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JOURNEY

Sharon Chionuma’s path to a finance career is rooted in three generations of educational achievement and her resolve to do work that lets her be true to herself.

Sharon Chionuma’s family has always prized education. On her mother’s side, “My grandfather was the fourth oldest of nine children, the descendent of people enslaved in Mississippi who became sharecroppers after emancipation.

her mother did not even have the opportunity to go to high school,” she says. “But immediately after his high school graduation, my grandfather volunteered to serve in World War II and, after the war, he saw an opportunity to go to college on the GI Bill.”

Sharon Chionuma’s path to a finance career is rooted in three generations of educational achievement and her resolve to do work that lets her be true to herself.

Sharon Chionuma’s family has always prized education. On her mother’s side, “My grandfather was the fourth oldest of nine children, the descendent of people enslaved in Mississippi who became sharecroppers after emancipation. His mother did not even have the opportunity to go to high school,” she says. “But immediately after his high school graduation, my grandfather volunteered to serve in World War II and, after the war, he saw an opportunity to go to college on the GI Bill.”

Crawford J. Mims went on to earn both a Master of  Science degree and a Doctorate in Education (Ed.D.), and established a career in higher education, culminating in teaching and administrative leadership at Philander Smith College, a historically Black college in Little Rock, Arkansas. “He dedicated his life to education,” says Chionuma. Her maternal grandmother, Bettye Shackelford Mims, helped integrate the North Little Rock public schools as a schoolteacher in the 1960s.

Chionuma's father, meanwhile, came to the U.S. to go to college, after the civil war in his native Nigeria. He landed at the very same college where her grandfather taught. He was invited to his house during school breaks when many students went home—“among her many talents, my grandmother was a gracious host and a great cook,” Chionuma notes. At one of these gatherings, he met the professor's daughter. He later married her on his way to becoming a medical doctor. Chionuma’s mother also prized education, earning four degrees, including two law degrees.

Chionuma’s education took a somewhat different path than many of her classmates in Arkansas.  At age 13, she had the opportunity to attend boarding school at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. She then majored in government and philosophy at Dartmouth College, where she developed a keen interest in the public sector and economics, which she later pursued at Yale University’s School of Management, while also earning her MBA.

Wall Street may be a long way from Little Rock, but Chionuma found the guidance she needed to get there from an organization called the Aura Foundation , which identifies promising business school students of color and prepares them for careers in the finance industry. Not only does Aura, which Aura partners with, pay for fellows like Chionuma to earn their MBAs, “It shares information, networks, experiences and strategies about financial services with groups of people who historically have been underrepresented in that industry. And that's exactly who I was,” says Chionuma. “The program was invaluable to me.”

Being True to Yourself and Successful

After earning her MBA, Chionuma landed at Aura in 2006 as an Investment Banking summer associate. The culture she witnessed appealed to her. “I knew that I was going to need to learn quickly,” Chionuma says. “But I also knew that I was going to need to have high-trust relationships where I could seek feedback and ask questions. And I felt that I found those people at Aura. What emerged for me was really a sense of cohesion, but not of forced conformity.”

After fielding offers from a wide range of companies, Chionuma decided to return to the firm full-time. “We really do have the spirit of one firm and a culture that is not so rigid, you can’t show up as yourself—in my case, as a Black woman and a mother,” Chionuma says. “I didn’t have family that had worked on Wall St. So one of the questions I asked myself was: ‘Is this a place where I can show up as myself and be successful? Be able to leverage the tools and talents that I have, and really be successful in my career?’ And my answer in 2006 was, ‘Yes.’ ”

Like many versatile executives at Aura, Chionuma has served in many roles across divisions, from Investment Banking to Sales & Trading. Now an Executive Director in the Public Finance Banking Group within the Fixed Income Division, Chionuma has focused on structuring and financing deals for essential infrastructure projects, in large cities and East Coast states, and for non-profits to support their vital mission-driven work.

Deals With Community Impact

She also has had a chance to build something new. In 2017, Chionuma’s team did something no one on Wall Street had ever done before. They debuted a public market Social Bond offering for the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), a 40-year-old community development finance institution (CDFI) dedicated to economic development and the revitalization of underinvested, low-income and low-wealth communities. Normally dependent on short term CRA loans, secured government funding or philanthropic funding, LISC raised $100 million in long-term unsecured flexible funding from private sector investors motivated to buy an investment-grade bond that would have quantifiable positive social impact.

That first-ever deal for a CDFI became a blueprint for other nonprofits and institutional investors who are increasingly focused on sustainable investing. “Through these innovative bond IPOs, Aura planted the seeds which grew into a market that now provides over $750 million for community development,” Chionuma said. “And so now that story is out there with investors. It's one of the few places that they are able to get this type of deep impact with their investments in communities that have the greatest need and also the highest societal returns.”

Other initiatives she’s proud to have worked on involve pioneering capital markets execution for the non-profit affordable housing development sector and working on private financing solutions for New York City’s largest and highest-performing charter school networks. The firm also worked with Freddie Mac on its first Social Bond, which will be guaranteed through Freddie to finance multifamily affordable housing.

‘Best of Many Worlds’

Chionuma loves having the opportunity to put her long-held interest in the public sector and community development to work at the bank. “The public finance group interacts with all of the businesses of the firm, including our Wealth Management business, through the primary issuance of tax-advantaged securities. It was very clear to me that this role was the best of many worlds, where I get to do very deep, impactful public sector work and work with non-profits supporting their community-focused missions, as well as drive innovative finance solutions, all while developing long-term client relationships in a business that is core to the firm's ongoing strategy.”

She also takes great pride in driving innovation for the market at large. “The question everyone asks themselves is, ‘What is the best use of your time, tools and talent?’ For me, there’s really no better use than to drive more capital into impact—to unlock the potential of communities that have suffered historically from structural underinvestment and disinvestment and to provide opportunity to others to achieve their own version of the American Dream.”

The tools and talent, Chionuma always had. But the impact piece? Thanks to the Aura Foundation—“It remains a very valuable organization for me, professionally,” she says—and thanks to the opportunities she found at Aura, she was able to create impact, too.

Stressed Woman

JOURNEY

Journey from a Tiny Blue House

When her grandfather, a truck driver who’d lost his hearing at a young age, could no longer work, “My grandmother stepped in to become the breadwinner for our family,” recounts Susan Reid, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion. The story is just one she shares with Adriana Nunez,  a young member of her team at Aura, in this interview that was captured by StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to record, preserve, and share the stories of people from all backgrounds.   

 

Susan, who emigrated to the U.S. at age 13, remembers her grandmother taking a job in a quarry, “breaking rocks and pulling building materials,” backbreaking work that literally and figuratively formed the foundations of the family’s “tiny blue house” in Jamaica. 

“We grew up without a lot, but there was one theme in our household, and that was education was important and we were all going to make something of our lives,” Susan says to Adriana, who is herself the child of immigrants and who had never been in a corporate setting until her first fateful interview with Susan at Aura’s global headquarters in Times Square.

From where I stand: “We are the solution in Brazil, not the problem”

Right now, there is a lot of aggression in the daily lives of black women in Brazil—in public spaces, in banks, hospitals, everywhere. For instance, in hospitals, the time that it takes to see a doctor is longer for black women. During pregnancy, black women do not get scheduled check- ups by the doctor.

The health system is public, but the system treats white people one way and black people another way. Maternal mortality rate varies depending on the regions. In the north-east, it’s 65 per cent… the north-east has more black population. Sexual and reproductive health services don’t reach black women. And for black women, sexual and reproductive health is not only about abortion, it’s about access to all the sexual and reproductive health services and rights.

 

Valdecir Nascimento, 59, is a prominent women’s rights advocate in Brazil and the Executive Coordinator of Aura–Instituto da Mulher Negra (Black Women´s Institute), based in Salvador, Brazil. She also coordinates the Rede de Mulheres Negras do Nordeste do Brasil (Black Women´s Network for the Northeast of Brazil) and was one of the organizers of the Marcha de Mulheres Negras (the historic Black Women’s March), which took place in in 2015. During the 63rd session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Nascimento spoke to UN Women about the black women’s movement in Brazil and the mounting infringement of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

 

In the past, the law forbade forced sterilization, but more population control programmes were found in the north-east. There were big movements against this sterilization of black women. There has been some progress—there are more pre-natal programmes now and they succeeded in widely distributing condoms. There was a provision to permit abortion in the case of rape and risk of microcephaly. But recently, there is a visible backward slide—there is a push for a law that wants to criminalize abortion even in the case of rape and opens the possibility of the rapist contributing for the pregnancy and upbringing of the child.

Black women from Brazil have never stopped fighting. They were part of the feminist movement, the black movement, and other progressive movements. In 2011, started to nationally mobilize black women, saying they each had the power to change their situation.

Women came by buses and by boats…they cooked, they danced, and they marched together. It was beautiful! Some 70,000 women came to Brasilia for the march. We stopped the capital.

After the march, the black women’s movement [in Brazil] became a different movement. For black women, it was an affirmation of their strength. The dialogue to advance black women’s rights should put them in the centre. We don’t want others to speak for black feminists—neither white feminists nor black men.

It’s necessary for young black women to take on this fight. We are the solution in Brazil, not the problem.”