“If you have a happy background it makes for a happy future”
Besides being a highly successful entrepreneur as CFO and Investor Relations Officer of the Iguatemi Group, Cristina Betts is a proud Old Paulean and parent at the school.
Like many other former pupils, she has been here to see many of the school’s milestones, seeing the school develop over the years. She was here for the school’s 50th anniversary in 1976, she saw Prince Charles visit in 1981, and she was the head girl in Form 5, to name but a few key memories. In 2013, she made school history by becoming our first female Chair of Governors.
In fact, her story with the school begins years before, even before she was born, when her uncle Johnny Betts, the eldest of three boys (including her father) spent seven years at St. Paul’s, then a boarding school, during World War II. Many years later, when Cristina moved with the family from Rio to São Paulo, there was no doubt as to where to go: she joined the school in Junior 1 and went straight to Form 5. She finished her final years in the United States and later, back in Brazil, she studied Business at Fundação Getulio Vargas and then went to Insead (France), to do her masters.
“I genuinely love the school. I loved the school as a student. I love the school as a parent, and I know the values that stand behind what the school wants”. Here Cristina shares what made her time at the school so special.
What did bring you and your family to the school?
My story with the school starts even before me. My uncle came to St. Paul’s as a border during the war. My grandfather moved to Brazil just before the second world war, met my grandmother, married and had three boys. And my eldest uncle Richard John (Johnny Betts) was ready to be dispatched to a boarding school in London, and of course the war started so he couldn’t go. The school had a boarding programme. They lived in Niteroi – I think you will find a lot of Old Paulean families coming originally from Niteroi. Then my uncle spent seven years boarding at St. Paul’s. He would stay here during the school term and go back to Rio for the holidays and half terms. When the war was over, he was sent to another boarding school in London and my father and my youngest uncle followed him as well.
I came to St. Paul’s when my family moved from Rio to São Paulo in 1974. When we came, I joined Junior One, and Mrs Jezzi was my first teacher. I stayed in school until I finished the equivalent of the IGCSEs. My year was the first year that did the IB at the school, but my family had moved to the United States, so I left in Form 5. My year group finished school in 1987. Then, when I had my kids, it wasn’t even a discussion: they were going to St. Paul’s. My first daughter joined in 2004, and she has just left.
Do you remain in contact with your friends?
Yes, I do, and even going back to school as a parent, I have met so many others Old Pauleans. Especially from the year below me. Everybody was back at school as a parent. You never really get out of touch because we grew up together. It is funny, because even with people I hadn’t seen for years before my kids went to school, it is like you pick up exactly on the same page you left thirty years ago. The conversation seems to be the same. We had a lot of people coming and going, more than today, and we had a lot of expat children at the time. But we also had the kids who went straight through the school, and I think that growing up together makes that so much more fun. We have so many stories.
What do you think makes St. Paul’s special? What is your fondest memory of the school?
It is difficult to specify one thing. I was an incredibly happy child at school. I had the friends, the activities. My life was always centred around the school. I spent eight hours of the day there, did all the ECAs. I was always involved in sports and plays that we had to put on. I spent every day until five or six o‘clock at school and then spent the days off with friends. We did a lot of different things. And that made for a very fulfilling childhood.
I came back afterwards as a Board member of the school and spent about seven years on the Board of Governors. One of the things we used to talk about a lot when I was on the Board was the importance of preserving the school’s sense of community and holistic education. And looking at my experience and that of my children, I think that’s exactly right.
Do you have stories and memories of teachers who had an impact on you?
At the time, teachers used to have longer contracts at school. I spent my five years in the Senior School with the same teachers from beginning to end. That also makes for a different kind of relationship. We had English literature teachers, Mr Auton and Mr Maxwell – they were important in our education. We had our chemistry teacher Mr Foley, who was more of a “love him or leave him” character, and I was in the “love him” group! He was also the house master for Lancaster. And because I used to swim, I never saw him during the athletics season, but during the swimming season. Mr Newton, our maths teacher, was always really influential as well. He was also our coach for volleyball. We were always lazing around, never really wanting to do all the training on the field, and he was always on our toes. He was also the boys’ football captain, so he used to coach the boys for futebol de salão.
Every month we had a rock night at school, which was like a dance event running from 7 pm to midnight. Our physics teacher was a really good DJ, and it was great fun. All the year groups together, in the assembly hall. We had a party to go to with the whole school and it promoted the idea of the whole school being together.
My daughter says to me she cannot believe I can still quote the poetries and Shakespeare texts I learnt at school. I used to love literature and other subjects. Apart from the academic side, I loved sport and competing for my house, Lancaster. We used to be really keen on the Lancaster and York thing. I think having grown up with this house spirit, I know it was friendly, but also competitive. It was a good way to think about an introduction to being competitive in life. It’s not just about the grades and sports, but also about being a team player and losing graciously learning important lessons for future life.
What role has St. Paul’s played in your professional and personal choices?
The school gave me the confidence to go ahead and be curious and do what I wanted to do. There was never a question as to whether could do something, it was always “why not”?
The second thing is the holistic education. It sounds cliché, but at the end of the day It makes for curious people. Former headmaster Crispin Rowe said something to me early on which for me encapsulates St. Paul’s. He said: “we want to make sure that we have lifelong learners. That is what makes life interesting”. The school gives all its pupils enough to do. There will be several things for you to engage with. You might not be interested in everything but there will be a lot of things that you can look at. It will also give the ability to dive deep into something you really like, whether a subject, or another interest. Having that curiosity to go out and look at things, is something that for me came from my school. And it has been important for my career because the truth is, if you are not interested in what you do, how can you spend 12 hours a day at work and not like what you do?
I think the third thing I would say about the school’s education is the way of learning. My mother is Brazilian, and she went to a Brazilian school, and she always pointed out the differences. In science, we never came to the theory before we did the experiment. We did the experiment, thought about it, drew the conclusions and then from them we came to theory. There was a structured way of thinking, very British. The school is good at that.
And finally, the happiness. If you have a happy background it makes for a happy future.
If you were to go back what advice would you give to your teenage self?
One: I would have done more stuff. I could have fitted more in. I did things that kind of fell into my lap. I think I would have done more. And also I was a very good student, but I could have been better. I would strive to be more disciplined today. I would grab more opportunities. I think you take things for granted when you are a kid, you think you are going to have time.
What advice would you give to St. Paul’s pupils today?
I would say: do whatever you can do at school, take every opportunity to be part of whatever you can. You do not know how it will impact you in the future and sometimes things as simple as being part of the school’s play will give you confidence to speak in public. It can be anything, the teamwork you have when you play volleyball. Even if you lose every time, which was the case in my time, the actual training together, working together. It is a different kind of experience, and it is serving for the future – although you do not know how.
What was it like being on the Board of Governors?
For me, it was my first experience in a board. It was interesting to see the dynamics and having been a student and a parent and seeing how things work in a higher level of governance in the school. One of the things that I always found amazing in the school board is the amount of time the board members are willing to give, because they are so interest in the school. To me it was a natural step. We had our own rotation, we worked well together. I was pleased when they told me I should step up to be chair. My living contribution was to help it – with the help of all the team.
I genuinely love the school. I loved the school as a student. I love the school as a parent, and I know the values that stand behind what the school wants. So, having the opportunity to support the continuation of the school’s ethos, was a privilege. My time invested over seven years was well spent – would do it again, because I want the school to continue on the same path. And the school is always getting better. It is a lot stronger today than when I was at school. It is more connected; it has got more resources. Even the children are more connected, there is more information, and everything is more prepared. It’s incredible to see the changes, but the fundamental values remain the same.