Analysts got their first look at Sharon Yeshaya as Morgan Stanley's new CFO on Thursday when the bank shared its quarterly earnings.
After discussing the bank's quarter — in which Morgan Stanley saw an 8% jump in net revenue (to $14.8 billion) and a nearly 10% increase in net income (to $3.5 billion) — Yeshaya, whom the bank promoted June 1 from head of investor relations to CFO, described her unconventional ascent to Bloomberg.
Yeshaya, 41, has been with the bank for two decades. She had headed investor relations since 2016. In 2014, CEO James Gorman hired her out of her role as a trader in the bank’s fixed-income division to be his chief of staff, and she served there for a year and a half. Most recently, she co-headed new product origination for derivative structured products.
“The role of the CFO, over the course of the last 10 years, has evolved to be more strategic,” Yeshaya told Bloomberg. “I think the investor relations function at Morgan Stanley has always had a more strategic lens than, possibly, other institutions.”
Breaking stigma on risk
After graduating from Wharton in 2001, in the midst of the dot-com boom, Yeshaya started as an analyst at Morgan Stanley. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred just months into her tenure.
“It was a difficult time both to be in New York and to go through the tech bust,” she said. “The deals I worked on were less on the up-and-up; it was just probably less interesting than I had personally hoped or wanted. So I was at a crossroads after the first two years, and questioned whether I wanted to leave Morgan Stanley.”
Soon, she pivoted to research at the firm, and eventually moved into trading, with hopes of understanding the tactical skills the sales and trading floor demands.
“The assumption at the time was women can’t take risks, or women can’t handle risks,” Yeshaya said. “[But] your job is to manage the risk. The job is not to sit and have a poker game, right? That’s what I think is the difficulty: breaking a stigma that is actually misjudged or misplaced.”
Yeshaya said she remains close friends with female managing directors and traders at the bank. “There are still few women in many of these seats,” she said. “That makes it difficult for a young woman to believe it’s an appropriate place for her to necessarily be or pursue.”
By 2014, Yeshaya was working in fixed income, another time she characterizes as difficult. “Recall, in 2015, Morgan Stanley contracted 25% of its workforce,” she said. “I was sitting in foreign exchange, [and] Morgan Stanley was not the leader in foreign exchange and doesn’t know what it’s going to do with its fixed-income business. I was scared. Wouldn’t you be?”
It was then that Gorman tapped her to become his chief of staff.
“I wasn’t looking for a warm and fuzzy relationship. I was looking [to] get out of fixed income, and try to make a difference,” she said. “I like corporate finance, and I just became managing director, and I didn’t really know what I was going to do with the next stage of my life.”
Focus on representation
Yeshaya said she thinks critically about diversity within banking, and how her trajectory may inspire others. “The first, most obvious, thing is: There’s somebody out there who actually looks at you and thinks to themselves, ‘I’ve got a shot,’” she told Bloomberg. “And I think that all of us have looked at somebody that way, saying, ‘Well, maybe it is possible that if I work really hard, someone will notice me, and then I will be able to move forward.”’
In the May announcement naming Yeshaya CFO, Morgan Stanley also tapped four men to fill the roles of co-presidents, head of firm strategy and COO.
“I have [preached] diversity my whole career on Wall Street,” Gorman told CNBC last month, pointing out that he installed one of the first female banking CFOs, Ruth Porat. “The current leadership group most likely to replace me over the next few years happened to be four white men. That is obviously disappointing, but that’s the reality. I can’t change reality just to make ourselves look better.”
Gorman then rattled off a list of female executives at the bank: Clare Woodman, head of Europe, Middle East and Africa; Wei Christianson, co-head of Asia and China; Carol Greene-Vincent, head of internal audit; Susan Huang, co-head of investment banking.
“My operating committee has a number of diverse leaders,” he said. “In fact, of my 13 direct reports, six of them are diverse. It just doesn’t happen to be the ones that are going to be the likely next CEO. But the group behind them, and the group behind that, we’ve got legions of talented diverse people that I’m very proud of.”
Yeshaya said perhaps the challenges she has faced help her connect with other women in finance.
“I can have a conversation with a young woman who also has two immigrant parents, and also has a different situation and also wonders how to balance a life that looks different,” Yeshaya said. “Those are perspectives that you offer not just as a woman but as having different characteristics, no matter what type of minority you are."