By Allison Scola
When you shake Elaine Hochberg’s hand, you know immediately why she has had a successful career in business: She possesses a firm grasp, and her eyes transmit a character that is at once pragmatic and warm-hearted. One of eight children, Hochberg grew up in a lower-middle-class, industrious family. Her mother worked during the day and her father worked at night.
“I’m a New York City kid,” Hochberg says proudly. “I lived in the projects and went to Stuyvesant High School.”
Having excelled in the third class of girls to enroll at one of New York City’s top public secondary schools, upon graduation she was awarded a United Federation of Teachers (UFT) scholarship. In fall 1975, Hochberg headed west to University of Wisconsin at Madison to pursue her passion for Latin and the classics in the Integrated Liberal Studies program. However, after two debilitating ice storms during her first year, she decided that Wisconsin was not for her. She returned home to New York, and consequently gave up her UFT scholarship.
A strategic thinker even at a young age, Hochberg sought other means to pursue her education during an era when financial aid was scarce. She learned that if she worked full time at Columbia University, she could earn tuition benefits. Soon thereafter, she landed a position as a librarian in the University computer center and enrolled at the School of General Studies. GS gave her the flexibility to work and study, and its vibrant atmosphere enabled her to pursue a new love: French language and literature.
While at Columbia, Hochberg thrived. She graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Furthermore, she was recognized with the Lily Parker Award for excellence in French. With that momentum, immediately following her graduation from GS, she matriculated at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “I had dreams of being a college professor and writing books in a castle on a lake,” she recalls.
“I understand where the other person is coming from, and because of my education, I am able to edit out, get to the point, and deliver results.”
- Elaine Hochberg ’82, ’85BUS
Yet after one semester, her funding—and, as a result, her enthusiasm—waned. She concluded that a master’s degree in French literature with a specialization in the writer-philosopher Denis Diderot would not pay her bills. Facing costly student loans, she withdrew from the program.
Hochberg weighed her options, and seeking an outcome of financial stability, in spring 1984 she matriculated at Columbia Business School. As a student, she concentrated on marketing—a nontraditional path at the finance-focused school—and upon obtaining her MBA, she secured a position at Sandoz Pharmaceutical Corporation, where over the next six years she adeptly rose through the ranks. In 1991, after joining Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories in St. Davids, Penn. as a senior product manager, Hochberg led the initiative to convert Children’s Advil from a prescription medication to an over-the-counter product. Under her watch, sales of Children’s Advil doubled.
“I’m a salesman at heart,” Hochberg says. “I understand where the other person is coming from, and because of my education, I am able to edit out, get to the point, and deliver results.”
Such self-assurance and tenacity has driven Hochberg’s 30-year career as a marketing executive. Since moving to Forest Laboratories in 1997—where, until a recent acquisition, she served as Chief Commercial Officer—her work contributed to almost two dozen product launches that resulted in billions of dollars of revenue. Products such as the antidepressants Celexa and Lexapro and the Alzheimer’s medication Namenda achieved sales of $1 billion. Her competence, focus, and acumen delivered results both professionally and personally.
Hochberg’s success, however, is not only limited to her career as a marketing executive. Back when she was cataloguing instruction manuals in the University computer center in the late 1970s, she met and married engineering graduate student Arie Hochberg ’84SEAS. The couple raised two children who have excelled themselves. “Your contribution to your children and the world can be fairly remarkable. It’s a challenge for parents with careers, but with the right partner, family, company, and determination, it can be done,” Hochberg reflects.
Today, her daughter is a partner in her husband’s latest venture, Israeli Wine Direct, while her son is a professional dancer with Nevada Ballet Theater. And now that she is “non-permanently retired,” Hochberg has sought ways to keep learning and to give back. She has become an active member of the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA), hosted Engineering students at her Upper West Side home, and currently serves on the boards of Symphony Space, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and Ellison Ballet. In tribute to her own modest beginnings and appreciation for the opportunities her Columbia education presented her, she has started to become more involved in GS and Business School alumni activities.
“It’s a daily practice,” she says. “I’ve been deriving great joy from participating in the CAA and reconnecting with Columbia—it gives me a new sense of discovery.”