Although she has developed a successful accounting firm in the Des Moines area, Ying Sa says her business isn't necessarily motivated by the bottom line - it's motivated by humanity.
Sa, founder and principal CPA at Community CPA & Associates Inc., calls herself "an immigrant twice," as she was born in China then immigrated to Canada as a child before settling in the United States in 1996. The experience she had as an immigrant, she said, has allowed her to understand what immigrant or minority business owners go through, which has led to the true success of her business.
Sa started giving tax advice shortly after she came to Des Moines with her husband Steve Hou, a mathematics professor at Iowa State University. Sa was working at Iowa State as well as in the Iowa Manufacturing Extension Partnership as an accountant when an Asian custodian asked her to look at an Internal Revenue Service letter over concerns that he might owe the IRS money. The chance encounter was mutually beneficial; Sa was able to help him and show him that he didn't owe money but would be getting money back, and he introduced Sa to the Asian community in the area.
Over time, Sa became known in the community for helping immigrants and minority business owners with tax and business issues, but she never intended to develop it into a full-time business.
"There was a lot of minority unfulfilled need back in the '90s," Sa said. "So I started kind of helping people voluntarily on the side while I was working as chief financial officer for Wells Fargo."
Then in 2005, she made "the very hard decision" to leave Wells Fargo and take the business full-time.
People in the Asian community went to her and asked her to move her part-time business to Des Moines because they needed her there, and they even offered to pay her office rent.
"I really started the business by the community effort," she said. "I had no business plans, and I totally did not envision today. I just thought I was helping people and fulfilling a need."
Five years later, Sa says she hopes to take her nine-employee, 2,500-client business nationwide in the future, and will keep the focus on providing quality service and humanity toward customers.
"We're driven by humanity," she said. "We don't kill people just because they can't pay. We actually look at the situation and some people, if they can't pay but they deserve help, we're going to help them."
Along with her firm, Sa also organizes an annual Immigrant Entrepreneurs Summit at Drake University, offering business seminars and learning opportunities for all, not just immigrants.
Last year, the summit assembled 343 people from 40 countries - a sign, she said, that her firm does have nationwide potential as more immigrants start their own businesses in the United States.
Sa said she knows that as a minority and a woman she doesn't portray the stereotypical image of a CPA, and when her firm is recognized, she makes sure to tell her staff it's not because they are minorities, but because of the quality work they provide.
"It is not because you look like a person who should get the honor, it's because you earned it," she said.
• Education: York University, Toronto, Canada
• Hometown: I was born in Beijing, China, and I refer to my hometown as Toronto
• Family: Husband Steve Hou, a mathematics professor at Iowa State University; daughters Stephanie, 15; Crystal, 13; and son Andy, 10
• Hobbies: Traveling the world with Steve and our three kids
• Words to live by: I am blessed. Thanks to God for everything. Thanks for the angels in my life.