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Claire Hughes Johnson ’01

Claire Hughes Johnson ’01 of Stripe Tells New MBAs: Find Your Role

Claire Hughes Johnson ’01, chief operating officer at Stripe, talked to the MBA Class of 2020 about the importance of working in teams.

Claire Hughes Johnson ’01 wasn’t immediately sure what particular talent she brought to her Venture Capital & Private Equity team when they entered a competition representing the Yale School of Management. She had a classmate who could churn out a financial model in less than an hour, another who could understand the legalese forming a company’s organizational structure, and others who exceled in marketing strategy. But when it came time to synthesize the team’s thinking and pull everyone together for their final recommendation to the judges, Johnson learned it was this area that was her strength.

“I believe we all have natural skills and abilities that we bring to the table,” said Johnson, chief operating officer at the online payments company Stripe, while addressing the incoming MBA Class of 2020 during Orientation on August 13. “What you will find is, you will have classmates that will leave you amazed at what they can do in just a few hours’ time for an assignment. And guess what? They’re also amazed at what you can do.” 

She recalled advice that then dean Jeffrey Garten imparted to her class at orientation as wisdom she still follows to this day. “He said that ‘you’re going to learn that your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.’ For me, one of my greatest strengths is I’m good at relaying what other people are saying and synthesizing it. However, I've also found I can over-communicate and not listen enough, and that’s a way my strength becomes a weakness.”

Johnson, who was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business in 2017, also discussed how she’s used her strengths as a communicator to help grow teams and companies. The leadership and teambuilding frameworks she learned while at Yale SOM have shaped and spanned her career, she said, including her time at Google helping to oversee projects like self-driving cars and running sales for AdWords. At Stripe, she’s worked to expand the company’s footprint. Since she joined Stripe in 2014, Johnson said, the company has grown from around 160 employees to more than 1,100. It’s looking to further build out its global presence in the online payments industry by making it easier for companies of all sizes to be paid quickly and across borders, regardless of currency or payment method.

“A lot of these processes are still incredibly balkanized, which should not be true in the age of the internet,” Johnson said. “And for some countries, banking infrastructure simply doesn’t exist, so we’re focused on building the commerce infrastructure so that companies and new business models can be created anywhere in the world.”

Solving these tricky issues at Stripe is an extension of Claire’s passion for improving economic access that began with her work in politics early in her career—and then carried into her roles at Google, where the focus was moving small businesses’ marketing efforts online. However, it was her time at Yale SOM that helped her learn the skills to navigate the challenging scenarios startups face. Through exercises in the classroom and participating in case competitions, she where she could fill in gaps for her teammates. Most important, she said, is that she formed her own criteria and standards for what makes her teams work most effectively.

“You have to know what motivates you, and for me, I know I like building things and making them better,” she said. “SOM instills this strong philosophy of working in teams. Real work is working in teams, and your end product relies on how other people in your team perform. You cannot deliver it all on your own.”