Sara Bonstein is the senior vice president and chief financial officer of Advaxis Immunotherapies, a Princeton-based clinical-stage biotechnology company working to develop cancer immunotherapy treatments. Prior to taking the role in 2014, Bonstein held several finance positions in the health care industry, working for Eli Lilly & Co., ImClone…
Bonstein recently spoke with NJBIZ about how her ambition to sit in the C-suite was never tempered by being a woman in a male-dominated role.
Career I’d pursue outside of finance
Own a gym or be a fitness instructor
NJBIZ: Did you always aspire to the role of CFO?
Sara Bonstein: At my first job out of undergrad, I had a conversation with one of my first supervisors about wanting to be a CFO and asked what I needed to do to get there. This was always an aspiration of mine. Even at the earliest junctures of my career, I wanted to position myself for success.
NJBIZ: What skills or qualities do you believe helped you ascend to the C-suite?
SB: From the time I started my career, I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind and challenge people in an appropriate and respectful manner. I didn’t say yes just to say yes. Speaking up and sharing ideas is what gets you recognized and allows you to continue to grow. It helps you create roles within an organization that may not have existed before you challenged a specific activity.
I also think being respectful to everyone throughout your professional career is really important. From the time you walk in the door as an entry-level person and as you grow to take on increasing responsibility and new titles, giving the same respect to everyone regardless of their position or function is critical. The industry is very well-connected and giving respect goes a long way.
NJBIZ: As CFO, how do you help to shape the overall strategy of the company?
SB: I see finance as a partner of every single role within the organization. Right, wrong or indifferent, everything costs money. Finance touches every function. There is a fine line that finance executives have to walk between their core finance functions and operational functions. A CFO can’t be responsible for everyone’s spending, but (coworkers in other functions) are not financial experts. That is why the CFO is there. It’s my role to help the other executives understand the ROI, the net present value, the probabilities and the potential tradeoffs of the strategic decisions they want to make.
NJBIZ: How did you end up with a finance career in the health care industry?
Still a boys’ club
While several of the female CFOs interviewed this week said they did not believe their gender impacted their career trajectory, recent studies show there is still a dearth of women executives in the top finance positions at major companies.
According to a study of the Standard & Poor’s 500 published by the Harvard Business Review, females make up only 11.6 percent of the CFOs at these companies.
This, despite the fact women make up 54.3 percent of the total finance industry labor force.
Catalyst, the nonprofit research organization, recently reported that, as of February 2014, there were only 58 women CFOs among all of the Fortune 500 companies.
SB: I worked at Merrill Lynch briefly while I was in college. I wanted to try the banking industry, but I felt it wasn’t for me. The pharma industry is really where I wanted to be, so I went to Johnson & Johnson, and I have been on the oncology side of the business for most of my career.
I give people who work in more traditional finance industries and banking a lot of credit, but I wanted to work in an industry that helps people live longer and have better-quality lives with their families and loved ones. I am not a scientist by any means, so this is a way I can give back using my skillset.
NJBIZ: What trends happening in the biotech pharma industry are having an impact on your role?
SB: (Payer) reimbursement is going to be a big thing. From my point of view, companies with products in infancy stages, such as preclinical phase one, need to think about what the pricing and reimbursement strategy is going to be. You can have the best product, but if you can’t get reimbursement for it, you are going to have a hard time. Companies recognizing these constraints during the development phase can get creative with their development plans, their manufacturing methods and their pricing strategy.
NJBIZ: What are some of the challenges you face as a CFO in health care?
SB: We are continuously challenged to do more with less. We have to figure out how to work with fewer resources, how to do things faster and how to do a broader scope of activities with the same or fewer resources in the same or less time. While working at Eli Lilly, I had the opportunity to take on a Six Sigma role. I took a lot out of the experience and applied it to my future roles. It is really important that we look through our everyday tasks to eliminate waste and redundancies. We have to challenge the norm in order to be successful at doing more with less.
Efficiency is especially important in the pharma industry. The longer we take to develop medicines, the longer patients have to wait to get the medicine they need to live a stronger, healthier life. You have to be smart about how you are doing your work. Are you doing work just to be busy or are you creating good output?
Another challenge a lot of CFOs face today is that we are being asked to go beyond the traditional accounting role. Today, we are asked to function as a chief administrative officer in several ways. I have overarching responsibilities in human resources, IT, legal and facilities. As a finance professional, these areas were out of my comfort zone. I had to be able to rely on my team and be open to learning from them.
NJBIZ: Do you face any particular challenges as a woman CFO?
SB: Maybe it is due to the way my parents raised me, but I never felt that gender was a roadblock in my life. I always felt hard work and determination are what yield success. We all know that finance is a male-dominated field, but as long as you have confidence in your abilities, work hard and show impactful contributions to your organization, you’ll succeed as an individual regardless of gender.
Today, I’m a wife and a mom of two kids. Most working parents — not just women, but men, too — will probably say that life is a constant balancing act. I am triple- and quadruple-tasking all the time, but I wouldn’t change that. It is what keeps me fueled and energized.
I will say that while our society has come really far with equal rights for women, there is that stereotype of what the traditional mom role is. I don’t have all the answers as far as how to fill that role, but open communication with your spouse, your kids and your coworkers helps you get through each day.
NJBIZ: How does having open communication with coworkers about your role as a mom help you?
SB: I try to meet with my team every week or every other week and I’m really open with them. I’ll tell them when my husband is going to be traveling or I have other things come up at home. And it’s a two-way communication so we can develop two-way respect for the balance we are all trying to find in our lives.
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