Diversity

Columbia Business School preps high schoolers for finance and business careers

NYC students were paired with local businesses to help with bookkeeping
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Christopher Grullon (Dianna “Mick” McDougall)

· 5 min read

Pressing the submit button on his early-decision application for Columbia University, Christopher Grullon, a senior at Columbia Secondary School in Morningside Heights, was looking at a résumé that already had work experience with the school’s name, plus a host of accounting skills.

Grullon was one of a cohort of New York City high school students enrolled in a program at Columbia Business School designed to teach business book accounting—the pesky sorting of financial assets that’s a CFO’s bread and butter. In the months since, the high school senior has started a business with two other students from the program and saved a local restaurant around $360 in annual expenses.

The finance field has a glaring lack of diversity: In 2022, only 10.9% of CFO positions in the S&P 500 and Fortune 500 were held by racially and ethnically diverse executives, though it was up from 9.8% in 2020, according to the Crist Kolder Volatility Report. The corporate finance function at large also fails to attract diverse talent. “People of color make up 11% of the total workforce in corporate finance, and just 6% of senior finance roles,” Gartner found in its 2021 Labor Market Survey.

None of that bodes well for the future of the finance suite, or for the business community more generally. But business schools, community groups, and industry organizations are trying to address the lack of diversity through a variety of different means, both directly and indirectly, that will likely have a positive impact on what future business owners and CFOs look like, and what varied experiences they’ll bring to the table.

Starting at the beginning. The Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center at Columbia University works with small businesses in some of New York City’s most diverse neighborhoods. The center’s senior program manager Pat Lilly told CFO Brew that they were hearing from businesses in their networks that bookkeeping was a main area where they needed help.

Pat Lilly, Jade Coleman and Christopher Grullon sit at a table talking

Left to right: Jade Coleman, Pat Lilly and Christopher Grullon (Dianna “Mick” McDougall)

It was a problem that Kaaryn Nailor Simmons, the Center’s assistant dean, community partnerships and managing director, said she’d been hearing from businesses for more than a decade. “We were seeing businesses go out of business because they weren’t feeling comfortable with managing that aspect of their business,” she said. At the same time, she knew from her previous work running a youth employment program with the Harlem Children’s Zone that there was a lack of opportunity for summer interns seeking experience.

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Knowing the emphasis that the US has put on STEM education over the past 10 years, Simmons said it didn’t seem like a really big leap to tap into those math skills to help both the students and the small-business owners.

“[We said,] ‘What if we teach to high school students, that are much more computer literate than their grandparents, who are often the ones who run these small businesses?’” she said. “Then it kind of allows them to not only develop an understanding of QuickBooks, but it also gives them a more practical education when it comes to budgeting and financing for their own needs.” 

With that in mind, she secured funding from Wells Fargo to support the initiative for two years, and hired a QuickBooks trainer. The program also gave the students MetroCards and laptops that were theirs to keep for their future businesses if they completed the six-week program.

Starting up. Beejhy Barhany, owner and chef of Tsion Café, an Ethiopian-Israeli restaurant in Harlem, brought on Grullon and Jade Coleman, a senior at Park East in East Harlem, to help with the books. After sorting through the restaurant’s receipts, the students found an inactive account that was costing Tsion around $30 a month, which they promptly inquired about and canceled.

Chef Beejhy Barhany and Padmore John, owners Tsion Café

Chef Beejhy Barhany and Padmore John, owners Tsion Café (Courtesy Tsion Café)

“It’s actually pretty funny, because once I started this program, I was like, telling family members, “If you need a bookkeeper, I’m right here. I can help you,’” Coleman told CFO Brew.

Over the course of the program, Grullon and two other students decided to join forces and create their own bookkeeping business with their newfound skills. The trio named their new venture CLK Bookkeeping Services, which stands for “categorizing, lucrative, knowledge,” and conveniently is also the founders’ first initials—Christopher, Lizbeth and Katherine.

Coleman says she already has plans to use the skills she learned in the program for her future business ideas; she wants to be a medical practitioner and would use the bookkeeping skills to run a medical practice.

Grullon and Coleman may not be eyeing the CFO office anytime soon but were able to fill a needed gap in their local economy. And Grullon has been accepted to Columbia.

“I’m going to be the first generation in my family’s line to do this type of program and work to build up into an entrepreneur, a business manager, a business worker—any career really.”—KT, KL

News built for finance pros

The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.