Accounting in the Age of Innovation (The Hylton Lecture Series)

Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, CPA, CGMA Chairman, AICPA Board of Directors; Global Accounting Strategy Director, Oracle America

“Our profession is a profession of opportunity, where anyone can succeed,” said Kimberly Ellison-Taylor. “Even a little girl from the inner city of Baltimore.”

Ellison-Taylor, global accounting strategy director for Oracle America, gave the 2017 Hylton Lecture to more than 300 students, faculty, and staff in Broyhill Auditorium. She spoke at length about the impoverished Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up and the career day that changed her life.

“When I was in third grade, someone told us that accounting was the engine of business, and accountants manage the money. I thought, ‘If I manage the money, I’ll be the boss.’

“From then on I was laser-focused,” she told the crowd. “I didn’t know there were few women or minorities in the field, but people had high expectations, and I rose to exceed them.”

Now the 104th chairman of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) Board of Directors, Ellison-Taylor said she was excited to be talking with graduate and undergraduate accounting students at Wake Forest.

“Congratulations on your high CPA pass rates, and on the caliber of your program. I have every expectation that I’m looking at future managing partners, senior vice presidents, and chief financial officers. I’m looking at deans and future presidents of schools; I’m looking at CEOs and the inventors of innovations we haven’t even thought of today.”

Ellison-Taylor discussed two subjects close to her heart: next-generation leadership and technology.

“I always understood I wanted to lift as I climbed,” she said. “Being a CPA is my competitive advantage. It’s microphone-dropping wherever I go. The credential is so well-regarded. The CPA brand is rock solid.”

Likening it to a “superpower,” Ellison-Taylor urged the audience to get involved in their state society of CPAs. She said her involvement gave her the opportunity to meet business leaders and mentors who helped her succeed in the field.

“Technical skills are very important when you start your career, but you can’t grow the practice through text messages. You have to go out, shake hands, kiss babies, and talk to people.

In the age of machines, these are things that are a competitive advantage,” Ellison-Taylor said. “That’s a skill set your society can help you develop.”

Technology is driving transformation in the market. Ellison-Taylor shared figures showing 28.4 billion smart devices connected worldwide — twice the number from 2014 and expected to nearly double again by 2020. A 2017 McKinsey Global Institute report suggests current technology could automate 49 percent of work activities, which translates to 1.1 billion workers worldwide.

“One of the things that is top of mind as I go into the profession is how will the landscape of the accounting profession change with innovation and technology, and I felt like she addressed that point very well,” said Antonio Kornegay (MSA ’17).

“We are embarking on a huge change paradigm in the profession. We have some major decisions and major changes to make. We want to be sure our profession is inclusive enough that everyone sees themselves at the table. There’s room for all of us.”

Looking ahead to the future of accounting, the AICPA board chair had some specific advice for students considering their careers. “Public practice, business and industry, government, education, consulting … there are many segments of our profession,” she acknowledged. “I’d recommend starting in public practice. We have the privilege of protecting the public interest, and the skill sets I learned there, I can take with me anywhere.”

During a question and answer session, a student asked Ellison-Taylor for the one piece of advice she’d leave them to consider. “I would say change the plan if you need to, but never the goal. Life has curves,” she said. “Sometimes you have to recalibrate the plan.”

“I found the talk very inspiring. She came from a depressed area and is a minority in multiple ways, and she’s now at the top of the profession. She’s vastly succeeded in the profession,” Kornegay added. “Her talk was a gift.”