The Graduate: Interviewing Notable Alumni from Every Decade of Stern
The Oppy is commemorating another decade of NYU Stern with our new ‘The Graduate’ series. Each month, we’ll interview notable alum from each decade since the 1960s through the 2010s that has made an impact in their community and industry.
The Graduate, 1990 Edition: Alan Gallo, EVP, Chief Audit Executive of American Express
This month’s ‘The Graduate’ interview is with Alan Gallo, executive vice president and chief audit officer of American Express. He has over 30 years of career experience at a global corporation. He’s also a double Sternie (both MBA and B.S.), and graduated from the Langone program at NYU in 1990 with his MBA.
Hi, Alan! Tell us about your position at Amex and how your MBA helped you on your career path.
I’m Chief Audit Officer of American Express. I lead the Internal Audit Group at Amex reporting to the chair of the Board’s Audit Committee. We have external auditors who audit our financial statements, external regulators who do a lot of the testing, but this is all internal.
I went to Stern undergrad and then got my MBA at Stern while I was working [at AMEX] at night. Generally speaking, whether about my own experience or about the Stern grads who we hire all the time here at AMEX, I feel like people who graduate from Stern have a great blend of business acumen and real, practical application skills. We hire people who hit the ground running. They come wired with a sense of how to apply what they learned in business school to real-life situations.
What was your favorite professor/class at Stern and why?
I certainly had a lot of awesome professors, but the one class that stuck with me was with Arbie Dale, who taught Organizational Psychology. In the business world, we know that things change so rapidly, and that it’s important to be data literate. But one thing that hasn’t changed all that much is that humans are humans. Reading people’s motivations, what makes them want to work, what makes humans either lean in to a change or resist a change, just treating people as people—that really hasn’t changed all that much. Professor Dale taught a master class in that. And for [me], a guy who’s really right-brain, the education he gave me on the left-brain side of things really helped me and still helps me to this day.
You met your now-wife in undergrad at Stern. Tell us about that and how you made the first move (or if she did).
We were in the [now-defunct] Scholars Program at Stern. Each winter break the whole group took a trip somewhere, and our first trip was to Rio de Janeiro, which was pretty romantic. We were in undergrad together at NYU, and we were on the hotel rooftop together in Rio. And I made the first move. She was a marketing major and I was a finance major and we were in a freshman writing class together. We started dating about a year after that and now have two children who are older than we were at that age.
If there’s one thing you could change about your experience as an MBA, what would it be?
I went at night [for my MBA]. As somebody whose family didn’t have a lot of resources, I was grateful that I could get my degree at night and that my company paid for it. But if there’s one thing I could change (and part of the reason why I’m an active alumni), I want people who can’t afford to go [to business school at NYU] but who deserve to go, to be able to go and to get the most out of it. The full-time program wasn’t even an option for me because I didn’t think there was any way I’d be able to pay for it. It’s hard to get the most out of the part-time program while you’re working at the same time.
You worked full-time at Amex while getting your MBA part-time. What was the most challenging part of that journey for you? Any tips for our Langone students today?
It was definitely challenging [to work full-time and go to school], and this was before the Internet and cell phones and everything. To be working you really had to be at your desk, so people have that benefit [of being able to work from anywhere] today. The good thing about it, though, is that you’re in Langone with other Langone students, so you can sort of arrange schedules and find time to assemble as a group for group projects.
Many of our graduating MBAs are in the process of applying for jobs. What do you think are the most important characteristics and qualities of top candidates in today’s job market?
I mentioned practical application earlier and having the ability to adapt business acumen from academia into real-world scenarios.
Two additional qualities also come to mind when we think about candidates. Obviously, you want people who are technically proficient, not just in the fields of whatever it is you’re hiring for—whether it’s finance, marketing, etc.—but also proficient when it comes to data literacy. It’s hard to find a job nowadays—in any discipline, really—where reading and manipulating data is not at the center of decision-making. I know Stern has leaned into developing that skill set with its students.
Another skill is flexibility in terms of being able to learn quickly. An accelerating trend is that the nature of work changes quickly, and the nature of problems that you face in the business world changes quickly. A lot of the problems we face require a foundation of technical skills, but it’s really more about everything you’ve learned as a professional and as a person and being able to put that together in order to make difficult decisions.
You’ve stayed connected to Stern in many ways since graduating, as chair of the Stern Alumni Council and as a guest on Stern Chats. Why did you decide to stay close to the Stern community?
Stern is a big part of who I am as a person and who I am as a professional. I feel like I owe it to the school to be an ambassador for that experience and to help other people get that experience.
When I got into Stern, my parents couldn’t afford to send me there. The initial scholarship grant I got wasn’t enough to support me, so my mom called the dean’s office. At the time, Dean Gilfoyle looked up my transcripts and told my mom, “I want Alan to come to school, so we’re going to figure it out.” I often thank my mom for leaning in and calling the dean and saying, like, “We’re too poor, but help us send my son to this school.” But Stern came back and made a better scholarship offer.
That was the tipping point that got me to go there, and I just think how different my life would’ve been if I hadn’t gone. I wouldn’t have met [my wife] Christine and my life would’ve been so different professionally. So all of my involvement since then has been to pay that forward, because I want anyone who deserves a certain education and wants to go to Stern, to be able to go to Stern.
If you could give Stern’s current MBAs one piece of advice, what would it be?
What I wish I would’ve done earlier in my career is to maintain a network of professional relationships outside of your workplace, and your alma mater is a good place to start. I was many years deep into my career before I realized that I didn’t have a network of relationships outside of American Express, in part because I didn’t think about it and I didnt work on it.
Earlier in this conversation we talked about how it’s less about what you learn and more about the “how,” and the challenges you face. And a lot of the problems don’t have easy answers, so how do you tackle that? You talk to a lot of people, you talk to people from different backgrounds and different experiences. If you talk to people at your same company or who have the same experiences as you, you’re probably not going to have a diversity of perspective, and you’re probably not going to get the best answer. I wish I had been more thoughtful about that and about developing a professional network earlier in my career, and it’s something that is much easier if you develop a habit earlier on.