by Sue Tomchin
According to the American Institute of CPAs, women represent more than 50% of accounting graduates entering the profession for the last 20 years, but make up only 17% of the partners in accounting firms nationwide.
But those statistics don’t compute when it comes to Kathy Raffa’s accounting firm.
“We have 18 partners and 12 of them are women, pretty unheard of in the accounting world and especially among the top 100 firms in the country – of which we are one,” she says.
Raffa, a CPA, is president, as well as owner and partner with her husband, Tom, of Raffa, a Washington, D.C.-area firm which provides accounting, technology, tax and financial consulting services to more than 1,000 nonprofits ranging in size from large organizations like The Aspen Institute to small community-based organizations. The firm also serves many socially conscious businesses.
“A lot of nonprofits are in need of help to ensure that they are running effectively as a business,” says Raffa. “We help organizations to build a strong infrastructure to enable them to accomplish their missions.”
Though in a field where figures are foremost, Raffa is passionate about having a positive impact both for the firm’s employees and in the larger world. Caring deeply about the personal and professional growth of her 300 employees is a hallmark of her leadership.
She encourages employees to expand their skills by serving on nonprofit boards and helps them to “identify opportunities that are meaningful to them.” Having served on many boards herself, she recognizes that the experience is a way to build relationships, grow professionally and give back to the community.
As the mother of three children, now grown, she is well-acquainted with the challenge of integrating one’s personal life with work responsibilities. The firm offers a variety of flexible work arrangements including part-time, from home and even from a different country. “I have a tax manager in France, another manager in California and people who work 10 or 20 hours a week. We welcome and encourage that.”
A few years ago Kathy emerged from a bout of breast cancer “thinking about how I could have a greater impact.” When she was invited by longtime client Vital Voices Global Partnership to take part in a retreat with their top 100 women leaders from around the world, working on such issues as sex trafficking and human rights for women and girls, she jumped at the chance. “They asked me to speak and help these women who are changing the world learn how to run their businesses more effectively. I spent four days there and it was one of my most humbling and inspiring experiences ever.”
“You talk about hurdles, they have hurdles,” she said about the women she encountered. One young woman, an aviation professional in India, started a social business which crowdsources stories of sexual abuse and aggregates the data as hotspots on a map. In India, rapes occur every 20 minutes yet most aren’t reported due to the cultural stigma. She has collected over 10,000 stories from India and three other countries. “She enables women to break their silence, protect themselves and influence social change.”
"We have 18 partners and 12 of them are women, pretty unheard of... among the top 100 firms in the country – of which we are one."
Now this woman and others are part of a pro bono business mentorship program that Raffa has created at her firm. Twenty-three of her firm’s staffers mentor women from 10 different countries, meeting by video conference once a month.
Raffa also works with Vinnie Myers, a tattoo artist renowned for inking three dimensional nipples on women who have undergone post-mastectomy breast reconstruction. “I was sitting in his chair and he started telling me about how he wanted to help people who can’t afford reconstruction, to give them a sense of wholeness again,” Raffa says. “We started a nonprofit and now we’re on to the next steps to figure out how he can spread the good work that he does.”
Trying new things has always been part of Raffa's nature. While growing up in heavily Jewish Pikesville, Md., her father, a dentist, and her mom, a teacher, encouraged her to pursue a profession. Instead of choosing law and medicine like her brothers, she chose finance and accounting since she loved math and analysis, attending the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
She met her future husband while working at PricewaterhouseCoopers. They envisioned founding their own firm, and in 1984, the same year they married, he left to start it. A few years later, when the firm had gotten off the ground, she joined him. Now, their son and two daughters are following in their parents’ footsteps by becoming entrepreneurs, albeit in the food industry.
Raffa loves adventure, whether zipping down a ski slope in Utah, observing gorillas in Rwanda, or journeying to such places as Singapore, Thailand and India. She and her husband co-founded a company in India to help corporations connect with nonprofit organizations that they can help.
“Travel opens up my eyes,” Raffa says. “I experience different cultures and learn from them and as a result I become a better person too.”