Drawing fresh blood into accounting with Twyla Verhelst of FreshBooks

A Venn diagram. The left circle is pale blue with the words 'Twyla Verhelst Freshbooks', and the right circle is Twyla's headshot
  • Twyla Verhelst of FreshBooks thinks that the accounting industry is due for a rebrand—one that involves placing technology front and center.

  • In her work on FreshBooks’s diversity committee, Twyla likes the “call us in, call us out” mentality. This means being open to hearing others’ perspectives when she says or does something that isn’t inclusive. 

  • With two ultramarathons under her belt, Twyla likes to use difficult challenges to train for life’s hardest curveballs. 

Growing up in her family’s greenhouses and floral shop, Twyla Verhelst never imagined accounting as her future profession.

Now, as Head of Accountant Channel at software company FreshBooks, she’s working to reshape how people influence the next generation of accountants. Twyla thinks that making clear the connection between technology and accounting is critical to getting fresh blood in the industry.

“Something that we haven't really done a great job of sharing with the new people coming into this profession is that it's almost more of a technologist role in some cases than it is a debits and credits role,” Twyla says.

Twyla shares her journey with Karbon CEO and host, Stuart McLeod, on episode 41 of the Accounting Leaders Podcast, including her thoughts on #TaxTwitter, increasing diversity in accounting, women’s mentorship, and how doing hard things can make you stronger. 

Finding the next generation of accountants

It’s no secret that fewer graduates are choosing to pursue the accounting profession. Twyla has plenty of thoughts on why this is happening and what could increase new entrants into the field.

1. An industry rebrand

While accounting used to be all ledgers and journal entries, Twyla feels that image is now a misrepresentation of what it means to be an accountant. Today, accounting is a much more technology-driven job—and previous stereotypes don’t do it justice.

We don't do a great job yet of really showcasing that this profession is a collision between technology and accounting.

Twyla Verhelst, FreshBooks

To compound that reality, the last few years have been extremely hard on perceptions of accounting. If an accountant speaks of their struggle, it puts the industry in a bad light. This is especially damaging because according to Twyla, most accountants enter the field after being inspired by an accountant friend or relative. So if they’re only hearing the bad, they tend to be less inclined to enter the industry.

Twyla thinks this could be remedied by giving a more well-rounded representation of what it’s like to be an accountant—not just what it’s been like recently.

“If we're not really conscious about what we're sharing as a profession, that will only do the [number of new accountants] a disservice. [If] we're going back to our friends and our family saying, ‘Gosh, what an awful time to be an accountant’, it's going to turn even more of those students off joining this profession,” she says. 

2. The bad rap of #TaxTwitter

Twyla loves #TaxTwitter for creating a community space to air grievances and share common struggles. But she fears that it might create a bad impression to people outside the profession. 

It's not a representation of what we want outsiders to feel about accounting, in terms of recruiting new people into the space. Believe me—I love that everyone's got that source of venting and sharing, and I believe in community. But without realizing it, we're influencing how people view the profession,” she says. 

For work purposes, however, Twyla finds the insights on #TaxTwitter helpful. She uses the community to discover accountants’ greatest pain points and figure out how FreshBooks can address them. 

3. Working to increase diversity

Aware of the accounting industry’s predominantly white male demographic, Twyla is on a FreshBooks committee working to increase diversity. 

“Those who come into the profession—the majority of them have a close friend or family member who’s an accountant,” Twyla tells Stuart. The two discuss how this makes it harder for underrepresented groups with less accounting exposure to enter the profession.

In her work on FreshBooks’s committee, Twyla is fond of the ‘call us in, call us out’ approach to inclusion.

“I know that I've got some privilege and some biases that I'm really trying to learn more about,” she acknowledges. “I love how we position it as ‘call us in and call us out’ when there's an opportunity to learn and to grow and to be better and be more inclusive for everyone.”

What does it take to start having those conversations? Twyla asks her colleagues to boldly call her out when she says something that doesn’t sit right. 

Recommended reading: Being more inclusive at your accounting firm with AICPA and CIMA’s Crystal Cooke

COVID and technology

Stuart and Twyla discuss the undeniable connection between tech adoption and COVID. FreshBooks was in the cloud long before it became a trend, so adapting to a new work lifestyle during COVID was a non-issue. But many clients were forced into a reactive technological transition. 

In this way, the challenge now for accountants isn’t just how to use technology—but how to use it to its full capacity.

“There has been a big adoption of technology over the last few years. It was a bit forced due to the pandemic, but it happened. That was very reactive. But now it’s about how we can be proactive with it.” Twyla wonders. 

According to Stuart, it’s an oxymoron to use the phrase “desktop technology.” In his mind, ‘real’ technology only exists today in cloud-based accounting. Twyla agrees that there’s no going back to traditional accounting without cloud software.

“I think [desktop technology] will become extinct,” she predicts. “That's more of the cloud technology just eating up the market. Also, if you look at the UK, where things like MTD [Making Tax Digital] are coming into play, then desktop is no longer being supported in jurisdictions.”

Other impacts of COVID

Amid the chaos of the pandemic, Twyla sought out opportunities to connect with other women in accounting. This led her to create Women in Accounting, a mentorship program for women accountants of all ages. 

“I'm really passionate about it not just for mentorship, but also for women who are further along in their career that are looking to come together with others at that stage,” Twyla says. “It's become this really sacred safe space for women in the profession, from all over the globe, which has been really exciting.”

Getting stronger by challenging yourself

Stuart asks Twyla about her experience running ultramarathons, races that are longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon. Does she plan to continue participating in these? 

Not exactly—but although she’s hanging up her running shoes, Twyla’s learned very important lessons from the long-distance races.

“Doing something like an ultramarathon is showing myself that I can do hard things—and then take that skill set and apply it to other things,” she tells Stuart.

Twyla also tested her grit by signing up for a week-long silent meditation retreat. Despite identifying as an introvert who’s “really okay with the silence,” she says it was still a difficult week. 

According to Twyla, these experiences have changed her for the better. She believes they’ve helped her persevere through daily challenges, like those that come with parenting a child with autism.

“I find myself almost subconsciously pulling on those experiences in moments of my personal and professional life that have been hard,” Twyla explains. “There are times that are just challenging in any role, where you’re like, ‘It sucks right now, but I know I can do this.’”