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Cristobel von Walstrom '01

Beyond the Classroom: How I’ve Applied SOM Learnings throughout My Career

Cristobel von Walstrom ’01 on the key life lessons she’s leveraged in her many leadership roles.

It’s been 21 years since I earned my MBA from the Yale School of Management, where I finished with concentrations in strategy and marketing (because we had concentrations back then!).  Since then, I’ve stayed connected to the school through reunions, judging a business case competition, and most recently through Yale’s Women on Boards Executive Education program.

Over the past two decades, I’ve applied my education to a rewarding career. When I left SOM, I spent five years in charge card product strategy and marketing with American Express, thanks to an SOM summer internship. I then spent 10 years at Mastercard, where I developed and launched small business credit card products in the U.S., Latin America, and Asia.

In 2015, I left the payments industry to join a fertility company as general manager of financial services. I subsequently returned to payments, and in my most recent role was senior vice president of payment networks and strategic partnerships at Synchrony, a financial services company. And along the way, I learned to fly, becoming a private pilot with more than 350 hours, which I’ve used to explore 12 states from the air…so far.

Of course my SOM coursework contributed to my success. But beyond that, my Yale experiences taught me three life lessons that I’ve applied throughout my career:

  • Never Stop Learning: At SOM, I learned the importance of keeping an eye on the future, anticipating change, and driving innovation to grow a business and beat the competition. That mindset has been crucial in product development. For example, at Mastercard I developed various products, including some that monetized Mastercard’s vast stores of data. That was innovative and unusual in 2011, way ahead of its time. And it paid off—we increased revenue for one product suite 100% year over.

    Learning can come from multiple sources. When I returned to campus in 2018 with a fellow Synchrony executive and Yale alum to judge a SOM business competition, I was inspired by the teams’ creativity and professional presentations. And I learned by playing the role of potential investor how to assess potential products & business from their perspective. Plus, it felt gratifying to give back to students and the school. 

    I’ve also continued to learn as a pilot, not only in the sky, but lessons that translate to business leadership: Construct a plan, but consider possible obstacles and challenges that might mean you need a Plan B. Keep a vision in mind, but don’t forget about the details. Stay focused—but aware of your environment and who else is in it. Manage multiple activities, but know in a pinch which ones are crucial and which are not. Keep your goal in mind but be flexible with how to reach it. Don’t let fear hold you back. All applicable in the cockpit and in executive roles!
  • Say Yes to New Opportunities: While my MBA centered on marketing and strategy, over the past two decades, I’ve worked for six different companies in multiple roles with differing focuses. In some cases, I took a leap into brand-new areas. But each time I made a change, I found the benefits outweighed the risks. I’ve gained experience and expanded my expertise by delving into small business products; leading ideation, development, commercialization, and the launch of numerous products; and building strategic partnerships with major clients to drive orders of magnitude in profitability increases. All because I said yes!

    Here’s a great example: In 2015, while my career had focused on payments, I took on what would become one of my most rewarding experiences: leading the financial services business unit at Integremed Fertility, North America’s largest network of fertility centers. Compared to other industries, fertility can be deeply emotionally fulfilling: New parents would bring their babies into the office, and we’d cry together over the miracle of this new little life! So far, no one has come into my office to thank me and cry over an innovative new credit card. I guess there’s still time…! But beyond the emotional fulfillment, I learned how to run a business unit, including everything from customer service to product operations to accounts payable. And I managed a $300M P&L. I’ll never regret taking that role and the opportunities and insights it gave me. 
  • Stay Connected and Make Connections for Others: This was one of the many things I learned from Senior Associate Dean Jeff Sonnenfeld when I took his class in 2001, and he reinforced both points when he facilitated the recent Women on Boards program, leveraging insights gained from his robust network to ask some of the most probing questions needed by our country, economy, and world. The Board course engaged women from multiple countries, industries, and walks of life—all of us eager to contribute via service on corporate boards. We learned from Jeff and other instructors and speakers, including one of my idols, Indra Nooyi ’80. The connections we made were meaningful and lasting.  

    Finally, during my time at Yale, I co-led a women’s MBA group that allowed me to form relationships and help open doors for fellow students, and ignited my passion for advocating for diversity, especially for women in the workplace. I applied that experience at Mastercard, where I founded and co-led the company’s first employee resource group, the Women’s Leadership Network. Over eight years, the network expanded to multiple countries with more than 1,600 members. It was an honor to play a role in connecting so many great women leaders.