In 2013 working Mom and successful CPA and entrepreneur Cheryl Jefferson Cooke, CPA will celebrate her business Cheryl Jefferson & Associates being open for 10 years. Since she started her company working part time out of her home, the business has grown to employ a team and occupy over 2,000 square feet of office space. MyCity4Her recently caught up with this savvy, smart and dynamic woman business owner and asked her to share about her entrepreneurial journey. Get to know how she built up her successful practice, why she thinks women need to “speak up more” as well as her top 3 tips for success and more below.
Here’s what she had to say…
Did you ever imagine yourself achieving what you have?
Yes, but probably not the way it actually happened. I always expected to have my own business. My father did and his father did. It just took a little longer than I expected since I started out to be a doctor and ended up being a CPA. I actually told my Dad, “You should have taught me how to build a house, because I would have had my own business a lot faster”.
What in hindsight would you say you underestimated about your industry or business and why?
I think the one thing that I underestimated would be the difficulty in finding qualified staff. When I say qualified, I’m not just talking about technical capabilities, but also in terms of my firm’s mission and vision. I find it difficult to find candidates that can actually apply accounting principles to real client situations. I also find it difficult to find candidates that while technically competent, don’t embrace the idea of strategic direction.
What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions about what an accountant can and CAN’T do?
As with any profession, an accountant can’t do anything that violates rules and regulations.
However, a Certified Public Accountant has another set of standards to adhere to in addition to the normal rules and regulations as part of their licensing or membership in professional organization like the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.
The biggest misconception is that it is okay to sign a tax return that the accountant did not prepare or did not review the numbers given to them.
I’ve had prospective clients ask for me to prepare and sign the return if they just gave me the numbers to use.
You work with a lot of government contractors, do you feel that requires a different type of accountant?
Absolutely! The Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and experience handling compliance with the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) are never taught in undergrad or graduate school. I have been working with government contractors for 18 years and still auditors throw me a curve ball now and then.
This is why we specialize in government contract accounting, and put less emphasis on tax.
You just can’t be an expert in everything, so we focus on what we like the most, government contractors.
What is the best business related advice you have ever been given?
This may sound sexist, but unfortunately it probably still applies today in many industries. The best advice I’ve ever been given was from a female Accounting Manager, when I was in my 20’s. She said “You need to stop wearing skirts above your knees if you want to be judged for your brain and not your legs”.
What do you feel are the biggest benefits of having your business located in Howard County?
Smart, tech savvy clients. Not that people are less intelligent in other counties or states; but, I notice that our Howard County clients tend to be involved in mostly STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries.
We have rocket scientists, programmers, application developers, and cyber security consultants. This is truly exceptional stuff.
Also, being a paperless firm, when dealing with Howard County clients, using virtual technology, is the standard. They don’t want to drop off paper in the mail or at the office.
What do you love most about what you do and why?
Analyzing and presenting the results in such a way that it actually serves a purpose. I analyze what my clients are doing from a financial perspective; however, the reward is actually presenting suggestions and recommendation to them based on that analysis. That actually helps them with their business.
If you knew then what you know now, what would you do differently and why?
That’s a hard question. It’s like the butterfly effect. If I did something differently, it would change the outcome and, I am happy where I am. I think all the mistakes and doing things the hard way actually helped shape where I am today. I just think going through hard times does make you wiser and more resilient.
What are your top 3 tips you can share with women who are considering starting their own firm, but cautious to take the leap?
- PLAN – Write a business plan, develop a budget even if it is just you, research your market, research the industry, network or join professional organizations
- SPECIALIZE – Pick an area that you enjoy and make that your specialization. It’s not work if you enjoy what you do
- BE CONFIDENT– you can do this. It is not hard, it can just be challenging sometimes.
When you’re not working how do you like to spend your time?
Oh my goodness. I am a travel-fiend. I claim my second home as the Dominican Republic, but even then, I am always marking my calendar for the next big trip. Each year, I have to go somewhere that I have never been before and it has to be for at least 2-3 weeks. I’m actually headed to Paris with my Mom for her 75th birthday after tax season.
How do you define success?
Being in a good place. “Good” is different for everyone. For me, I feel I am successful because I love what I do as a career and it affords me the opportunity to do what I love to do when I’m not working.
If you had to share one final thought with our audience of thousands of women in business, what would it be?
It would probably be, “speak up and say what’s on your mind”, but also be prepared when it is reciprocated. Too often, I think women in business take a backseat to what’s going on around them, what was said, what was done, etc. or they just lack confidence. I tell all my staff, women and men, that I am a no-nonsense communicator. When I say something, it won’t have any fluff or flowers. It will be clear, concise, and straight to the point so everyone is on the same page and no one gets lost in the translation. If you did something wrong, I’m going to tell you. If you did something right, I’m going to tell you. What I ask is that if someone has a problem, an issue, doesn’t like something, or just thinks I’m crazy or off the wall, that they come talk me. I have thick skin and it will be better for everyone to get it out.
About Cheryl Jefferson Cooke
Cheryl Jefferson Cooke knew the values to building her own company. She comes from a family line of small business owners dating back to her grandfather. Cheryl graduated from the University of Maryland with a Master’s Degree in Financial Management; Mrs. Cooke launched Cheryl Jefferson & Associates in 2003. Cheryl has 18 years of experience in accounting, 16 years of experience as a CPA, and 18 years of working experience with government contractors, she has managed to maintain a successful firm that will mark its 10 year anniversary this June. She has written several publications in accounting including Government Contracting: Read the Instructions First and It’s Budget Season. Cheryl’s professional affiliations include AICPA and MACPA. With her specialization in government contracting and her ability to communicate with all levels of an organization, she has managed to create relevance and proficiency to meet every client’s needs.