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Alicia Fowler
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From Pivot Magazine

The matriarchal tax firm: supporting businesses with social impact

CPA Alicia Fowler is following her instincts to create a women-led tax firm that thrives on intuition and open communication

Alicia FowlerAlicia Fowler says she has never intended to be a disruptor, but just by acknowledging that there is inequality in the industry—that is disruptive (Photograph by Emilie Iggioti)

Spring of 2020 was a time of great social change: the killing of George Floyd sparked protests against police brutality, while Indigenous activists and allies rallied to protect land and natural resources in Canada. Alicia Fowler, a CPA based in Edmonton, Alta., watched these historic movements unfold from home while caring for her two children, then two and seven. She had recently taken a leave of absence from her career in public accounting at a large national firm. It just wasn’t working—there was no flexible work policy in place, and she struggled to manage her kids, her home life, and her job.

In a time of social unrest, Fowler had an epiphany. The world was changing—social inequalities were at the forefront of public consciousness—and she wanted to do more than just save rich people tax dollars. She wanted to support women entrepreneurs and businesses committed to making a social impact. Fowler did some research and found a gap: there were business leaders looking for accounting support that resonated with their social impact mission, led by a team of people who faced similar systemic barriers.

In January 2021, Fowler landed a $115 million freelance project from a private equity firm. She recruited two other CPAs, moms who were also at home with their kids, and they went to work. It was a success (and a lot of fun), so she registered a firm: MOD Accounting and Tax, a women-led virtual tax firm with a head office in Edmonton.

Since then, Fowler has grown her team to eight members, amassed more than 60 clients, and doubled revenue each year with no marketing spend. “It’s just us existing in this space and people finding us because women want to work with other women,” Fowler says. Her feminine-driven business ethos has earned her an Ember Award for Community Champion of the Year, and last year, she was nominated for an award by Alberta Women Entrepreneurs.

What does a feminist tax firm look like?

A feminist approach is inclusive and nurturing. That’s an important foundation at MOD. We take care of ourselves, our teams, our communities, and our clients. And we do it in a way that isn’t just about the numbers. We’re really focused on building relationships with the clients we support and bringing them into our herd. We see ourselves as a herd of elephants—elephants form matriarchal societies to ensure the survival of the group. We make decisions together, and we head in the same direction in tandem. It’s a collaborative environment and we’re big on communication. Some traditional accounting firms are too top-down. There are a few decision makers, and everyone else falls in line. Whether or not you agree with the decision, there are not many opportunities to push back, ask questions, or be curious about why things are the way they are.

I wanted something different, so we hold a bi-weekly team call with a set agenda that includes conversions on social impact. It’s important to make sure everybody feels connected to our bigger reason. Sure, we’re paying tax returns, but really, they’re here because they want to make a difference. As a team leader, it’s important for me to be open to feedback. Because we’re remote, being a good communicator is paramount. Our employee handbook says you must show up to conversations with bravery and be open to tough conversations.

The pandemic brought in conversations about the need for flexibility at work. How do you approach work-life balance at your own firm?

I left work because I had two little kids at home and no childcare options at the time. It remains a founding concept in our firm that women deserve to be at work. Just because you have kids or other caregiving responsibilities, it doesn’t mean you can’t contribute in a meaningful way. We accommodate all sorts of flexible work arrangements, like maternity leave. One team member lost her childcare, but we recognized the value she brought to the team, so we reduced her work hours to 10 each week.

We can’t be a cohesive team without flexibility. It’s an old school concept to think that employees are going to abuse flexible work policies. If you need time, take the time. Honestly, nobody abuses it. In reality, we just need space to take our kids to the doctor, or whatever else pops up. Our whole team is trying to create a work environment that we always wished we’d had. We’re all hard workers. We’re all committed. We just couldn’t fit the mold before because other people were telling us that our lives fell outside of that dated concept of a nine-to-five.

What’s your ethos when it comes to how you conduct business?

All of our decisions are rooted in our values. We have a really strict client acceptance process. When a client comes to us, we go through a rigorous interview process so they can get to know me, and I can get to know them. If we feel it’s a good fit and that their business is working for greater change, then we consider working together. It’s also important that what we’re doing as a women-led tax firm resonates with them, and their business’ social impact resonates with us. While profit is important, we like to see that there’s some purpose greater than profit.

We’re mindful when it comes to hiring, too. We want candidates with similar values – that concept of purpose and profit being tied together. Without the drive towards social impact, or making an impact with the work you’re doing, it wouldn’t be a good fit. We really care about our clients and we really advocate for them, so we want employees who believe in our purpose.

Do you see your company as a disruptor in the traditional field of accounting?

We are a traditional accounting firm in that we offer traditional services—corporate tax, financial reporting, bookkeeping—that’s all very normal. But we are a feminist tax firm. Even just saying feminist things can get strong reactions from the accounting community. Some accounting firms are very old school. It’s almost an old boys club, where most of the partners or decision-makers are men. That was the environment that I found myself in.

I’ve never intended to be a disruptor, but I think just by being a team of only feminist women and wanting equal opportunity, while acknowledging that there is inequality in the industry—that is disruptive. But we do it because we know that women have way less access to capital, we know that they have way less financial literacy, we know that they’re not sitting at the decision-making table. We want to help empower ourselves first, and then the women around us, to become comfortable having those conversations when they need to.

You rely on intuition to guide your business. How does that factor in?

I always tell clients to trust their gut. You always know the answer. Even if it’s very simple tax stuff, like, can I claim this deduction? I say, let’s take a step back. How do you feel about that? Let’s start there, and then we can use the facts to back it up. But we always know the answer. The numbers, financial information, or tax law will support it.

We make decisions all the time. You can’t have a successful business without relying on your gut or what you feel within you to be true. Start with how it makes you feel. And if it makes you feel gross, we can figure out why that is. Is it because you have shame around this? Is it because you don’t understand the numbers? Or is it because you know that buying a new business or launching a new venture is actually misaligned with your values? Using my intuition is how I operate in the world. The business world is no different.

I think there’s room to build intuition into bigger firms, too. It could be as simple as hosting strategic sessions to talk about policies and procedures, and how they impact employees. If you’re reading a policy and it makes you feel yucky, maybe it needs to change. I’m a Gen Xer, but this whole new generation is so emotionally intelligent, all decisions are going to start with whether or not they are living in integrity. That’s the world we’re moving into. If you don’t have the language, and if you don’t have that emotional intelligence, I don’t think you’re going to be successful in business.