Corrine Wilson: Lighting the Way for Native American Women in Finance

Corrine Wilson: Lighting the Way for Native American Women in Finance

March 22, 2021

Celebrating Diversity at REDW

REDW Principal Corrine Wilson, CPA, started her career in finance the way many women do – she was looking for reliable work. She liked math and science and thought “businesses always need accounting and bookkeeping, so I can always get a job.â€

That instinct paid off, with her talent and determination leading to an impressive career that traversed a path from tribal legal services to public accounting, to the Fortune 500 and back.

In the process, Wilson’s career has also led to many “firsts†in financial services for Native American women.

Entering the World of Finance

Wilson attended Arizona State University, intending to enter the field of medical technology—but life intervened. She left school to give birth to her first child, a son, then took a year off to regroup and plan her next move.

“I was a poor Indian girl,†Wilson laughs as she recalls how she decided on finance. At the time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs offered a special program for single mothers that helped with daycare and other expenses. Wilson, a member of the Ft. McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of Nevada, enrolled in a business college and studied accounting.

Open to New Opportunities and Possibilities

Wilson took her first accounting job with Nevada Indian Legal Services, which provided her a window into the intricacies of tribal sovereignty and tribal law. She completed their paralegal program and became a tribal court advocate, allowing her to represent people in tribal courts and assist attorneys in building cases for Native clients. Exposure to the tribal legal world “gave me a great background to go back to accounting in tribal government,†Wilson said.

Back in the accounting world, Wilson worked with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony to open one of the first 638 clinics in the country, helping to implement the Tribe’s own accounting, medical records and billing systems as they separated the clinic’s operations from Indian Health Services.

The term “638†is shorthand for PL 93-638 conversions under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which enables tribal health facilities to be under tribal control. The experience opened her to the possibilities of tribal self-determination and what independence from the federal government could mean for tribes.

The ability to cultivate new skills and see opportunities beyond her current position – and take advantage of them – would become a defining theme of Wilson’s career. She would one day become Chief Financial Officer for the Gila River Health Care Corporation, and later, a highly respected consultant for PL 93-638 conversions, Indirect Cost Proposals, and distribution of tribal resettlement claims, pulling many threads of her experience together.

Leaving the Ladder Down

“I always wanted to be a partner,†Wilson confessed, seeing it as the key to serving tribal governments well, and she generously shares her expertise with her clients. “A lot of tribal people learn really well, but they haven’t necessarily had formal accounting education. That’s why I’ve always done a lot of teaching and training along with my services. If you can teach the debits and credits and accounting of what they’re doing and they catch on, it’s easier for everyone and creates fewer errors.â€

For Wilson, passing on her knowledge has been a transformative way to serve tribes: “Tribal people have a vested interest in seeing that their tribal governments and accounting systems work well.

There are a lot of CFOs and Controllers who come and go in Indian Country, so we need more Native people performing those functions – people who will last in those positions.â€

Industry Connections and Collaboration

Early in her career, Wilson was active in NAFOA (Native American Finance Officers Association), the largest financial association for tribal professionals, and served on the NAFOA Board on and off throughout the 1990s. “If you’re involved in an industry that really interests you, learning about the specific operating environments and management issues helps you be responsive to the people that you serve,†is advice she likes to give to young professionals.

“In 2000, while I was serving on the NAFOA Board, I was part of the group that put together a request to GASB (Governmental Accounting Standards Board) to admit NAFOA to the Governmental Accounting Standards Advisory Council (GASAC) for the first time,†Wilson recalls. After NAFOA was accepted, she served on GASAC for NAFOA for the first six years, sitting with the standard setters of GASB, and other accounting professionals representing the governments in this country.

“I was proud to be the first Indian Country representative for GASAC,†Wilson said, “as well as one of the team to develop NAFOA’s first publication specifically for tribal governments in accounting.â€

She worked closely with principals from REDW on the project, establishing an important relationship with the firm she now calls home.

Wilson has spent her entire career serving tribes, advocating for tribal rights and helping tribes become financially sustainable through better accounting practices, enjoying every step along the way. “The accounting for tribal governments is fascinating because it’s not just one thing. Tribes have governmental services and federally funded programs,†she noted, “but they’re also running businesses, so the accounting is never routine.â€

Leadership Lessons on the Path to Principal

Like many women, Wilson chose positions that allowed her to be there for her family—positions that allowed her to travel less, so she could coach her daughters’ sports teams, or move back to Nevada to take care of her mother. Such a need led her to take a CFO position for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “It was like the stars aligned,†she said.

Yearning to return to public accounting, Wilson eventually left the Tribe to work for Egghart & Associates, LLC, a Nevada-based CPA firm with a tribal focus, and became a partner for the first time. “I’ve been around a long time,†she said, “and I’ve worked with and observed partners in large firms versus very small firms, and I’ve had my own practice, so I was totally prepared to be a principal. What I found frustrating was convincing other people that I could do it.â€

Founding partner EJ Egghart saw her true and full potential, telling Wilson she didn’t choose her as a partner “just because I was Native American. ‘Speak up and share your knowledge,’ she told me, ‘because that’s what everyone’s looking for.’ â€

Being in executive management and running large entities gave Wilson financial insight into what it takes to operate her own firm. “Understanding a company’s financials gives you a lot of insight into business operations,†she said. She immersed herself in learning best business practices for every industry, tribe or enterprise she served. “Being in the CFO/Controller role really helps you understand business risks and how to make an operation successful. You build your own practice in conjunction with other partners in a firm. Together, you go to market and help each other and combine resources to serve clients.†To do that well, you need to understand the business side of professional services.

“You’re a business owner in a partnership with others to jointly support each other,†Wilson continued. “You have to prepare for that, because once you’re a partner, just providing quality client services cannot be your whole focus. That’s a big part of it, but we have to take care of our own business, too.†Learning that piece can be a stumbling block for many new partners, who may not fully grasp the scope of the job.

In 2011, Wilson joined REDW LLC as a senior manager to help grow the firm’s tribal services practice and help establish the firm’s Arizona office. She was promoted to principal in 2013 and ultimately became REDW’s National Tribal Practice Leader.

Advice for Women in the Profession

For women coming up in the profession today, Wilson stressed that it’s critical to cultivate champions within your network. This is true in all professions but it is especially so in professional services.

“If you want to get ahead,†Wilson advises, “you have to develop your critical thinking skills. Learn to take an assignment and think your way through it, then ask for feedback and constantly work to get better. Make sure a lot of your own effort is showing.â€

Wilson also reminds women not to focus on the work alone: “You need to make sure others notice your performance and will help promote you. Learn new skills and put yourself in the mix of jobs and services that you want to provide.â€

The Importance of Being Authentic

Few women, and very few women of color, were CPAs when Wilson was coming up. “There were times when I could clearly tell that, because of my race or being female, I would get disparaging comments, but I’ve always been very thick-skinned.â€

“My culture taught me to just explain yourself the best you can. If you tell the truth, that’s all you need to do. And be kind. I try to be kind. Sometimes I come across as too direct, but that came from my family. We would say, ‘Don’t sugarcoat it. Just have your discussion.’ If you withhold things or you try to be too agreeable, then you’re being phony.

“I would say I have a very strong family. My grandpa always told me, “Go out and get your education and whatever job you pick, do it well, but don’t forget who you are and where you come from, and you can always come back to us.â€

That support, Wilson reflects, was always there.

Read some of Corrine’s latest industry blog updates, here.

Email, or connect with Corrine on LinkedIn.

Access the Top Issues for CFOs and Tribal Leaders in 2021, here.

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