Calvin Harris Jr. is an award-winning Chief Financial Officer currently working at the National Urban League. He has served a number of nonprofit organizations, including the National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) as chairman of the board, the United Nations Foundation as controller, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He’s been honored by the Baltimore Business Journal as a “Best in Finance: CFO” award recipient, and we are honored to get his perspective on his career and breaking into the accounting industry.
We asked Calvin why he wanted to go into accounting, and what pushed him to become a CPA:
Accounting was my first choice, believe it or not, from early on. My mother was a teacher who focused on “business math” (essentially bookkeeping), and I was pretty good in math. So, after I took my first bookkeeping class in high school, I knew accounting was what I wanted to do.
I first considered becoming a CPA from a part-time job I had in high school. I worked at a drug store as a cashier and one of the pharmacists asked me what I planned on doing after high school. By then, I knew I was going to be an accounting major, but the pharmacist then asked me, ‘aren’t you going to become a CPA?.’
I didn’t even know what a CPA was at that point.
He added, ‘if you’re going to be an accountant, you should be the best, and that’s a CPA.’ I never forgot those words, and I’m glad I’ve been able to live up to his words.
For most students, the step from graduating with your accounting degree to getting your CPA is relatively small. You have already spent many years and tens of thousands of dollars earning the degree, so what’s one test compared to that?
To employers, everything.
Calvin attributes his amazing success in the accounting field to his CPA. The international recognition of the CPA Exam opens opportunities for all who earn the certification.
I wouldn’t have had this career without my CPA. Every significant job I’ve had, including this one, would not be possible without my CPA. There are many great certifications out there, and having an advanced degree is also good. But the CPA is the gold standard in accounting, if not business as a whole. With it, we are seen as the experts in accounting, which (I humbly say) we are. Without it, you very well may be a great accountant, but in the eyes of the public, you are not held in as high regard professionally.
He recommends that all accountants become a CPA, regardless of where you think your career may take you.
The beauty of being a CPA is there is no one path we can take. Some focus on tax, some corporate accounting, some like me are in nonprofits. Some aren’t even focused on accounting and are in the information technology space or management consulting. A former colleague of mine at Andersen moved into marketing and is a software executive, but he is still a CPA. You don’t have to choose.
For students considering accounting for their career, Calvin recommends finding an internship. It’s a quick way to see if this field is right for you. Talking to others who are in the position can give you perspective into both the benefits and downsides to becoming an accountant.
Calvin began working in public accounting at a Big 5 firm but quickly turned to nonprofits. He has since spent most of his career in the nonprofit sector. This choice has led him to work at numerous organizations and each one has shaped Calvin’s career path into one he is proud of.
Working at the National Urban League, especially at a time like now, is the biggest honor of my career. Admittedly, I didn’t aspire to work here, partially because it is based in New York City (and until taking this job), I’ve only worked in the Washington, DC or Baltimore areas. But I have spent much of my career in the nonprofit space, and I love the ability to use my accounting skill at an organization that is doing good in the world. My predecessor was in the Chief Financial Officer (or CFO) role for almost 20 years, so when I saw the national search for a new CFO, I felt compelled to apply. Needless to say, I am happy to be here.
The National Urban League has been actively supporting Black Americans for the past 110 years, and Calvin’s leadership and commitment to this historic organization is helping others. They have been working to build a strong foundation for all Americans to thrive in.
The Equity and Excellence Project is one of their many initiatives that support students and prepare them for higher education and their careers after school. The project focuses on expanding educational access and opportunity through reform and innovation.
Since its inception in 2010, the Equity and Excellence Project has touched thousands of lives through their affiliate network. Some local affiliates focus on accounting (not just on public accounting).
The CPA Exam has changed since Calvin took the exam, but his advice still stands: All candidates must study.
You won’t pass if you don’t study. I am sure there is some CPA out there who passed the exam without any study, but I haven’t met them yet (and I know a LOT of CPAs). The test is hard, but if you study consistently, especially with a great product like Gleim, then you will do it.
If you study consistently, then you will pass. Don’t give up.
Many of the same study skills students develop while earning their degree apply to CPA Exam prep. For recent and soon-to-be graduates, taking the exam early is even more important.
Truth be told, your pure accounting theory knowledge is highest when you graduate from college, plus you are used to taking tests. The longer you are in the workforce, the less you are used to the rigor of test-taking. So, my advice is take the test as soon as you can. Even if you aren’t sure about whether you will remain in accounting, take the exam. The CPA credential has changed over the years. You cannot predict the opportunities that could come in the future. So, I encourage everyone who can take the exam, to take the exam.
Even if you have been out of school for a while, the sooner you set up your study plan, the sooner you will achieve your goal! Our Personal Counselors are happy to help you set up a strategy for success.
For students getting started in accounting, Calvin recommends planning your courses carefully. The CPA Evolution model may change the education requirements in the next few years, so be sure to check with your school advisor regularly to make sure you graduate on time and with the correct amount of credits.
Back when I took the exam, you didn’t need quite as many hours, but I still didn’t take enough accounting classes. I graduated with an accounting degree, but the State of Maryland required six more credits than I had. If I planned it out, I could have easily taken those classes as an undergrad without any additional cost. But because I didn’t plan well, I had to wait one full year to take the exam, as I took night classes during my first year in public accounting. So, plan out your classes. Truth be told, your “career” starts once you’re in college.
We are proud to be a part of Calvin’s journey and are looking forward to seeing the great things he will continue to accomplish in his career.