In May, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel titled “Building DEI Into Your Firm’s DNA” at the 2023 BDO Alliance USA Conference in Las Vegas. Coincidentally, this panel took place during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month; as I shared the experiences that shaped my accounting career, I looked back on where my journey began—at a disciplined Catholic school in Bangalore, supported by a mother devoted to ensuring I received an excellent education. I recalled the difficulty I faced when I moved to the United States with my CPA accreditation, applying to 60 accounting firms and either being rejected or not hearing back from the others. Despite this disheartening experience, the doors finally opened after I received my MBA, all while raising two young children.
For so many years, I was not given a chance to explain myself—to demonstrate my educational and accounting aptitude. Fast-forward to today, and I work in an environment where I have opportunities to explain myself and help others—especially women of color and other diverse groups—navigate their career trajectories.
I witnessed Perkins’ commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as soon as I joined the firm. In 2020, shareholder and Director of Assurance Peter Kwong called me to discuss DEI. I didn’t anticipate spending an entire hour on the topic, but Peter was passionate about DEI and shared his challenges growing up in a Chinese immigrant family. Since Peter’s unexpected passing in 2021, the Perkins team has been working together to advance the DEI efforts he was so passionate about.
The journey toward fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion is an ongoing process that involves constant learning and growth. It’s important to recognize that no workplace or individual is perfect in this endeavor. With that in mind, I would like to share some valuable insights I’ve gathered along the way—both from my own experiences and those of my fellow panelists. I hope these observations will serve as valuable tools for fellow businesses striving to build DEI into their organizational culture.
Start with a name.
There’s a lot in a name, and one of the simplest ways to celebrate diversity in the workplace is to honor individuals’ names versus relegating them to a generic collective such as “them” or “those people.” We own our names, and they tell unique stories. Being deliberate in asking questions and showing genuine curiosity in learning about cultural differences is an excellent first step. Ensuring you take the time to learn how to pronounce a colleague’s name shows respect and your interest in their story. When I say my name—Kripa Raguram—I think of my mother in India, who invested in my early education, and I am appreciative that I had that opportunity while so many of my female peers did not.
Evaluate your recruiting efforts.
At the beginning of my career, I had so few options that I couldn’t evaluate a possible employer based on diversity or how I would feel as a woman of color at the firm. There weren’t websites to gauge diversity in leadership or DEI statements to analyze. Rewind to a few years ago, when I was applying for accounting jobs: I’d look at firms’ websites and see very few women of color or minorities in leadership roles. Diversity and representation in marketing and recruiting efforts should not be overlooked; today’s candidates, especially Gen Z job seekers, look at accounting firms’ DEI efforts as they evaluate future employers.
It’s important to take steps to limit implicit bias, such as organizing a panel or committee of people from diverse backgrounds to review resumes and screen candidates. At the end of the day, hires should still be made based on merit, as a company needs competent and diverse employees to build DEI into its DNA.
Unpack the acronym.
The acronym DEI has a few critical aspects for consideration. Let’s start with diversity—having diversity in leadership is essential to provide mentorship, representation, and advocacy for diverse groups at a company. It means being available and approachable, creating a safe space where employees can express themselves freely without thinking of consequences, and, in turn, advocating for necessary change.
When we talk about equity, we mean equity in pay, treatment, and opportunities. As a woman of color, I am responsible for being that voice in leadership—especially after my journey and the challenges I’ve faced. I want to use my role in leadership to inspire change, pave the way for younger employees, and be the voice for equity. Mentoring individuals who historically have not had equal access to such opportunities is one of the most impactful ways to further DEI in your organization. This mentorship and support provide career growth and opportunities to climb the ladder.
Inclusion is the most crucial element of DEI because you can feel it. It means feeling comfortable being yourself at work even if you don’t look or sound like the rest of your colleagues. Diversity consultant, author, and speaker Vernā Myers said it best: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Don’t overlook the employee experience.
In accounting, we place much importance on the client experience. But employee experience is equally important. What does it feel like to work for your firm? Do employees feel wanted, included, and comfortable expressing themselves freely?
There are invaluable experiences that employees of all backgrounds can gain from working with one another. At Perkins, for example, our global employees learn the nuances of American accounting from U.S. team members. On the flip side, our U.S. employees gain insight into cultural considerations across the globe through working with our global employees. Ultimately, cultivating enriching employee experiences helps firms deliver better experiences to clients—who may also have diverse employees on their teams.
Measure progress objectively.
The book Getting to Diversity: What Works and What Doesn’t by Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev makes an excellent point: It’s not enough to have diversity initiatives and goals in place; they have to be objectively measurable; and it should show up in the increased headcounts. For example, are there more leaders from diverse groups at your company than before? How many individuals from those same groups are on a leadership track?
Ensure DEI is championed by leadership at all levels.
Executive leadership should include voices from various backgrounds. Ensure there are champions of DEI on each team. Large companies can even implement a task force within each department. This helps ensure that every project or proposal the company produces is evaluated for elements of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Look at DEI as a necessity, not a nice-to-have.
DEI is a constant effort, with many challenges along the way. Ensure your (measurable!) goals are part of your company’s strategic plan, and regularly share progress reports with the entire organization. Make the whole team feel like they are part of DEI efforts and their outcomes. The more you talk about it, the more people may feel inclined to share their experiences and make DEI-minded decisions.
Also, plan for navigating challenges, such as an economic downturn. When the pandemic hit, layoffs disproportionately affected women and people of color. To get ahead of these challenges, companies should meet and discuss prioritizing DEI work even when other business initiatives take priority. Keep in mind that by 2045, minorities are projected to be the majority in the United States. Client demographics will change, and employee demographics should shift to meet them.
Finally, celebrate small victories; change doesn’t happen overnight!
I am glad to be part of a firm committed to DEI efforts. We are on the right path and ever-evolving, and it is encouraging to see the continued dedication to fostering inclusivity within our organization.
Kripa Raguram, CPA, MBA, CWA, is a director focused on legacy planning and international tax services at Perkins & Co.