To celebrate international youth day, The Accountant and International Accounting Bulletin asks professionals aged under 35 to share their thoughts on the profession: why they qualify as accountants, whether it was challenging and, now that they are in, how they see the profession and where it is going.

Gugu Mtetwa
Non-executive director
Santam Insurance

I am a South African Chartered Accountant. I grew up in a township called Vosloorus, in Johannesburg. I qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2004 while training with PwC. I subsequently became a partner at PwC in 2008 at the age of 28, and in 2012 I was asked to be part of PwC Southern Africa's Management Committee. I was the diversity & inclusion leader, a role I thoroughly enjoyed. As I had been passionate about joining the corporate world, I left PwC and joined Vodacom, a subsidiary of Vodafone, as a managing executive in Finance in 2014. I sit on several boards as a non-executive director, including being the audit & risk committee chair of the Development Bank of Southern Africa. I also partake in speaking engagements where I can inspire & encourage young leaders.

I was raised by a single parent and I saw how hard my mother worked. As a nurse, she had two jobs- one full time and another part-time, and yet it was barely enough to take my sisters and me to school. I wanted a career that would give me a certain amount of financial freedom, and which would also make use of my analytical skills. I enjoyed mathematics at school and had initially thought of choosing actuarial science but because I enjoyed working in teams, I decided to choose the Chartered Accountancy career stream.

My aim was to study at one of Africa's top universities so I joined the University of Cape Town (UCT). I studied bachelors of commerce (B Comm) and a post graduate diploma in accounting (PGDA) at UCT. I was fortunate to have a part bursary from PwC and a part scholarship from UCT based on my academic results. My mother still had to pay for the accommodation and books.

Making new friends was probably the biggest challenge for me as I was not as sociable then. But what I remember vividly was my first accounting lecture where almost a 1000 of us have enrolled to study a B Comm degree. As first year students, the accounting lecturer said to us: "Look to your left, look to your right, only one of you will make it through this course." This was a discouraging start to the Chartered Accountancy career, however, the statistic unfortunately ended up being true as only a third of the class made it to the fourth year writing the Accounting IV paper.

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But that is why when I talk to students or trainee accountants I encourage them not to consider themselves as a statistic. We each are not a statistic but are individuals.

What was also challenging for me was that apart from the lecturers, I did not know one individual CA, therefore I did not know what CA's actually did on a daily basis. What I was studying was very theoretical to me until I started working on vacation work at PwC.

I strongly believe the chartered accountancy profession is one of the best professions. It is no surprise to see, in South Africa in particular, that most of the Chief Financial Officers of large listed entities are CAs and a large number of Chief Executives too. The experience and exposure the auditing and accounting profession gives is unmatched.

However, I think the pace of change in technology with coding and automation will mean our profession will need to adapt to remain relevant.

Looking back, one of the biggest challenges I encountered as a young professional was that I was always in the minority. Being an African female in a predominantly white male dominated environment had its challenges, mainly because one could not relate to the culture. Although I knew I produced quality work and my work ethic was strong, somehow I felt like the outsider as a young professional. The dominant culture was different to how I was. There were few role models I could relate to. But as shy as I was, I enjoyed working with my clients and my teams. I specialised in financial services and enjoyed observing and learning how different businesses worked and how other leaders solved business problems.

This is why I was passionate about my role as the "diversity and inclusion leader" at the time.

In South Africa SAICA has great programmes for young professionals, including students, to motivate and provide a platform for mentors. SAICA has "trainee survival guide" for young professionals, and a platform called "now I CAn" which supports trainees. But more can always be done. It is up to each one of us who has qualified to share our experiences and give off our time to be mentors to those who are aspiring accountants and aspiring partners/business executives.

I recently read the book "Industries of the future" and one of the quotes from there is "data is the raw material of the information age.” I believe areas such as coding and automation will play a key role in our profession. The skills which robots cannot bring such as leadership and problem solving are what will differentiate us. I have always believed that a skill that can solve a problem which a client has will remain relevant. Therefore our profession needs to continue to be more client-centric and really be in touch with clients' needs.

Globally many countries and companies are facing similar challenges of low economic growth, high unemployment rate, cost containment and etc. My generation will need to be part of the problem solving and assume a leadership role. I believe we will need to play a more profound role in macro economics in our countries and continents, and not only look at our own balance sheet and income statements because the world has become integrated. More young professionals are needed in public roles to ensure a thriving environment for business.

In South Africa the issues of inequality and poor quality of education are challenges threatening our future. I would like to see the accounting profession with its great skills and experience, engaging more in solving these challenges which we face.

We also see that ethics and governance have become important in leadership and decision making. But it is questionable how entrenched these are where we see some of the decisions our leaders make. This is another area the profession can play a significant role in, not only in drafting codes, but also in assisting with the application of ethics on day to day decisions which affect the economy.

Increasing the number of women in the profession is another passion of mine. This is no longer statistics but a competitive differential and sustainability matter. Alec Ross says "there is no greater indicator of an innovative culture than the empowerment of women. Fully integrating and empowering women economically and politically is the most important step that a country or company can take to strengthen its competitiveness."