Lester McKeever made history as one of the first 100 African Americans to become a Certified Public Accountant in the U.S. According to the National Society of Black Certified Public Accountants (NSBCPA), less than 1% of all CPAs in the U.S. are Black.
“Being a CPA, a highly recognized credential in the business world, provided me the opportunity to leverage many unique opportunities,” says McKeever in an exclusive interview with Black Enterprise.
For many decades, McKeever has worked to expose more students to the accounting profession. Through various programs, he has raised millions of dollars to provide scholarships and job opportunities for the next generation of leaders.
“Being Black limited your opportunities,” McKeever shared as he recalls his experience trying to find a job as a Black accountant in the 1950s. “But showing true concern for your client’s success and working to improve your community provides unexpected benefits. When you give to others, you gain more than you give in trying to help.”
Creating a Foundation for Success
McKeever is proof that where you come from does not determine how far you can go.
McKeever was born in Chicago in 1934. His parents did not graduate from high school but they fully supported his education. McKeever displayed a strong desire to excel in all of his classes, earning him the math and science award in high school. The young achiever didn’t dream of going to college until receiving a scholarship from a student club. This one moment changed his entire career trajectory.
Mckeever went on to graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, obtain his CPA license, and study law at the Illinois Institute of Technology-Chicago Kent College of Law.
“It’s a paper world,” says McKeever. “It’s unbelievable what really happens when you have credentials that indicate you are prepared to take on other challenges.”
Overcoming Obstacles as a Black Accountant
McKeever believes that mentorship and networking are important in your career. They were the link that helped him secure a job when major corporations were not hiring black people.
“When I graduated from college, the Big 8 accounting firms and large corporations did not hire African Americans,” says Mckeever. “My university forced one firm to give me the courtesy of an interview. They said they couldn’t hire me because their clients wouldn’t accept me.”
McKeever started his career working with a Black-owned life insurance company. Through relationships at this firm, he was introduced to Mary T. Washington Wylie — the first Black woman to become a CPA in the U.S.
Wylie provided McKeever with a part-time work opportunity during tax season. This kicked off a long career with Washington & Pittman accounting firm, leading to an appointment on the Board of Directors as a managing partner. Later, the firm was renamed Washington, Pittman & McKeever.
One of Mckeever’s keys to success is knowing your craft inside and out. “Anything related to the success of your career, you have to be on top of that. There’s no place for mediocrity anymore. You have to be skilled in what you are trying to do.”
Becoming a History Maker
Mckeever has had a successful career as an accountant and has broken many barriers. He was a member of the Finance Committee under Chicago Mayor’s Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley. In 1997, he became chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. These history-making moments established McKeever as one of Chicago’s most influential business leaders.
If you want to achieve success and attract mentors, Mckeever says that “you have to get involved in the community.” McKeever has served on the Board of Directors for the Illinois Institute of Technology and treasurer of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. He was one of the founding members of the Chicago Urban League’s Impact Leadership Development Program. He also paved the way for the Mary T. Washington Wylie Internship Preparation Program.
“I always tell people to involve themselves in as many activities as you possibly can (especially) community type organizations. When people see you working hard and trying to help others, they see you working hard and try to help you.”
If you want to learn more about upcoming initiatives to support the advancement and awareness of Black accountants, visit the National Society of Black CPA’s Facebook page and join the #MyCPAIsBlack campaign.