Voice of Experience: Gabrielle Vitale, SVP and Chief Information Security Officer, American Express

GabrielleVitaleBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

“As opportunities were presented over my career, I made a variety of shifts. These shifts came with unique challenges that I took on with a great deal of gusto,” says Gabrielle Vitale, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer at American Express, looking back on her almost three-decade long career at the company.

“I have been incredibly fortunate to perform in a number of roles, and had job opportunities you might not expect to encounter at a single company.”

She added, “It is not just about getting the job done, but being curious and having the desire to make it better and do more. The status quo never sat well with me.”

Career Path at American Express

Vitale started with the company as a customer service representative while in college. “Working in a variety of customer service functions at American Express really gave me a feel for how the company works. As a young adult, these servicing roles also allowed me to develop listening and problem- solving skills.”

After earning an undergraduate degree in finance, Vitale moved to the controllership organization, learning and conducting corporate accounting and finance activities. “I started to hone my leadership skills, which led to more professional opportunities. During this time, I was exposed to great thought leaders and I wanted to emulate them.”

Through the next shift in Vitale’s career, she had a chance to work on the first shared servicing concept introduced for finance, which meant round-the-clock servicing in multiple regions across the globe. The position taught her process management and launched the second part of her career.

Leveraging proven familiarity in finance and process management, Vitale moved on to a mergers and acquisition role in business travel, where she led a finance office and the integration of a large travel acquisition into American Express, a project Vitale says she is very proud of. “It taught me a lot about myself, my management style and I grew up as a leader, certainly as a thought leader. I brought the confidence of my prior experiences, while learning a tremendous amount about people, HR practices, and product management.”

This ultimately led to Vitale’s next role as Chief Financial Officer in business travel. “It was a terrific experience, the culmination of skills gained from previous roles.”  In this role, she had a seat at the table, helping manage a complete P&L.

When Sarbanes Oxley (SOX) legislation was introduced to address corporate governance concerns, Vitale had the opportunity to manage SOX and corporate governance for American Express’ global businesses. Her experience and success in this role opened the door for a complete departure from familiar finance and process management to a new arena.

Vitale was recruited and promoted to become the Chief Information Security Officer for the company. “Taking on this role was pretty amazing, considering I’m not from an IT background. I have had a lot of experience and successes, and the confidence that comes with that, but this was an unknown environment and new discipline,” says Vitale. “I am so proud to have had people who believed in me and I wanted to show them they made the right decision.”

Changes in the Financial Services Industry

Vitale believes regulatory changes in the financial services makes the industry an interesting place for work – particularly because it encourages cross-function relationships.

“I believe, right now, the financial services sector is in both an exciting and somewhat challenging place. The regulatory environment has changed dramatically. It feels good to partner with a variety of experts and bring my perspective to bear on how we can operate more efficiently. The environment can be daunting, but working across the enterprise to deliver what’s needed is rewarding. One of the many benefits from working in financial services technology is the opportunity to collaborate with people in vastly different areas. There is a lot of teamwork.”

“It is an interesting time; more corporations and certainly financial services are operating in the digital age to deliver value to customers, while at the same time doing everything possible to protect the consumer. Marrying the two is important and something I am passionate about,” she continued.

Advice for Professional Women

“As I reflect broadly on my career, in accounting and finance, women were well represented at the university level, preparing women for entry- level positions, which can lead to advancement. When I moved to risk management and IT specifically, there was less of pipeline from an educational perspective. In my view, this had been a bit of a barrier to preparing women for executive positions in these disciplines. There has been an improvement over the past several years.  We must continue to encourage young women to explore these fields.”

Vitale gives young women and men the same advice. “When you select your career, make sure it’s something you love. Especially women, who sometimes may take the safest path, not necessarily the best fit. Make sure you have a passion and commitment for your field.”

She encourages young people to find a mentor, ask questions, get advice, be honest with yourself, and put 110% into everything you do. “Whatever role you take, learn it, make it better and pay back before you leave it. Be focused on what you can do, learn, and give, which doesn’t happen in 12 months.”

“We have to always push ourselves to expand our knowledge and responsibilities. Go into new, exciting spaces. If you’re courageous, I think it will pay off.”

Women at American Express

Vitale praised American Express’s efforts to attract, retain and promote women.
As far back as 15 years ago she benefited from an executive leadership development program during her career in finance, a program with 50% female participation. “American Express made the decision to invest in women. I’m proud to be part of that.”

In addition to leadership development programs, Vitale has been a member of many networks throughout her career. She has seen a particular emphasis on American Express’ women’s network in the past four to five years, including its Women in Technology network, which provides a community for women to share and learn from the experiences of others.

Vitale also shared that earlier this year, American Express won the Anita Borg 2012 Top Company for Technical Women Award for demonstrating measurable results in the recruitment, retention and advancement of technical women at all levels. “We were proud to receive this recognition.  The company does a great job of investing in women currently at American Express, as well as focusing on the talent pipeline at the university level.”

Vitale also praised the company’s programs that help employees balance their professional and personal lives, including flexible scheduling, alternate work arrangements and telecommuting options. Additionally, Vitale praised the company’s parents’ network. “We’re doing a lot of work to explore how we can help all parents be successful, not just women.”

In Her Personal Time

Outside the office, Vitale spends a lot of time on philanthropy projects.

Being active in the community is important and is one of the core values of American Express. “Representing American Express in the community is important to me.” Vitale continues to lead a variety of projects in the community, including being an active trustee on the board of the Phoenix Zoo for almost five years, one of the largest non-profit zoos in the country.

Above all, she says her most important role is wife and mother. She puts family first.