Sharon Cunningham is committed to positivity, productivity, and giving back. She helped launch Morgan Stanley’s HER Way program, adding to her great record of helping women achieve financial security.
Folding napkins and tablecloths on weekends at the age of 12 in her Italian immigrant grandfather’s Port Chester, N.Y., restaurant is where Sharon Cunningham learned some valuable life lessons. Working among her uncle chefs, bookkeeper mother and other family members taught her early on just how important it is to earn your own money.
“My grandfather instilled in me not only hard work, but the notion that earning things on your own—not having it handed to you—means that no one can tell you what to do with it,” reflects Sharon, a financial advisor, senior portfolio manager and founding partner of The Cunningham Group at Morgan Stanley. “That has stuck with me all of my life.”
That family business took on even more significance when Sharon’s stepfather suddenly passed away, leaving her 43-year-old mother widowed with five kids in her care. “It was her tight-knit family and the restaurant that supported and helped her stay strong through some dark days,” Sharon remembers.
It was watching her mom struggle that ultimately led Sharon down her financial career path. “I saw her in a very vulnerable place regarding her financial security,” she says. “No one should have to go through that. Looking back, I think that’s what triggered my desire to help people create their own financial security and follow their dreams and inspirations.”
So off to business school this voted-most-school-spirited cheerleading captain went. After concentrating in finance and marketing at Adelphi University, her first job was as a Certified Financial PlannerTM with IDS Financial Services (then the financial planning division of American Express). “I immediately enjoyed engaging with people about the markets and investing and used my marketing background to think about how to brand myself,” she explains.
A move to Shearson (a predecessor firm of Morgan Stanley) as a client service associate combined her financial planning skills with new brokerage and portfolio management skills at a time when there were few women in the industry. She quickly recognized how much women were overlooked and began educating and empowering women through financial seminars and workshops and supporting women’s organizations, including Mothers2Mothers, Women for Women International and the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York, where she now serves on its investment committee.
More recently, she and several other New York City-based women advisor colleagues launched Morgan Stanley’s HER Way program, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary of hosting frequent events and presentations for women on topics ranging from health and wellness, technology, philanthropy, sustainability and personal development. “Our goal is to provide women with not only useful information, but an opportunity to network and access to resources to achieve what’s most important to them and to live their best lives,” says Sharon.
Sharon believes strongly that fate influences our destinies and the challenges we’re dealt have purpose. For example, she’s grateful she decided to attend college not far from home at Adelphi, where she met husband Brian. “We dated when we were 18, married in our late 20s and now have two beautiful children,” she beams.
Olivia, 16, was born with life-threatening food allergies. Griffin, 10, is on the autism spectrum and has had significant developmental delays. “It’s been a hard journey,” says Sharon. “But through it all, you discover the person you are and how important it is to love and care for your family. The challenges you have in life, looking back, are sometimes necessary to place you where you're ultimately supposed to be. It’s how you deal with them, as learning opportunities, that help you grow as a person.”
Sharon has been recognized numerous times for her commitment to women and to giving back, most recently as a 2018 Morgan Stanley MAKER. In 2014, she earned the distinguished John J. Mack Leadership Award at Morgan Stanley, an honor that came with a donation of her choice. She was thrilled to be able to direct it to Girl Scouts of Greater New York and another organization close to her heart: NEXT for AUTISM, where she’s a board member.
“For me—and for most women—our lives are so very multifaceted. We want to have good careers, give back to our communities, take care of our families and be good parents,” Sharon adds. “All of that requires good people around you and a good support system.”
That’s why she looks back fondly and often on the family restaurant. “The things I learned and the life I've been able to provide for my family are a result of the strong, caring and supportive people in my life throughout the years,” says Sharon. “I’m humbled and so very thankful.”