T.D. Jakes Foundation CEO Kelley Cornish stays true to her Aiken roots
Kelley Cornish's impressive career might have taken her far from home, but the University of South Carolina Aiken alumna attributes much of her professional success to her local upbringing. Most recently, the author, activist, and inspirational speaker was named CEO of the Dallas-based T.D. Jakes Foundation, an organization devoted to workforce development and community building.
Cornish is a veteran diversity, equity, and inclusion corporate executive who has spent her career championing underrepresented groups. Prior to her current role, she served as Executive Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer for Diverse Segments, Representation and Inclusion at Wells Fargo & Company and held several positions leading enterprise diversity strategies and processes implemented globally. She also held diversity roles for T.D. Bank Group and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
In her new role, the T.D. Jakes Foundation continues to become a dynamic think tank and partner in solving issues facing underserved and underrepresented communities, with its pillars focused on ensuring adequate housing, education, workforce readiness and financial literacy. This journey begins with educating middle and high school students about careers in long-term economy-driving fields such as STEM, STEAM and AI. With a concentrated focus, the foundation's work involves increasing access to education and opportunities to help build skills and thinking in terms of home ownership and wealth creation.
"Our work operates within the framework of the vision cast by our chairman, T.D. Jakes," Cornish says. "The foundation was designed to be an extension of the legacy Chairman Jakes has spent nearly five decades building in effort to change lives and send positive messages throughout the world and repressed communities throughout the United States. I have followed him all of my adult life, and to be in this role feels like a miracle."
Cornish attributes much of her life's path to her childhood in Aiken. Throughout her youth, her family was actively involved in church and helping people in the community, work that inspired Cornish to become a leader in diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice initiatives.
She says, "In the 1970s, any issues facing the Black community were brought to the church. We lived in a community where we helped each other and problems were solved in the church. That's how I grew up, helping people through our faith. I didn't even know that's what we were doing at the time, but the seed was planted."
Cornish built upon this foundation at USC Aiken, where she became involved with Minority Affairs and the Student Government Association and was inspired by faculty members such as Business School Dean Faye Hargrove and Professor Tom Mack. "USC Aiken is truly a place where you can be who you are," she says. "I had some incredible professors who truly cared about my well-being, as well as friends and roommates from all ethnicities and walks of life. I never felt like I didn't have opportunity."
Cornish was also a Pacesetter and a cheerleader and graduated in 1989 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration. When she later attended graduate school to earn her master's degree in human resource management, she wrote her thesis on "diversity," which, at that time, was a new term. "This really was the beginning of me staying the course with this work," she says. "After I earned my master's, I applied for my first job as a director of diversity and inclusion. But my life's work truly started as a little girl in Aiken."
Cornish wears many hats, one of which is that of an inspirational speaker. She served as USC Aiken's commencement speaker in 2017. She says that of her many accomplishments, she is most proud of simply staying the course because it has allowed her to continue to be a voice and make an even greater impact on underrepresented populations. She encourages young people to do the same by finding their passion and following it. "What makes people thrive is what they are passionate about doing," she says. "Whatever that is for you, pursue it, because it's bigger than you. Don't lose sight of it, because it makes you light up and makes someone else's life better. If you start with that, you'll enjoy your life and career tremendously."
While Cornish now spends much of her time in Dallas, she plans to continue serving the Aiken community just as she always has. Her extended family remains in Aiken, as do many of her lifelong friends and colleagues. "I want to continue contributing to the growth of this area, even if it's just as a sounding board," she says. "There's no place like home, and no matter where I go, this is where I started and my roots are here. I love watching it evolve."