Today I am handing in my CPA-CA designation. I will no longer be able to call myself a Chartered Accountant. I will no longer have those letters after my name. It’s been a decision I have been pondering for a while now…really since I left my job as Vice-President of Finance and started up my own clothing design business over two years ago now.
How do I feel? Well…let me take you back in time and start from the beginning. Growing up, I was creative, always doing crafts, making presents for my family, making jewellery and selling it to my friends. And I loved fashion and putting together different outfits. So when I graduated from high school, I moved away from home to attend a Fashion Design School and study Fashion Merchandising. From there, I managed a few retail clothing stores. I loved seeing the new styles come in every season, pulling together the store with new merchandise and setting up displays, and helping customers find just the right outfit. What I didn’t like was the long hours, especially when there was talk of the malls opening on Sundays (yes, I am dating myself), and the low pay.
That’s when my practical left brain took over. I quit my retail job, went back to university, and got a Bachelor of Commerce degree with a major in Accounting. Accounting came easily to me so it seemed like a natural path to pursue. I had a well laid out plan. I would join and become President of the Accounting Club at school. I would get a summer job at the end of third year at one of the Big 6 public accounting firms. Then at the end of the summer before entering into my fourth year, I would get hired on as a full-time staff accountant upon graduating. I executed the plan perfectly.
So there I was after graduation sitting in a cubicle in the ballpen, as it was referred to. A lowly staff accountant waiting to be called up to bat, in other words to be picked to go out on an audit. Right from the get go, it was hard for me. I made it work…being diligent and working long hours which is expected in the audit world. The more billable hours, the better. It’s like a badge of honour. At the same time, you have to study for the much anticipated UFE (Uniform Final Evaluation), back then a 4 day long, 6 hours a day rigorous exam process. To get there, you had to pass three prep exams or be exempt from writing them by attaining a certain level of mark in your accounting courses. I was exempt, of course, all part of my master plan. And you had to attend a month long summer school and pass the summer school exam in order to be called up to write the UFE.
All was going according to my carefully thought out plan despite this small seed of doubt, “Do I even belong here?” deep in the pit of my stomach, which I squelched down and ignored for many years. Then I hit my first big road block in the plan. Even though I had studied hard, written countless practice exams, attended the UFE prep course, and had a study buddy...I FAILED. And not only did I fail once, but twice. I finally squeaked out a pass on my third try. You only get 4 kicks at the can. In looking back, this should have been my first sign that perhaps I was not in the right career but I persevered. Once you head down the CA path, starting back in 2nd year university, it is hard to get off that fast moving train barrelling down the tracks.
I have no regrets though, failure taught me a lot. It taught me courage and determination. It taught me to believe in myself, no matter what. Even when I had to walk back into the accounting firm the day after exam results were released with my head held high. And not only there but the audit client I was working on which was always the same client at that time of year. I think it made me work that much harder because I had to prove to myself and everyone else that I belonged. But, ironically, I don’t think I ever really belonged.
People have said to me over the years, “You don’t look like an accountant”. And I remember one time speaking with a counselor who asked me “Why did you want to fit into that world”? It made me think…good question...I never really liked that world. It was an old boys’ club, hierarchical in structure, where working a zillion hours a week was the norm. No wonder there were no women partners, no one to look up to and model myself after. I always felt like a round peg trying to fit into a square hole. It always seemed hard, at best uncomfortable, and at worst downright stressful.
Fast forward 20 years later, and I am working as Vice President of Finance at an IT Training Company. There were several jobs in between where I remember driving to work and thinking “I don’t want to do this”. This job was a part-time position at a medium size company run like a family business. I had flexible hours, ownership of the accounting department, access to and support of the owners, and good pay and benefits. This was arguably one of the best companies I had ever worked for so it seemed like the ideal fit for me. I was content there for many years but I still had that uneasy feeling like I was hiding out and one day someone was going to find out I was an imposter. I was putting time in but not progressing personally or professionally.
And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I stepped away from the accounting world for one and a half years to go through treatment and recovery. It was during this time that I discovered my truth and knew I could no longer continue down the same career path. It had always been in the back of my mind that I wanted to do something different, something more meaningful to me. I was just not brave enough to step away from the familiarity and security of a well paying job. But staring your own mortality in the face has a way of making you wake up and take note of your life and how you are living it. Of not wanting to settle anymore and stay in your comfort zone. I might still be there if I hadn’t gotten that wake up call. I’m not saying it was a blessing in disguise. I would never say that about cancer. But it did catch my attention.
So I went back to work for a period of time with the intention of finding out what I wanted to do next, and getting myself prepared mentally, emotionally, and financially to make a move. That took two years. I was simply biding my time…I knew it and they knew it. I was being under-utilized and overpaid. Working off to the side on my own, comfortable but stagnant. Not growing and not being challenged. The final nudge came when I was asked to report to the Controller, a person I really liked and admired and was doing a great job in the company. But it was a blow to my ego, a designated CA reporting to a non-designated accountant. The alternative was to take on a new undefined sales channel role working with one of the owners. I went away for a week to the cottage to think. Once I had time to tame my ego and reflect, it was clear to me that it was time to take my leave.
I was starting all over, starting from scratch without a well laid out plan, starting coKANna Designs. I was switching from my left brain back to my right brain, from practical and logical to creative and intuitive. It was both scary and exhilarating!
This brings me back to the start of my story. I had kept up my CA which is now a CPA designation as a back-up plan. If things didn’t work out (which I believe with all my heart, soul and determination will not happen), I could always fall back on my CPA and get another accounting job. But the truth is I have not kept up on the latest developments and changes in the industry so it would be next to impossible to get a job at the level I was at when I left the profession. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to keep up my CPD (professional development) hours. And frankly I just didn’t want to. I couldn’t justify spending 40 hours studying something I was no longer interested in when I could be learning about social media advertising, website development, landing pages, things relevant to growing my online business. As a solo entrepreneur, there are only so many hours in a day.
And if I did have to go out and get a job, honestly I would not go back to accounting. So why was I spending time and money on keeping my designation? Ego…plain and simple. There is a certain amount of prestige in saying you are a Chartered Accountant. It seems to gain people’s respect. And dammit, it took me a lot of time and effort to get that designation.
When I asked my husband what he thought, he said to me, “Do you use the letters after your name on your business card?” No. “Is it relevant to your business?” Only in the telling of my story and how I got to where I am today. He also suggested with a chuckle that in reality I had already passively given it up by letting the renewal deadline pass so I would have to pay a late fee. He was right. He knows me well. So my decision had been made to let it go.
So how do I feel? Well…relieved and a little wistful. Happy to not have to keep up with the professional development hours anymore and a little sad that I can no longer say I am a CA if it ever came up. But it will always be a part of my experience and a key piece of my journey to where I am today…a recovered Chartered Accountant turned Fashion Designer!
Colleen Kanna is a breast cancer champion and creator of coKANna designs, a line of bamboo knit, Canadian-made adaptive clothing for women touched by breast cancer.