A Nashville Non-Profit Aims To Shrink Wall Street's Gender Gap

Dec 28 2013, 7:00pm CST | by

A Nashville Non-Profit Aims To Shrink Wall Street's Gender Gap
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

Revolutions have to start somewhere.

That’s Maura Cunningham’s philosophy. A former mortgage-securities sales trader for Merrill Lynch, Cunningham was a rare bird on Wall Street in the ‘80s. Twenty-five years later, women are still relatively absent in the finance realm, especially its executive suite.

Cunningham aims to change that. Last year she launched a non-profit organization cumbersomely called “Rock The Street, Wall Street” (RTSWS for short) to boost financial literacy among high school girls and ultimately shrink the Street’s perennial gender gap. Cunningham’s curious base of operations is 900 miles from the concrete canyons—in Nashville, Tenn., where she has lived and worked as a financial advisor for the last 11 years.

“At a minimum, I’d like to see girls not be afraid of finance,” says Cunningham, 55. “I would also like to see these same young women go for the gold—literally.”

She has her work cut out, no matter where she starts. According to a recent study in The Harvard Business Review, women occupy a paltry 6% of senior investment roles across all financial firms; they also account for just 17% of all employees at private equity firms, 18% at venture capital outfits, and 15% at real estate finance firms. The pipeline’s not exactly stuffed, either: Of all junior-level investment jobs, women hold just 14%. As for mounting her campaign from Music City, Cunningham avers: “There’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Nashville. It makes you believe you can bring about lasting change.”

RTSWS takes a three-pronged educational approach: financial-literacy workshops (based on a curriculum devised by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania); one-on-one mentoring with seasoned female finance professionals; and field trips to financial firms in middle Tennessee. All classes and trips take place after school, between sessions and during the summer. At Harpeth Hall, a private all-girls school on Nashville’s west side, RTSWS will offer 80-minute sessions five days a week for three weeks, plus field trips.

In class, the girls tackle topics ripped from the business pages, such as the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy, Twitter’s initial public offering and the implications of the Dodd-Frank Act. Pulling headlines adds to the “cool factor” for students, says Cunningham. Group exercises include crafting detailed budgets and retirement plans for theoretical clients. “They learn a lot when I break them into teams,” she adds. “Girls like to collaborate.”

Last year’s big field trip was a four-hour excursion to UBS’ Nashville office, where 11 girls from three schools shared a conference-room lunch with three female execs. On the docket for 2014: a visit to the trading floor of the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, which manages $40 billion in pension assets.

Cunningham has made inroads at six magnet and private schools around Nashville in the last year. Jenny Sai, a senior at Hume-Fogg Academy magnet school, is an RTSWS alum and one of 43 students invited to join the 2013 TNCPA (Tennessee Society of CPAs) Summer Accounting Academy. Sai said RTSWS encouraged her to apply to colleges with good business programs. But Cunningham doesn’t just cater to the upper crust: The assistant superintendent of nearby Williamson County recently approved the program in all nine of its public high schools.

Of all her challenges, Cunningham’s two biggest are finding qualified instructors—how many high school teachers can convey the inner workings of the capital markets?—and, of course, raising money. She has footed the bill herself thus far (the first significant outside donation arrived last week) and handles most of the instruction, too.

Cunningham got some breathing room in November when RTSWS qualified—under the Community Reinvestment Act—to take on volunteers from federally chartered banks. (If a bank is federally chartered, its employees must log a certain number of community-service hours.)

For now, Cunningham’s fundraising—and growth strategy—are focused mainly on the Southeast. She’s looking to raise $1 million over the next three years by hunting for corporate sponsorships and government grants; she also plans to launch an online crowdfunding campaign in early 2014. In ten years, Cunningham hopes RTSWS will be rocking high schools in all 50 states. (To mark her progress, check out the RTSWS blog.)

Cunningham knows that betting on cultural change is a (very) long-term trade. “Back in the day, Merrill Lynch claimed it wanted to bring Wall Street to Main Street,” she says. “If they can do it, we can, too.”

Have thoughtful insights on Wall Street’s gender gap or financial literacy in America? Please share your comments.

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Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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