‘You don’t have to fit in quite the way people might expect you to.’
As a very small child, when my father used to say he was a stock trader, I always thought he was saying he was a sock trader. He never talked about what he did for a living, but when I was growing up, there was always a big painting of the New York Stock Exchange floor hanging on the wall in his den. When I became the President of the New York Stock Exchange, he gave me that painting.
I never knew that I wanted to be in finance — it chose me. I was roughly 18 years old and had an internship on the NYSE trading floor, and it was in that moment when I knew that’s where I wanted to work.
There were about 1,300 men at the Exchange when I became a member, and roughly 30 women. I definitely stood out as a woman on the trading floor, but I never felt singled out. There’s a certain amount of respect that you earned right out of the gate, just from being willing to work in such a male-dominated environment. I played my own game. I didn’t try to be one of them. If you’re trying too hard to be the way somebody else is, you’re probably not going to be as successful.
While there’s been a lot of evolution through the Exchange and through our ranks, women have not been as big of a part of that history. The NYSE history runs back 226 years. It took 175 years for the Exchange to have its first female member. Muriel Siebert became a member in 1967. She had to get sponsored, and the first nine men she asked said no. When she finally became a member, there was no ladies’ room for Muriel on the 7th floor where the members would get together. Eventually, they turned a phone booth into a bathroom. When I started my career on the trading floor back in the mid-’90s, there was still this tiny little phone booth bathroom.
This institution means a lot to me personally, so to be the one who’s leading it and driving it into the future, and evolving our business, that’s very important to me. To be the first woman is less important to me, other than the fact that telling my story is important so women can hear that there are opportunities available to them that they may not have realized. Or when you do feel outnumbered, that it’s okay — and you can power through. You don’t have to fit in quite the way people might expect you to.
Cunningham became president of the 226-year-old institution in May 2018.