The last thing Leisha Smith expected to feel, upon entering the welcome reception in downtown Chicago’s Hotel Allegro Royale, was mist in her eyes.
Who cries at an accounting leadership conference?
But as she scanned the crowd in the hotel ballroom, the 20-year-old SMC student from South LA found herself “getting kind of emotional.”
“Seeing so many Black students in a professional setting—it’s not at all normal,” Leisha says. “When it hit me, I almost cried.”
Leisha was one of 105 freshmen and sophomores attending last month’s RSM Excellence Academy. The four-day, all-expenses-paid gathering was aimed at identifying future accountants from underrepresented communities.
Not only were all the student participants African American. So were nearly all the featured speakers and panelists.
Leisha and her peers were selected from 600 applicants through a national application and interview process. Each Excellence Academy attendee received a $5,000 honorarium. Participation in the Chicago conference leads to guaranteed RSM internships over the next two summers and a likely job offer with the mega-firm upon graduation.
The multi-year diversity recruitment program is hosted by RSM USA, headquartered in the Windy City, with 91 offices across North America. Its parent company, London-based RSM International, is the sixth largest accountancy professional services network in the world, with $7.2 billion in revenues and 51,000 employees spread across 123 countries.
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Leisha had learned of the RSM program from Ming Lu, an accounting professor at SMC.
Ming had met Leisha at one of the Black Collegians financial literacy workshops he presented last fall.
At the time she was a first-year chemistry major, but every assessment she took in her career counseling course pointed Leisha toward budgeting and finance. So she started to investigate, and that brought her to Ming’s workshop.
As he spoke of savings and investments, Leisha’s eyes grew big. She stayed after the presentation to introduce herself and bombarded him with questions.
“That same day, I decided to switch my major to accounting,” she recalls. “It just sounded so interesting!”
In his talk, Ming had emphasized the need for more people of color to enter the profession because underserved communities sorely lack information on financial basics.
“I realized that I would love to do that—to become an accountant so I can help myself and my family,” Leisha says. The child of Belizean immigrants, Leisha is the oldest of seven daughters. She chose to attend community college for financial reasons and lives at home, commuting more than an hour to SMC by public transit. Her mom is a caregiver for senior citizens; both her dad and her stepfather are construction workers. Leisha’s youngest sister is just 2, and money is in short supply.
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Leisha came back for more of Ming’s financial literacy workshops. At his urging, she enrolled in Accounting 1, taught by Greg Brookins, who solidified her love of accounting. Ming stayed in touch, emailing and calling Leisha with tips and links to useful accounting resources.
“I’m always in the loop on different career internships and scholarship opportunities,” he explains. When a contact at RMS mentioned the Chicago diversity program, Ming immediately thought of Leisha.
Soon she was filling out the RSM Excellence Academy application.
“I was very nervous,” Leisha recalls. “I had big doubts about whether I would get in.”
To help prepare, Greg Brookins led her through a mock interview to build up her confidence. On the big day, she showed up two hours late, failing to factor in the time difference on her Chicago Zoom call. The RSM reps let her reschedule, and after two white-knuckle interviews (“I was shaking,” she recalls), Leisha was elated to learn she’d made the cut.
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“Looking back, I’m just so grateful for this experience,” she says, speaking from her South LA home two days after returning. “I loved the program. I wish I didn’t have to come back. I had so much fun in Chicago!”
Each day started with inspirational speakers and panel discussions, followed by breakout sessions on networking, career options in public accountancy, and activities to build confidence and help identify personal strengths and weaknesses. Afternoons and evenings were filled with mentor-mentee meetups, a site visit to RSM’s Chicago offices and excursions to Millennium Park, the Shedd Aquarium and a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.
Leisha soaked it all in. She wrote down “anything that really resonated with me, and at the end of my day, I would make little audio recordings,” she says.
Under the heading “imposter syndrome,” Leisha scribbled this pithy advice from RSM principal Shannel Clubb, who leads the firm’s national insurance practice: “Ignore it. Know that you belong!”
On another page in her notebook, she wrote: “You can’t have a $1 million dream with a minimum-wage work ethic.” That maxim came from Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CEO with KET Solutions.
“I absolutely love this woman,” Leisha says, in a voice recording she made later that night. “Just seeing a Black woman doing what I wish to do in accounting—it brings so much happiness and hope for my future,” she reflects in her audio journal. “She inspires me and really, truly allows me to believe that I can do this!”
Leisha had felt intimidated at first. She was one of only 10 community college students at the conference. The other attendees all came from four-year schools, including top-notch institutions like Princeton.
The ice quickly melted. She made friends with two New Yorkers from Columbia and Fordham and a fellow Angeleno from Cal State Northridge. She bonded with her assigned RSM mentors Vanessa Samuels and Kathryn Johnson. The two women are partners in the firm’s San Diego and San Francisco offices, respectively, and will stay in touch with Leisha through monthly follow-ups.
These experiences and contacts look “absolutely great on your resume,” says Ming, “and it’s going to look great on her transfer application, so she’ll be able to get into a top program.”
With a year-and-a-half to go before earning her associate degree, Leisha is already thinking about next steps. Her top transfer school is USC, with UCLA, UC Riverside and LMU in close contention. Further down the road, she sees herself going to graduate school and becoming a CPA.
She knows it won’t be easy, but she’s mentally prepared. One information session in Chicago had focused on the notoriously difficult CPA exam. It’s not unusual, the panelists warned, for candidates to only pass on their eighth try.
“One person failed 27 times!” Leisha says. “So, yes, I’m very scared of the CPA exam. But you know what? If that person sat down 27 times, then I can sit down 27 times,” she declares.
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Since returning from Chicago, Leisha hasn’t slowed down.
Over the summer she completed two SMC online courses in business law and business communications.
She’s currently job hunting. In April, she left her weekend gig on the kitchen line at Shake Shack in Century City. She doesn’t feel ready to try for bookkeeping jobs yet, so she’ll probably take a retail position at a clothing or grocery store. Simultaneously, she’s applying for a year-round accounting internship with PwC in Los Angeles.
Next semester, she’ll take Accounting 2, with Greg Brookins again. On campus, she’ll stay involved with Black Collegians and EOPS. As she did last year, she’ll continue to be a TA for statistics.
Her next two summers are already spoken for. Leisha will intern for RSM, earning $10,000, plus a stipend to cover living expenses. She doesn’t know yet where she’ll be placed: the Excellence Academy hasn’t announced which three U.S. cities will host its 2023 summer associates. For summer 2024, Leisha has her fingers crossed that she’ll have the option to intern overseas at one of RSM International’s 860 branch offices.
In terms of full-time employment, Ming says Leisha’s prospects couldn’t be better.
“If she wants to be loyal, she can stay with RSM. But she could also easily work for the Big Four,” he says, referring to accounting juggernauts Ernst and Young, PwC, Deloitte and KPMG.
“I’m very excited for Leisha. I think this makes her path clear cut,” he says.
As payback for all that Ming did for Leisha, he asks only that she come speak to his Accounting 2 class next semester and encourage other Black Collegians to consider becoming accounting majors.
“I want her to share her experiences so that hopefully next year we’ll get even more SMC students applying for this program,” he says. At Ming’s request, Leisha fully documented her time in Chicago with pictures and video.
But what about the $5,000 honorarium she received from the RSM Excellence Academy?
Asked what she’d do with the cash, Leisha answers sensibly: “I’m going to put the majority away to pay for school.”
Of courses she will. After all, Leisha is an accounting major.
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