamaica for a better quality of life, and sacrifices had been made to give us this chance. That brought a lot of pressure when I was studying.”

The anxieties don’t end with the ACA. Alice Olafare, recently qualified and working as a senior associate in transaction services at PwC, says: “Just because you’ve made it in, it doesn’t mean you feel that you belong. BAME people can sometimes have the sense of feeling like impostors: are you only there because of quotas? There are few people there like you, and you wonder whether anyone really understands what you’re going through.” Olafare and Townsend are among the co-founders of New Gen Accountants, a network that aims to encourage people from under represented groups – including those with BAME backgrounds – to consider accountancy as a career, and support them through study, qualification and beyond. The need for an organisation of its kind was underlined two years ago, when PwC published data showing that staff from BAME backgrounds were earning salaries 13% lower than the firm’s average.

While diversity has become a buzzword in accountancy, real change has been slower to emerge. In a 2017 ICAEW report, Diversity and the Accounting Profession, academics interviewed people from UK firms of all sizes. Asked about the effectiveness of diversity policies, only 42% of respondents were positive, and 27% even described them as “a smokescreen that disguises inequality”. The report concluded that “while diversity practices are developing, progress is fragmented”. For all this, the message that NGA hopes to spread is a positive one. Townsend says: “The first thing we want to convey is that accountancy is a great career. It not only benefits society and business; it allows the people who do it to change the trajectory of their lives, and that of their families.

“For me, the fact that I’m a chartered accountant and a head of finance at quite a young age means my daughter’s life will be radically different from mine. I came from a single-parent family, in an area with high knife crime. Her opportunities, and the social knowledge available to her, will be very different. That’s one of the main reasons we set up New Gen – because we’ve seen people’s lives transformed by their career.” Dispelling some stubborn myths about the profession is very much part of NGA’s core mission – both in terms of the people who can succeed, and the types of work they can aspire to do. Olafare says: “It’s really important that BAME people know there’s a place for them in this profession. They may not see many people who look like them succeeding in accountancy, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be successful themselves and become an inspiration to others. New Gen is all about changing the narrative, allowing people to know that we belong here, and we can make a difference.

“I also want them to know that accountancy doesn’t necessarily equal audit, or becoming a controller working with financial statements. It’s a broad profession that can lead you down so many different avenues. People need to know that, because it doesn’t always invite the glitz and glamour of sectors like investment banking.” Although the two come from very different backgrounds, both cite the importance of having had a relative with experience of the financial sector – in Alice’s case, an older brother working in technol - ogy consulting. His initial suggestion was that she apply for one of the “flying start” schemes offered by the Big Four, allowing her to study for a degree and gain work experience at the same time. “In the end, I decided against that, because I wanted to concentrate just on university for a few years,” she says.

“In secondary school, I’d really enjoyed maths and algebra, so accountancy made sense as a career choice. I’d also liked drama and the arts, but coming from a Nigerian background, that wasn’t really approved of as an initial career. I chose a degree in finance, accounting and management at Nottingham University.” S ummer internships with KPMG and PwC led to graduate-scheme offers from both firms. Olafare opted for the latter, and was able to switch from assurance to transaction services. “I didn’t think audit was for me,” she says. “I wanted a bit more client interaction. Now, three years on, I’m sitting in transaction services, and exam-qualified. That was a long process, one that drove my interest in setting up NGA to help others get through it.”

For just over a year, Townsend has been in his current job at Habito, headquartered in London. He was steered towards accountancy by his mother – who has a financial role at law firm Slaughter and May – when he graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in biomedical sciences. “It was 2008, at the time of the financial crisis,” he says. “I was on a temp contract at Albion Capital, when the operations partner came and said, ‘Two of our accountants are leaving – have you considered accountancy?’ I asked my mum what she thought, and she suggested that I took up the offer. I did, and soon realised accountancy was totally different from what I thought it would be.”

He studied for his ACA at the firm, where he ended up for seven and a half years. “The ACA is like a Swiss Army knife for business,” he says. “It gives you the foundations. You may never use some of it, but you’ll know how to read a balance sheet, interpret a company and drill down to the important information. It teaches you to ask the right questions, and be alert to things that don’t look right.” Throughout 2018, NGA grew out of a group of BAME accountants who would regularly chat and swap ideas about how to increase and support diversity in the profession. They were introduced to each other by Monique Malcolm-Hay, an ICAEW chartered accountant at PwC currently seconded to the Dubai office. She started the network last November, with Olafare and Townsend becoming co-founders. Having founders at different stages in their careers has helped NGA widen its appeal, Olafare believes.

She says: “In terms of our market audience, we have three buckets that we talk about. The first is people who are interested in accountancy but aren’t studying it and might know nothing about it. They may be doing A-levels or at university, and want more information about the profession. Our second bucket is those who are currently undertaking qualifications. That’s not limited to the ACA – they may be with ACCA, CIMA, AAT or another body. “The final bucket is those who are already qualified, and thinking ‘What can I do, now that I have this qualification, and where can it take me?’ It’s one thing to hire people who are different, but that’s no good if you put them in an environment where they can’t thrive – where they don’t feel appreciated and they’re not going to be able to grow. That’s why I’m hoping we can partner with companies to help with their diversity and inclusion, as well as support individuals.”

Progress has been rapid. More than 100 people attended the launch event for New Gen Accountants in November 2018, which featured representatives from PwC, Goldman Sachs, Lloyds and Deloitte. Since then, the network has established a strong presence on social media. Within six months, it amassed 500 followers on Twitter and Instagram, more than 200 subscribers apiece to its LinkedIn page and email mailing list, and 100 users on an active NGA WhatsApp group. An online campaign, “My Accountancy Journey”, was launched, featuring the stories of 10 professionals in different parts of the profession.

These virtual resources complement regular face-to-face networking sessions. Some take the form of “fireside chats” in which the number of attendees is purposely kept low – such as a recent ‘I’m qualified: what next?’ event. Townsend says: “That was a peer mentoring session, limited to 20 places so that people had a chance to ask detailed questions of our guest speakers.” Another of NGA’s ambitions is to link entrants with experienced mentors. Olafare says: “It can be challenging to find a mentor within a company where no one looks like you, speaks like you or has a similar background to you. You need personal connections, and our network can set those up.”

As well as rolling out the mentoring scheme, plans for the near future include providing more career-development resources, organising bigger events, and forging stronger links between under-represented groups on all the UK’s accountancy bodies. Both Olafare and Townsend are keen to stress that NGA is not a London organisation, but one whose reach will be nationwide, and will eventually be international. They hope to expand operations in key accountancy clusters such as Leeds, Manchester and Bristol, and have already taken part in talks with representatives of the National Association of Black Accountants in the United States.

Ultimately, NGA’s ambition goes well beyond supporting individuals in accountancy. Further down the line, they hope to offer their services to firms seeking to recruit employees from diverse backgrounds, introducing them to suitable candidates. But above all, NGA’s mission is to keep unpicking the inequality that remains ingrained in many corners of the accountancy profession.

Townsend says: “We have to get across that BAME people aren’t looking for easy access. That’s something a lot of people misunderstand with diversity in general, whether we’re talking about race, gender or class. If you speak to anyone from a – quote, unquote – disadvantaged background, what they really want is for obstacles to be moved out of their way so they can achieve on their own strengths and merits. “The question we need to ask ourselves is this: why do we want diversity? Do we want it because of legislation, because it’s a worthy thing to do, or because it will benefit our teams, our firms and our profession? A paternalistic approach doesn’t work – just putting in place a diversity scheme isn’t enough. We need a new approach, and we need to accept that people who are intelligent and driven shouldn’t persistently face obstacles that their peers will never encounter.”

The pledge

At its annual dinner in March, ICAEW signed the Social Mobility Pledge – an initiative co-founded by former Cabinet minister and Institute member Justine Greening MP. She says: “I set it up in response to the chronic lack of equality of opportunity that has existed in Britain for far too long. The Pledge is about creating a level playing field so what matters is talent and competence, not background and connections.” Olafare and Townsend attended the event.

“Justine Greening was very interested in New Gen Accountants and was keen to ask us some questions,” says Olafare. “And she qualified as an accountant with PwC, so she’d been through some of the experiences I had.” Greening – who became the first member of her family to go to university – co-founded the Pledge last year with David Harrison, chair of the Harrison Centre for Social Mobility. She says: “After eight years in the Cabinet, it was clear to me that the best ideas on social mobility don’t necessarily exist in Whitehall. The Pledge is designed to harness ideas and to share the practical steps that are working. In just over a year, hundreds of businesses, representing 2.5 million people, have signed the Pledge and committed to partnering with schools, offering apprenticeships and fair recruitment.”

In addition, Access Accountancy is a collaboration of more than 25 professional services firms dedicated to improving access to the accountancy profession in the UK. The programme was established in 2014 with the ambition to promote diversity across all levels of the sector in the face of overwhelming evidence showing that applicants from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be hired.

Originally published in Economia on 18 July 2019.