Like so many Cuban refugees, Ileana Musa has a story of coming to and growing up in the United States that’s about the struggle and survival needed not to attain the wealth and wonders of the American Dream but to achieve a foundation from which to build. Musa’s story is captivating, heartbreaking, and inspiring in ways that aren’t pertinent solely to the Latinx community but to anyone who has ever felt like the odds may be stacked against them—and still found a way to overcome them.
Still, the cohead of international wealth management and head of international banking and lending at Morgan Stanley doesn’t spend much time talking about the hardship she faced. Musa spends almost the entire interview explaining her journey—and others like hers—as a template for Latinos to attain financial independence, equity, and the capacity to help everyone around them.
And this is not just a hope: it’s a reality that Musa has begun to see come to life during her tenure at Morgan Stanley, both through her work for the bank and through its participation in efforts supporting the betterment of the entire US Latino population. “I always say that we will have gotten it right when the next generation can do what we did in half the time,” Musa remarks.
Change Is the Only Certainty
Musa came to the US as a small child, along with her sister, brother, and mother. The shock of landing in a new country shouldn’t have included any further trauma, but Musa’s father was detained and ultimately imprisoned in Castro’s Cuba for the next fifteen years for being entrepreneurial (founding a private company). “At a very young age, I had the recognition that things will not always go as planned,” Musa says.
When Musa was a teenager, her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Again, it was the most difficult of circumstances, but I observed a woman who said, ‘We’re going to get through this. You’re going to step in and help out,’” Musa recalls. She and her sister took over her mother’s after-hours office cleaning job. “It was just what you did without apology, without feeling that you were worse off than anyone else because we learned to focus on what you can control.”
That focus would eventually lead Musa to her degree and later her MBA—with great encouragement from her father, who immigrated to the US following his imprisonment. “My father suffered such misfortune, yet he never looked back,” Musa says. “He came to the US in his early sixties to start over. I watched him start a business, really lean into it, and eventually scale it. All of these things fuel what I stand for today and who I became as a leader.”
Anchor and Foundation
Carving out a successful career in the wealth management space seems like the least of Musa’s accomplishments, but it’s been her anchor and foundation for the outreach she has provided for her community.
“You have to make sure the firm you work for aligns with your passion and purpose,” Musa emphasizes. “The culture and company here really spoke to me. I get very excited about leading in a firm that allows its employees to think outside the box and bring others along to think bigger.”
In her second year, Musa was tapped to build Morgan Stanley’s international banking and lending effort. She then was asked to cohead the entire International Wealth Business. It’s from that role that Musa has been able to advance her mission of helping empower Latinos, particularly women looking to further their careers and develop their goals of financial independence.
Musa also acts as the cochair of the company’s Latino Employee Network. “This is about delivering the Latino segment and cohort through everything we do in business and then impacting the communities we serve,” Musa explains. “It’s so great to see an organization that’s very deliberate about what we do to pay attention to multicultural employees within the communities we serve, and, frankly, I think it makes us a stronger competitor and a stronger organization for it.”
The True Family Legacy
Along with extensive work with the Association of Latino Professionals for America and her advisory board seat at Florida International University, Musa is working to advance the next generation of Latino leaders at macro and micro levels. “My father would always say, ‘Cuídate los quilos, que los pesos se cuidan solos,’ and I think it’s such an important message to remember,” Musa says. “Often, we’re so focused on the career, the job, and the income that we lose sight of all the other things we can do that ultimately allow us to scale or offer our families in terms of legacy.
“Financial empowerment starts with action,” she continues, “and the steps that you take to start your path.”
To ensure that everyone can take those steps, Musa says, we must place greater prominence on financial literacy. “Every student should master the skills of maintaining a budget, understanding the way compounding works, and the importance of deferring momentary pleasures for the benefit of something bigger,” she stresses, “whether it’s homeownership or pursuing an advanced degree.”
For Musa, there was no bank account set up when she was a child, no inheritance or line of credit granted—but she doesn’t mention this to highlight what she has overcome. She believes that the earlier the next generation can begin making concrete steps toward the betterment of their future, the quicker they’ll get to where they want to be. Musa only hopes it takes them half the time it took her.
Tell Your Story
Ileana Musa encourages those who have overcome overwhelming odds to learn to tell their stories. “Sometimes, I believe we do not share our experiences because we think it’s going to be a disadvantage for us,” Musa says. “But the elements of your personal story will make you stand out. Your résumé talks about what you’ve done, not who you are—which is just as important.
“When you’re able to articulate who you are, people take notice and want you on their teams,” she adds. “People want to be around other people who are authentic and self-aware.”