Story by Joan Oleck; photographs by Deborah Feingold
To enter the tigress’s den, a visitor must first maneuver the tony shopping district of New York’s Midtown, then pass beneath the archway of the landmark 500 Fifth Avenue building, with its shimmering gray marble and Art Deco-style sconces, before ascending to the 15th floor.
There, inside the doors of Tigress Financial Partners, awaits ... well, nothing particularly scary. Just a light-filled office decorated in orange and white, with flickering Bloomberg screens, a Plexiglas-encased basketball from former client Walt Frazier, and a photo from a long-ago relationship with Prince Albert of Monaco.
Nor is the tigress herself at all frightening, but rather an attractive blonde in her early 50s, with a heart-shaped face, a ready smile, and a petite physique attired in chunky gold jewelry and what the tigress herself describes as her standard attire: a long-sleeved dress jacket.
To hide the scars on my arms.
Here at last lies the first clue why Cynthia DiBartolo ’84 gave her financial services firm the name for a female tiger or an equally fierce, passionate woman.
Because she herself is one.
DiBartolo is a tigress not just because she started her own investment banking and brokerage firm — a rare feat in the male-dominated financial industry. Nor because she rose through the ranks of U.S. banking to direct the complex integration of Citicorp’s and Smith Barney’s investment divisions.
Nor is she a tigress just because she reached a high-enough perch in the financial world to chair the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce and be anointed a “leader” on the White House Business Council.
No, the biggest reason Cynthia DiBartolo is a tigress is that she has faced not one but two terrifying bouts of dangerous head and neck cancer. Diagnoses that twice forced her to endure a tracheotomy and the surgical dissection and rebuilding of large chunks of her tongue and neck, using veins, muscle, and arteries from her arms.
“I’m a big believer that when you get cancer, you could be a victim — and it’s okay to be a victim. But it’s not okay to be a ‘volunteer.’”
In turn, those treatments not once but twice required that she relearn how to speak and swallow. And as if that weren’t enough, doctors at the second surgery opted to aggressively cut out the cancer by literally splitting her face in two, involving more postsurgical complications and pain than any one person deserves in a lifetime.
“I think it’s about seizing my life back,” DiBartolo says, looking back on her ordeal and subsequent choice of a name for her company, which she founded in 2011. “I’m a big believer that when you get cancer, you could be a victim — and it’s okay to be a victim. But it’s not okay to be a ‘volunteer.’
“I also realized that if I allowed my world to get small, my family’s world would get small,” DiBartolo continues. “So, I had to get a quality of life back that they were used to seeing me have — to be engaged in a way they were used to seeing me engaged. And to inspire other people along the way.”
To hear her tell it, DiBartolo herself got a huge dose of inspiration, growing up, from her now-retired orthodontist-father, Anthony, who owned practices in Brooklyn and Staten Island. She remembers asking him, at age 10 or 11, “Daddy, what does it mean to be a ‘success’?” And she remembers his answer: “I’ll be a success when you’re a success.” (Years later, when she founded Tigress, he would tell her, beaming, “Now, I’m a ‘success.’”)
Another favorite quote from her dad is one she elicited after one of her surgeries, during a depressed moment. “Daddy, what will I do with myself?” she cried to him. Growled Anthony DiBartolo in response: “Those doctors operated on your tongue, not your brain. Figure it out!”
As a little girl, Cynthia remembers, life was happy and not particularly dramatic, with her big Italian family in Dongan Hills, Staten Island. Her mom was Dolores; her older and younger sisters, who also attended Wagner, Lorraine ’83 and Tracy ’86.
Middle daughter Cynthia, who’d first turned down a prestigious congressional nomination to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, began her own four years at Wagner torn between theater and political science. That’s why she started out with a double major. And she did well, graduating cum laude and getting elected president of student government her senior year.
The latter role entailed a rocky relationship with the then-president of Wagner, whom we’ll call Dr. F. “We had some issues going on in the dormitories that weren’t being properly addressed,” DiBartolo remembers. “And I was very outspoken about the issues and the safety of the students.”
Dr. F, she remembers, wasn’t at all responsive and seemed to watch her every move. Before commencement, when DiBartolo was scheduled to give the customary student-body president’s speech, he outright demanded a copy in advance. “Knowing how Dr. F worked, I gave him a speech, but it wasn’t the speech I gave at graduation!” DiBartolo says with a sly smile. “I didn’t give it to him, so he could sit there and wonder what was going to come out of my mouth. ... My message was really, ‘Listen to the students. Listen. And you could learn a lot.’
“Today’s president [Richard Guarasci] is much better,” she’s happy to add about Wagner. “As a result, you see a campus that is breathtaking; you see students that are fully engaged.”
DiBartolo herself was certainly fully engaged. She remembers the intellectual excitement she felt around faculty like the late political science professor Phyllis Andors (“I’m grateful for every minute I was able to share in her class”) and theater professor Randy Alderson (“a visionary in terms of how he saw productions”). She especially remembers the pure joy of her turns onstage.
Mostly, she recalls the friends she made in theater, like Cheryl Gucwa ’81. Gucwa herself remembers DiBartolo’s role as one of the Hot Box girls in the musical Guys and Dolls, and a specific scene where DiBartolo’s character had to look for an earring.
“Every night she would find the earring in a different place!” Gucwa says, chuckling. “She was finding her own moment on stage ... a moment when the audience was looking at her.”
Another close Wagner friend, Georgette Fleming Reed ’84 M’86, met DiBartolo during a study-abroad semester in Bregenz, Austria. “She’s quite a woman and besides that quite a friend at the same time,” Reed says. But back in their Bregenz days, the friendship was new and tinged with friction. DiBartolo, explains Reed, “was a fashionista before ‘fashionista’ was in vogue.
“She had a suitcase full of shoes she brought over [to Austria] with her and continued to add to her collection along the way, in Italy and Switzerland; and it was too big and heavy, and we were always late for trains. So I was always lugging the suitcase around,” Reed says. “But, if you look at all the pictures, she never had any of those shoes on! I don’t know what I was lugging around!
“And when we got back, I had back surgery. I called and blamed her!”
The grudge didn’t last. “She’s extraordinarily smart, intellectual, a great people person,” says Reed of DiBartolo. “She makes people feel comfortable, no matter who they are and what level they come from.”
Those qualities served DiBartolo well following graduation, when it was time to get serious about her career. She’d replaced theater with political science as her focus and had her eyes on the law. Admitted to law school at Villanova University, she showed the first hint of the tigress to come by choosing the decidedly non-mainstream specialty of federal securities regulation. “I thought, ‘I can do something innovative, in a space that doesn’t have a lot of lawyers and be one of the few female lawyers in it,’” DiBartolo says.
Already, she’d proven her chops in finance, working at now-defunct Bear Stearns right out of college and quickly rising from administrative assistant to junior analyst. She also got her first taste of the industry’s misogyny: Asking her boss — a partner, no less — why he’d hired her, she remembers his saying, “If I have to work with somebody eight hours a day, they’d better be easy on the eyes.”
DiBartolo ignored him, and doubled down on work. “I had always wanted to work on Wall Street,” she says. “I didn’t know what ‘Wall Street’ was — a place? An actual street? A culture? I got there and [discovered], ‘Oh! It’s a cult!’”
A law position at Merrill Lynch followed law school. And that led to a bank manager job at Citibank, where DiBartolo committed to learning every job. Tigress-style, she attacked even the ground-level teller job: handing money to customers, stamping receipts, smiling nonstop (“Thank you for banking at Citibank!”) until the operations manager leaned in with a helpful hint: “Cynthia, next time, count the money.”
She learned. And, later, after creating a hybrid banking-investment product called Citigold, she was promoted to direct the complex integration of Citigroup’s two broker-dealers, Smith Barney and Citicorp Investment Services.
Those years, the late ’80s and 1990s, were a time of big money and big living, as well as two marriages: the first to a dentist, a childhood sweetheart; the second to a Monaco film producer she’d met in New York. There was a luxurious excursion to Bali, a journey across the Sahara with Bedouin guides, a stint meditating with monks in Taiwan’s Hsinchu mountains.
Her friend Georgette Reed remembers DiBartolo’s lavish three-day wedding to the filmmaker, in Monte Carlo — with parties in France and Italy — and, a year later, the big party the couple threw on the Caribbean island of Mustique to celebrate their first anniversary.
Then, there was Prince Albert of Monaco, whom DiBartolo’s second ex had introduced her to in Monaco and whom she initially greeted with, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Serene Highness — did I screw that up?”
No screw-up at all. Rather, her humor and smarts and adorable good looks captured the Prince’s heart. After her divorce, the two dated for over a year — Albert used to love when she picked him up at his New York hotels in her Prowler Mulholland sports car and the two sped off, trying to outrun his security detail.
At Citigroup, DiBartolo was at the peak of her career, as the global bank’s risk manager. It was 2007, and the markets were roiling, starting their slide toward the Great Recession that would start that December.
All that stress took a toll: a flare-up of her old nemesis, psoriasis. So, she followed her doctor’s advice to take the injectable drug Humira. But, after 10 months of treatment, in 2009, things went horribly wrong: facial pain, hearing loss, oral bleeding. The diagnosis: squamous cell carcinoma.
“When the doctor told me, ‘You have advanced carcinoma,’ I was like, ‘Let’s fix it because I’ve got to get back to work!’” DiBartolo says of her initial naïveté. “And he said, ‘Do you know what a glossectomy [removal of the tongue] is?’ And I’m sitting there kind of glazed over.”
The doctor was saying there was no time for radiation or chemo. That, without surgery, she’d have six months, a year maybe, to live. That with surgery, she’d be permanently disfigured.
The tigress roared, her friend Cheryl Gucwa remembers. “I use the word ‘grit’ to describe what I saw in Cynthia — that determination and persistence she had to dig deep to find, to live through this adverse diagnosis,” Gucwa says. As a speech pathologist herself, Gucwa knew exactly what DiBartolo faced.
Indeed, DiBartolo confronted her diagnosis head-on, with help from her family — especially her sisters, both Wagner-trained RNs — and Mark Greenberg, the man who would become her fiancé a year later. “She was nothing short of inspiring,” Greenberg says. “When she went in for the first surgery — I’m getting choked up, saying this — she squared her shoulders off the way a fighter would. And went in like she was returning defective merchandise.
“I’ve never seen a person accept a challenge more readily.”
DiBartolo softens, talking about Greenberg, an investment banker, but also — an odd pairing — a TV actor and accomplished drummer who has played with the likes of Dave Matthews and the Allman Brothers’ Dickey Betts. “It was June 27, 2005,” Greenberg says of their first meeting. An art gallery owner had put together a rock event, and Greenberg spotted her across the room. “I saw Cynthia and walked right up to her, kissed her without a word, and said, ‘I have two questions for you: One, are you married?’ She said, ‘No.’ ‘And, two, are you engaged?’”
Replied DiBartolo, “Not anymore.”
In fact, she broke off her then-engagement to commit to her handsome, long-haired beau, who proved his love, sticking by her after her surgery, when she was having seizures, pneumonia, pulmonary edema. “She literally was drowning,” Greenberg says. She herself describes “pain, grueling, indescribable.”
But she also recalls loving support, as she struggled to relearn to speak with a heavy, rebuilt tongue: from her mother, Dolores, who withheld a glass of water until Cynthia could pronounce “water.” And from Greenberg, who promised an engagement ring if she could speak two particularly tough words, “ring” and “bling.” (She got the diamond.)
In 2011, realizing that her limited speech made returning to banking impossible, she registered Tigress Financial Partners as a broker-dealer, with a feminist twist. “I wanted to form a company that’s sensitive to women with disabilities, and woman-owned and controlled.
“Right now, what I’m focused on is hiring female wounded warriors.”
What she’s also focused on in her post-surgery career phase, author Kim Ann Curtin writes in a new book Transforming Wall Street, is “balancing consciousness and capitalism.”
As DiBartolo explains it, “I had an awakening about the culture of banking. It had become everything I thought it shouldn’t be. It was about financial ‘products’ rather than financial ‘services.’” By embarking on a small business of her own, she decided, “I could interject the culture and philosophy I felt was right, as a ‘conscious capitalist,’ transforming what Wall Street had become … to get that trust and integrity that needed to be re-established.”
And so she founded Tigress, which two years after opening to customers attained the coveted Zacks rating for superior portfolio performance. The firm, where CEO DiBartolo owns an 80 percent stake, now has 34 employees, three branches worldwide, and an international clientele. “Nobody ever heard of us, yet we outperformed these major houses,” DiBartolo brags (deservedly). “Institutions were calling us, saying, ‘Who are you?’”
“I need to be a voice for the voiceless. ... I’m blessed to have access to platforms. I just want to use them for advancing social good on different levels.”
Now, they know. They know, too, of DiBartolo’s cancer reoccurrence in 2012, when, to finally knock out the disease, her surgeons advised that facial dissection. This time, she drew on the lessons from her first surgery, so that only eight weeks later, she was speaking on a panel about finance. Greenberg was there. “I remember realizing, ‘I never would have recognized the fact that she’d had surgery eight weeks before, after having a major portion of her tongue removed and reconstructed,’” he says.
Today, DiBartolo’s speech — though limited to just a few hours a day — evinces only a slight lisp, hardly reflective of her ordeal. She wears heavy makeup and long sleeves to disguise the scars. And she is relentlessly upbeat and busy. She chairs the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, with 22,000 small business members. “I’ve seen her work with the governor and lieutenant governor to make sure there’s a level playing field for women and all those [Chamber] entrepreneurs,” says Chamber CEO Mark Jaffe. “Those are pretty solid accomplishments.”
She’s sued the makers of Humira for millions as part of a massive legal case. She’s testified on Capitol Hill about issues like paid family medical-insurance leave and pregnancy discrimination. She’s founded Tigress Cares Foundation to advocate for head and neck cancer patients. She’s worked on economic issues for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, who calls her “a titan, a fighter, a champion and a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion.” She’s even found time to connect Wagner women students to mentors in the business world.
And, according to her fiancé, she may finally be planning that long-delayed wedding.
Beneath it all is the image of that tigress pacing, trying to make things better for women in the workplace, and overall for America’s smallest entrepreneurs, rather than its biggest banks.
“When you can speak only for the limited time that I can speak, for eight hours a day,” DiBartolo says, “I need to be a voice for the voiceless. ... I’m blessed to have access to platforms. I just want to use them for advancing social good on different levels.
“I hope that I am able to impact people’s lives in a positive way. My goal is always to leave people in places better than I found them. So, if I can figure that out, and I do that every day, I feel good about it.”