How Kathy Raffa Created the Largest Women-Owned CPA Firm

While gender equality in the workplace continues to be an issue, one woman is doing more than just talking about it. Kathy Raffa is president and audit partner at Raffa P.C., which was #1 on the list of the top 100 public accounting firms with the highest percentage of women in the partnerships ranks.

Raffa believes that diversity, flexibility, and mentoring have been the keys to the company’s success.

Diversity

Diversity and inclusivity weren’t afterthoughts at Raffa P.C. Ever since the company was founded in 1984, diversity has always been encouraged and embraced. “Hiring women and people from different cultures was something that just came naturally and it was important to us – we simply never thought twice about it,” Raffa tells HER Magazine. In fact, the company has become even more diverse over time. “As a result of having so many women and people from different cultures and different backgrounds, we simply attract people that are diverse because they know they will be given the opportunity to advance.”

Aside from being the largest women-owned CPA firm, these are some other impressive stats about Raffa P.C.:

  • The company’s workforce is 65% women
  • 12 out of 19 partners are women
  • It is the 16th largest women-owned company (in any sector) in the DC area
  • There are people of color, LGBT, non-US-born employees at every practice level

Raffa realizes that it’s important for employees to see leaders at the partner level who look like them.  “In addition to 12 of our 19 partners being women, one of our partners is gay, one is black, and one is Asian,” she explains, adding that the staff is also culturally diverse.

When employees see this level of diversity, it creates confidence that they, too, have an opportunity to advance through the ranks of the firm, regardless of their gender, race, or background. For women, in particular, Raffa is proud to create an environment where they can learn from and teach each other.  “There are mentors here for everybody, so it really helps to have female leaders in the firm that can mentor others, who understand what it’s like to raise your kids and have a career.”

She also believes that creating this type of environment is a good business decision. “We serve a very diverse client base, and having a firm like this helps us to really fit with those clients, and understand them, and as a result our business has grown.”

Flexibility

Raffa credits flexibility as another factor in her company’s success. “It’s interesting that at least 50% of accounting students that are graduating and going into accounting firms are women,” she says. “So at least 50% of the workforce in most firms are women, but they’re not staying in these firms.”

At the partner level, she says only 17% are women.  “So, you’re spending all this effort and time, and dollars, and energy to bring women into the firm and train them, only to lose the employees.”

But why are women leaving these organizations? Raffa explains, “If you don’t give them the opportunity to advance or if you make them feel guilty for walking out the door to get to their children’s activities or taking the day or the time to do what’s important to them in raising their family and their children, you’re going to create problems.” She says companies have to create an environment in which employees feel cared for and valued.  “Sometimes I hear people that lead firms say, ‘Well, we’ll do it, but then the burden falls on us, and we have to work harder,’ and I don’t believe that’s the case.” She believes that this is the wrong mentality, and employees will actually step up and worker harder when they’re treated with respect.

Mentoring

There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all mentoring. Raffa says that women face different challenges – and although not all women are the same – she does think it’s important to acknowledge that mothers might want to spend more time away from the office than fathers.  “It is a challenge, and as a mentor, I think helping them figure out what they think is truly important to them, and how to integrate their family and their career is vital.” She also acknowledges that those time factors may change as children progress from infant to toddler to adolescent to teenager.”

“I think the other thing is there’s still lots of industries that are male dominated and certainly the leadership is male dominated, so having female mentors is terrific,” Raffa explains. “Having male mentors is also wonderful, but as a female, it’s important to have some female leaders that you can look up to and that you admire, respect, and can learn from.”

Vital Voices Raffa Executive Mentoring Program

Vital Voices is a client of Raffa’s and she wanted to do more to help them.  “The organization gives women a voice in parts of the world where they don’t have much of a voice, dealing with issues like economic empowerment and how to become self-sufficient while dealing with poverty, sex trafficking, human rights, in various developing countries where it’s really a challenge for women.” The organization works with and helps roughly 15,000 women around the world.

Raffa attended a conference that included 100 of the most extraordinary women in Vital Voices. “A lot of these women have founded and are running NGOs, non-profit organizations in their country, they’re also running social businesses.” She decided that her company could help them with infrastructure. Currently, there are ten mentees from the Vital Voices network who are paired with 23 people from Raffa.

In addition to helping the women at Vital Voices, Raffa had another motive. “I wanted to get a senior level person and a junior level person working together within the firm, because I thought that would be a great way for mentorship for the junior level persons – and I also had people from different departments working together so they could get to know each other.”

The virtual mentoring program, which is in its sixth month, includes monthly virtual calls between the mentors and mentees. “We try to help them with the issues they face and identify ways that the mentors offer assistance and bring the resources of our firm to help these women.”

Advice for Women Entrepreneurs

Raffa believes that women should take the initiative to seek out opportunities, instead of waiting for them to appear. “If you are thinking about doing something, if you want something to happen – make it happen.” She says the worst that can happen is that you get a “no” response or the plan doesn’t work. But that’s not the end of the world — and you’ll never know if you don’t take the first step.

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