MAKER Ileana Musa Instills Core Values in Other Latinas, Including Her Daughter

Two summers ago, Ileana Musa brought together two people she loves who are 100 years apart in age in the place where she was born. That moment, when she introduced her five-year-old daughter to her 105-year-old grandmother in Cuba, was unlike any other. “Here were two women, 100 years apart, getting to know one another,” says Ileana, head of International Banking and Lending at Morgan Stanley and co-head of the International Wealth Management business. It was a strong reminder of the strength of family and determination to succeed.

“Work ethic is the foundation of who I am,” she says. “Women, even more so Latinas, understand the need to carve your own path and to build the future you want for yourself.”

When she was just a toddler, Ileana, her mother and two siblings left communist Cuba. Her sister was ill with meningitis and needed better care. When her father’s visa didn’t come through, the family decided they couldn’t wait any longer and left for Spain, leaving Dad, an entrepreneur, behind. They made it to Miami, Fla., and continued to hope for their father’s arrival. Instead, he was imprisoned for continuing his private sector work, which suddenly became illegal under Castro’s shifting policies. He was sentenced to 15 years.

Growing up, Ileana watched her mother “do whatever she had to” to make a life for them in the U.S. while maintaining strong ties to family back home, calling often and sending care packages with ever-more needed goods. “Mom worked multiple jobs, encouraged us to get an education and never took ‘no’ for an answer,” Ileana says. “She never talked about what we didn’t have or couldn’t do; I didn’t realize how tough we had it until I was older.”

Ileana was a high-school student when she finally got to meet her father. He had been released early from the Cuban prison. “Once I started the relationship, he ended up being a strong influence on my education,” says Ileana, who had planned to study dance. “It was through a lot of conversation and his support that I got a scholarship to the University of Miami and decided to pursue a business major.”

After graduation, he helped shape her decision to earn an MBA from Florida International University. “It was difficult at 17 to just be getting to know your dad,” who passed away only five years ago. “But every day I had with him was a gift.”

Ileana met her actor-producer husband and lived in Moscow for a while before they settled in New York City. He broke into entertainment—she into private wealth management. She started at Bank of Boston, then left for Chase Manhattan Bank to oversee their LATAM cross-border business. Ileana transitioned through several sales leadership roles before being recruited in 2005 to start a new team at Bank of America, where she was “immersed in the banking and brokerage business. Following its merger with Merrill Lynch she was tasked with building their international banking and lending business for Wealth Management. She eventually became head of its international wealth management business.

In 2018, she transferred her deep international experience to Morgan Stanley, where she is focused on developing the Firm’s international banking and lending capabilities for international wealth clients—essentially building something from scratch. “That’s been my knack over the years, to reengineer businesses while creating new business,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

She also truly enjoys giving back, as well as “networking, building relationships, collaborating and bringing people to the table to do something remarkable together,” she says. Like her mother, she’s never been afraid to step up to roles where she “could meet new people, learn new skills and be seen in a different light.” She does this through various organizations, most notably the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA), where she passionately contributes to the professional and personal advancement of Latinas.

In fact, having watched “my mom struggle, fall down and pick herself up again” has helped Ileana “get very comfortable in uncharted waters” in managing startups. “This is what sustains the fire in my belly.”

In the short time she’s been at Morgan Stanley, that fire has already been recognized. Ileana was recently named one of Morgan Stanley’s MAKERs—a class of trailblazing women of accomplishment nominated by their peers.

Keeping her grounded are her trips to Cuba, now with daughter Anabella, whom she and husband Chaz Mena adopted at birth in Florida. Chaz is developing a screenplay about their journey with adoption in Road to ‘Bella, a film they hope to see completed this year. “Many people go through it, and the experience isn’t shared often enough,” she says. “There is comedy…and there is anguish.”

Still, she wouldn’t change the amazing six years with their daughter, who while in Cuba “had to walk up five flights of stairs and stay in a room with no air conditioning in the middle of August,” Ileana recounts. “She saw that my cousin's one-year-old daughter had very little and yet was very happy.”

Experiencing this not only enriches your life, she explains, but “keeps you close to your culture, gives you purpose, and validates what you do every day. By staying close to your roots, you realize how privileged we are. We’re passing that on to our daughter.”