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Interview with Sonia Jain, CFO of Redbox

Sonia Jain joined Outerwall (former parent company of Redbox) in 2010 as the director of corporate finance and quickly advanced through the organization. When Outerwall was acquired in 2016 by Apollo Global Management, a global alternative investment manager with approximately $249 billion under management, Sonia became the chief financial officer of Redbox. She is responsible for all financial activities across the company, overseeing financial planning and analysis, strategy and analytics, accounting, and tax. In her role, Sonia is responsible for the company’s long-term financial health, which includes setting financial direction, developing strategies to drive profitability, and providing deal support.

Sonia received her MBA from Harvard Business School and previously worked at Morgan Stanley and McKinsey & Company.     

I recently interviewed Sonia, and we discussed her career and life as a female executive.  

1. You received your BSE and MS in electrical engineering and worked as an engineer at such companies as Ford, AT&T, and Intel. How did you transition in your career from engineering to finance?

I started my academic and professional career in engineering. It was midway through graduate school (in engineering) that I started having doubts on my career path. I felt a little boxed in and oddly a little lonely. So when the opportunity to be a consultant at McKinsey appeared, I grabbed it. Consulting led to business school and business school led to finance and on to Redbox. In retrospect, I never planned to be in finance or a CFO. But by taking a chance on something new, I was able to find something I loved.
In terms of the transition from a skills perspective, I have always loved solving puzzles. That’s part of what attracted me to engineering to begin with. In many ways, finance is similar. The skills I developed as an engineer: critical thinking, how to take something apart and rebuild it, and how to approach and structure problems are skills that continue to serve me well. One of the big differences in approaching problems now that I am in a corporate role is the sheer number of ways an individual decision can impact aspects of the business. When I was an engineer, I was much more focused on my specific product deliverable but not necessarily the broader impact it could or would have across the organization.

2. Is the role of the CFO different today from what it was 10 years ago?

In the past, the CFO position was considered to be somewhat dry. They were the ones responsible for closing the books and putting out 10Ks and 10Qs. The role of the CFO has evolved to a large extent, and in many companies, like Redbox, we serve a strategic function. Reporting and compliance functions continue to be critical activities. However, we spend a significant amount of our time on value-added functions. A couple examples include using data to drive insights and make business decisions, developing and evaluating business cases that set our strategic priorities and investments, and helping analyze and negotiate contracts (which can come as a surprise to some in the legal field). 

3. Promotion to any C-suite job pushes a female executive into a predominantly male world in which she stands out. How do you handle the scrutiny that comes along with the job?

I have been lucky to have supportive bosses and mentors. Surrounding yourself with people who care about your personal and professional development creates a safe environment to learn and grow. That said, the biggest piece of advice I can give is don’t second guess yourself. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be introspective or thoughtful about your decisions, but be confident. Remember, you got the job because you are smart, talented, and deliver results.

4. During a time when the home entertainment business has to contend with a crowded competitive landscape and cost-cutting environment, how do you look to move the business forward?

Redbox stands out, thanks to our value proposition – Cheap, Convenient, New Releases – and we continue to make investments across those pillars. In 2017 alone, we rolled out a fresh loyalty program (Redbox Perks) to offer even greater value to consumers, increased the size of our kiosk network for the first time since 2014, rolled out a new digital streaming service (Redbox On Demand), and renewed a number of studio agreements that allow us to get new releases to our customers faster than before.
Competition will remain strong, but in many ways that is a good thing for everyone – competition fosters innovation. We are consumer-centric, which makes me confident we will continue to win and retain our customers in 2018 and beyond.

5. You work out of the Washington office, but the majority of your financial team is in Illinois. What tips do you have for keeping up communication across offices?

The formal communications, like standard weekly meetings and check-ins, are in some ways easy to solve for. If I can’t be there in person, I have found video conference calls to be quite effective. It can be harder to manage the informal conversations when you aren’t physically present, such as hallway [or] ad-hoc brainstorming, quick updates, or relationship building. I have found having an open-door policy tends to help. I also try to reserve a couple hours each week for informal visits with my teams to hear about what they are working on and how things are going.

6. What advice would you give to a young, female professional who sees your career story and wants to have similar success?

There is no set path to success. However, success comes more easily if you can find something you are passionate about. I have two pieces of advice. Don’t be afraid to take risks and try new things. I recognize that it is easier said than done, but you’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process – what drives you and the kind of work that makes you happy. In addition, whenever possible, try to surround yourself with smart people – not just in terms of people senior to you – but also your colleagues and teams. There is a lot that you can learn when you ask questions across your organization.

7. Even though the work never ends, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Growing up in a college town, I love college football and basketball. I have also become interested in photography, though it has been a test of patience. I am still waiting to get that perfect shot with the perfect light.

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