Cultivating “uncommon talent”

The first African-American chair of the board of directors of the American Institute of CPAs works to inspire young people

By George P. Matysek, Jr., '94  |  Photos by Eli Meir Kaplan

When Kimberly Ellison-Taylor was a girl growing up in inner-city Baltimore in the 1970s, one of her greatest ambitions was to gain control of the television.

With two other sisters and some cousins all competing to watch their favorite programs in a home that had one TV with three channels, young Kimberly dreamed of one day making enough money to buy as many screens as she wanted.

A plan to TV mastery was hatched when a guest spoke about accounting careers in Kimberly’s third grade class at William Pinderhughes Elementary School in Sandtown-Winchester.

“We learned that CPAs were the ones who manage the money,” Ellison-Taylor remembered. “From my perspective as an 8-year-old, that meant you were the boss. If I followed this career path, I’d become the boss… and I’d be able to gain control of the TV.”

Kimberly Ellison-Thomas in Baltimore, MD on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Ellison-Thomas mentors elementary and high school students at Georgetown East Elementary School in Annapolis, MD. Eli Meir Kaplan/AP Images for American Institute of Certified Public Accountants

It’s a story Ellison-Taylor has told before when asked how she has steadily advanced in the accounting industry, breaking barriers along the way. The guest speaker clearly made an impression—as did the promise of being a leader in her field.

Ellison-Taylor, who earned her Master of Business Administration from Loyola University Maryland in 1996, is the current chair of the board of directors of the American Institute of CPAs—the first African American, the first member of Generation X, and the first Marylander to hold the post. The 46-year-old married mother of two sons also serves as the global accounting strategy director for Oracle America.

Just as she was inspired some four decades ago, Ellison-Taylor now makes it her goal to inspire others—especially young people who may not be aware of the many opportunities available to them. She speaks in urban schools and elsewhere about careers in accounting, encouraging all members of the AICPA to spend at least an hour a year doing the same.

“When people hear I grew up in Baltimore, they ask if it’s like The Wire,'” Ellison-Taylor said. She credits her parents for emphasizing education as the way of “leveling the playing field.” Her father worked for Bethlehem Steel, while her mother stayed at home with the children.

Ellison-Taylor was the valedictorian of her graduating class at Carver Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore, a school she chose to attend so she could take the accounting classes she believed she’d need later in her career.

In addition to her degree from Loyola, she holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Maryland Baltimore County, an accounting certificate from the Community College of Baltimore County, and both an M.S. in Information Technology and a Chief Information Officer certificate from Carnegie Mellon University.

In her talks with young people around the country, the confident and ebullient former chair of the Maryland Association of CPAs points out that she failed the CPA exam the first time she took it.

“You make course corrections, and you keep trying,” she said. “I let them know that if I can do it, they can do it.”

Some of her most cherished letters come from young people who once believed they couldn’t succeed, but who persevered. “That’s across all colors and all orientations and geography,” she said.

Kimberly Ellison-Thomas in Baltimore, MD on Wednesday, July 6, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Ellison-Thomas mentors elementary and high school students at Georgetown East Elementary School in Annapolis, MD. Eli Meir Kaplan/AP Images for American Institute of Certified Public Accountants

Ellison-Taylor is grateful for her experience at Loyola, especially for the emphasis on ethics. Professors helped guide students to think about right and wrong in business, she said, without overtly defining “right” or “wrong.”

“It takes a really good professor to push you to the answer without giving you the answer,” she said.

Despite coming from a different social-economic background than most of her peers at Loyola, and despite being one of only a few women in the MBA program at the time she was a student, Ellison-Taylor remembers fitting in quite naturally at the University.

“It’s a testament to the Jesuit learning style that enables every person to do their very best and to be equal in the classroom, where all ideas are appreciated,” she said. “Whenever I would offer up a perspective, everyone would stop and listen.”

A resident of Anne Arundel County who worships at Faith Christian Fellowship in Baltimore County, Ellison-Taylor has worked previously at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Motorola, KPMG, and Prince George’s County government. She has been active for 26 years in Sigma Gamma Rho, a historically black community service sorority for which she serves as a chapter president.

“I want to make sure that we don’t always look in traditional places for our future leadership,” she said. “Sometimes we can find uncommon talent in places you wouldn’t think you could find it.”

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