Sierra Leone | A Career in Accounting

Sewa News Stream talks to Mustapha Wai about why he chose a career in accounting. He is founder and managing partner of Wai & Associates, a Washington D.C certified public accounting and consulting firm.




Sewa News: You've worked in public accounting,  federal government civil service, government contracting, tax and advisory services, small business consulting, international accounting, and forensics. Some of the job titles you have held include deputy director, financial manager, audit manager, senior accountant, auditor and senior auditor.  What's different about all these jobs and areas?

Mustapha Wai: Similar to other professions like law and medicine, accounting is a broad field of specialization and practice. In medicine, for example, one can specialize in diagnostic fields like cardiology and radiology, or clinical fields like anesthesiology and neurology. Accounting is similar in the sense that one can specialize in a specific area of practice within a given industry. In fact, accountants practice in every industry you can think of.

We have accountants in the private industry which includes corporate accountants or accountants that serve for-profit businesses. There are accountants that serve not-for-profit organizations like the United Nations, schools and universities. There are accountants that serve governments including federal, state and local governments. Within each industry, accountants can specialize in specific areas of practice. These areas include internal audit, general ledger accounting, payroll, tax, financial reporting, internal control and risk management, policy and compliance, etc.

There is a unique area of practice in accounting called public accounting.

Public accountants are generally assurance (independent auditors) and advisory (consulting services including tax advisory). Public accountants serve all the industries listed above. Their job is to perform audits of companies and organizations and issue independent reports or opinions.

I started my career in public accounting with the world's largest public accounting firm: Deloitte. At Deloitte, I served as an independent auditor across industry, not-for-profit and the federal government. Organizations I audited include financial institutions such as the World Bank, venture capital and mutual fund companies; insurance companies like Geico, several publicly traded companies like U.S Foodservice (parent company of Giant) and U.S government agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs - Veterans Benefits Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

Subsequently, I went to work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a U.S federal agency. At NASA, I served for nine years in several roles including senior auditor and audit manager in the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) and deputy director for Internal Audit/Quality Assurance in the NASA Office of Chief Financial Officer (OFCO).

As an OIG auditor, my job was to fight fraud, waste and abuse by conducting audit of the agency's financial operations. Within the NASA OCFO, my responsibilities included ensuring sound internal control to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse, and ensure reliable and sound financial reporting to taxpayers.

Sewa News: Why did you decide to major in accounting?

MW: I went to American University to study international relations with the dream of working for the United Nations. But I changed direction when I came into contact with an accounting professor at American University who is a Nigerian. After telling him what I wanted to do with international relations, he named several students from Africa who had graduated in the field and were yet to find jobs, even with a master's degree. He also told me that I needed an undergraduate degree that will land me a job upon graduation.  For a moment, I thought accounting was going to be difficult as math was the most challenging subject for me in high school. I was surprised when I got A’s in both principles of accounting I & II courses. After my first accounting internship, I realized that I actually enjoyed accounting outside of the classroom. The rest became history after graduating with a 3.7 GPA.

Sewa News: Where did you work after graduation and how did you make that choice?

MW: Right after my undergraduate degree, I went to work for Deloitte. In fact, I was recruited by Deloitte on campus one year before my graduation. As accounting students, the “Big Four” accounting firms were our dream destination after graduation. Mine came through after I got offers from two of them.

Sewa News: You rose to senior auditor and consultant at Deloitte, a leading public accounting firm. You provided accounting, independent audit and financial management consulting services to several clients both in private and public sectors including U.S federal government agencies and publicly traded companies. You also played an integral role in the forensic audit of Deloitte's high profile client, Royal Ahold's wholly-owned subsidiary—U.S Food Service that was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly overstating sales in the amount of $30 billion. You and your team were crucial in helping regulators and management reach an amicable conclusion.  Why did you leave public accounting?

MW: I left public accounting to pursue interests I had developed in federal accounting. For most people, public accounting is a training ground where you explore a variety of industries and decide where your interest lies. Very few people stay in public accounting to get to senior manager or partner. In fact, the chance of becoming a partner in leading accounting firms like Deloitte is roughly one out of 200. While becoming partner is not guaranteed, it would take at least ten to fifteen years to become a partner. I had no interest in becoming a partner at Deloitte.

Sewa News: Recently, you founded Wai & Associates where you are the managing partner.

MW: I founded Wai & Associates out of a dream of starting a company that will not only serve clients in the United States but also in my native Sierra Leone and across Africa. At Wai & Associates, we specialize in accounting, audit, financial management, internal control and tax advisory services. We also serve small businesses who would otherwise not afford to pay big firms that typically provide the level of professional services we offer.

My goal is to establish a reputable professional service firm (which will be a member firm of Wai & Associates-US) that will serve the sub-region including Liberia, Gambia and beyond. As these economies grow, the need for such service is going to grow with it. This is most important given the increase in foreign investment in various industries (including mining, banking, telecommunication and information technology) in the sub-region. The plan is to create jobs and train the next generation of accountants who will serve the emerging industries with integrity, effectiveness and efficiency.

Sewa News: Do students need internships? Where should they look?

MW: Students are encouraged to seek for and do internship because of a couple of reasons: First, it will help give you an idea of what your career will be like in the real world and whether you will enjoy it. Secondly, it will help you secure some experience that you can put on your resume so that you become competitive upon graduation. No one wants to hire a student that has never worked. It’s not necessarily about specific work experience as it is about work ethic—your ability to wake up in the morning, follow instructions, work with others, etc.  Most schools have career offices that help student with building their resumes and finding internships. Attend university recruiting events and give out your resume. Volunteer to work for free or do co-ops just to get experience. It will pay off later. Volunteer you services at the local tax preparing centers. Many states have those where you can learn to prepare taxes for free.

Sewa News: What are the basic steps to getting licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA)?

MW: First you need an accounting degree and then 150 hours or a master's degree. You need to ensure you have the required specific accounting hours. Then you need to prepare for the CPA exam. You must take a review course, like those offered by the Becker CPA Review. You must dedicate significant amount of time (at least 5 to 8 hours a day for about four to six weeks for each of the 4 sections) to studying for the exam. You must actually start preparing for the CPA in your first accounting course. You must ensure you do well in your courses and understand the subject matter. No amount of review course will help you if you have a weak background in your college accounting courses. Remember the pass rate on the CPA exam is around 48 percent and not all will pass the CPA exam regardless of how many times you take it.

State boards of accountancy also have restrictions on the number of times you can take the exam and within which period you need to pass all four parts in order to maintain credits for sections you have passed. For example, some states require that you pass all four parts within eighteen months or you will lose credits for any parts you’ve passed.  Once you have passed the exam, the next step is to take an ethics exam. This is basically an open book exam sent to you in a packet and you must score eighty percent to pass. After that, you will need to meet the experience requirement.

Most states require one to two years minimum work experience directly under the supervision of a licensed CPA. There is also a requirement for criminal background checks.  Once you have the license, you have to maintain it. This means you have to take additional courses and stay current with the industry practice.

Sewa News: Why did you do an advanced degree and what lessons did you learn?

MW: I decided to do an advanced degree due to several reasons:

To become a CPA in almost every state within the United States requires 150 credit hours or a master's degree. When I took the CPA exam, only a bachelor's degree or 120 credit hours was required then to sit for the exam. So, I had passed the exam right before my state adopted the 150 hour rule. I realized that as a licensed CPA, a master's degree in accounting was going to be a piece of cake for me. Since an advanced degree could not hurt, especially when my employer at the time was willing to foot the bill, I completed my master's at the University of Maryland Smith School of Business with distinction (4.0/4.0) while working full time.  I realized that my several years of experience was a great asset in my master's program. This was an advantage as I was in class with students who had just completed their undergraduate with no experience.

Sewa News: What do you need to be a self-employed CPA?

MW: You need the drive to own a business. You must have the courage to stay put even when it looks like you are not going to succeed. In the case of a CPA firm, you must have a strong background in several areas of accounting practice and in several industries. You must have a network that you can tap into for business. You must be able to manage people and client relationship. Above all, you must be able to maintain your license as a CPA with the states in which you operate. This means you must maintain a record free of criminal wrongdoing; good personal financial records (bankruptcies and bad credit will hurt your career), be reliable and have integrity.

Sewa News: Which organizations should you join?

MW: Consider joining the accounting club in your business school. If you are good in accounting, volunteer to tutor in the accounting lab because this will keep the material fresh in your head. Join AICPA as student affiliate member for free and you get access to invaluable professional resources and discounts. If you are a licensed CPA, consider joining your state society of accountants, Association of Government Accountants, and the National Association of Black Accountants.

Mustapha has won several awards for professional achievement including the Deloitte Outstanding Performance Award, the NASA Exceptional Achievement Award, and the Association of Government Accountants' 2012 National Emerging Leader of Excellence Award. He holds a bachelor's degree in accountancy and minor in computer information systems from American University in Washington D.C. and a master's (with highest distinction) in business and management from the University of Maryland, College Park. He is a member of several professional organizations including the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Association of Government Accountants, and the Association for Federal Enterprise Risk Management.

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