As a foreigner, KC experienced some of the challenges that I know a lot of current foreign students face in South Africa as they study and look for trainee positions. I wanted to share his story with you, both as motivation for those who are struggling with the same stuff, and as yet another indication of how you can still be successful… even when your journey path is not ideal!
Here’s my chat with KC:
What do you do now? Why?
I have recently taken up the position of Head of Accounting at Tabaldi Education. I took up the position because I have long been an admirer of the mission Richard and Yvonne Starkey have taken up, of making accounting learning simpler. Their emphasis on online learning is also an idea whose time has come. I truly believe that campus learning is going to be as outdated as the fax machine in future!
A summary of your academic qualification journey?
[expand title=”Degree and CTA“] I did my undergraduate studies in Accounting through a college in Pretoria before joining Wits for the CTA programme in 2004. The BCom degree I pursued did not do nearly enough to prepare me for CTA.
My BCom degree was very shallow, and it’s not something I would not wish on any students today. The college took our fees and didn’t teach us nearly enough to proceed to the next level of education or to enter the job market. We would go through a case study in class and on exam day, we would have the exact case study only with different names therein. So I felt like everything was going well… but in reality, it wasn’t preparing me for CTA.
I felt like my parents money was being wasted, but only because I had already progressed so far that I had to stick it out. It was also not a degree that was found to be credible and as such most universities either refused to take me in for CTA, or required me to do an entrance exam, which I probably would have failed due to being ill prepared.
Thankfully, the Head of School at Wits allowed me to have an interview with him. I explained to him my situation and he was empathetic. He said he would let me in although he was convinced I would fail my CTA and would have to re-do it in order to pass. Even before the year began, he gave me their 3rd year Accounting work to go through over the December holidays, to try get me up to the right level before I started CTA. 2004 was probably the hardest year of my life, I studied every single day. In the end, it all paid off, as I was one of the top students towards the end of the year, which led to me being considered for academic articles. Other than the long hours I put in, I also credit the fact that I was able to consult lecturers, which not many students did! [/expand]
Where did you do your Articles, and why?
[expand title=”RSM Betty & Dixon“] I did my articles at RSM. It was more of a process of elimination seeing as I would’ve preferred to go to a Big 4 Accounting firm. None of them showed particular interest at the time though, due to a crackdown on employing foreign students. It didn’t matter how good my results were, it was foreigner status that ‘got in the way’.
Getting a contract for articles was a very difficult process for me. I applied to all the Big 4 Accounting firms, convinced that my good marks would sway them to take me. (I couldn’t even get past the first hurdle at one of them because the application process online required you to start by putting in your ID number and I didn’t have a South African ID at the time!)
The entire process made me feel like I was different from everybody else, that no matter how hard I had worked to pass, no one would take me because I wasn’t South African. It was a painful experience, given how far I had come to qualify as a Chartered Accountant, and how hard I had worked.
Thankfully the HR department at RSM was very good, and they made me feel very comfortable and wanted. They also undertook to assist me with applying for a work permit, hence it was a no brainer in the end and doing my articles through them is a decision I don’t regret at all. [/expand]
What did you get out of your Articles?
[expand title=”My Articles’ experience“] After the difficult start I had to getting into the accountancy profession, RSM was a breath of fresh air. To a large extent, the management made me feel like my performance is what would count more than anything else.
I had a couple of colleagues who weren’t as friendly, but the tone at the firm in general was quite hospitable. I like to believe that my work ethic was as good as they expected. I got a lot from RSM. They posted me to several interesting places during my articles, including Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Chad. I also benefitted from two different 3 month secondment programmes – one to Australia and the other to Boston, USA.
In my final year of my articles, I was voted by the partners to be the Trainee of the Year! This was a humbling and encouraging experience. [/expand]
A summary of your work experience since you qualified?
[expand title=”Partner at RSM“] After qualifying, I worked as an audit manager for 18 months. I then became a partner, and stayed there for a further 4 years.
Despite having worked well within the firm, I soon came to realise that being an audit partner, reviewing files with a red pen was not for me. I generally hated the audit process! More so because it had too many procedures that you had to follow, and many a time, it didn’t influence the eventual opinion. The room for the auditors professional judgement seemed to be less and less. My passion also lay in IFRS and accounting rather than in the audit process. [/expand]
[expand title=”Accounting firm and publishing company“] I formed my own accounting consultancy in 2014 and I’ve also run a publishing and events company. I have always enjoyed events and writing.
The company started off while I was still at RSM, when I decided to start a magazine to write the stories of foreign professionals like myself. Initially I thought that we would only end up doing one issue, but we are now onto the 26th edition! I am glad that it is now a fully fledged publication that can run with minimal involvement from my end and we have covered several touching stories over the years. [/expand]
What did you struggle with the most?
[expand title=”My challenges“] I have had many struggles. The one struggle I remember is trying to study for my Wits degree without much money. On many days, I went with only one meal a day and usually it was just eggs and bread. I lost so much weight that when I went to Kenya on holiday people thought I was suffering from some disease!
I struggled with the degree itself because most of the class was made up of ‘Witsies’ who understood the Wits way of doing things. It took longer for me to get to the same point. There was also a social clash in the early years of my degree. I remember in my very first class answering a question and people laughed at the way I pronounced some words; it made me reluctant to participate in class discussions and repressed my otherwise extrovert nature. [/expand]
Your journey was a little ‘messy’ and not ideal, do you think this has been detrimental to your worklife, career and opportunities?
[expand title=”Did my career suffer?“] Well, I think it changed the course of my path to success. I still feel that I have been successful despite it being ‘messy’. “A powerful river will still find its way to sea even if it may encounter big rocks and trees that make it change its path.”
I didn’t end up at a top university because when I moved to South Africa they didn’t recognise my ‘matric’ from a foreign country… but I passed CTA. Similarly, I didn’t join a Big 4 audit firm because I was rejected as a foreigner… but I had just as good experience working in multiple developing and developed countries with a medium size firm. And whereas many commercial positions seek a CA “with Big 4 articles”, I have ended up as an entrepreneurial-minded CA doing things that I love… so I don’t feel my journey limited me. [/expand]
[expand title=”South Africa still hasn’t reached the levels of diversity and equality that we’d like to see. What has your experience with this been? How did you deal with it?“] I think discrimination is very real. As an example, during my undergraduate studies they gave the best student certificate to someone who didn’t have marks as good as mine, possibly because she was white and it fit the narrative.
During my articles, I had nasty co-workers who would say things like “go back to your country” despite the fact that they themselves were descendants of immigrants. They made me feel like both my country of origin and skin colour made me a second class dweller in this country despite my hard work. If I was a more sensitive person I would probably cracked under this pressure, quit my job and returned to Kenya.
For those who face these struggles, I point them to Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. Don’t lose sight of your goals because of those who don’t wish you well, be the river that cuts a different path to the sea when faced with obstacles. [/expand]
How do you feel about the CA qualification? CIMA? ACCA? CFA? Would you hire people with these qualifications?
[expand title=”The qualification“] I may be biased because it is the qualification that I have but I truly think the CA qualification is best to harness opportunities locally and internationally.
I think the other qualifications are worth pursuing, given that they are respected worldwide. In Kenya where I come from for instance, ACCA is the most respected accounting qualification and the local CPA (Kenya) qualification is linked to it. [/expand]
[expand title=”Recruitment“] Would I hire finance staff with other qualifications? Yes, I would, and I have. For instance, I started the accounting consultancy, and I’m now a silent partner. I chose an AGA (SA) to run it (AGA is SAICA’s qualification for an individual with a BCom degree and articles.)
The CA (SA) qualification is indicative that an individual has passed some really difficult exams and got the prerequisite knowledge and that they have gone through a qualification process that has enhanced their working skills. However, a piece of paper is not enough to say how well one will be in the work place. You need a rigorous interview process to get a feel for how the person will relate with others. Interpersonal or soft skills are just as important as technical skills. [/expand]
[expand title=”What do you look for when you hire staff?“] I take a holistic approach. I consider their qualifications as well as their experience. Beyond that I try and get a sense of their capabilities. Sometimes the top students don’t make the best employees, especially if they don’t have good communication and people skills. [/expand]
Final words to CA students?
The CA qualification is the embodiment of the “No pain, no gain” situation. If it was easy, then everyone would be a CA and there would be no jobs to go around! Try, try and try again, in the end it will be all worth it.