As president of NYSE Group, which includes the New York Stock Exchange, industrial engineering alumna Stacey Cunningham '96 oversees an organization that is home to 2,200 of the world's most influential companies. She is the first woman to lead the exchange in its more than 200-year history, and she also serves as a member the global executive committee of Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of NYSE Group. Cunningham helps companies raise the capital they need to innovate and make an impact on the world. She also speaks regularly on the role of capitalism and free markets to drive economic growth and societal advancement, and she has led progress on important issues such as board diversity through the NYSE Board Advisory Council.

How might society benefit from more women in engineering?

Engineers are problem solvers, and there is no shortage of problems to solve. Diversity of thought leads to new and unique approaches to tackling issues. We only truly have diversity of thought when we bring together people across different backgrounds. While there is no set standard for diversity, it needs to include all the unique experiences that make us individuals—and gender is one of those. And as engineering itself becomes more diverse, the structures we build and systems we design will become more inclusive for everyone.

As a woman studying engineering at Lehigh, what did you learn about how to thrive in environments in which men typically are the majority? What did that experience teach you about yourself and what it takes to succeed?

A few weeks into my first year, I was asked about the makeup of my class and looked around and realized I was the only woman in the class. I had not even noticed it until then. My decision to study engineering had nothing to do with my gender, it was because I liked math and science. Similarly, I chose to start my career on the NYSE trading floor because I loved the energy and frenzy of the place. While I didn't dwell on the male-dominated aspect, it was clear that I was in the minority on the floor. I took this as an opportunity to distinguish myself from the rest of the community and show my excitement to learn and grow in a new environment. Along with the other women on the floor during my time, I was proud to help change the perception of who belongs and can thrive at an institution like the NYSE.

Embracing your differences is a lesson I've stressed to younger colleagues and mentees as they’re coming up in the workplace. It doesn’t come without challenges, which is why inclusiveness is critical in every organization, but I encourage people to lean into it because there is value in distinction.

What is one thing you learned at Lehigh that you've tapped repeatedly on your career trajectory?

Studying engineering at Lehigh taught me that the knowledge and skills you accumulate over time have many different applications. I learned that just because you might not have extensive experience in a certain field, it doesn't mean you can't be a problem solver or add value to an organization. This is something I’ve kept top-of-mind throughout my professional life, and as a result, I've had a fairly nonlinear and unexpected career path.

I didn't plan to work at a trading firm when I chose an engineering major, but the analytical thinking and problem-solving skills I developed were helpful nonetheless. When I took a brief hiatus to attend culinary school, I was surprised by how much my trading floor experience helped me navigate the chaos of working in a kitchen.

Each of our experiences prepares us for the next. Collectively, they help us develop and hone skills that serve as a toolbox that can be applied to any task. Later in my career, this understanding gave me the confidence to take on projects and challenges even if they didn't line up perfectly with my resume. These are the times where I've experienced the most personal growth and accelerated my career trajectory.

What do you want engineering students to know that you wish you'd known when you were at Lehigh?

It is far more valuable to know the right questions to ask than to have the right answers. Asking questions not only helps us learn but also leads to challenging the status quo, being better prepared, and identifying new ways of doing things—and the list goes on and on. Be curious and take chances: That's usually where you find the best experiences.

More about Stacey Cunningham

Cunningham began her career as a trader on the NYSE Trading Floor and held several senior positions at global exchanges prior to becoming the NYSE's 67th president. As the NYSE's chief operating officer, she spearheaded the development and launch of the world's most sophisticated exchange technology platform. Cunningham also oversees a diverse range of equity and equity options exchanges. During her tenure as president, which began in 2018, the NYSE has led innovation in the capital markets with the development of Direct Listings and evolution of Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs, as alternative routes for companies to access the public markets. Cunningham also sits on the Board of Directors for Catalyst and the Partnership for New York City.


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This Q&A is part of Resolve Magazine's Soaring Together series.