A Wake Up Call: Drawing Inspiration To Act On Your Options

“I sat for 3 days and watched the foot traffic of this neighborhood.” Cynthia DiBartolo was referring to Lower Manhattan, with its financial institutions of long history, and its locus of the New York Stock Exchange and the entry-point to Wall Street.


Cynthia DiBartolo enjoying festivities at the Greater NY Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 2012

“I observed a big change. Where were all the middle-aged professional women? I saw women of a younger generation dressed for work, and women of a much older age. But the women who used to leave their offices in their St. John’s suits, had all evaporated.”

This was Cynthia’s impression looking back toward nearly two-and-a-half decades of work, from the sidewalk near the World Financial Center, in 2009.

There was no getting around the fact that asking where women had gone pushed one to understand how hard it had been for women to make progress in the male-dominated world of financial services. And how few stuck it out and were able to stay in the game.

Diagnosis of oral cancer interrupts a colorful life

Dial back the clock a few months. Cynthia DiBartolo heard the doctors tell her that she had oral cancer. The diagnosis was brutal. “It may significantly and may permanently impact your ability to speak, swallow, and eat.” Beyond that was the glaring reality of how she would ever communicate as a lawyer and as a risk manager in the corporate world.

That is, if she even lived past the radical surgery and necessary reconstruction.

“There is nothing more compelling than verbal communication. I build and support people. But cancer is the most equal-opportunity parasite in the world. We are all vulnerable. It controls you and then you have to figure out a strategic approach to it. Like an unwelcome guest that you can’t throw out of your house.”

After much searching, Cynthia opted for a team of doctors that proposed to attempt a partial glossectomy and radical neck dissection and tongue reconstruction surgery, using a less radical intervention than a mandibulotomy but one with its own set of grueling rehabilitative surgeries and therapies.

“Cancer is a journey we took as a family. You don’t die from cancer alone. Your family dies with you. Every day you see them dying a little more. It’s an unchartered course you end up doing together. Everyone grows as a person through the pain.”

But Cynthia would never characterize herself as a victim. In fact, she can easily mentally place herself in the most colorful of settings, from the monks that she hung with in the Hsinchu Mountains of Taiwan, to Prince Albert with whom she palled around in Monaco.

“When you are in your darkest moments and your friends come to your side, you realize that you are a blessed person. Others want to be there for you.”

That inner circle of loving friends was there for Cynthia. “I remember a doctor [at the hospital] said, ‘I need to meet this woman who had so many exes seeing her, because I had never seen anything like this.…’”

I asked how many exes she had. “I was married two times in formal civil unions, and had what might be considered a long-term common law marriage. I’ve been engaged 5 times to 5 very special men. My exes and I, we are good friends. My pain is their pain.”

The harrowing details of her fight against cancer came to my attention while watching the DVD of a legal interview that was being prepared in a lawsuit against Abbott Labs, which manufactured a drug Cynthia had taken, without knowing (or full disclosure) its apparent side effects. It was clear from this interview that Cynthia found it difficult to speak intelligibly, swallow, and eat. And also that speaking in general was the kind of thing most of us take for granted every day.

We don’t become exhausted from speaking, do we?

How often does one say, let me count my blessings that I can talk easily? How often does one say a word of thanks for being able to recite what matters? I am reminded of a quote in the April issue of AARP The Magazine by a Chicago psychotherapist, “From the work that I do, I really think that’s all we want in our relationships–to be truly known.”

As I watched and viewed this DVD, I thought, how brave Cynthia must be to struggle every day to be known.

A celebrated career, and a decision to put the spade in to create a woman-owned and woman-operated business

After several surgeries, Cynthia wondered even as trusted friends asked outright how she was going to make presentations and persuade colleagues and customers, given the restrictions she endured as a head and neck cancer survivor? This included daily pain and discomfort, seizure-like episodes by the end of long days, limited movement, and varying levels of difficulty speaking and being understood.

Cynthia DiBartolo had gotten cancer just as her career reached a pinnacle of achievement.

“I had risen through the ranks of Fortune 500 conglomerates, and had attained a coveted position in Management within the Private Client Group at Smith Barney. I had managed a team of financial consultants generating $41 million in gross production, and then been tapped for a key role at Citibank to turn around underperforming ‘franchises’ within the New York Region as a Sales Development Officer.”

She surpassed her margin goals with double-digit returns by taking her sales force beyond the transactional cross sell and instituting a holistic approach to financial planning.

It’s easy to see how Ms. DiBartolo would employ her interpersonal skills and tremendous gifts of analysis to great advantage. She has a knack for recalling the visceral details of people and places, and the business acumen to respond authentically and impactfully to inquiries.

This is so regardless of whether a reporter is asking for her response to the crowd-funding initiative in the legislative halls of Washington, or a customer is concerned with the deleterious impact of the transfer of personal wealth to kin.

In her most recent position before being diagnosed with cancer, Cynthia DiBartolo, Esq. had spearheaded a cross-functional team at the helm of a SmithBarney-Citicorp joint venture, to roll out and achieve aggressive targets for selling to affluent clients. Under her leadership, the pilot produced stellar sales results and led to a major management decision to integrate the two firms.

It must have been a particularly satisfying achievement in a career that had begun with so much struggle.

“Back in 1984, as a relatively green employee in financial services, and as a person standing 59 inches tall, I was already hitting my head on the glass ceiling. But I struggled to stay in the industry, got my law degree, and kept climbing little by little.

“So I am particularly suited to look back and ask, ‘Is the picture pretty for everyone? Are we digging ourselves a bigger community, or are we going against opportunity for all?’”

Three days of watching the dearth of middle-aged women on the sidewalks of Lower Manhattan, and understanding firsthand how difficult it would be to make it as a disabled woman in corporate America, brought Cynthia DiBartolo’s thoughts to conclusion.

Drawing inspiration as she was empowered through adversity

“I asked myself, am I proud to be a part of what those companies are doing? I have knowledge, experience, and tenacity; I am not rooted to a bulge-bracket firm. I am going to thrive and create a new woman-owned and woman-operated firm, and do business in a way I can be proud of.

“I started it with a belief in meritocracy. A commitment to diversity and support for people to thrive as professionals. It’s called Tigress Financial Partners. Tigress refers to a strong female, and to partners. In life, we must be partners with the people we do business with. Partnership brings out the best in each other. Our tagline is, Tigress, putting talented industry professionals back to work one hire at a time.”

Tigress Financial Partners (TFP) became a registered broker-dealer in 2011 and engages in institutional trading on behalf of clients. It is successfully engaged in a number of private placements as well. In doing so, TFP aims to provide access to strategic partners and capital to help clients take their business to the next level.

The workforce of 12 is diverse not only across gender and ethnic lines, but also provides a supportive environment for people with disabilities and varying faiths.

A belief in access to capital, industry, and technology for all

“I was recently at a meeting for the 15th Annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit, which celebrates access to capital, industry, and technology for minority vendors and peoples of all backgrounds. New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli had just addressed the meeting. A woman in the audience started to say, ‘You’re not doing anything for us … it doesn’t work.’ I stood up and responded, ‘I would like to thank Comptroller DiNapoli for creating a process, creating transparency, and creating opportunity.’”

Then, considering what the woman from the audience had just expressed, Cynthia reflected: “This woman feels she is not getting her chance. We have got to mentor people who don’t have access to the resources. If you don’t understand how to navigate the process, that is not for states to enunciate. We–the private sector–need to show how its done, we ourselves must lead the way.”

As Bill McCreary, the Emmy Award-winning journalist and broadcast producer said in a speech for Black History month at the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, “It’s each one, reach one.”

As the current Chairperson of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, the CEO of Tigress Financial Partners, and a member of the White House Business Council, Cynthia DiBartolo is every day putting the pedal to the medal on that directive.

Take ownership of your unhappiness and make a change

As I enjoyed the privilege of a three-hour-long coffee with Cynthia in the newly opened, luxury Conrad New York, I asked advice of this woman who knows people born into royalty and born into despair, and can reach across to help each and all.

Explaining that most Mojo40 readers were either job-hunting or not feeling content in their current professional position, Cynthia offered this antidote to disappointment.

“Take the risk. If you’re unhappy, you need to take ownership of that and make a change. Change involves risk, while keeping the status quo eliminates fear of the unknown. Moving in a new direction could bring emotional or financial disappointment, but unless you try, you may never experience the fulfillment that we are all entitled to.

“[Personally] I never want to say, ‘I never tried something.’ I would rather feel I tried and failed. Give it your best. That was the message from my home, growing up. It allowed me to try so many things, and I am grateful to have tried them.”

Please speak to Cynthia via the comments… I am sure she would be thrilled to hear you!

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  • Renee

    Cynthia, you go girl!
    And, be well.

    • Cynthia D.

      Thanks Renee!! I appreciate the encouragement!

    • Cynthia D.

      And I wish you health, happiness, and prosperity!

  • http://www.positivecalm.com/ Solvita

    Amazing article… so inspirational!  Love this:
    “Take the risk. If you’re unhappy, you need to take ownership of that
    and make a change. Change involves risk, while keeping the status quo
    eliminates fear of the unknown. Moving in a new direction could bring
    emotional or financial disappointment, but unless you try, you may never
    experience the fulfillment that we are all entitled to.

    “[Personally] I never want to say, ‘I never tried something.’ I would
    rather feel I tried and failed. Give it your best. That was the message
    from my home, growing up. It allowed me to try so many things, and I am
    grateful to have tried them.”

    • Cynthia D.

      Thank you very much Solvita!! One of the most important messages I try to convey is that taking the time, and putting in the effort to succeed is the only way a person gets to where they are trying to go in life! Good luck to you and thank you for your comment!

  • Delaune

    very inspiring!!

    • Cynthia D.

      Thank you Delaune!!

  • SharonODay

    My daily walking buddy is a French woman in her early 70s, retired from a career with L’Oreal in hair-coloring product development.  Already a breast cancer survivor, three years ago she was diagnosed with oral cancer.  Hers was less invasive than Cynthia’s, but I watched as she learned to reach her new normal in how she eats, speaks … and interacts.  When I raised the possibility of a link between her cancers and the hair chemicals through her constant contact with them, she shrugged it off and said her focus now was to make every day going forward her very fullest.  As with Cynthia, victim-hood is not even a consideration.  Living fully is.  “Bravo” to both.

    • Cynthia D.

      Thank you for that inspirational comment Sharon! Yes, victim-hood is not a consideration, life is for the living and we must all make the most out of every day!! My best to you, and to your friend.  Keep your thoughts and other stories like this coming!!

  • Sondra

    What an eye-opening inspiration! I had no idea about the oral cancer. Thanks so much Diane

    • Cynthia D.

      Thank you Sondra!! Its a great point that many people are not even aware of oral cancer and the risks and challenges it poses.  It is my personal mission to help increase awareness of this problem and I am glad this article was a step in the right direction!

  • Sara D.

    What an amazing and inspirational story to share!! Clearly you live every day to it’s fullest. Thank you for your wisdom and advice, and may your mentoring and leadership continue to guide women to find their place in the business world.

    • Cynthia D.

      Thank you Sara!! It was my pleasure to share it, I am glad you appreciated the story.  I love mentoring and using my position to empower women everywhere whenever possible.  I do live every day to the fullest and I’m glad that message stuck with you!

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