Whether she’s preparing financial statements or helping the less fortunate, alumna and former Miss America Kimberly Aiken Cockerham displays remarkable commitment and enthusiasm.
If you were on the beach in Cancun last spring, you might have seen Kimberly Aiken Cockerham diving into the water in her scuba gear. An avid diver and triathlete, Cockerham has a zest for life that is balanced by a lifetime concern for those in need. Crowned Miss America 1994, Cockerham feels lucky, and she is always eager to help those who have not had her advantages.
Raised in Columbia, South Carolina, Cockerham attended the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and fell in love with accounting. At the age of 19, after a year of school, she followed her mother’s advice and entered the Miss America pageant. The appeal was simple: the prospects of college scholarship funds that would help pay for her education. After being named Miss South Carolina (and winning her first scholarship award), she headed to Atlantic City and won the national competition. It was an extraordinary moment. Both sets of grandparents, who had grown up in the then-segregated South, beamed with pride as they witnessed their granddaughter named Miss America, only the fifth woman of color to wear the crown. “That moment, more than anything, made the competition worthwhile,” Cockerham recalls.
A year of building
Once a contestant is named Miss America, she spends the next year devoting time to the cause of her choice. Cockerham chose Habitat for Humanity. The organization reflected her longstanding concern about homelessness. As a teenager, she had witnessed the problems of homelessness first-hand, particularly on a high-school trip to Washington, DC. Moved by the plight of the homeless, with her parents’ support Cockerham founded an organization that helped people acquire the tools they needed to seek employment. This included computer resources for preparing résumés and business-appropriate clothing for interviews.
Later, as Miss America, Cockerham traveled to many communities helping people build houses that they were otherwise unable to afford. “So many people don’t have a home of their own and cannot even dream of it,” says Cockerham. “You hear their stories and meet their families. I learned that there are many people in this world who have much less than I do. It’s a lifetime lesson.”
The Ernst & Young experience
After her year as Miss America, Cockerham entered New York University’s Stern School of Business as an accounting major. When Ernst & Young’s Ken Bouyer (now the firm’s Inclusiveness Recruiting Leader) and Dan Black (currently Ernst & Young’s Americas Director of Campus Recruiting) interviewed her on campus, she jumped at the chance for an internship. Almost immediately, she was captured by the culture and the people of Ernst & Young. The summer of her internship was, according to Cockerham, “the best I ever had.” She was impressed by the various organized activities and the programs that Ernst & Young created to help interns understand what it meant to work at the firm as a full-time professional. She attended the International Intern Leadership Conference and was delighted with the diversity of the young people she met.
It’s not surprising that upon graduation from NYU, Cockerham accepted a position with Ernst & Young’s Cincinnati office. She spent four years in the audit practice, primarily serving healthcare clients, and was mentored by Lisa Mather, currently a partner in the Cincinnati office. “Lisa was a wonderful role model. She had great relationships within the firm and enjoyed the respect of partners, colleagues and staff.”
The entrepreneurial urge
Cockerham left Ernst & Young in 2001 with mixed feelings. She enjoyed every day of work, but as the daughter of parents who each ran their own business, she had a strong desire to start her own. After operating a franchise for a little over a year, she and her husband, marketing executive Haven Earl Cockerham, learned they would be parents. She left the franchise and spent the next four years being a full-time mom. Today she has an eight-year-old son, Russell, and a five-year-old daughter, Camryn.
After her son entered kindergarten, Cockerham was eager to start her own business again. She wanted to return to accounting. Her father-in-law, who was launching a diversity strategy consulting business, needed a controller. She was glad to step up. Since then, Cockerham has taken on two additional clients. She enjoys working with small-business owners “who need to devote their time to serving clients and growing, not keeping the books.” She and her whole family are also active in the community. Her children have joined her at the local YMCA, where they donate their used books and clothing to other children. Says Cockerham, “It’s important that my kids meet children whose lives are different from theirs — and to understand that we can help.”
Cockerham advises young people to maintain their ties with Ernst & Young. When she meets someone new professionally, the subject of Miss America never comes up, but she frequently mentions her time at Ernst & Young: “While winning Miss America was a huge accomplishment, my status as an Ernst & Young alum carries more weight than anything else on my résumé.”