Her path to the top of the financial world took a few turns. She didn’t start out in finance. In fact, Cunningham was an engineering student at Lehigh University in 1994 when she took an internship at the New York Stock Exchange, the largest stock exchange in the world. Soon she was working there, unfazed by being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
Cunningham had career success using those problem-solving skills she learned in engineering classes, but stopped to pursue her other passion — cooking. In 2005, she quit Wall Street to enroll at the Institute of Culinary Education. A few years later though, the respected equities industry pro was back at the stock exchange.
“When you really love what you’re doing, it’s really easy to do it every day and it’s much easier to work your way through challenges and conflicts and stay focused on what you want to achieve.”
Cunningham now finds herself situated among other powerful women of Wall Street, such Adena Friedman, who became President and CEO of Nasdaq in 2017.
Contrary to what people might think, Cunningham’s gender has helped her career.
“The fact that I was a woman, allowed me to have a much higher profile than many of the people I worked with,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate that my gender hasn’t been an impediment.”
Cunningham, 43, says the tone in her industry is more respectful now than when she started nearly 25 years ago.
“In early days, when women started to participate in financial markets, there was a view that they could be there if they acted like one of the guys and I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” she says.
Still, there’s room for progress and improvement in the mainly male industry.
Cunningham says it’s important to bring in people with diverse backgrounds, viewpoints and perspectives. “If that’s the focus, you’re going to find you have a much more diverse team across gender, race and socioeconomic backgrounds,” she says.
In an era of #MeToo, it’s essential to speak up when something is wrong.
“Draw boundaries early on,” she says. “When you have initial interactions, you’re setting a tone. It’s important, if something makes you uncomfortable, right away say it makes you uncomfortable.
“In my experience, when I’ve drawn boundaries, I’ve found that people stay within them.”
Asking for help
Throughout her career, Cunningham has learned from everyone around her, including coworkers and bosses. She says relationships are important for professional success and advises building a team of people with different skills and perspectives.
Ask for opportunities and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance too.
“Perhaps women are less likely to ask for help and they shouldn’t be — that’s an important part of any venture,” she says.