Baltimore’s Real “Cookie Lyons”

By Jasmine Byrd

IMG_6577Take Cookie Lyons out of the music business on television’s hit series “Empire”, throw her into the mundane industry of taxes and you have Baltimore’s own, Sharonda Ellerby.

Friends of Ellerby have dubbed her “Little Cookie” for her entrepreneurial spirit.

“Anytime they see a woman in power, they always reflect me,” Ellerby acknowledged. “First, I was Baby Oprah when I got my first office.”

Long-time friend Patrina Dorsey, who also calls her “Oprah,” said, “She knows her stuff.”

“And, I guess when you look at ‘Cookie,’ you see that she’s strong-headed and can be ghetto. But she comes in and she knows how to deliver,” Dorsey said.

Ellerby reins over Ellerby Enterprises, which includes a tax business, a driving school, a tags-and-titles service, and most recently, a ballroom named for her love of Diana Ross, lead singer of the 1960s Motown trio, The Supremes.

“She’s a hustler,” Dorsey said of Ellerby. “Even before she came into what she’s doing now, she was a hustler. And, a ‘hustler’ does not necessarily mean illegal. Her mind is forever clicking.”

Over the last two decades, Ellerby built her company, gaining recognition from the Mayor’s Office as one of the Top 100 Minority-Owned Business in 2014. Ellerby recalled her shock when she received a call from Sharon Pinder, former director of the Office of Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Development. Ellerby thought, “What do you mean? I’m a contestant? A runner-up?”

The plaque Ellerby won is in a glass case in the mustard yellow and red brick-painted lobby of her two-story office space on North Howard Street in West Baltimore. Collages of family and friends hang on the wall above the glass case. Three black-and-white large photographs are suspended on the overhang above: The Supremes are leaning on a car surrounded by fans; Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones are sitting on a couch; and Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, and Don King are embracing.

The Isley Brothers “Between the Sheets” played on a speaker system in the background during a recent visit. Ellerby sat, with perfectly curled hair cascading past her shoulders, at a polished mahogany desk in her loft-style office, smiling from ear to ear. The scene is poles apart from where her empire began.

An encounter with a woman known as Ms. Pearl, an 18-hour wait, and a ‘raggedy’ porch would be just what Ellerby needed to change the course of her career. Ellerby did not always know that she wanted to be an accountant. In 1997, she started out as a correctional officer for Baltimore City, while taking criminal justice courses at the Community College of Baltimore in Catonsville.

As a working mother of two, Ellerby needed to file her taxes. Some of her co-workers at the jail pointed her in the direction of Ms. Pearl, a neighborhood woman who did taxes out of her home. Ellerby described the long line wrapped around the block as the neighborhood waited for Ms. Pearl to see them. A day later when it was Ellerby’s turn, she remembered sitting at the woman’s kitchen table, as others stood around desperately waiting for theirs. When Ms.Pearl finished Ellerby’s paperwork, she figured out Ms. Pearl made a mistake. She decided to confront the woman.

“She said, ‘If you don’t like how I do taxes, go do them yourself!’” Ellerby recalled. And, with Ms.Pearl’s unwanted permission, Ellerby decided she would. The next day, Ellerby changed her major to accounting, offered to do her friend’s taxes free, and vowed if the IRS did not audit the returns she would start her own tax service.

Ellerby soon opened a 450-square foot tax office.

“I just start growing—from 50 clients, to 500 clients, to 1000 clients. And, I had three different tax offices,” she said.

Last November she opened The Supreme Ballroom, which will primarily be used as a rental space for private events, but, also will double as a new tax office.

Her friend, Dorsey said, “She struggled to get where she is today. She had to put in long hours and she had to make sacrifices to be the person she is today.”

Just like in Empire.

Ellerby believes the television character Cookie, who helped her husband build a music empire, but spent 17 years in prison for some of her own hustles, represents the trials most black women must go through before achieving success.

Ellerby is grateful that she did not have to resort to illegal practices for money; however, she still identifies with Cookie’s struggle.

“I still say to this day if my grandfather hadn’t died and my first son hadn’t died where would I be,” Ellerby said. “I had to use that [insurance] money as a push to get me where I needed to be.”

If you pay close attention to the lobby in her office building, you will see a museum devoted to her son, Shawn George and her grandfather, Harry Darby, whose photographs fill the collages. A yellow football helmet with an image of a black panther on it sits on a glass shelf in the lobby. Shawn played football at Randallstown High School in Baltimore.

The mother of three living children says sometimes she feels like Andre Lyons, the son of Cookie and Luscious Lyons in Empire who has bipolar disease.

“I [have] to have a little ‘bipolar-ism’ in me because I’m able to multitask and do so many things to the point where people look at me and say, ‘I don’t know how you do all that,” Ellerby said.

She attributes her skill to being a Gemini— a zodiac sign known for its dual nature, knowledge of multiple fields, and ability to adapt to different circumstances. You have to learn everything one at a time and then bring it all together, Ellerby said. Recently, Ellerby passed the bar to become a tax lawyer.

“No one field is enough. She seems to strive for other avenues within her own empire,” Dorsey said.

Another friend of 19 years, Deborah Witaker added, “She never seems to stop.”

     

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