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Interview with Sonia Luna: Self Identification & Certification


SELF IDENTIFICATION + CERTIFICATION

The Small Business Administration estimates that there are 1.4M businesses in the United States that “could” identify as having LGBTQ ownership. Only 1k of them are certified as such. Here is the story of one individual who chose to identify and certify, Sonia Luna, CEO of Aviva Spectrum. (This radio feature is 7 minutes long and features the music of El Remolón featuring Mercedes Sosa and Bomba Estereo. It was produced in collaboration with Andrea Guendelman of BeVisible .)

The full transcript of the interview with Sonia Luna by Sergio C. Muñoz for BeVisible in association with Mark Morales and the Los Angeles chapter of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.

Where were you born and educated?

Let me start with my parents. My parents were both born in Mexico, Michoacán and Mexicali. I was the first generation to be born here in the United States, in LA, along with my three younger siblings. We were the first generation to go to college. I graduated with an accounting degree from the California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Two years after I graduated from CSUN, I obtained my CPA license, which is simply a certification for public accountants through the state of California. I have an additional professional certification of “Certified Internal Auditor” or “CIA”.

What is a Certified Internal Auditor?

Internal auditors who conduct audits, develop procedures and test internal controls. They must adhere to testing procedures, identify financial discrepancies and generate actionable recommendations and concise audit conclusions. A CIA maybe employed by public, private, government or nonprofit entities. They are required to be independent and objective when they conduct their test and provide their final reports.

Was your professional start easy?

What was difficult for me was not so much the being Mexican American, but it was the fact that I was a closeted lesbian. No one was out at the time when I started public accounting or at least I didn’t see them when I was working. This was 1996 and I was 24 years old. It was a very interesting dynamic. Meaning, I couldn’t really tell my co-workers at Arthur Andersen anything about my personal life. I would never hang out with them because I’m hanging out with a different group. I wasn’t there more than two years and then I moved on to a regional firm. At that time, I was confident, and I thought I was bright, but I wanted to be out of the closet from day one. If I can’t be out from day one, then I would have to keep doing what I did at Arthur Anderson. I decided if I had to be closeted then maybe this profession wasn’t right for me.

It was a pivotal time for me professionally and personally, because I needed to feel comfortable with my coworker and still be proud when I walked into the office without feeling judged. This regional firm was very warm and welcoming. They cared about the quality of work each professional was contributing to the firm and weren’t phased or negative about what I did in my private life. They didn’t care that I was a lesbian. I performed very well. A few years into this job, I was recruited to Ernst and Young where one of my childhood friends was working at a smaller Ernst and Young office and convinced me the smaller office would be very similar to my experience. So I took another chance at the Big Firm culture.

When did you decide to leave corporate employment?

In 2004, I left to start Aviva Spectrum, a California LLC. Sarbanes-Oxley was enacted in 2002 and companies were starting to require implementation of that federal law in 2004. I had already been trained, started implementing for various large global companies how to comply with that law. During my time at Ernst and Young they allowed me to sell services with some of the partners. When I was selling services at Ernst and Young we were winning! It was exciting because it boosted my confidence that maybe I could make partner at Ernst and Young. In other words I felt confident I could win business from people that didn’t know me from Adam.

On a flight from Peru back to LA, I wrote down a list of pros and cons of what I was really good at, and what I was passionate about doing every day. I kept trying to identify the true reason, why starting my own business would be a bad idea. As I wrote the pros and cons, it became clear that this was a good opportunity for me to start my business. It was because this new federal law required so much more work for accountants and auditors that this was my great opportunity. Once I stepped out on my own, I haven’t looked back. We have a good solid staff right now in LA and we’ve expanded the business to offer more than just what we started out, which is internal auditing. Now, we offer consulting services to automate for the accounting department, for example, we’re excellent at implementing Black Line Systems at any organization. It’s been a blessing to now offer real solutions to Controllers and CFOs to automate approximately 20% of their mundane workload.

You had your first taste of what it felt like to be as free as you wanted to be, but I imagine that you had to make another decision at some point when you certified that you were a LGBT business. When did that happen?

In 2011, I was introduced to the certification process by attending a local chamber meeting and I met Justin, who is the co-founder of NGLCC. Justin made a very strong and compelling argument that the political climate needed the support of LGBT businesses. The vision that Justin was sharing resonated with me. I’m lucky to be born in the United States where backlash is not that strong to the gay community compared to other places in the world. I can only imagine what it’s like in parts of South Africa, China and other countries. I thought more of the bigger picture and the impact it would have for an organization such as NGLCC to advocate on behalf of U.S. LGBT businesses but also help other businesses internationally.

I am a gay owned business and now the numbers are reaching to global networks saying that, we are a force to be reckoned with. But, it takes a process to build it because you gotta get people out of the closet and then certified. I’m on the procurement council for NGLCC, and I actually volunteer my time to certify local businesses. In 2012 is when we got certified.

How many different certifications did you get?

Aside from the LGBT one, I got some minority ones that were related to the Hispanic minority as well the women’s certification, such as WBENC. These certifications expand my outreach and network to other prospective clients. We did receive an engagement with a major CPA firm, one of the bigger firms, and they were a client of ours and they ended up hiring some of our staff from us at the end of the engagement. But, it gave me a new revenue source because they were looking for a diverse supplier and they wanted high caliber folks to work on a compliance project for a bank. We fit the bill and we were on that engagement for a year. Aviva Spectrum actually got revenue because of the certification and we also uncovered very talented staff, bright people that can actually do the job.

Did you start out 2017 with any business goals for by the year end?

Our business goals for 2017 primarily relate to expanding a new service line that we started last year 2016, which is being a consulting firm for a particular software product called, Black Line. Black Line is based in Woodland Hills, and in LA County and I got to meet Therese Tucker in September of 2015 at an event dealing with how women need to raise capital. From that initial meeting, Therese Tucker took a liking to me and she asked if I’d consider being an implementation partner. So, this year the goal is to double our revenue from 2016 into 2017 with the consulting services that we want to provide to customers with Black Line software.

Do you have an ideal client?

Our ideal client is looking to reduce their risks and automate their accounting function. They usually have 8 people or more employed in the accounting department and have a minimum revenue of $50 million and greater.

Do you have an ideal employee?

Our ideal employee is someone who has hobbies, loves their family, and wants to take their vacation time seriously. From a technical standpoint, we’re looking for someone with a marriage between accounting and computer science. Once we hire our ideal fit, we noticed that they’re going to be busy every year, but they can also work from home. Meaning, Black Line along with our other services allows them to work from home several days a week. BlackLine itself is 100% cloud based. So, the amount of time and effort required to physically go into a client office is usually three times through out the entire engagement.

Is your personal life where you want it to be?

Married with two kids, who are now 4 and 6. I’d say I’m not only content but very grateful. My travels have been more for pleasure, thank God. I’ve been to Spain, last year. I’ve gone to over 20 countries, and there’s a lot more travel in me. My wife has her family in Colombia. We make more trips to Pereira in Colombia than I do Mexico, and it’s because of her huge extended family.