UCLA Anderson Alumna Brings Global Vision to Disneyland Paris
- The current president of Disneyland Paris began her Disney career while still in business school at UCLA Anderson
- Her current focus on diversity and inclusion aims for greater equality and representation among women and LGBTQ+ employees
- As a leader, she relies on teamwork and collaboration: “At the end of the day, our collective success is what’s going to shine through”
Natacha Rafalski (’95) often demurred when asked what her favorite attraction was at Disneyland Paris, which she currently leads as présidente. She didn’t want to upset cast members (what the resort calls its employees) at other attractions. But in a recent conversation with UCLA Anderson MBA student Erica Jackey (’21), she admitted that Crush’s Coaster is her favorite at the French resort. “I like fast rides and it’s got some twists,” said Rafalski. Marvel devotee Rafalski is equally excited about the new area of Walt Disney Studios Park that will be devoted to the Marvel Universe. Early in her Disney career, she worked on financing and negotiating for Walt Disney Studios Park and was part of the negotiating team for Shanghai Disney Resort. Her conversation with Jackey, a Forté Fellow and president of Anderson’s Entertainment Management Association, proved wide-ranging, as Rafalski detailed her career progression, her responsibilities and her focus on diversity and inclusion.
I’ll start with my mom. I’m half French, half American and was raised in France. When I went to the States for college, my parents were still in France, and my mom actually worked at Disneyland Paris for a couple of years before the opening. I was invited back for the park opening. That has always been kind of a special moment for me, and my mom was definitely my inspiration in terms of wanting to work for Disney.
I started at Disney when I was in business school and I ended up being hired by the group where I did my internship, which was corporate treasury at Disney, back in 1995. I spent 19 years in that group. Most of my career there was working in corporate finance, and I became involved in some of the complex deals that we had at the time. It was an amazing group with amazing leaders and colleagues.
My specialty was the financial structure and capital structure for Shanghai Disney Resort. I was involved in negotiations, going back and forth between L.A. and Shanghai every couple of weeks. It was an amazing project because I was negotiating in a country that I was not familiar with but also an environment that was very interesting to learn about.
After 19 years, I was really itching to try something different, and I was very fortunate that the chief financial officer role for our Walt Disney International businesses in greater China opened up. I was ready to move into the business side, and to try something new. Walt Disney International handles everything besides theme parks. In China, it comprised studio distribution, television distribution, licensing, Disney Stores and a program to teach children in China to speak English.
After I was there for about four years, I was asked to be the chief financial officer for Disneyland Paris. I was excited to come back to France after all those years and excited to move to the parks business, which is very different from what I had been doing in China.
What’s really fun about working in parks is the breadth of what we do as presidents of these resorts. We are obviously involved in all of the commercial strategy and how we approach our consumers, and that’s very different from site to site. China, Japan, Hong Kong and France are all different, as well as the U.S. So, I’ve had to learn about the European consumer, which is fragmented compared to some of our other locations, because our consumers come from all over Europe. There’s a huge focus on all commercial aspects, including marketing.
The other big area is operations, which is fascinating if you haven’t been in an operating role before. I am constantly awed by what we do every single day in the park to welcome our guests. It is a village we are running that has to operate every day, and the amount of focus around the guest experience is incredible — how they’re navigating the park, how they’re going to attractions, how they’re selecting their attractions, the restaurants and merchandise locations they’re going to, the entertainment we put together, and more. We’re constantly learning. We’re constantly adjusting to improve ourselves day after day, and it’s really, really fascinating.
The other area I spend a lot of time on is our 17,000 cast members. I have a tremendous amount of focus on everything HR-related, and how we’re managing workforce strategies and benefits. We also are a developer of the land around the resort. We are developing offices, housing, retail complexes. It’s a whole other aspect of the business that is somewhat unique to our resort that has been really interesting.
Overarching everything is our long-term strategy, which looks across the entire resort and the future we want to deliver to our guests. Over the next several years, we’re working on a big expansion and how that is going to change the profile of our resort.
Rafalski was joined at Disneyland Paris by some familiar friends
Leadership is something that you grow into. If you told me 25 years ago that I would be sitting here today in what is a tremendous leadership role, I’m not sure I would have believed it. The career progression has really helped me define myself as a leader.
One of the first things I always talk about in terms of leadership is that the teams you build around you are critical. Especially as you elevate in an organization, it becomes more and more important that you lean on and rely on the teams around you to get things done. In an organization the size of Disneyland Paris, I don’t know everything that’s going on, so I really need a team that surrounds me, who are experts at what they do, and who I trust wholeheartedly in their daily jobs.
I rely heavily on teamwork and collaboration, constantly reinforcing that people work together. At the end of the day, our collective success is what’s going to shine through.
Courage is also important. You have to be able to make bold moves. You have to do things that are difficult. You want to make sure that when you’re making those decisions, you have the right counsel behind you. I think teams do expect leaders to be able to make these difficult decisions.
Being approachable is something I hold dear. I want people to feel comfortable speaking up in front of me, whether it’s for positive reinforcement or to share concerns. I want people to be able to be transparent, to raise issues and flag concerns. I think it’s important to set that culture within the company.
As I’ve grown as a leader, I find that spending time with our cast members at different levels of the organization energizes me tremendously. I am constantly inspired by them, and it’s also a tremendous source of information. I like being out talking to cast members so I can hear from them directly about what their experience is like, where the challenges are, what they appreciate in their roles.
As a woman, I’ve always been kind of focused on women in the workplace. I was very fortunate to work for [Disney senior EVP and CFO] Christine McCarthy (’81) for a long period of time, so I had a strong female leader for a significant part of my career at Disney. She’s always been a great inspiration and somebody who also has been championing women since I’ve known her.
Since I moved to Disneyland Paris, we’ve achieved a real focus on gender equality, making sure that we have strong representation of women across all of our leadership teams.
We formed a working group of cast members from all levels of the organization to make sure we are really thinking about our entire population, to put together strategies on how we could make meaningful change within the company. From that group came our resource group centered on women, a group where members can share strategies for career progression and networking, and that has been a great success.
The other area we’ve been very focused on is our LGBTQ+ communities, both internal and external. We had our first Disneyland Paris guest event for Pride last year. It was just an absolutely extraordinary event. We also had conferences that day for the first time internally, to start to educate and talk about our LGBTQ+ communities. We recently launched an internal cast resource group called Disneyland Paris Pride. I still feel that we have a lot of work to do, but we’re very excited about what we’ve been doing as we are taking this core commitment to a new level.
Absolutely, I have pulled on my MBA from the very beginning. I did end up going into a finance career, but what I learned from the Anderson MBA program in terms of other areas of business is something that I’ve looked back on all the time. All of it set a great foundation for launching a career.
We often talk about how important networking is, as part of a business program, and that’s definitely something that has been critical. Even before I got my internship at Disney, I was interested in the entertainment area, and Anderson has such a great focus around entertainment management. I did my field study in entertainment for NBCU. Between the general education, Anderson’s focus on entertainment and the networking — those are my key takeaways from the MBA program at Anderson.
In terms of advice? Be clear on what you want to do. I knew what I wanted to do when I got out of business school. Finance was definitely my focus, but over time that evolved. Having an understanding of what it is that motivates and drives you is really important. And, last but not least, be passionate and always believe in yourself!