For the latest installment in our FICPA Conversations series, we turned to a member of our own team!
Mia Thomas has touched the FICPA at every possible level. She’s served as president of the Scholarship Foundation and chaired the Central Florida Chapter, the Women’s Leadership Committee, the Central CPA/PAC, and the FICPA itself. Now our Senior Director of Learning, she oversees our continuing professional education course curriculums.
Outside of her contributions to the accounting profession, Mia has dedicated herself to volunteer work. She is currently serving a wide variety of organizations, including National House of Hope, House of Hope Orlando, the Orange and Seminole County Academy of Finance, and Inua Partners of Hope.
We discussed her career, her volunteer efforts, her experience as an Asian American, and her passion for the CPA profession.
Considering all that you have accomplished in your career, what was it that drew you to accounting in the first place?
I like to say: My vocation is that I’m a CPA, but my advocation is the CPA profession.
When I was 13 years old, in the eighth grade, I shadowed a CPA for the day, and I thought, “I want to do this when I grow up.” So I knew, at 13, that my path was to become a CPA. When I was in school, and my friends were investing in records and CDs, well, I was investing in CDs, too: Certificates of Deposit. I was always in that accounting mindset.
In accounting, we’re recording history, something that’s already happened. As I advanced in my career and got my Series 65, I started to develop an understanding of accounting as the future, when it comes to being an advisor. Financial literacy has also played a big role in some of my volunteer work.
Where did that passion for volunteering come from, and can you tell us a little bit about the mission work you’ve done in Kenya?
My dad was very philanthropic. We were one of the first Chinese families to move to Central Florida, and my dad was the second president of the Chinese American Association of Central Florida. Being born in the U.S., I didn’t necessarily understand what it meant – being Chinese. They formed this organization to be able to teach the culture and the language. My mom also volunteered with the PTA and in scouting. In college, I was in the Student Accounting Society, and I served as an officer with the Chinese Association at UCF. Volunteering was a huge part of our lives, as a family. I actually have a mission statement: “Give generously and live passionately.” In order to do that, you have to be a servant – to your community, to your house, wherever you are.
As for our mission in Kenya, the program I work with – Inua Partners in Hope – brought me in as treasurer based on my background in international tax. My running joke is: “Why am I always the treasurer?” CPAs always are. Well, after a couple years, I became chair, and now we have another awesome CPA as treasurer!
The program is for orphans and vulnerable children in Naivasha, Kenya, between the ages of 15 and 20. These are young people who have lost their parents to disease, malaria, yellow fever or even bad water. We offer mentorship and skills training. Our program begins with health and hygiene, and eventually we’re training welders, mechanics, hairdressers, chefs, and electricians. Later this year, we hoping to start an agricultural program. And we’re building confidence along the way. We do a Hope Index, tracking our students from where they are at the beginning of the program to where they are at graduation. The students graduate with a ceremony; they’re awarded with caps and gowns and certificates and tool kits to help them start their business. Anyone that gets involved with us, we’re all “together transformed.”
It is Asian/Pacific American Heritage month, and you’re a past president of the Asian-American Chamber of Commerce (AACC). You’ve also received an award for Leadership in the Asian-American Business Community. Why was it important for you to take a leadership role in that community, and what did being recognized for your efforts mean to you both personally and professionally?
Sometimes I don’t look at myself as an Asian American, but that’s the fact, right? I think that when people do business with other people that are like them, it’s easy. As a CPA, I had Asian clients, because there’s a common thread that we had. At the AACC, we recognize that the Asian community is a large community of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indians, Pakistanis – it’s all of Asia. We’re all trying to lift each other up.
Personally, when I received that award for Leadership, it meant a lot to be seen. It was really rewarding to see my efforts being recognized.
You’ve previously served on the AICPA’s Minority Initiatives Committee. The FICPA last year established its Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. How have you seen D&I efforts in our industry improve over the course of your career, and where do you believe there’s still room for improvement in the years to come?
I think the concept of D&I has expanded, from looking at gender and race in a narrow sense to now being broader and considering different things about a lot of different people.
My children don’t really see gender or race as a difference. I don’t know that everyone will ultimately come around to that point of view. Personally, I like to think the best of everyone. Even though someone might say something hurtful. I think, “They’re not being hurtful to me, specifically. That’s just the way they think, and it might not come out sounding nice.” Unfortunately, that kind of mentality exists, and it may never go away.
We try to address that at the FICPA. We offer unconscious-bias training and diversity and inclusion training. We want our members to be aware of these things, and then translate that awareness into action in their personal and professional lives.
On a personal level, in instances where I’ve been the first woman or the first Asian to hold a particular position, I’ve always said: “I want to be remembered for who I am, not what I am.” That’s my outlook.
To tie all this together, considering your particular journey through and dedication to the FICPA, what would you tell a young or aspiring CPA about the value of becoming a member?
I think there are two big reasons to join. The first is to collaborate with other CPAs. The other comes down to knowing what’s going on in our profession; that’s the advocacy element. The FICPA has great learning opportunities in multiple formats, but we’re more than that. We are protecting your license. That’s the huge message: Your membership dues are making sure our profession is protected.
Particularly over the last year, our legislative team has been working through all the guidance and updates related to PPP and other relief programs. Our FICPA team is invaluable to the CPAs in Florida. When there’s a situation like that, we’re at the forefront, advocating for our members and our clients. Things don’t just happen on their own. It takes our organization to fight for our profession, and I’m proud of the work we’ve done.