“If you can see it, you can be it.”
It’s impossible to speak with those who know Sharon Bowen and not come across this phrase again and again. Bowen, whose journey began as a standout student at an all-Black elementary school in her native Virginia, has blazed a groundbreaking trail of leadership in law, finance and public service that has cleared the way for others to follow.
Bowen began her career in big law, climbing the ranks to become a law firm partner in 1991, a time when few women or people of color held such roles. She was nominated in 2013 by President Obama to serve on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the first African American commissioner to ever sit on the CFTC. Then, on Dec. 6, 2021, Bowen was announced as the next chair of the New York Stock Exchange, one of the world’s most modern yet enduring symbols of capitalism. She would be the first woman or person of color to hold that position in the exchange’s 229-year history. Bowen recalls that day well.
Both Bowen and the NYSE have come a long way. For Bowen, the story began in Chesapeake, Virginia, where she was born in the summer of 1956 as the youngest of five children. Her father was an electrician at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Sheila Bowen Taylor, a sister, was the first Black woman to serve as a nuclear engineer there, working on submarines and aircraft carriers. Bowen also had a brother who worked on carriers at Norfolk.
With her siblings setting the bar so high, it should shock no one that Bowen was an excellent student. She was so advanced that in elementary school her teachers had her do normal classwork in the morning and spend the rest of the day on independent reading. Because of that, Bowen developed the ability to read three books a week, a habit she continued for many years.
By the time Bowen entered high school, Virginia’s schools had been integrated and Bowen attended a previously all-white high school. She continued to excel in this new environment, with numerous accolades including student body president, homecoming queen and finishing No. 2 in her class. “The number one person in my class,” she notes, “was also African American.”
Sharon Bowen rings the opening bell.
Bowen attended the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on a full academic scholarship and then went to Northwestern University for a four-year program where she received both an MBA and a JD at Northwestern’s law school. Why choose law instead of engineering, like her sister?
“I wasn’t as smart as her,” she deadpans.
That is typical Bowen, according to those who know her. During her legal career, in which she focused on transactions, capital markets, banking, and mergers and acquisitions, Bowen developed a reputation for devoting a good deal of her time to mentoring others, particularly those underrepresented in the world of corporate law. She began at Davis Polk but in 1988 moved to Latham & Watkins, which at that time was just getting established in New York, making partner within 3 years of joining the new firm.
“She’s the kind of person who knew how to accomplish things by making friends, by making people feel like they were collectively part of the decision-making process. That’s a great quality and it’s something, frankly, that I learned from as a young attorney watching her work,” says Michele Penzer, a partner at Latham & Watkins who has known Bowen since her time there as a summer associate.
Bowen’s exceptional mind, inclusive nature and desire to help others rise has served her well. In 2010, President Obama appointed Bowen to serve as vice chair of the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, which works to protect the clients of brokerage firms that have gone bankrupt. Because she’d seen people hurt during market downturns at various points in her legal career, Bowen was happy to help. She had plenty of opportunity.