My accounting career really began when I took bookkeeping in high school and started working part-time with a small firm in Hollywood, Florida to help save money for college. Many years later, I now own and operate a growing solo practice and I’ve learned a lot along the way about the challenges facing women in business.
In some cases, I’ve had to recognize and overcome some of my own mistakes. Women tend to fall into the habit of being the worker bees and that was definitely something I did. I was always very busy in my office, focused on getting the work done well and accurately, and making it easy for the partner to do the cold review and continue his client contact and relationship building. I had relationships with our client’s in-house accountants, but not so much with the business owners. Looking back, I feel that I should have been more proactive. I didn’t get out of the office to network and learn the sales skills the partners were using. I also didn’t delegate work so that I could have time to gain more visibility. Of course, there was no real mentoring for women early in my career - in the 1990s - and all the partners were typically male, so becoming more proactive and visible certainly wasn’t an easy task.
I’ve learned that networking and visibility are keys to building business, and what you bring to the firm is often the bottom line when it comes to career advancement. If you’re not bringing money in the door, you’re not going to make it to partner level. And, unfortunately, I learned that the hard way. I eventually got a master’s degree and worked for several different firms, including a large practice in Miami. I stayed there for 14 years, moving from staff accountant to tax manager. I did want to become a partner, but I had two young children, so I held myself back. I worked part time, which was something relatively new in the 1990s, so I had to blaze my own trail. While Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book urges women to Lean In, I definitely leaned back, because that was the only way to balance family and a career in an 11-partner firm at the time.
That firm was later bought by a financial consolidator, so I went to work for a slightly smaller firm in Boca Raton, Florida where I headed their small business division, which they eventually ultimately eliminated. After this elimination, I decided I no longer wanted to depend on others for my livelihood, so in 2004 I started my own practice. When I worked for larger firms, I always had some clients on the side who were too small for those practices, and luckily, many of these clients followed me when I started my own practice. I probably had less than $20,000 in billings when I started, so I had to do per diem work for many years and share office space with other CPAs. However, now I’ve grown to be completely self-sufficient and I’m actually thinking of hiring a staff person! I serve mainly small to medium-size closely held businesses and the individuals who own them. I do whatever the clients need: tax preparation for individuals, corporations and partnerships, fiduciaries and estates; IRS and Florida Department of Revenue representation; accounting; and consulting.
I also now take advantage of chances to build visibility and network with business owners. In addition to active social media networking, I’m involved in many professional organizations. I’m a member of the AICPA Women's Initiatives Executive Committee, the advisor/AICPA liaison to the American Woman's Society of CPA's South Florida Affiliate, the bidding committee chair of the National Association of Women Business Owners, treasurer of the Greater Sunrise Chamber of Commerce and an adjunct professor of accounting at Keiser University. My involvement in the women’s organizations, in particular, has made a world of difference to my career, providing role models I couldn’t find elsewhere.
I would encourage other women CPAs not to hold themselves back. Step to the forefront, network and learn how to bring business in the door!
Ivy Lynn Defino, CPA, is the owner of Ivy Lynn Defino, CPA PA, a solo firm in Plantation, Florida.