C- Suite Profile

A model for positive change: The life and career of Samantha Louis

The winner of Accountancy Leader of the Year at IAFA 2023 and Praxity Global Alliance CEO talks to Santiago Bedoya-Pardo about her path to becoming an inclusive and visionary leader.

Having joined Praxity in June 2021, Louis was formerly at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA), where she served as vice president in charge of international advocacy. Prior to this, she was regional vice president for the African region at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).  

Louis is a fellow of the CIMA and a chartered global management accountant and has held a wide array of different advisory roles in the past, including a tenure on the advisory board of the Australian Institute of Performance Science and being a member of the Senior Leadership Forum on Diversity and Inclusion for the City of London Lord Mayor’s Appeal. She has also served as a technical advisor to the professional accountancy organisation development committee of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC).  

Her work, however, is not limited to advisory roles, exemplified by her position at the helm of Praxity Global Alliance. Her non-executive directorships have included the board and executive committee of the Financial and Accounting Services SETA (FASSET) and the board of Roedean School in South Africa. She has also served as president of the Public Relations Institute of Southern Africa (PRISA) and chaired PRISA’s accreditation committee. She has represented the Africa region on the board of the Global Alliance for Public Relations. She is currently on the council and Finance Committee of Roedean school. 

And now we may ask, how did all this start? Louis was recruited after an extensive headhunt from an excellent group of final candidates. She was finally chosen due to the committee’s belief that her personality suited the ethos of Praxity and that she would have the drive, the ambition and, most importantly, the ability to take Praxity to even greater heights.

Her life and career, especially in relation to her many accomplishments, first prompted the IAB to ask Louis about her journey into the accounting world. When first asked about this, Louis gave an unexpected response: “My journey has probably been unusual amongst people who are involved in leadership throughout the profession – because, surprisingly, my first degree is in theatre. All I wanted was to go on stage. 

“In time, however, I came to move slowly into communications and marketing, spending a few years in the realm of public relations. It was here when I first started working for the Public Relations Institute (PRISA), and this experience gave me a really good insight into what it was like to work for organisations servicing the profession.  

“After this experience I moved on to CIMA as the head of their South African division. This was a very exciting time in South Africa. It was 1998, so we were only 4 years removed from the democratic transition and the end of the Apartheid. Politics were changing, society was changing, and education was changing. We were really rethinking about how we educated people, how we trained people, and how to open up the profession. We aimed to open up accounting to historically disadvantaged people, particularly those coming from black communities who had been excluded since the country became independent.” 

‘The opening up of the profession to disadvantaged communities, especially in developing regions, proved to be a core point throughout the course of our conversation. Seeking to further address this, Louis said, “At the time, I spent five years working very closely with organisations like the South African Qualifications Authority, and I was involved in setting up sector education, in our case for the accountancy profession. At this time, we were actively thinking about how to link the educators and what they’re including in the curriculum to meet the needs of business to ensure that people who’re exiting education are actually employable from day one.  

“It was definitely a great opportunity, and I’m really privileged to have been part of the founding of that initiative. After having left that role and joining CIMA, we started to expand all throughout Southern Africa, and then into the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. We opened offices in Ghana and Nigeria, strengthening our links to the communities in Kenya and Mauritius, and working in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana. 

“We were really working all across the continent to build the profession, particularly alongside business. At the end of the day, it’s all about where business is going. By seeking to best serve our clients and their needs, we’re making sure that the offices there are equipped to offer the best advice and high-trust advisory. A lot of this is about building trust.”  

The Africa region, to this day, has not been fully integrated into the international networks of the financial services sector, but Louis has played an active role in expanding and building the profession all throughout Africa and ensuring that this integration keeps happening. Given this, she outlines what the biggest challenges have been when seeking to further solidify this integration.

“I personally believe that when we approach this, we have two distinct challenges. The first challenge revolves around young people – they need to have role models. They need to see people that they can relate to and think, ‘I could be like that person’, or ‘Yes, that person’s interesting’. We want to motivate them by showing them that they too can get involved, and do these jobs, and find them interesting.  

“And why is it a challenge? For many years we didn’t have many role models around. It takes a long time to train an accountant, it is not a 1-year course. It can take up to seven years by the time you’ve taken care of your practical experience, degree, your exams, and so on. We haven’t had a quick fix solution, so we had to actively look for role models all throughout the country.  

“We needed to engage with them and find those who were willing to share their experiences. Many would say that, ‘No, they were nothing special’. Others, however, would be very happy to talk to us, and get involved. In a country that has faced the inequalities South Africa has, it is very important for us to get to interview some of these people, allowing for us to show young people all around the country what they’ve done, what they’ve achieved, and what their story is. I’ve been very lucky to meet many inspirational people like that, and it was such a privilege, but there is still work to be done.” 

Louis then moved on to the next challenge, “The second thing is maths. You need a reasonably good standard of maths to become an accountant, and unfortunately, it wasn’t taught well in schools.  How can we excite young people about a career in accounting like that? We need to expand the pool of young people getting that higher level education. This means that we have to engage at a school level, and ask ourselves about how teachers are seeking to introduce their students to maths in a way that they will not see it as ‘not for them’ or ‘too hard’. This is where we need to start if we are to tackle this problem.” 

When asked about the ongoing challenge in accountancy and getting young people involved in the profession at a global scale, Louis said, “When addressing this, one of the challenges I mentioned earlier comes to mind again. Young people need to be motivated by presenting role models. We need to be able to show them individuals they can look up to and jobs they can aspire to have. Additionally, there’s something else that is key when dealing with this demographic. Many of them today want to run their own businesses. 

“Young people nowadays want to be their own bosses yet seem to ignore one important thing. If you aspire to run your own business one day, you need to understand money. Otherwise, you won’t be running your own business for very long. You need to understand cashflow, you need to understand the movement of money through your business. If you don’t have a grasp of these things, it’s not going to work out for you.  

“Whether you’re into the arts, the theatre, manufacturing – it doesn’t matter. Even if you’re running a charity, you need to understand your costs versus your surplus. It is when approaching it this way that I think young people will be able to tell that the skills and opportunities offered by studying accounting and getting involved in accounting are really important.” 

Reflecting on her own individual award as Leader of the Year at IAFA 2023, when asked what good role models in the 21st century should look like, Louis said, “I think we should start by defining that there is not one single model that will work for everyone. Yet I think that it is when taking this into account that we can appreciate how the notion of diversity becomes extremely important. After all, you want to attract different people into the profession, so you will want to have a diverse range of role models people can look up to.

“What inspires us in people will always be different. Some people will be inspired by somebody who manages a really good work-life balance. Others will be inspired by people who’ve made it to the number one slot in their firm. Another group may be inspired by people who are capable of interacting with and inspiring others. At the end of the day, everyone is different.”

Main image: Samantha Louis, CEO, Praxity Global Alliance