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One Man’s Journey From Poverty and Neglect to CPA and Inspirational Speaker

A conversation with Frank Thomas, keynote speaker at the 2016 AICPA Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop

Frank ThomasOn May 18–20, about 100 minority accounting students will assemble in Durham, N.C., for the AICPA Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop. The annual event draws accounting, finance and tax majors from across the country for an immersion into leadership development, CPA Exam preparation and the infinite benefits of earning the CPA credential.

Frank Thomas, a renowned inspirational speaker, author of RISE: Even Death Can’t Stop Me and previously a practicing CPA, is this year’s keynote speaker. Insights recently spoke with Thomas about his journey to becoming a CPA, overcoming profound childhood obstacles and observations on the future leaders of the profession.

Insights: What memories stand out to you on your path to becoming a CPA?

Thomas: Becoming a CPA is not the easiest thing in the world. Take the CPA Exam for instance, it’s one of the most rigorous exams in the world. It’s a difficult exam to prepare for, and it’s a difficult career path. I just remember how incredibly challenging it was.

I say that as someone who grew up in a home environment that was not ideal. My brother and I were raised by a single mother who gave her best but faced demons of her own. Drugs, alcohol, you name it. We were forced to raise ourselves. So I always knew it was up to me to face challenges and that I had to work twice as hard to make something of myself.

Becoming a CPA was the road I took.

The memories I’m most fond of have to do with the relationships I made in the process. Once I decided to be an accounting major and pursue the CPA designation, I met such wonderful people from all over the world. Graduating with an accounting degree, going to work for Deloitte, and preparing and passing the CPA Exam — every step of the way, I built such strong and amazing relationships, which is such an integral part of success in life and business.

Insights: Why accounting? What other professions did you consider in school?

Thomas: Before deciding on accounting as a major, I wanted to be a high school guidance counselor. I wanted to work with young people, to inspire them to fulfill their potential and achieve their dreams.

But my best friend, a fellow accounting student at USC [University of Southern California], really challenged me to think about the CPA as a possible career path. The more I learned about the profession, the more I realized the career path opens up so many possibilities.

Accounting is the language of business. There’s business in everything. Just about anything you can think of, there’s a business behind it. If you can understand the framework of that business, the possibilities are limitless.

Personally, I also saw the prestige of being a CPA. CPAs are held in such high regard. They’re professionals who are many times behind the scenes, but their integrity and intelligence are front and center. All those things appealed to me.

Today, I get to have the best of both worlds. Even though I’m now an inspirational speaker and no longer a practicing CPA, the credential continues to open up doors for me. In my career’s second act as a consultant, speaker and author, I’m living my dream of working with young people and helping them achieve their dreams.

Maybe it’s serendipitous, but somehow we always find our way back home.

Insights: Now that your focus is on inspiring others, what standout characteristics do you see among up-and-coming CPAs?

Thomas: Integrity, ambition, work ethic, not shying away from challenges. Those [qualities] separate great professionals across the board, but it’s so true for CPAs. They bring passion, and it shows through in everything they do.

For minority students, in particular, I recognize their heart, soul and spirit. Being a minority myself, I identify with the challenges they face that are beyond the coursework and the profession. There’s so much talent, but questions and doubt may loom large. “Am I where I’m supposed to be? Am I fulfilling my potential?” Many of them are trailblazers in their own right who may be first-generation college graduates and professionals. I say to them: Have faith. Stay focused on what’s within you. Your path may go up and down, side to side, but you’ll find your way.

I encourage CPAs in practice, minority or not, to see how they can be of service to these rising CPAs. Make yourself available for questions, shadowing, mentoring, because the rewards for everyone involved are tremendous.

Insights: What’s your favorite part of working with these eager students who represent the profession’s future?

Thomas: It’s such an honor to reach them when they’re just starting out and plant seeds in their hearts and minds that may someday help unlock their potential. Their dreams are so achievable. They just need encouragement, inspiration and support from people who have put themselves in service to ensure that happens. I share my successes, but I make a bigger impact by sharing how I’ve failed and had to pick myself up and finish my race.

I also share with them how being a CPA has changed my life. It’s created opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have believed existed before. The challenge is: how do you stick with something that will challenge you beyond your comfort zone? How much pain are you willing to endure to fulfill your destiny? No one has ever achieved anything of great value without enduring some level of struggle.

It’s a dream come true to participate in a workshop just for future CPAs. What an opportunity for the profession and for these young people. They’ll never forget it. I promise you that.

The AICPA Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop is an all-expenses-paid event sponsored by the AICPA Foundation. The application window for the 2017 workshop will open in January. For more information, contact diversity@aicpa.org.

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