In late 2009, I watched the foot traffic in the financial district and wondered where the middle-aged professional women in finance had gone. Those women in their St. John suits had all but evaporated.
As it turns out, between 2000 and 2010 alone, 141,000 women, 2.6% of female workers in finance, disappeared from the industry, while the ranks of men grew by 389,000, or 9.6%, according to a review of data provided by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics at the end of 2010.
These staggering statistics pushed me to understand how hard it had been for women to progress in the male-dominated world of financial services and how the few who stuck it out were able to stay in the game. Each of those 141,000 women has a personal story: Why they went to Wall Street, what it took to stay there and why they left. Here's mine.
After securing a position on Wall Street with Bear Stearns as a junior analyst in the institutional credit department, I went on to earn a law degree with an expertise in federal securities regulations. Armed with a specialized degree, thick skin and a tactical plan, I began a challenging 25-year climb up the ranks of Fortune 500 conglomerates Merrill Lynch, Smith Barney and Citigroup, serving in senior management positions within legal, compliance, private-client group and risk management.
Fast-forward to January 2009. During the height of the financial crisis, I suffered months of stabbing pain up my face, loss of hearing and an advancing inability to swallow anything beyond soft foods. I was really worried that if I let anyone at the company know how ill I was, it would not be long before someone was sitting in my chair. So I made a decision that nearly cost me my life, and by the time I went to a doctor, I was stunned to learn that I had oral cancer. The medical diagnosis was brutal.
"It's aggressive, and without surgery you have less than a year. Surgery may save your life, but it may significantly and permanently impact your ability to speak, swallow and eat."
(More: Victory over cancer)
Within weeks of that diagnosis, I endured several surgeries, a glossectomy to remove a significant portion of my tongue, a mandibulotomy to split my face, a neck dissection, a tracheotomy and then a reconstruction of my tongue using tissue veins and nerves from my arms. I was left disfigured and disabled, unable to eat, swallow or speak. It took nearly two years to regain those functionalities. I struggled emotionally, and I wondered how I would ever get my life back, personally or professionally.
Trusted friends echoed "Wall Street's hard enough for a woman at the most senior levels — it may be impossible for a disabled woman." That turned out to be true. Cancer not only took my tongue, it also took my career. You see, during the crisis, there was little place for a risk manager with a significant speech disability.
But I took the only things I had — three decades of Wall Street experience, my specialized legal education and, most important, my tenacity — and in 2010, I went to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. determined to form a woman-owned and -operated broker-dealer that was sensitive to people with disabilities.
In 2011, my firm received its license from the SEC and FINRA, and I named it Tigress Financial Partners. "Tigress" refers to a fierce, strong female. With limited capital at the time, I needed to be scrappy and build my firm organically brick by brick. Today, Tigress engages in proprietary research, institutional trading, capital markets, asset management, investment banking and global wealth management with a team that speaks more than 10 languages servicing family offices and ultra-high-net-worth individuals from the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and Asia. We established one of the largest robust offshore platforms of coveted distribution agreements with dozens of the leading offshore fund families including BlackRock, Oppenheimer, Fidelity and MFS.
You may be asking, how is it possible to go from some of the most challenging personal and professional struggles to building independent firms with substantial global reach? Truthfully, resilience is what carried me through this long journey. Resilience is the virtue that enables people to move through hardship and become better. No one escapes pain, fear and suffering. But I learned that from pain can come wisdom, from fear can come courage, from suffering can come strength — if we have the virtue of resilience.
Cynthia D. DiBartolo is chief executive of Tigress Financial Partners.