Hina Usmani is the Founder and Managing Partner of Usmani & Co., the first all-woman accountancy practice in Pakistan. She employs more than 150 women from 25 different locations in and around Pakistan to provide assurance, offshore accounting and tax services. An advocate for flexible & work-from-home opportunities for women accountants, Hina’s contributions to women in finance and gender diversity in Pakistan have been recognized across the globe, including by the World Bank and the United Nations.
Hina is also the first elected woman Council member and Vice President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Pakistan (ICAP), which was founded nearly 60 years ago. She was instrumental in establishing the Chartered Accountants Women’s Committee, which enhances the role of women in the profession and promotes women for leadership positions. Later, she became its Chairperson Globally, she chairs the SAFA Women Leadership Committee and is a Technical Advisor on the IFAC SMP Advisory Group.
She recently sat down with Elena Churikova, Senior Manager of Governance at IFAC, to speak about the trajectory of her career, challenges she’s faced, and how she makes sure her voice is heard.
EC: Why did you choose accounting as your career?
HU: I actually stumbled upon the profession by chance! In the 80’s, medicine was considered the first-choice profession for women in Pakistan and upon my mother’s utmost desire I tried my level best to get admission into medical school, but without success. Eventually, commerce came in as the best choice to pursue and when I graduated first class, it was made clear that my passion and ability lay here, in accounting. From that point my journey in chartered accountancy began.
EC: What motivated you to open your own practice?
HU: Actually, the lack of an enabling environment in a corporate setting made it essential for me to leave a top leadership position to be able to maintain a work-life balance. My children were toddlers and the extended working hours without any flexibility were not allowing me to do justice to them. But my profession had given me the flexibility to work, and I immediately took a practice license after leaving full-time employment. I started consultancy services from home. In my six-year solo practicing journey, I worked with flexibility and gradually brought myself back to full-time working but with the remarkable difference of having control over my schedule to manage the needs of my family and business.
EC: Why did you found a practice that employs only women?
HU: Initially, it was not a conscious decision to keep only women partners. However, I met competent, like-minded women who not only were able to relate to the struggles of working women but were strong assets with their vision of a different, more inclusive type of practice. Then, we thought it would be an empowering decision to maintain women-only leadership in a profession that is mainly dominated by men in our jurisdiction. Although we are niche right now, we hope to inspire a future where women make up a majority of leadership roles. Employment and training opportunities are, however, equally open to both women and men in our firm.
EC: As in many countries in the world, the profession in Pakistan is male dominated. How did this impact your personal journey to becoming a successful leader?
HU: When I joined the profession in late 80’s, the accountancy profession was highly male dominated. Naturally, my father was skeptical of my entrance. However, he quickly became a supporter after I became the first female chartered accountant in my family. The journey was quite challenging, but I progressed with strong commitment, tolerance and persistence. Never giving up strengthened my journey: there were times when I had to prove myself twice as often compared to my male counterparts. Despite doubling my effort, I was deprived of opportunities to take leadership roles. However, I am an optimist and I take every setback and challenge as a growth opportunity. Also, I am blessed to have a strong support system in my husband and in a few mentors with similar positive mindsets. They’ve played an important role in my journey to become a successful leader. All of this equipped me with an aptitude for leadership.
EC: Lack of confidence often stands in the way of women advancing in their careers. How did you build your confidence and what advice you might have for other women?
HU: It is in my nature to accept challenges and always try to do something which has never been done in the past. Confidence building is a gradual exercise that happens in different phases of our lives, and passion is essential for confidence building. My advice is: once you decide to do something, be firm on it and make consistent efforts to achieve your desired goals. That does not mean that you overrun whoever comes in your way to achieve your goals, but manage things in a manner that makes people around you happy while you progress.
EC: Why did you introduce flexible & work from home opportunities before it became more widely adopted due to Covid-19?
HU: We introduced flexible & work from home opportunities for women accountants at our firm when a considerable number of women approached us about these opportunities. They were struggling in an inaccessible work environment, similar to the challenges I faced before I established my own practice. While we could not entirely change the social dynamics and constraints related to family commitments for women, we aimed to make work more accessible with greater flexibility. We launched this facility in 2013 and attracted over 150 women accountants based in 25 different locations across 15 countries. These were all Pakistani women accountants who were looking for work-from-home opportunities.
EC: What best practices have you adopted for making a flexible work environment successful?
HU: Our best practices included setting detailed standard operating procedures (SOPs) for communication and establishing clear expectations. Moreover, in order to maintain confidentiality, we established protocols and secured systems suitable for remote working.
We created different pools based on our remote associates’ experiences and abilities. For example, we established a quality control pool to support assurance engagements and gradually expanded their role to include audit supervision as well. We also established an effective communication system between staff working in the field and online associates.
Our flexible work model follows the same practices and was designed for those who can manage to come to the office for a few hours and then can work the rest of their hours at their own convenience.
Another initiative that we took was to establish connectivity between our online associates of 150+ women accountants with SMEs, focusing on those led by women. This not only helped us in directing a significant amount of business to our firm but was equally rewarding for our online resources. At the same time, it uplifted many women entrepreneurs who remotely engaged with us for their effective financial management.
EC: What challenges have you faced in adopting a unique working model, and how do you overcome those challenges? How you have been rewarded?
HU: We often faced criticism and questions about the feasibility of audits being carried out remotely. People were also skeptical about the quality of deliverables and, in a few cases, clients were uncomfortable when our associates were only partly available during the day. But eventually when they saw things progressing effectively, they happily supported our unique work model. We were able to settle the skepticism not only by conducting successful audits, but we also received our first quality control rating (QCR) in 2016 from ICAP due to the tremendous support for our remote/work from home model.
Another challenge was to engage with women who had been away from the profession for quite some time. In order to update their knowledge, we kept them connected through communication channels like a monthly online publication, UCOnnect, and onboarded them as trainers.
Surprisingly in some cases, working from different parts of the globe gave us an advantage as well. For example, time differences provided us round-the-clock support. By the time we gave work at the end of our day to online associates located in other time zones, they kept advancing the work and projects were completed by our next morning.
Our multiple initiatives earned us an international reputation and our unique working model was recognized by the World Bank in their 2017 “Report on Observance of Code for Accounting & Auditing (ROSC)” for Pakistan. Usmani & Co is one of the global signatories for the UN’s Women Empowerment Principles and is recognized by the United Nations Development Program. This praise makes us proud and accelerates our forward momentum.
EC: You were the first woman on the ICAP Council. How did you make your voice count in a room of 18 men?
HU: After winning this prestigious position and setting a precedent, the main challenge was to uphold and exceed the expectations as the first woman in a leadership position at ICAP. I followed a determined and focused approach with a passion to deliver in all areas to the best of my abilities. As a result, I was able to earn the confidence of the entire council who elected me as vice president in 2019. This position brought additional responsibilities and required high-stakes decision-making, which I undertook diligently. I was often called by my male colleagues the “leader of women in the council" and while they did their best to support women-related initiatives, I found myself having to address a recurring question: why were these initiatives exclusively geared towards women?
Notably, I have offered my expertise in multiple facets of the profession. Now I am in my second four-year term in the council. Since I came in, I’ve had the opportunity to lead multiple committees, including the examination committee. I not only managed the challenges associated with Covid-19 but was I also able to introduce the first online examinations at ICAP; I led the overseas coordination committee to facilitate the increase of over 25 percent of our membership; I successfully introduced the first combined chapters’ elections; I oversaw formation of first regional ASEAN chapter; and I led CA Pakistan’s Overseas Convention, a mega virtual event which engaged over 350,000 individuals from across the globe. As chair of the Internal Audit & Practice Development Committee, I developed strategic goals and defined clear action plans. As chair of the Women’s Committee, I introduced multiple initiatives that had a remarkable impact in women’s intake (which you can read more about in this article).
EC: What is your “superpower”? How do you “do it all”?
HU: My superpowers are multitasking and quick decision-making. I always try to avoid conflicts and follow the path which is straight and doable. This allows me to move with agility and achieve my goals in a short span of time.