Thought Leadership: ‘I want to make accounting open to all’

Rachel Harris

Balancing an apprenticeship with caring for her twin sister, Rachel Harris’s entry into the profession was as unconventional as her approach to accountancy itself. Ahead of her keynote speech at the ICAS Practice Conference, the entrepreneur, mentor, content creator and, yes, accountant, talks disability, disruption and attracting young talent to the profession

Words: Jane Renton

Sitting beside a shell-pink chair, beneath a cool, neon-pink “accountant_she” sign, Rachel Harris has the kind of infectious energy seldom associated with, well, accountants. But this sunny, approachable and passionate content creator, author, TEDx speaker, business owner, bursary founder and award-winner (PQ Magazine’s Accountancy Personality of the Year 2023) is a proud disrupter of preconceptions of both what it is to be an accountant and how it should feel to hire one.

Aged just 30, Harris is the keynote speaker at this year’s ICAS Practice Conference, to be held in Edinburgh on 5 June. She has built the firm she co-created with husband (and chartered accountant) James Harris, striveX, into a seven-figure business. She also has more than 57,000 followers for her accountant­_she Instagram, which dispenses friendly financial advice together with cheerful wellbeing and brand-building. Unsurprisingly, she has a long list of applicants eager to work for her.

Most of all, this absolute antithesis of the “stale, pale, male” stereotype is on a mission. Her aim – to open up the possibilities of a field that can take you anywhere from regular involvement with a blue-chip company to advising a content creator about the feasibility of claiming tax relief on their plastic surgery.

And as if these day-to-day demands weren’t enough, Harris is helping to level the playing field for a range of people looking to enter accountancy – by creating the first corporate bursary scheme to fully fund a student through AAT levels 2–4.

For a profession to become fully inclusive, it has to embody those principles where women, carers and people from diverse communities and backgrounds see themselves reflected and able not just to survive but thrive. As Harris says: “You can only be what you can see.” Now fully in the spotlight, what formed that young person who was waiting in the wings?

“I talk about the difficulties I had along the way to show people in a similar position that you could do that too. There is room for everybody”

Something that is not immediately obvious is that you are profoundly deaf. How has that shaped you personally?

I started losing my hearing in my early twenties, then had a routine NHS operation which went very horribly wrong. I ended up losing 100% of my hearing in one ear – it’s completely dead. I have 10% hearing in the other ear. So I wear two hearing aids. One picks up sound in the ear that doesn’t work, and then both microphones feed through into the other ear.

Has that affected the way you work?

Definitely. As with most Type A personalities (ambitious, competitive, perfectionist), it was obviously not a nice thing to have happen to me. But we have been able to lean into that and make really impactful changes to the way that people consume financial wellbeing resources. Body language is very important. Facial expressions are very important. Gesticulating is very important. I talk with my hands because that’s how I hear.

So amid the obstacles, there have also been positive impacts?

It has done great things in terms of the business. Because I’ve encountered certain barriers, being able to bring different communication preferences into the way people consume finance has been really important to me. A perfect example was choosing a telephone provider. I couldn’t find a telephone provider that I, as the business owner, could work with, that would speak to me but not on the telephone. Video calls are great, I can use subtitles. But on my mobile phone, my voicemail literally says, “I’m hard of hearing, please do not call me.”

So, it’s really helped us to bring a neurodivergent friendliness into the business. People can book multiple ways of communicating. And we keep communication preferences on file for every single client.

And you don’t have to have a disability to have a preference, right? Even before I lost my hearing, I hated speaking on the phone. I much prefer when I can see someone and get the vibe. Alternatively, emails will always be my second choice to give me the headspace to make sure that everything is actioned properly. You don’t have to have a diagnosis to express a preference over the way you communicate with people.

So, “brand Rachel” was partially formed as a result of your experience?

One hundred per cent! I am constantly trying to lean in to serving more than one sense, whether it’s visual, sound… just the feeling that finance gives you. If you want an accountant, you can get your accounts done way cheaper than us anywhere else. But how do you feel about your finances? Is your wellbeing being looked after at the same time as your tax?

You’ll actually seek it out if it’s a positive experience, won’t you? Even the colour pink: some people will say, “Isn’t that a girl thing?” But no, actually, pink makes you feel happy. It makes you feel welcome. It’s not about gender, it’s about personality and choice.

You were born as a twin, older by 10 minutes, and your sister has cerebral palsy. Has caring been a big influence in your life?

I’ve had caring responsibilities from a very young age. The more I go through life – and therapy – the more I realise being a carer is something that will profoundly change you for the rest of your life. And often, that sense of caregiving and wanting to look after people doesn’t just stop with that person – it becomes part of who you are.

It is not only a strong feeling of philanthropy, but also wanting to make sure that there are ways for people of all backgrounds, shapes and sizes to consume information that doesn’t feel easy to consume. Mainstream school careers advice tells you that being an accountant is boring, whether that’s a maths teacher making a funny comment, or gender stereotypes that make women feel they can’t go into it.

I realise more and more that caring responsibilities profoundly change you. And as a twin, I’ve had it my whole life. I’ve never known any different – other than the first 10 minutes. It’s a part of who I am as a person.

Does having a disability mean coming up against a lot of barriers and bureaucracy?

I’m an accountant – my life is full of forms! I was very much an advocate for my sister. Whereas for myself, I think I feel quite disassociated from a disability because I wasn’t born like that. No one teaches you how to have a disability, how to navigate this new world that often feels like it wasn’t built for you. When I experience something for the first time, whether it’s a theme park, a cafe, a spa, it feels very different and random [compared with] before.

I now do a lot of work with the National Deaf Children’s Society to advocate for being self-employed, which is fantastic because it gives you a lot of autonomy over how and when you work. As does a career in finance. Finance is super accessible for people, especially if you are hard of hearing – numbers are numbers in every language, right?

“I always tell people whether or not you think you have a personal brand, that is your personal brand! If you’re doing nothing, nothing is your personal brand”

Some people [with disabilities] feel they have to prove themselves, to be better than their peers, to push back against the idea that having more challenges means being “less than”. Is there something in that you identify with?

You can only be what you can see. I have a picture behind me of when I graduated with my master’s. Underneath that I have a picture of myself at seven years old. Because a lot of branding, networking or marketing tells you to have a clear avatar of who you’re talking to. And for me, it’s young Rachel who I talk to.

As someone with hearing issues, who was a young carer and had lots of responsibilities when my friends had none, who grew up wearing charity-shop clothes and having free school meals, it’s important that I now use my position as a business owner, content creator, accountant, successful female entrepreneur, to talk about where I come from. I talk about the difficulties I had along the way to show people who are in a similar position that you could do that too. There is room for everybody.

What does your family think of your success?

They are super, super proud. I was with my mum when the Forbes article came out. We sat and read it together, which was a huge moment. It was incredible. I am very passionate speaking about my upbringing. And that’s hard, you have to navigate that in terms of boundaries and respect. It was my childhood, but it’s still a part of their story, too. I’ve had lots of conversations with my sister and my parents to make sure they’re comfortable. Being able to share where I come from is important to all of us in terms of showcasing what real accessibility in the workplace looks like.

Did your experiences instil a certain work ethic? Other people may have given up when trying to juggle an apprenticeship, part-time jobs and being a carer when their mates are at university or partying (or both).

I’ve always spoken about my apprenticeship like the tortoise and the hare. At the time, it felt so slow and boring. All my friends were getting drunk on Tuesdays at Wetherspoons with their friends. I felt very alone. Plus, I was only on £3 an hour, so it felt hard. Then all of a sudden, everyone was graduating. They were leaving university with a degree in finance, but no practical experience.

So, they were starting in the jobs that I had started three years before, and I am three years ahead of them. I had those soft skills, social skills, practical skills, networking skills – all the things I’m literally looking for now. AI and tech can give me the repetitive, task-based nature of the role, but it’s those core soft skills that it can’t do.

The first thing I do when I look at someone’s CV is go to the bottom and look for customer service skills. We have a lot of people who work with us who may be trained in something like hairdressing salons, because you have to be able to do 17,000 things at the same time to work in a salon. So yes, it very much felt like the tortoise and the hare for a long time. But then I looked behind me and thought actually, they are quite far behind. So that has definitely now fed into the benefits package that I offer, which is a best-in-class.

Why did you start your bursary scheme and what are your plans for it?

I saw first-hand what a career in finance can do for you. I was lucky I still had a safe, warm home to live in with my parents while I was not earning lots of money, so I still had choices. There is still a minimum level of privilege required to access a career in finance.

So, I just wanted to work very, very hard to continue to lower the barriers to entry for finance for people who couldn’t even access free content online. Last year, I got a pot of money together and had one placement available. And that’s how I found Stacy. Stacy applied and last year was awarded the first ever accountant_she bursary scheme. And within six months of receiving the bursary, I was able through my network on LinkedIn to help her get a job in a practice. She now works 100% of her available hours outside of caring responsibilities. And it has just been incredible. As well as covering 100% of the costs, we pay for all her training materials and her tutor fees.

She gets one-to-one mentoring with me, so I see her every month. Sometimes I surprise her and we do it in person, and sometimes online. And this year we’re doing it in exactly the same way but with five placements. I’ve got five mentors, so the recipients can choose the most appropriate, depending on their career. I have no plans to slow down, I’d absolutely love to continue to roll it out.

At what point did you think that creating your own brand with accountant_she would be the way forward (with striveX as the business)? Did you look around and think “Nobody else is doing this – why aren’t they?”

I’m a millennial, so I grew up half my life with social media and half without. I felt no one was creating content in the way I would like to consume it. There are accountants who make content on social media, but it doesn’t feel native to that platform like the viral content you would see online.

I like content creation and I take it seriously – I now consider myself a content creator first and accountant second. I’m constantly refreshing the strategy, making sure it is up to date and the content is as competitive as everybody else’s.

“Being self-employed is fantastic because it gives you a lot of autonomy over how and when you work. As does a career in finance”

Was there one post that took you from several likes to hundreds? Or was it more down to frequency and simply plugging away?

I have never gone viral, it’s all been consistent strategy, personal branding, effort and discipline. Social media is about just constantly showing up. But I also speak a lot about personal branding. I always tell people whether or not you think you have a personal brand, that is your personal brand! If you’re doing nothing, nothing is your personal brand.

How much planning goes into your social media posts and how do you differentiate in terms of what type of content you use for LinkedIn vs Instagram vs TikTok etc…

I created more content to help accountants, financial advisers, mortgage advisers, HR professionals, and so on, look at how we can approach advertising. People who work in professional industries do a serious job, but you don’t have to take yourself too seriously. I think there’s a misconception between those two things – my content isn’t silly, but it’s very accessible.

“AI can be fantastic for accountants. A lot of what we do is automated. And the number one way to not get replaced by a robot is to not behave like a robot”

And what advice would you have for somebody who has been inspired by what you do?

There’s room for you too. Success is not a piece of pie, where if I take some there’s less for everybody else.

What could the profession do better to attract the next generation into the sector? For example, ICAS speaks a lot about how CAs can play a key role in sustainability reporting, ensuring companies can reach net-zero targets ethically and honestly.

That’s a really good example. If you love sustainability, and you also love maths, you can be an accountant in the most remote areas of the world. If you love Formula 1, you could be an accountant for a Formula 1 team. If you love content creators, you could be their accountant. As a young, fun, energetic woman who went through the careers advice process at school, I was told there wasn’t a place for me in professional services – especially maths. Now a big part of my job as a content creator is encouraging more young people to become accountants. Five of our employees chose to become accountants because they found my content online.

How have you managed to attract talent without spending thousands on recruitment?

A lot of people come back to money when they talk about recruitment, but in a 12-month period the average accountancy practice will lose 18% of its workforce. And if the cost of replacing someone who’s on a £25,000 salary is £31,000, I would argue that my benefits package – which pays 10% above market rate, has an all-inclusive, all-expenses-paid holiday every year, personal development sessions, gym memberships, private medical – is still not more expensive than replacing a fifth of the workforce every single year. It is common sense. But so many people just come down to short-term cost over long-term wealth. It’s the wrong way around. I’m a huge believer in how fantastic AI can be for accountants. A lot of what we do is automated. And the number one way to not get replaced by a robot is to not behave like a robot.

Looking ahead to the ICAS Practice Conference, can you give us an idea of what you’re going to cover in your keynote?

I was so excited that the theme this year is disruption. I am a self-proclaimed disrupter in the accounting industry. So, we are going to go through an accountancy practice’s scaling journey, uncovering lots of topics that we’ve spoken about today – from recruitment, marketing and scaling, working out what we can do to disrupt that space, remove the obstacles and just make it feel better for everyone.

And finally, what is the biggest misconception about accounting?

That it’s boring. Full stop.

This article was first published by CA Magazine at the following URL: