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Lioness Changemakers: Maura Cunningham of Rock the Street, Wall Street

How can we engage young girls in math and finance? Maura Cunningham has a solution.

Picture a Wall Street investor. Who do you see? If your only exposure to finance is from Hollywood, then you probably thought of an older white man. Maybe he’s in a suit. Maybe he’s yelling and slamming his fist on a desk. Sadly, most young women will picture the same thing. That’s why Maura Cunningham leads Rock the Street, Wall Street, a nonprofit that engages high school girls in finance and propels them to successful STEM careers.

“Girls tend to lose interest in math by age nine in the United States. That is uniquely an American and Western European problem. We don’t see that in China, Russia or most European countries. So, we know that it’s a cultural issue, not a capability issue. We’re trying to change that,” said Cunningham. “Rock the Street lifts the veil on the fact that finances aren’t anything more than first-year algebra, for the most part. Girls just don’t know that. They have no concept of that in high school. We’re breaking that image.”

Captivated by Wall Street

Cunningham described herself as a “newshound” growing up. She loved to watch “Wall Street Week” and dove into economics during college. After a long career at Merrill Lynch and Wall Street, she retired and went back to school for civic leadership. Her intention was to study public policy about girls in finance. When she realized that no policy currently existed, she decided to make a change herself.

“As I researched girls with math and financial literacy, I realized that there was nothing in public policy about that. Zero. So I said, ‘If there’s nothing happening out there, it’s like a silent killer. I’ve got to do something about this.’”

Taking gender disparity head-on

Rock the Street is an education program that teaches financial literacy to high school girls and encourages them to consider a career in finance. It started eight years ago at one school in Nashville, Tennessee. Now, 45 schools have adopted Rock the Street’s curriculum, and over 110 cities have expressed interest in hosting it. Even during the pandemic and virtual learning, the program added 10 new cities this year alone.

Rock the Street is led by women in finance and held at high schools. Cunningham stressed that young girls needed to see role models and their peers in these careers.

“It’s important that they interact with women in finance. The number one reason why young women don’t go into STEM is that they don’t see other women in those professions. The number two reason is that they don’t see their friends choosing those majors and minors. It’s that simple. We’re dealing with both of those issues in every classroom.”

How Rock the Street works

The program has four main components, beginning at the start of the school year and ending after graduation. The first step is a series of workshops on finance and investment held at the high school. The second is a Wall Street field trip, or a “lunch and learn,” to visit the office of a woman in power.

Afterward, the students are asked to re-enroll in the program to determine who is serious about moving forward. According to Cunningham, Rock the Street has a 50 to 70 percent retention rate – and as she explained, most of these girls had no knowledge or interest in the field before they started the program.

The third step focuses on career preparation. After re-enrolling, each girl is paired with a mentor to discuss resumes, internships and college classes. Most of the mentoring is one-to-one (or two-to-one at the most). As Cunningham explained, most high school guidance counselors work with 450 students. Rock the Street enables students and mentors to develop much closer relationships.

After high school graduation, participants gain access to Rock the Street’s job portal, the final component of the program. This connects young women with scholarships, internships and entry-level jobs, many hosted by major corporations who are eager to help.

Making an impact on Wall Street

These experiences and opportunities open a new world for many students, especially for those who otherwise couldn’t attend college. 44 percent of their students are considered low-income, and 69 percent of Rock the Street’s students are members of a minority group. Take that, wage gap! Rock the Street believes in measuring metrics – and the numbers are promising. Many alumni enjoy successful careers in finance.

“One metric that we use is how much their financial investment literacy increases, which is 95 percent on average across the country,” said Cunningham. “Then we look at how many of our girls indicate that they’re going to major or minor in finance or economics. Our students are five times more likely than the national average of girls going to college to major in finance or economics.”

Running a nonprofit is entrepreneurship

As she launched Rock the Street, Cunningham weighed whether it should be a business. Ultimately, she felt that a nonprofit better aligned with her vision and would make connections with schools and corporations much easier. At the same time, she believes that any nonprofit should be run like a business.

“I watch every penny. I hire the top talent I can find remotely and in my city. We’re definitely watching our bottom line,” she explained. “If somebody runs a nonprofit as if it’s not a business, then I would really pay attention to their outcomes. I do find that, in the nonprofit world, they sometimes get a pass on their outcomes. You can’t just wear your heart on your sleeve. I’ve seen other nonprofits dissolve within two years. We have to run it like a business.”

How to create connections and build your team

Rock the Street relies on corporate partnerships for sponsors and resources. This is where running a nonprofit is beneficial. It shows that you’re serious about your cause. Many businesses are looking to participate in “outward-facing community projects.” Giving back to the world is likely part of the company’s ethical goals.

Cunningham stresses the importance of being persistent and following up. She also suggests targeting specific associations. Larger companies may have a women’s or minorities’ resource group. Do your research, and pitch accordingly. Because Rock the Street focuses on the financial education gap for young women, the industry was available to support the mission.

“When you start a nonprofit, get comfortable. Put your seatbelt on. It’s going to be a rocky ride. I would say also give yourself at least three years to either fail or succeed,” she said. “Things turned around for me in my third year when I received a big donation. That let me say, ‘I have something here, somebody believes in me.’ Gaining the support of someone you respect lets you know you have something. That gives you the faith to continue.”

To hear more success stories and advice from Maura Cunningham, the founder of Rock the Street, Wall Street, be sure to watch the full interview!

Interested in financial literacy? Watch our interview with Robin Hauser to learn about her documentary on women and money, $avvy.

About the author

Laura Grant

As Managing Editor of Lioness, Laura Grant works with the editorial team and a slew of freelancers and regular contributors to produce a publication that offers equal parts inspiration and information. Laura is a graduate of Western New England University with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a master's degree in Communications. She spent her undergraduate term developing her writing and communication skills through internships, tutoring and student media involvement. Her goal is to publish a novel one day. Before joining Lioness full-time, Laura was a freelancer herself and wrote many stories for the magazine.

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