Women & Walsh: Blazing a Trail from the Beginning

You could say Mervyn Walsh had a “lightbulb moment” back in 1922, when he left his job as Thomas Edison’s accountant to start Walsh Institute in Detroit’s Capitol Theater. Twenty-three students enrolled that year to learn accounting — five of them women. Small in number then, women would prove to be mighty in accomplishments as time went on at Walsh. In 1930, alumna Grace Dimmer became Michigan’s first woman to earn the CPA designation. And that was just the start.

In the decades that followed, Walsh Institute evolved to become Walsh College, expanding its offering for students by adding more types of degrees, including finance, taxation, management and marketing. The school’s growth mirrored the success and opportunities of its female students.

In 1992, four Walsh women were in the top 100 scorers on the CPA exam in the United States. And Eija (Roulson) Telen, MSPA, who earned the highest score on the Michigan CPA exam, had the second-highest score in the United States.

Women weren’t just leading as students. In 2007, Stephanie W. Bergeron was named the sixth president of Walsh. And Marsha Kelliher became Walsh’s seventh president and CEO 10 years later when Bergeron retired.

“Increasingly, there aren’t a large number of women (college) presidents,” Kelliher says. “If you look at the leadership ranks at Walsh, it’s primarily women. In my cabinet, five out of six are women.”

Today, alumnae are about to outpace men in terms of numbers, with some coming back for second or advanced degrees. Walsh continues to evolve by offering the type of programs students need most.

“We’re very attuned to the challenges women face,” Kelliher says. “Our student population is almost 50-50 male and female. Forty-seven percent of our women are working, 40 percent have young children at home and 33 percent have elderly parents.

“We feel it’s important to provide flexibility to get education. I have empathy for our students. I was working full time when I went to law school. It takes a lot to focus and thrive in multiple areas.”

And focus and thrive they do. Walsh recognizes and rewards prominent alumnae and associates each year as they blaze trails in their industries and assume roles of leadership.

Distinguished Graduate: 

One of those trailblazers is Vicki E. Kamenova, who received the Distinguished Graduate of the Last Decade Award in 2019. Kamenova earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in Computer Information Systems from Walsh in 2004, graduating summa cum laude. She returned a few years later for a Master of Science in Information Assurance, which she obtained in 2010. Today, Kamenova is a partner and principal for Ernst & Young’s cybersecurity practice.

“Walsh has been a significant part of my story since I came to United States in December 1999,” says Kamenova, who is from Bulgaria. “I could never have imagined 20 years ago when I got off that plane where I’d be in my career today. I’m grateful.”

Kamenova is a trailblazer in her field.

“The number of women in cybersecurity is small,” she says. “Just 24 percent of cybersecurity professionals are women. The field as a whole has a 3.5 million deficit in required talent. When I think about how to close that gap, my natural assumption is that we need more women.”

Women don’t just fill chairs, Kamenova says.

“Women have a diverse perspective and add value,” she asserts. “We just have so much unexplored talent from the overall pool if we don’t look to women to fill roles. While I’m seeing some improvements, judging by the number of women I interact with as clients, we’re not seeing the improvements as quickly as I wish we were.”

To get more women in technology and cybersecurity, exposure to the fields must start early, says Kamenova, noting, “It’s important to engage girls in IT and talk about the types of careers in STEM.”

Kamenova says Walsh is taking steps to help by sponsoring a Cyber Day Camp for Girl Scouts that includes a security badge. “More institutions should be doing that,” she says. “Unless we address the lack of women in technology head on, we’ll continue to experience a gender disparity. Cybersecurity is here to stay. It’s important for girls to see women in those roles.”

Jeffery W. Barry Award

Peggy Dzierzawski, president and CEO of the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants (MICPA), was honored with the Walsh College Jeffery W. Barry Award in 2019, the only two-time recipient in the award’s history. Dzierzawski met Barry at MICPA in 1973 when he was Walsh’s third president, serving from 1970 to 1991. She was just starting her career, and Barry was involved in the MICPA. Through Barry, Dzierzawski says she witnessed firsthand the importance of women at Walsh.

“Jeff had great vision and high standards and believed in diversity at the highest level early,” she says. “He was my first mentor, and I’m so thankful and considerate of the time he spent with me. He taught me that I needed certain skills to move forward.

“He said you not only had to have them, but you had to be conscious of them. He taught me that you can do anything you put your mind to when you have confidence.”

Dzierzawski says Barry’s guidance and support is one reason she feels strongly about helping other women, including through her work at MICPA.

“Jeff taught me over and over that no one does it alone,” she says. “I want to lead and show the way to younger women that you can do more with a support system and people in your network. It’s about making a difference, fulfilling your dreams, asking a lot of questions and, most of all, speaking from your heart and enjoying what you’re doing. Those are the values Jeff shared (with) me and shared at Walsh College.”

Several Walsh graduates serve on the board and are officers of MICPA.

“They continue to acknowledge Jeff’s great vision and make sure there are opportunities for women,” she says. “Accounting is a respected profession. What I see from Walsh grads is that they feel comfortable as leaders.”

Distinguished Alumni Award

Amy B. Robinson, vice president, CFO and chief administrative officer at The Kresge Foundation, graduated from Walsh in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. The 2019 recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award, Robinson says Walsh has had a significant impact on her career for two reasons.

“First, I received the Presidential Scholarship and was able to get a four year degree debt free; I couldn’t have gone to college otherwise,” she says. “Second, Walsh paved the way me to earn my CPA license on my first try, allowing me to get into a big four firm, PwC.

“Walsh prepared me and set me up for my career. It has been key to everything I have achieved.”

Robinson joined Kresge in 1995 and has held various roles in financial management. She was named CFO in 2009, a role that has her helping further the foundation’s philanthropic efforts by managing finances, facilities, information technology and program operations.

“Kresge does a lot of work to help people have access to education,” Robinson says. “Walsh does differ from other colleges because they provide access for nontraditional students, and a lot of those are women. Walsh offers not just structure, but support with counselors, teachers and administrators who really care.”

Having a strong support system encouraged Robinson to take risks in her career and reach higher.

“Accountants are wired a certain way, and taking risks may not be a natural inclination,” she says. “But it’s important to be ready to take risks. Maybe you’ll fail, but that’s how we learn best.”

As more women enter the classroom and, eventually, the workplace and leadership roles, more success stories are on the horizon. But one thing is certain: Mervyn Walsh created a place where students could have lightbulb moments of their own. They are moments that are changing lives — and the world.

In the beginning...

Women have been part of the fabric of Walsh since the beginning. Five of the 23 students enrolled in accounting in 1922 were women, and the numbers have only continued to grow.

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