Making her mark Bonstein finds Advaxis satisfies her desire to work in finance while working for a better world

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.

Sara Bonstein


Newtown, Pa.

Hidden talent

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.

E-mail to: [email protected]
On Twitter: @dariameoli

College student cashing in on Asian beauty craze

While most college freshmen are working for the weekend, Elina Hsueh is working on the weekend. Every two weeks, the 18-year-old Babson College student travels from Boston to her hometown of Holmdel to work on her growing e-commerce business, Beauteque.

Beauteque serves as an online marketplace for Asian-manufactured beauty products that are not well-known or marketed in the U.S. Customers can either purchase individual products or, for a $25 monthly subscription, have a box of products sent to them.

The idea for the company came to Hsueh when she was 16. A friend visiting from Korea introduced her to some beauty products from that country. Hsueh saw a business opportunity.

She took her idea to the first investors she could think of: her parents.

“I took my parents out to dinner at a local restaurant and presented them with my business plan,” she said. “I think they were surprised, but they ended up giving me my first investment to start the business.”

With $5,000 of seed money, Hsueh and her mother, Josephine Hsueh — who serves as the co-CEO — researched products online and took a trip to Taiwan and China to see how the Korean beauty trend had expanded its reach across Asia.

The company went online on March 7, 2014.

In the company’s first year, when Hsueh was just taking the SATs, the company did more than $10,000 in sales revenue.

In 2015, her revenue increased by more than 1,500 percent.

The company now has six full-time employees along with three part-time employees and three interns.

Hsueh attributes the growth to the introduction of the company’s subscription service, one that is similar to those provided by other e-commerce companies, such as Blue Apron and Dollar Shave Club.

Biz in brief
Company: Beauteque
Founder: Elina Hsueh
Founded: 2014
Employees: 15
One more thing: At age 18, Elina Hsueh fits right into the company’s target demographic of millennial females, ages 15 to 35, something the young CEO leverages in her business planning. “I really know what young people are thinking,” she said.

Beauteque currently has 3,000 subscribers.

“That’s what really helped our revenue increase a lot,” she said.

She said the company is currently looking for investors to help foster this momentum.

Hsueh feels another contributing factor to growth is the quality ingredients of the products — a result of stricter manufacturing laws in Asia.

“The ingredients are amazing,” she said. “They’re not all 100 percent natural and organic, but many are; they use a lot of ingredients from the ground like fruit, vegetables, rice and flowers.”

Hsueh and her mother learned this firsthand.

“Before starting the company, we did a lot of research and actually went back to Asia the summer before (we launched),” she said. “We saw how crazy of a fad it was. It was all over, and that’s really what confirmed our beliefs.”

Since that initial trip in 2013, the fad of Asian beauty products has started to make its way to the United States.


Like any e-commerce entrepreneur, Beauteque co-founder Elina Hsueh relies heavily on social media marketing and engagement to spread the word about her company.
And while there are possibilities on every social media outlet, there’s one in particular that is popular for her company’s industry.
“YouTube is huge. Everyone’s on it,” she said. “And a huge sector is beauty.”
A lot of this is driven by tutorial videos posted on the site.
“A lot of girls need to know and now have access to how to do a cat-eye or put on false lashes,” she said.

“It used to not be relevant on the market, but in the two years, we — and other companies — all started to push it at the same time and it just became a huge trend,” she said. “Now it’s featured in many chain stores; it’s in Forever 21, Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, Walmart and all over the media.”

And the momentum has helped Hsueh grow her company.

“Just recently, last quarter, we began to work with chain stores to get the products in these stores,” she said.

The company has recently secured a deal with national chain Rue 21 and is in currently in talks with several other chains.

“We are the official U.S. distributors for many of the Korean beauty companies (and) we resell the item, with minor adjustments including English labeling, into these chain stores,” she said.

Which doesn’t leave much time for school. Or does it?

Hsueh said her mother plays a big part in running the company when she’s at school, but she feels the education she is getting (she is majoring in entrepreneurship) will only help her.

“I wanted to stay closer, but Babson had a great program for young entrepreneurs and is well-known for entrepreneurship,” she said. “But four to five hours is doable and I come back biweekly now.”

Despite all of this early success, Hsueh remains humble about her limited experience.

“I’ve really learned a lot. No one’s perfect, especially a young 16-year-old who’s trying to run a business,” she said. “I’m not there ordering this to be done or that to be done, but I’m just like everyone else; I value everyone’s opinions as much as I value my own.

“I always tell myself that I don’t know the world and that every day is a learning experience.”

E-mail to: [email protected]
On Twitter: @sheldonandrewj

Building their brand The best ‘Super Bowl ads’ already are on the air

As the editor of NJBIZ, I hear the same concern from top executives at top companies: “How do I grow my brand … properly?”

As the editor of NJBIZ, I hear the same concern from top executives at top companies: “How do I grow my brand … properly?”

Anyone can blitz the public with an ad campaign that brings recognition of the brand name – but does it bring the right type of recognition, a branding that resonates with the audience?

This weekend, many top companies will take to the Super Bowl in an attempt to do just this. A Super Bowl ad — even with the current cost of $5 million for 30 seconds — can bring an amazing one-time ROI, assuming you have the ad the public is talking about (and re-watching) the next day.

I’ll argue the most effective ads for branding already are on the air. And for a lot less.

In an era when companies are devoting so much time and energy to not only build their brand, but also define it, I present three current ads that serve as how-to lessons in branding.

These three all hit the advertising triple play: They build the brand, make you laugh and — most importantly — make you want to talk about them or share them with friends.

And for more than just one day.

Here are my picks for ads airing now that will bring a far better ROI than those airing Sunday. Let me know if you agree.

Geico: “It’s What You Do”

The ad: It appears to be a preview for the next action thriller with a young, well-dressed, spy-type man being chased to the roof of a building by thugs on foot and in a helicopter. Then the phone rings … and it’s his mom. “Well, the squirrels are back in the attic,” she starts while casually flipping through a magazine. “If you’re Mom, you call at the worst time … it’s what you do,” the salesman starts before subtly hinting that you call Geico — “it’s what you do” — when you want to save money on insurance.

Why it resonates: Geico is selling a funny moment in life that most people have never stopped to think about (sort of the entire premise of “Seinfeld”). And everyone notices that the man, despite fighting off the villains, never hangs up on his mom. 

Why it sells the product: Have you ever talked about an Allstate or Liberty Mutual ad for car insurance? This commercial is seemingly selling comedy, not the product. Viewers like that. 

Final thought: We appreciate that Geico frequently changes their pitches (remember the Caveman idea and the amphibious green Gecko campaigns?). But not all of their ideas work. The one with shirtless guys lifting weights while making ‘bro’ jokes is as dumb (and, quite frankly, disturbing) an ad as there is out there right now.

DirecTV: “We’re Settlers”

The ad: “Geminia” plows his front yard in a modern-day neighborhood with an ox pulling a carriage while his son begs him to switch to DirecTV from cable. He refuses, proudly boasting that the family are “settlers” who proudly settle for cable. He tells his neighbor that he’s “working the land, hoping for a fertile spring” with a perfect 17th-century accent and mannerisms, before ordering his son to churn butter and make his own clothes.

Why it resonates: It’s a wonderful take on the word “settler” with great time-period jokes. 

Why it sells the product: It subtly explains why DirecTV is better (listing customer service awards), but does it while you can’t stop laughing. 

Final thought: Comedy sells. And makes a coveted positive impression on the viewers. Remember any Dish Network ads? 

Volkswagen: “Beth”

The ad: A father sees there’s a call coming in from his wife, Beth, while he’s driving, but he doesn’t take it. His two young sons are begging him to have the ultimate father-son day at an amusement park, music studio, movie theatre and bowling alley. It’s all done with the classic Kiss ballad, “Beth,” playing in the background.

Why it resonates: It’s selling father-son moments that any man wishes he could have with his kids. And it has the perfect catch ending: After failing to call his wife back all day, the dad sheepishly texts the key line from the song, “Beth, what can I do?” to his wife. She brings him back to reality by telling him to get milk.

Why it sells the product: Because Volkswagen, in the midst of one of the worst fraud and environmental scandals in modern business history, desperately needs to rebuild its image. And while the 1970s song won’t necessarily resonate with millennials, it will with a great number of people between the ages of 35-55, a key car-buying demographic for the company.

Final thought: I was 7 or 8 when I first heard the song, and I just assumed “me and the boys will be playing” was talking about a father and his sons having fun, not guys in a rock band having an all-night jam session.

This article originally appeared on Editor Tom Bergeron’s LinkedIn blog page. Want to follow NJBIZ on LinkedIn? Click here. Connect with Tom on LinkedIn here.