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Introducing Women in Accounting: ZeNai Brooks

How many Black women in accounting do you know?

Now, how many Black women do you know who are also CPAs?

According to an online survey conducted by The Center for Accounting Education (CAE) at Howard University and NABA, Black women are less likely to become CPAs when compared to Black men, despite there being higher enrollment for women versus men.

Less than 1% of CPAs in the United States are Black—and even less are Black women.

The survey posits that one reason (among the many) that this may be is because of a lack of role models in the industry. Accounting as a profession isn't as visible as medicine or law, and so it isn't seen as a viable career for growth and progress.

So, how do you combat this divide? By introducing more Black women in accounting who can serve as role models for others considering entering the field.

Today, we'd like to introduce you to an Auditor at Crowe, one of the top 10 public accounting and consulting firms in the country, with over 12 years of experience and 15 years of NABA service, a community advocate, First Lady of New Liberty Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis, and newly-minted CPA, ZeNai Brooks!

ZeNai Brooks sits down on a chair with a book open in her lap.
ZeNai Brooks is CPA ish no longer. Photo courtesy of ZeNai Brooks.

Why did you decide to become a CPA?

Initially, it was because I was in public accounting. Having a CPA license is a requirement of becoming a manager and eventually, a partner. I also noticed as I was considering leaving public accounting, the CPA license was a requirement for many of the higher-level jobs that I considered. Even if I met all the other criteria, there is a lot of significance placed on having the CPA license—and even though I don’t believe having the license makes one smarter or better able to perform than the next person, I do believe it is a differentiator.

Either way, the longer my CPA journey became though, the more my decision became bigger than me. In the end, I just wanted to finish what I started...not only for my career but for my personal satisfaction. Most impactfully, I wanted to do it for the culture, because Black people, and women, are severely underrepresented when it comes to having the CPA license.

What were you doing when you decided to pursue a CPA certification?

The exam was mentioned while I was in college, but it wasn't until I started working at a Big 4 firm in 2008 that I considered obtaining the license. I started the CPA journey more than 4 times, each time was during a career change or when joining a new firm.

What challenges did you face during your studies?

The biggest challenge, especially as I got older, was remaining committed to the process and not being discouraged. It took me a long time to figure out how to best study. And then finding the dedicated time to study was hard. I eventually had to give up my morning workout time to study in the mornings, since it was the most consistent, uninterrupted time.

Tell us a little bit about your journey.

The only exam I passed on the first time was Audit, but I had to take that twice due to losing credit. Since 2008, I actually applied for various CPA exams over 25 times (add those dollars up). I didn’t show up for all of those but still spent the money nonetheless.

Once I got serious in 2020, I took Audit once, BEC twice, FAR 3 times, and REG 3 times. I still passed all 4 in 7 months - FAR 8/25, BEC 9/15, AUD 11/10, and REG2/23.

A selfie of ZeNai Brooks wearing a red t shirt that says "CPA ish" and a smile on her face.
ZeNai strives to share her knowledge and experience with others in an effort to impact the accounting profession and advance the community. Photo courtesy of ZeNai Brooks.

FAR was the most difficult for me. It was a lot of information, and not having a strong accounting background, it was a lot of random information to digest.

But, Audit was the easiest since I've been an auditor for over 12 years. There are some differences between the technical content and real-life practice, but it was mostly transferable for me.

Now, in my opinion, the CPA exam is not interesting or exciting at all LOL! But, I feel like with REG, I did learn some useful information. Especially since I don't have actual tax experience, it was good to get the practical, foundational knowledge.

What did your exam strategy look like?

I studied every weekday from 5:30 to 8:30. And, on the weekends from 7:00 to 10:00, and sometimes another session later in the day. The biggest key to my passing the exam was creating a study accountability group (now known as NABA CPA Bound).

I dabbled with various study courses but mostly settled with Becker. Initially, I was going through all of the lectures, books, questions, simulations, etc. It was a lot—I wasn't retaining as much, and I realized that watching 3+ hours of lectures wasn't a good use of my time.

So, I started taking an MCQ first approach. I would review the Becker outlines and my notes for 30 minutes, then do 2-3 sets of MCQs. I would review all the answers for the MCQs, which helped me apply the content better than blindly reading.

For REG, I had to switch to using NINJA because I needed to mentally reinvigorate myself and re-engage in the process. I was too comfortable using the Becker platform and became burnt out.

Having an accountability group was the major key. A close second was having a dedicated study time and routine.

I also did a lot of self-reflection and gave myself pep talks. I had to remember the end goal and focus on why I started. I had to switch my mentality and think about studying to pass the exam and figuring out the right strategy, instead of studying to retain every bit of information.

What hurt me during my study process was trying to do it alone and not having accountability partners, but also not stressing the importance of the exam to my friends and family.

Trying to remember every single thing instead of focusing on the best study approach for me was a struggle while studying for the exam. Not maintaining my balance and keeping up with my routine of working out and family time also dragged me down— I’m a person that needs balance and flexibility in my life.

Did you have a mentor or reach out to anyone for help? Why or why not?

I hired a study coach, Erin Daiber with Well Balanced Accountants, for 3 months who helped me with various study methods. I am not a great test-taker, so it really took me a while to understand how to study and then actually retain and apply the information. I also didn't know that CPA coaching was a thing so after finding Erin, I went down a rabbit hole and found a lot of other CPA resources and mentors, including Lauren, the Lady CPA.

The NABA CPA Bound program was instrumental. Having that accountability group of other candidates was a game-changer.

My husband and friends also became vested in my journey. As I showed my dedication to this path, they became more supportive and respectful of my study time.

Tell us about what you’re doing now, or plan to do, in your career.

I am very active: a woman of many talents and experiences! (Which could be why it took me so long to pass and why I encourage everyone to get the exam done as early as possible. Our plates fill up fast!)

Right now, I am still working in public accounting at a top 10 global CPA firm. I'm the Central Region President and National Director for NABA and serve on several boards and committees in Indianapolis. (i.e. The Indiana CPA Society and Leadership Indianapolis).

My husband is also the Pastor of a church, so I’m the First Lady and assist with ministry and finances there as well. With that, I’m building up a clientele to help small businesses and other churches with their business operations.

(Pst: follow me on social! @LadyZSpeaks on Instagram.)

A photo of ZeNai Brooks in jeans sitting on a ledge outside and smiling at the camera. She's surrounded by trees and leaves on the ground.
From accounting professional, to community advocate, to faith leader, ZeNai does it all. Photo courtesy of ZeNai Brooks.

Ultimately, how has becoming a CPA affected your life?

It's too early to tell just yet, but I foresee many more doors opening for me, not just from a career perspective, but also as a thought leader and public speaker.

Currently, I feel a lot lighter knowing I don't have to EVER study for that exam anymore. I believe I can write my own ticket and I look forward to being considered a trusted advisor and mentor for the community.

Less than 1% of all CPAs in the United States are Black, and we don’t even have the numbers on what percentage of those CPAs are Black women. What do you hope for the future of Black women professionals and the CPA profession?

I hope that Black women will see the value of becoming CPAs and that we continue to break glass ceilings and be compensated accordingly.

I hope that as women continue to obtain the CPA license and advance in our careers, we continue to do as the motto for NABA and the original motto for the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) proudly declares we should all do: Lift As We Climb.


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