Nesha Pai’s life changed with a single “Jerry Maguire” moment. Sitting in front of a male boss who refused to give her a raise because she had a gap in her resume for being a stay-at-home mom for six years, she decided to take a leap of faith (and her largest client) and strike out on her own.
She started Pai CPA, an accounting firm serving small and medium-sized businesses, in 2011. And she promised herself to hire, mentor and otherwise support stay-at-home moms and other women trying to re-enter the business world.
Her book, “Overcoming Ordinary Obstacles,” details her journey of overcoming racism, sexism and other trials and tribulations as a first-generation American business owner.
We asked her 20 questions to find out how she built her business in the face of adversity. Here’s what she had to say:
- As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be in fashion — whether I was designing clothes, writing for a high-end fashion magazine, or working for a big luxury fashion house. I remember being around 3 or 4 years old and asking my mom to take me to Woolworth’s back in Tennessee to buy big mint green clip-on earrings (the “It” color back in the early 70’s).
- What was your first job?
I worked in a retail hobby/craft shop at the mall when I was 16. It fed my creative spirit, so I was able to make jewelry and paint, along with using my hands and imagination to create pieces of art.
- How did you get into the business you’re in now?
After being let go twice in my career for being a woman, I decided to take my destiny into my own hands. As a single mom, I walked out on a boss who told me I wasn’t where my peers were because I had a gap in my resume from being a stay-at-home mom for six years (and therefore he told me I did not deserve the raise I asked for, after having been there for five years). I pulled a “Jerry Maguire” and took my one big client with me. They were the foundation of having me start my firm, Pai CPA.
- How many years has it taken you to get to where you are today?
My firm just turned 10 this year. But, it has taken me 28 years to get to this point in my career, after having been limited in my growth twice. I also took six years off to raise my son after he was born, so it has taken me longer than most, but I would not trade that time for the world. I started my firm at 40 years old — it would have been cool to start it at 30, but our journeys are set to where everything happens at the time it is supposed to, so I don’t regret a thing. I actually thank the awful leadership I was handed because they fueled my desire to do it better.
- What’s the best advice you ever got? And from whom?
My dad told me that freedom isn’t free and it always comes with a price. He is right. Working for my own freedom has come with a high price, but it’s been worth every penny, tear, and obstacle I have had to overcome. Nothing worth having is easy or free.
- What advice would YOU give?
Don’t let a human guide your destiny, as humans don’t define you or have the ability to limit you. Your divine guide gives you your roadmap and your purpose will be revealed in time. You just have to be ready for it as it unfolds.
- What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome (or even just walk away from)?
Walking away from a male boss who did not believe in me or want to mentor me. Having no roadmap of starting my own firm and no plan of what I was going to do next. I was stuck in a corner and my only option was to fight my way out.
- What’s the number one mistake you think women in business make?
We do not value ourselves the way our male counterparts do. They see one job requirement on a list and that is all they need to think they are a perfect fit for the job. We think we have to fit the entire list to be good enough. We are more qualified for just about any job than we think we are.
- What’s the highlight of your business?
Getting to help small business owners get a good night’s sleep by helping them protect their assets, as well as managing their day-to-day finances. The financial portion is the backbone of all businesses. It is imperative to keep it healthy and well-maintained. That is where I come in.
- What’s been the low point of your journey?
Retaliation after having whistleblown wrongdoing. In my profession, it becomes a matter of integrity and not turning the cheek — but there is always a potential price when whistleblowing. I have uncovered several cases of fraud in my career, and they have not been easy or comfortable but it comes with the oath I took as a CPA.
- Do you have a 5-year plan for your business?
I intend to grow my business and hire more stay-at-home moms. My business model is proven and successful, especially now with the pandemic and what is to come after. In about 10-to-15 years I want to sell my firm and focus on speaking and teaching.
- Are you able to mentor other women professionally? If so, how?
I informally mentor women who come to me for advice and am also signed up to be a mentor through my state CPA association (NCACPA). I love mentoring other women (and men) because it is my way of giving back. I never had mentorship growing up in my profession so I know what I missed out on and don’t want anyone to feel left out or left behind.
- What’s the best (in-person or virtual) local networking option?
My networking group, Pai Networking Group. I started this group back in 2016 when I couldn’t find what I was looking for here in Charlotte. We had a lot of great in-person events pre-pandemic. No membership fees and low-cost event entry is how I modeled it. I wanted a place of support for small business owners, where they could be authentic and vulnerable without having to pass out business cards or bring leads to a table. The biggest mistake folks make in networking is not realizing that it is all about relationship building.
- What is your company (or your industry) doing RIGHT when it comes to women in the workplace?
I only hire women. And, mainly stay-at-home moms. This past summer, the pandemic created a situation where I could hire my first female college graduate intern.
- What pandemic change in your business will you keep going forward?
If ever there was a time that financial statements and understanding of payroll/taxes were important, it definitely was the pandemic era. So many businesses were floundering and lost because it was a part of their business they either did not pay attention to or did not want to focus on because they were too busy running their business. The PPP and EIDL loans as well as grants forced business owners to get their financial house in order and that made my profession more valuable. We became trusted advisors, not back-office overhead.
- What else do you want others to know about yourself, your company or your journey?
The journey to success isn’t easy. It takes a lot of inward work. I have done the work and I don’t stop doing the work. You have to get up every day and intentionally ask yourself: “How can I be a better mom, a better human, a better leader, a better friend, a better daughter, etc.”
- For workwear: Dress or pants?
Both. I have a very eclectic fashionable style in mixing hi-low, prints and patterns, and bold accessories. I would never survive in a uniform career since I love dressing up.
- WFH or go into the office?
WFH for ten years now! That takes massive discipline.
- Last book you read or show you binge-watched?
“The Good Life” by Pastor Derwin Gray was the last book I read and Bridgerton was the last show I binge-watched.
- What do you do for “me” time?
I make a lot of “me” time and I love facials from Toska European Spa and Le Petit Spa, massages from Mood House and Ballantyne Hotel Spa, and working out in many forms.
Nesha loves her current gig, but her eventual goal is speaking around the world on the TED Talk circuit (in between time spent on the beach of course).
“You cannot live your life on autopilot if you have goals you want to reach and if you want to maximize your short time here. I learned those things early on and the hard way,” she says. “I believed in myself and my concept from day one and never let anyone take that away from me. Always think about expanding your personal brand. A CPA usually doesn’t create a podcast or publish a non-accounting book, but I did and it opened doors for me I would never have had a chance to walk through.”