Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Donor Spotlight: Debra Sandler ’82

Debra Sandler was named president of Mars Chocolate North America in April 2012, after having served as chief consumer officer since 2009. She is a donor to the University and has served on the Board of Trustees since 2008. Ms. Sandler was recently interviewed via email by Hofstra Magazine about her “sweet success” and the importance of giving back to her alma mater.

What brought you to Hofstra for your undergraduate studies? When you were planning your career, did you always see yourself in a leadership/management position?

I came to Hofstra quite unexpectedly – I was living in Trinidad and Tobago. I had hoped to go to university in Europe to study languages, but my mother was very concerned about my being so far away. She suggested that I go to school in New York (near her sister in Hempstead) for a couple of years before transferring to a school in Europe. I chose Hofstra from the other schools in the New York area because it was the only one that offered an opportunity to combine my love of languages with my interest in business and economics for an undergraduate degree in international trade.

My initial aspiration was to return to Trinidad and to ultimately run for a government office, so I guess it would be fair to say that I always saw myself in a leadership position.

Were you involved in any extracurricular activities as a student? Do you have any favorite Hofstra memories?

While at Hofstra I was most involved with the African Caribbean Students Association, and I also ran on the winning ticket for Student Government in my senior year. Some of my most favorite memories come from my work as an R.A. in Tower D (seventh floor). I think this was a foundation for some of my leadership strengths in later years!

Did you have a favorite class, or were there any professors who acted as mentors to you?

I enjoyed so many of my professors at Hofstra – Professor Zacchoni for economics, Professors Kaufmann and Benson for business, and Professor Sung for international finance. It was Professor Moore for international trade who was probably my favorite teacher. I remember looking forward to these classes and imagining what it would be like to work on a global scale. It felt comfortable to me and inspired me to do the work that I enjoy today.

When people see your title at Mars, they may think of a “candyland” type of atmosphere. What do you think would surprise people about what you do or what your responsibilities are at Mars? What are the challenges of leading one of the most well-known confection manufacturers in the world?

I feel honored to lead the team at Mars, and in some respects it could look like we work in a “candyland” type of atmosphere. There are certainly always opportunities to “taste” new products, and our vending machines freely dispense all of our favorite chocolate brands. But if this is all you saw, it would only be the surface. We are a business like any other, and I think people might be surprised at the time and attention paid to the quality of ingredients and the quality of our products. At the time of this interview, I am visiting an organic, sustainable cocoa farm to better understand our entire process from the cocoa bean to the chocolate bar, and it is impressive to see the attention to detail at every step of the process – probably not what you might imagine when you pick up one of our products for 89 cents at Walmart.

You have been a trustee at Hofstra for four years, and you have long maintained a relationship with the University. Why do you feel – with a schedule as busy as yours – that it’s important to stay in touch with and give back to your alma mater?

I love Hofstra. The University afforded me so many opportunities to learn and grow at a critical time in my life, and I firmly believe it provided the foundational learning that supports me to this day. When I began work on my M.B.A. at NYU, I remember feeling that I had a head start on many of the other students around me – thanks to Hofstra. I have many demands on my time, and it is challenging to find the time to do all that I would like to do as an alum. I wish I could do more.

In this time of economic uncertainty, what advice would you offer new Hofstra graduates and also current students about succeeding in business? Do you have any do’s or don’ts to offer?

These are indeed difficult times and especially for business students – over the last decade, many corporations have been forced to find ways to get the work done with fewer resources, and even as the economy improves many of these jobs will not return. I would advise students to consider the following:

• Think of ways to distinguish yourself from the pack. This could be with unique experiences or skills. A good example is building skills in the area of social media – most corporations are still experimenting in this area and are looking for ways to improve.

• Be hungry and be flexible. I am still amazed by the number of people who show up for an interview, appearing only moderately interested. It is a basic issue, but you still need to do your research on the company and the people you will be meeting with. You still need to demonstrate that their job is the most interesting job you are considering and the value you can add to the company. The reality is that there are many others waiting at the front door for the very same job. Consider alternative positions to the one you are applying for – as an undergrad it is sometimes more important to get in the door and find your path from there.

• Consider entrepreneurship. Economic downturns are ripe times for innovation, and history has proven that this is one of the drivers of new business and new ideas. If you cannot get anyone to hire you, think of what you can create – there are always jobs or needs that are being unmet or underserved.


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