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Maria Elena Cuomo




Elena Cuomo was born Maria Elena Cavallaro in Sicily in the early 1950’s. Her ancestral roots originate in Eastern Europe. Her maternal great grandmother, Amalia Kohn, gave birth to Elena’s grandfather Mauritz Rosenfeld in Kadarkut, Budapest, Hungary in 1899.

During the Second World War Elena’s grandfather, Mauritz, was arrested by the SS and interned in a Jewish work camp before being deported to Auschwitz, where he perished. His teenage daughter, Maria Rosenfeld, escaped the same fate and fled on a train bound for Milan.

In Italy Maria met with a dashing young Sicilian pilot, Francesco Cavallaro, who was a lieutenant with the Italian Air Force. They fell in love but were forced to hide their relationship due to Maria’s Jewish background. However they secretly married and soon had a growing family. Their first child, a son, was born shortly after their marriage followed by four daughters.

“How the Foundation has metamorphosed since its inception is not too dissimilar to the actions of a chrysalis transforming itself into a butterfly. From one beginning, life changes !”

Maria Elena, who was named Lena at birth, was the eldest daughter. She was born and initially raised in Sicily. Her father, Francesco, continued his career in the Military during peacetime rapidly rising within the ranks to become a General. The Cavallaro family was stationed across the African Continent during the 50’s and early 60’s and while Europe experienced unprecedented hardship and continuing upheaval and trauma during the post-war era, Lena and her siblings led a fairly exotic, exploratory childhood exposed to many different cultures, customs and changes. Her parents own experiences of the second world war and their desires to explore, understand and make sense of the new world order greatly influenced the young inquisitive Lena in her own quest for knowledge.

When her father was moved to Kinshasa, in the democratic republic of Congo, with her mother and her two youngest sisters, it was decided to leave Lena in Europe. She was sent to Rome to complete her secondary education in the Spanish convent school, Le Scolopie.

In Rome, alone, the seventeen years old Lena decided that it was the right time to change her name to the more ‘Glamorous’ Elena, like the heroine of the Trojan War and to halt her global wanderings and settle in Rome to complete her studies. Elena’s international education enabled her to be easily accepted at the prestigious La Sapienza, University of Rome. She was awarded a first class Laurea di Dottore in Classics and Philosophy, equivalent to the new Italian Master’s degree now named Laurea Magistrale. Until very recently, the Laurea took much longer to earn than undergraduate degrees elsewhere in Europe and North America. To earn a Laurea, the students had to complete 4 to 6 years of university courses, and also complete a thesis, which in most cases required experimental work.

Equipped with her masters’ degree and also fluent in French and English, Elena quickly established herself in the highly competitive industry of international financial services. She gained further honours and qualifications in banking and stock exchange trading and by the mid 1990’s Elena was working for international clients in both Europe and the United States. But her love of travelling and exploring never left her and in meeting her future husband, Alfredo Cuomo, she met her soul mate.

"...In meeting her future husband, Alfredo Cuomo, she met her soul mate..."

Alfredo, an Italian who completed his studies in America on a Fulbright Scholarship was fiercely bright, articulate, adventurous and inquisitive. He had made his name and a highly successful career in the Italian film industry and was a great patron of the Arts. Together they began to travel the world, forging friendships and working to support and highlight African artists.

Professional photographic books were published showcasing the skills of Alfredo’s work as a photographer and documenting their journeys throughout Asia . It was while in India that the seed of the Cuomo Foundation was planted. From the simple act of helping a local rural school and its children, the Cuomo Foundation flowered.

The unexpected and premature death of Alfredo Cuomo in 2009 left Elena personally devastated and although she had promised to keep the Foundation alive, it was a huge nearly overwhelming undertaking for her alone. However, the memory of Alfredo’s spirit and Elena’s revived unstoppable energy, enthusiasm, passion and commitment allowed the Foundation to grow, evolve and become the far-reaching organization that it is today.

Under her presidency, new partnerships and sponsorships have been created most notably with La Chaine de L’Espoir and the Government of Senegal, Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, Monaco Red Cross, Municipality of Monaco Town Hall, Monaco Disease Power, No Finish Line, Princess Grace Academy and Premio Roma Danza. Whilst established partnerships have been strengthened most notably in India and with the Roma International Piano Competition.

As the president of the Cuomo Foundation Maria Elena Cuomo has accepted numerous honours on behalf of the work carried out by the Foundation globally.

Importantly, in 2012, H.S.H Prince Albert II of Monaco personally bestowed on her the honour of Kinship of the Order of Saint Charles in recognition of her active involvement in humanitarian fields.

In October 2020, at a special private ceremony held at the Presidential Palace in Dakar, the President of the Republic of Senegal His Excellency Mr Macky Sall awarded her the National Order of the Lion with the rank of Commander. In bestowing Senegal’s highest civil and military honour for exceptional merit and service, President Sall highlighted the Cuomo Foundation’s commitment “to Senegal and the eminent services rendered to the Senegalese Nation”.

In November 2020, in a ceremony held at the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, H.S.H Prince Albert II of Monaco presented her with The Order of Grimaldi in recognition of the outstanding solidarity shown by the Cuomo Foundation at the height of the global health crisis.

Since taking on the crucial role of President of the Cuomo Foundation, Maria Elena Cuomo has realigned the nature of the organisation by carefully and closely monitoring the outcomes and results of its actions. So that today, the Foundation increasingly acts as the ‘operating partner’ in the projects it funds rather than ‘a sponsor’ role which it had traditionally adopted.


Maria Elena Cuomo
An album compiled by Senthil Gandhi, Cuomo Foundation’s contributor in India
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