How do you define success? Is it a six- or seven-figure salary, social influence, an esteemed reputation? Is it happiness, fame, independence? Maybe it’s a Virginia Tech degree and a job offer in your chosen field of study.

By any definition, Kimberly Davis-Riffe ’91 is a success. As partner, Financial Services Advisory specializing in mortgage and consumer lending for KPMG — one of the Big Four accounting firms — she represents the envy of young business hopefuls. But when she was in your shoes, she nearly failed her Intermediate Accounting course.

“Nobody’s perfect,” she said. “Everybody has mistakes, failures, and mess-ups. If we can’t talk about them, we can’t learn from them.”

After excelling in her Principles of Accounting course as a marketing major in the Pamplin College of Business, Davis-Riffe elected to switch her major to accounting. Not only did she enjoy the subject, but she observed in the late 1980s that most students landing jobs upon graduation were students with engineering or accounting degrees.

Her success in that first accounting course didn’t translate into Intermediate Accounting. “I just did really poorly in it,” she said. “I got a D for the first time in my life in a class.”

She harbored low self-esteem and agonized over how she’d explain the situation to her parents. “Unbeknownst to me, the head of the accounting information systems department wrote a letter to my parents and basically said that I couldn’t cut it in accounting and should probably look to transfer to another college,” she said. “I felt betrayed. I was livid. I thought to myself, ‘Oh yeah, well, I’ll show you!’”

She anticipated a gnarly response from her father, but instead she was met with empathy and encouragement. “I was completely caught off guard,” she said. “I was expecting my father to be really upset with me, but instead he shared a story with me that he’d never shared before.”

Her father proceeded to tell her that he failed out of college. Her high-school valedictorian dad, who entered the University of Delaware with heavy scholarships, flunked out. His parents (Davis-Riffe’s grandparents) took money they’d saved to pay for his degree and instead invested it in his then-girlfriend (now his wife of more than 50 years and Davis-Riffe’s mother), and he acquired multiple jobs to earn enough money to return to school. Eventually, he graduated with honors and became the engineer he always wanted to be.

“I thought I was going to be chastised, but he made something very good of it,” she said. “He wanted to make sure that I understood that my life is my life, and he can’t pick me up like he has in the past; that I should learn from his mistakes; and that if I didn’t get my grades straight, I wasn’t going to get the opportunities after school that I wanted. It was a really good counseling session, and it energized me.”

Davis-Riffe enrolled in summer courses — so many that she ran out of credits to take before her projected May 1992 graduation date and graduated early in December 1991. Graduating in the winter allowed for less competition when applying for jobs.

“I graduated with a 2.9 GPA,” she said, “and at the time it was the Big Eight in accounting. I got one interview with Coopers and Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). It didn’t go well. I had no real experience with being interviewed. I blew it.”

She didn’t land what she would have considered the perfect gig right out of college. Instead, she was hired by a local six-person CPA firm making $24,000 a year — $8,000 less than entry-level accountants were making at the largest of firms. It wasn’t her dream job, but it was a great experience, and when she got married and chose to relocate in 1993, her boss at the small accounting firm offered to connect her with his contacts at KPMG. The rest is history.

“We’re presented opportunities because there’s a good reason for it,” said Davis-Riffe. “When you come into circumstances when someone is questioning your abilities to perform, don’t just take their word for it or take it personally. Really examine it. And if you think you have a shot at rising to the challenge, then do it. I think more often than not, we doubt our own abilities more than other people do.”

Thomas Ollendick, University Distinguished Professor in the College of Science Department of Psychology and director of the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech, encourages students to consider their self-talk when confronted by obstacles on their journey toward graduation.

“What you tell yourself is really important,” said Ollendick. “When we talk with students who are struggling or failing, we try to work on their distorted cognitions and exaggerated beliefs. They tell themselves some pretty terrible things like they are no good and that they will never make it. Let’s stop, and let’s look at what happened. Let’s look at the evidence that’s been accrued in your own life and in the lives of others. Dealing with setbacks and building resilience is what this is all about.”

Ollendick’s doctoral dissertation focused on theories of motivation, specifically as they related to success and failure. “If a person always succeeds, when they encounter difficulty, they give up too easily; a little dose of failure can be good for all of us,” he said. Common emotions associated with failure are guilt, shame, sorrow, and anxiety. “How you deal with that is so important,” he said. “Some dose of failure can be preventative.”

“I just think we’re all in this together,” said Davis-Riffe. “All of our careers are marathons, they’re not sprints, and I learn much more from my failures than I do from my successes.”

Davis-Riffe volunteers on the Student Affairs Inspiring Women In Lifelong Leadership (IWILL) council, an education initiative intended to inspire women and impact the world. IWILL supports students in developing leadership skills and provides continued mentorship for women in the university community and beyond. Davis-Riffe also serves on the Student Affairs Alumni Advisory Board, offering her expertise, experience, and wisdom to enhance the quality of programs offered by Student Affairs. She is also a member of the Pamplin School of Business’s Accounting and Information Systems (ACIS) Advisory Board, an executive board member for the National Capital Area’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and was named one of 2014’s Most Influential Women in Housing. She continues to seek opportunities to challenge herself, push the limit, and give back.

FORWARD is a series featuring Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have faced, overcome, and learned from life's obstacles and setbacks. FORWARD aims to normalize the conversation about hardships we endure and to encourage resilience. If you or someone you know has a story of resilience to share, please email Tiffany Woodall at

Photo by Christina Franusich

Written by Tiffany Woodall

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