Changing the narrative for black accountantsby
In honour of Black History Month, Will Cole chats with Deloitte director Ololade Adesanya on how her experiences in accountancy have helped her to be successful in the profession and how firms can better support those from underrepresented backgrounds.
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have emerged in the ever-evolving landscape of accounting, not just as buzzwords bandied around the office, but essential cornerstones for fostering innovation and progress. Yet, while great steps have been made to ensure more people have a seat at the table, more work needs to be done.
For Deloitte leader Ololade Adesanya, this mission to champion the voices of the underrepresented community has inspired her continued commitment in the accounting profession. However, her journey to becoming a successful accountant has been less than straightforward.
Studying law and economics at university, a career in accounting was not on the cards for Adesanya until she “fell into” it by accident after a chance meeting with a Big Four recruiter.
“The Big Four were on campus, and so I thought I would apply for a postgraduate internship, as I didn’t think someone like me would be considered for a graduate role. To my surprise, I was offered a graduate position in my final interview because the partner saw beyond my lack of confidence and focused on my potential,” Adesanya said.
However, as one of the only Black women on her course, Adesanya felt that she was at a disadvantage, lacking the same role models with similar life experiences that some of her counterparts benefitted from.
“Back then when I went to university, the accounting profession wasn’t very diverse. So, while I knew I was capable, I wasn’t very hopeful,” Adesanya said. “I was the only Black woman in my cohort. The graduate intake wasn’t very diverse and there were no role models that I was aware of at the time. I had no one to look up to and aspire to be like or learn from on the expectations of the corporate world.”
Changing the narrative
This lack of representation in her earlier years is what Adesanya was keen to change when entering the profession and has since dedicated some of her time to becoming the mentor and role model she looked for as an aspiring accountant.
“When there’s nobody to look up to that looks like you, it’s hard to be authentic, which is why I decided to just change the narrative myself,” Adesanya said.
“While I was very hardworking and focused on my work, as a minority, I got to a point where I realised that that wasn’t going to be enough, so I decided to go outside my comfort zone by stretching myself above and beyond.”
For Adesanya, this decision came down to creating and building a host of positive and extensive relationships in and out of work, and becoming more visible to inspire others from similar backgrounds to consider the accountancy profession.
“I think that some of those early relationships I built quickly became mentors that really helped me on my journey, and many I still call my good friends. And now I’m in a position to mentor others because I understand that without representation or a peer group who think, talk and look like you, it’s tough,” Adesanya explained.
More to do
While Adesanya’s progression journey was not without challenges, she is of the view that things are changing for the better across the accounting profession, as more businesses are starting to see DEI as a business necessity. However, she was also keen to emphasise that more work is still required to level the playing field and make the workplace inclusive.
“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go, especially in terms of inclusion and representation in senior leadership roles. It’s just not enough for me to be one of the few Black women at my level,” Adesanya said.
For Adesanya, one of the keys to ensuring a truly inclusive and diverse work environment comes from businesses taking time to fully understand the “intersectionality” of their teams and thus better understanding their employees’ needs. “I feel that firms need to also think about the impact of intersectionality, and better understand how various characteristics create unique challenges for certain groups. How do we best support these people to be their best?”
Asking how firms can best support their staff and engage in creating a more diverse workforce, Adesanya said that it’s important to develop interventions to support underrepresented employees across the employee life cycle. “Look at the employee life cycle – for example, when you’re recruiting, are you thinking about recruiting from a diverse pool? When you onboard people, are you thinking about differences in how you help them to integrate? Are your performance and promotion measures supportive of background and orientation differences?”
The next generation
While more work is required by firms to offer those from underrepresented backgrounds an equal playing field, Adesanya was optimistic about the future for the next generation, encouraging individuals from under-represented groups to take the leap and apply to this exciting profession.
“My advice to young people from underrepresented groups considering a career in accounting? Just apply! I nearly didn’t apply because I just didn’t think I would get through. You might not get the first position, but don’t give up. Find yourself a mentor who can help you get to where you want to be.”