Elizabeth Castro Gulacsy

From Cuba to CFO

How Elizabeth Castro Gulacsy’s education and determination led her to be among the few female Hispanics in the C-suite.

Elizabeth Castro Gulacsy’s life could have ended up vastly different had her parents not taken an opportunity to leave their home country of Cuba for the United States. After living under the repressive communist regime for years, Gulacsy’s parents and four siblings were finally granted permission to escape through the Freedom Flights program and the family immigrated to West Palm Beach in 1969.

It was there that Gulacsy (BSAc ’96, MAcc ’96) was born, a first-generation Cuban American.

“I watched my parents make countless sacrifices and work multiple hourly jobs to provide for my siblings and I,” she said. “As a result, they instilled in us a strong work ethic and appreciation for the freedoms and opportunities that surround us here.”

The strong work ethic and appreciation for opportunities followed Gulacsy to college at the University of Florida Fisher School of Accounting. It was there that she honed her skills for business, finance, and accounting, putting her on a path to the C-suite.

Part of what sold Gulacsy on the Fisher School was its excellent reputation and 3/2 program, which allowed her to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees concurrently. It also helped that while her brother was a student at UF, Gulacsy was able to attend her first Gator football game. The energy of the stadium and witnessing the crowd singing “We are the Boys” sold her on becoming a Gator herself.

“From that day on, I was hooked on Gator football!” she said.

During her time in college, Gulacsy worked multiple jobs and internships, never forgetting the drive that her parents instilled. She was able to find her internships thanks to UF’s Career Expo, which she recommends that every student take advantage of, as it’s a great opportunity to gain experience.

While internships and UF recruitment events helped Gulacsy get her foot in the door, it was her own persistence and dedication that led her to her first role with Ernst & Young (EY). In her final semesters at the Fisher School, Gulacsy shuffled some of her classes around in order to focus on studying for the CPA exam. As a result, her original spring graduation date was pushed to December 1996. Despite the later date, she was determined to secure a permanent job offer that spring.

She again attended UF’s Career Expo and received interview requests from all the big accounting firms, except the one she was most excited about, EY.

“Their letter indicated I was ‘too early’ in the process and to ‘check back next fall,’” she recalled. “I was devastated as I really connected with their partner and campus recruiter at the Career Expo and thought the firm would be great for me.”

After debating on what to do, Gulacsy decided she had nothing to lose by pushing back on the interview rejection letter. She wrote a note back to the EY partner explaining that she was prepared to make an early decision and wanted to interview with them.

“Much to my surprise, I received a hand-written note back from that partner apologizing for the oversight and requesting an interview with me,” she said. “I eventually received a permanent offer from them and joined EY. I spent six years there and to this day am still good friends with that partner…even though he rejected me at first!”

At EY, Gulacsy served as an auditor specializing in healthcare, as well as the West Palm Beach office’s UF campus recruiter, which gave her the chance to pay it forward to other UF students who were looking for jobs. Her experience in the healthcare sector would lead her to her next opportunity and her first step into the C-suite.

While working with an EY client, Gulacsy was asked to help the client with their initial public offering (IPO). The client was so impressed with Gulacsy, they extended her an invitation to join their team. Gulacsy was excited about the chance to move forward in her career and decided to take the job. She would spend the next 11 years of her career there, eventually becoming its Chief Accounting Officer.

Gulacsy wanted to raise her family in the Orlando area so she started looking there for her next career move. At the time, SeaWorld was looking to debut on the public markets, and the thought of being part of another IPO was an exciting idea to Gulacsy. There was a catch though – the position was a Director of Financial Reporting, which focused on getting SeaWorld through the IPO and establishing a financial reporting process.

“At first, I was hesitant as my title would change from a C-suite role to a Director-level role, and my scope of responsibilities would narrow substantially,” she said. “In fact, I had a recruiter at the time tell me that I was selling myself short and I should continue to look for a larger role.  Despite the advice, I was excited about the opportunity to be a part of the IPO and build my career at a brand that meant so much to me. I took a leap of faith, trusted my intuition and decided to join the team.”

Gulacsy then relocated to Orlando with her husband and two children for the SeaWorld opportunity.

The leap of faith worked out as a few years later, Gulacsy became SeaWorld’s Chief Accounting Officer in 2017 and is now Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer.

In her time at SeaWorld, there are two moments that stand out to Gulacsy as those that make her most proud. The first, the IPO that SeaWorld was going through when she first joined the team.

“For anyone who has worked on an IPO, it’s like the Super Bowl for accounting and finance professionals,” she said. “Countless days, long sleepless nights and lots of hard work, but an incredible amount of excitement and energy culminating on the day you start trading on the stock exchange. One of the highlights of my career was the day we rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange for our IPO.”

The second experience, while unrelated to finance and accounting, is close to the mission of SeaWorld. Gulacsy was invited to release a couple of rescued sea turtles back into the wild after they were rehabilitated at SeaWorld. The inspiring experience reminded Gulacsy how honored she is to work for an organization that cares for animals.

“Our SeaWorld rescue team has helped more than 39,000 animals in need over our history and are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when our parks temporarily closed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “I am incredibly proud to be a part of this company. I love seeing our guests, and especially my kids, experience our amazing parks and interact with the animals in our care.”

Her role at SeaWorld makes Gulacsy proud for another reason – she is among the 25% of women who hold one of the five top C-suite positions, according to a nation-wide survey by Korn Ferry.

“As a first-generation Cuban American, I am humbled to be among the few Hispanic women who have reached the C-suite,” she said. “It’s taken a lot of hard work, grit, faith, perseverance and dedication to get to where I am today. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities and experiences I have had in my career, and I value the connections and friendships I have made along the way. For many women in executive positions, the road at times can be hard, but those times help build our character and strengthen us.”

For young women who want to follow Gulacsy’s successful corporate path, she advises making connections early, seeking opportunities rather than waiting for them and understanding the need for rest.

“Once you start your career, be a self-starter, speak with confidence and have a strong work ethic,” she said. “Always be a team player and be ready to roll up your sleeves and help your team meet their goal…but make time for yourself and your family. Take the time to recharge and connect with your loved ones as you climb the corporate ranks.”