LaKeisha Florence knew exactly what she wanted to do from the time she was in high school. Her dream was to work in corporate America and wear a suit. And her chief pursuit was to land an accounting job at Deloitte LLP, a global financial services company.

Florence, now 32, made her dream a reality. For the past 10 years, she has worked at Detroit's Deloitte office, and she is currently an audit senior manager with the company.

The Detroit native attended Cass Tech High School, and she credits that school's career-focused curriculum with helping her find her dream vocation. Florence's decision to take an accounting class her junior year laid the foundation for her future.

"That's the moment, and that isn't a joke, when I decided that accounting was the thing I wanted to do," recalls Florence.

But Florence, who heads Deloitte's black employee network group, knows too many young people in the city don't get that same kind of exposure to careers, and consequently don't connect their education with their future.

And blacks are too often under-represented in a variety of professional careers. The numbers are stark in the accounting field. Of the 18,000 accountants in Michigan, only 1 percent are black.

That's why she, along with Mark Davidoff, Michigan managing partner for Deloitte, will announce today a new partnership with Cornerstone Schools of Detroit to groom black students for careers in professions they're now overlooking — including accounting.

Since diversity is a priority for Deloitte, if this pilot program is successful, it could serve as a template for other offices nationwide.

The partnership is called the Deloitte Cornerstone Career Pathways program and is set to launch this fall. The idea is to get students, starting as early as fifth grade, thinking about their futures, college and pursuing a career. By the time students enter their sophomore year, the plan is to have roughly 50 students committed to business careers.

While the Pathways program is designed to open doors to a variety of professions, it will focus on building students' skills in math, accounting, management and business ethics.

Davidoff says diversity is important to him personally, in addition to being good for business. That's what got him thinking about starting a program in Detroit.

"A commitment to diversity inclusion is obviously the right thing to do, but also is a business imperative," he says.

Getting the green light for any kind of major, new initiative from a company like Deloitte is no easy task. But Davidoff and Florence stuck with their idea, and got the approvals they needed to move forward.

Davidoff says one of the main questions was "why Detroit?" Other urban centers around the country, from Chicago to L.A., face similar diversity shortfalls.

"It didn't take long for all the leaders to say, 'absolutely Detroit,' " Davidoff says. "The nation understands what's happening here. Detroit is a petri dish, and the most amazing place in America for experimentation and innovation."

Cornerstone founder Clark Durant sees the program as a way to address the talent shortfall in Detroit. He talks to business leaders frequently about the need for better preparing city students for the career opportunities in the city.

"How do you connect the child's educational experience with what's relevant to get to a place that will lead to a fulfilling life?" Durant asks. "I think that this is going to allow us to really bring new hope into an awful lot of lives."

Given her own experience, Florence understands the value of exposure to career paths before college. That one accounting class years ago changed her life, and she thinks this Career Pathways program could make a significant difference in many students' lives.

"Something as deep as we're proposing will really have an impact on students," Florence says.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.


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