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What I've Learned: Latina Executive's Mission: Recruiting Young Accountants

This Latina is increasing the pipeline of Latinos and black Americans into accounting, an industry that lacks minority professionals.
Sara Mijares • PwC • August 12, 2012
Sara Mijares, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC employees attending the 2012 ALPFA Conference at Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas, August 11 to 15, 2012.Shawn G. Henry / Shawn G. Henry
Sara Mijares, Manager at PwC London office PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC employees, attending the 2012 ALPFA Conference at Ceasars Palace in Las Vegas, August 11-15, 2012.Shawn G. Henry / Shawn G. Henry

NAME: Sara P. Mijares

AGE: 34

HERITAGE: Mexican-American

HOMETOWN: Born in Whittier, California, now in Los Angeles

OCCUPATION/TITLE: International Businesswoman

Sara is a senior manager at the professional services network PricewaterhouseCoopers. She currently focuses on healthcare and higher education clients in the profit and not for profit sectors and spends time traveling to schools and universities around Los Angeles to try to increase the pipeline of Latinos and black Americans into accounting, an industry that lacks minority professionals.

You’re working hard to get more minorities into accounting, what’s the message you take to students?

A lot of times we rely heavily on our families to help us figure out what careers to undertake but it’s like I tell my teams — and what I was coached on — you have to work at being comfortable being uncomfortable. You have to put yourself in positions that will challenge you to get out of your normal comfort zone.

Like most industries we are looking to have a workforce reflective of the U.S. population so we go out and explain what clubs and societies are available to help them, what kinds of opportunities are out there for them, which is so important because we really are talking about people whose families don’t have these types of jobs.

We spend the time to be there at those club meetings presenting the different opportunities, reviewing resumes and doing mock interviews. We really do get into things like where to get a suit for a job interview, what to say, how to act.

We invest a lot of time in gearing internships for Latinos, African-Americans and Native American students who need help in figuring out what it means to have a job in a gigantic international services firm and getting used to a 40-hour work week. It’s a lot of effort but it lays a really solid foundation and is really paying dividends at our firm. People are our biggest resource and we can provide better service to our clients when there are diverse perspectives at the table.

Lastly, we tell students that the most important thing is to get good grades. There’s a lot of opportunity to challenge yourself but you have to get good grades to open doors for yourself. There’s a lot of competition out there and grades really matter.

How did you get from a love of broadcasting to undertaking accounting?

I was enrolled as a communications major and took the first class and I realized I wasn’t 100 percent sure it would get me a great paying job right out of school. I was working multiple jobs putting myself through college and I really needed a job to cover expenses.

One day I went back to my room, dropped communications, picked up an economics class and transferred to a business major. I took economics and the professor said, “You’re really good at this, you should take some more,” and the professor talked to me about an amazing opportunity in accounting.

It turned out the accounting society at the school didn’t just have meetings but also paid internships that sometimes led to getting jobs before people even graduated. I started to meet people through that group and some of the women were young and successful and had international opportunities – and I was sold. That’s how I ended up in accounting, the right people pointed me in the right direction but I was really just trying to find a paying job.

You landed a coveted internship; what was it like working in a multinational corporation before you graduated?

The accounting firms do a tremendous job of recruiting. I applied for an internship for the summer of junior and senior year and got interviewed on campus, then interned with PwC in their L.A. office for the insurance practice.

It was really interesting. I got there the first day and was overwhelmed. It was like, “Oh, I don’t think this is what I signed up for.” But you get to learn about what everyone’s doing, it’s not just about the number of interactions with clients, there are peers there showing you the whole picture and you have to be ready to be a leader very quickly.

That first summer I met some really amazing people, in particular women who really resonated with me — they seemed to share a lot of my values around recruiting and retaining the most talented women.

At the end of the internship I got a full-time offer so I spent my entire senior year knowing I had a job if I kept my grades up. Once I graduated, I started at PwC in the L.A. office.

Tell us about working in London.

It was interesting. This industry in and of itself doesn’t have a lot of females or a lot of Latinos – even during my time in L.A.

London was incredible. I found it difficult professionally and personally because I had no family there, I’d never been there, I landed and it was snowing, it was a week away from Christmas — it was a lot of change all at once. Additionally, they aren’t super fond of Americans and on top of that they haven’t seen a lot of Mexican-Americans, much less Latinas and that was quite a melting pot for them, a subset they hadn’t experienced often.

I got a lot of “Where are you from?” And there was always this sense of “What does that mean, exactly?” I found it very interesting working with them, because they weren’t quite sure of what to make of me. They didn’t see me as just Mexican, American, from Los Angeles or female and I felt like I really had to exceed expectations because if I didn’t do a great job, they might think twice about hiring someone else like me again.

I had new accounting guidelines, new workplace goals and expectations…it was a lot to handle. I quickly realized that I’m much stronger than I thought I was. And, luckily, I had great advocates, great mentors and resources readily available to help with just a call. That experience helped me strengthen relationships personally and professionally and after those two years in London I know I can handle this or that because I have all of these resources.

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What’s the secret to success?

Be self-aware; understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. Take an inventory and be gentle with yourself, as well. I’ve found that if you understand your strengths and weaknesses and can work on those, you can really go very far. But you have to believe in yourself — or find that person or two who can remind you what you’re capable of.

Who knew that I would become an accountant and I would get to see the world and become the person I am and help people? I’m shocked. But the hard work, the risk and the discomfort of doing something different was really worth it.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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