Speaking with Kerry Bridges was such a happy and positive conversation. We laughed, chatted and found out that we have a lot of values in common, and it is our great pleasure to share this with the Women in Food Safety community. Kerry joined Chipotle about two and half years ago as the vice president of food safety; prior to the position, Kerry worked for Walmart within Frank Yiannas’s team, Tesco, Primus GFS and Jack-in-the-Box. From having positions with a regional focus to international markets, Kerry fell in love with the industry. “This is my happy place,” she said. “I love what I am doing. I admire the company and the team I am working with right now. I keep learning and growing every day.”
A major impression that Kerry left on me was her self-confidence and the positive attitude towards her life and work throughout her journey. I asked her whether she grew up with such strong confidence. “No, absolutely not!” Kerry laughed and continued, “I had a lot of self-doubt when I was young. I wish I could have been more confident back then. When I first graduated, I felt like I was not ready for this responsibility and I did not want to present in public. Hiding in the lab where no one could see me was where I felt comfortable. Fortunately, I had leaders who kept pulling me out of that; they encouraged me and believed in my potential. I think after enough times of being thrown into uncomfortable situations, I got comfortable with the uncomfortable. I changed my mindset to, ‘I can do this, and I enjoy doing this’. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. It took time, repetition, great mentors, good leadership, and confidence. I started enjoying what I was doing and found it empowering as I became better at it.”
Being a female executive, Kerry demonstrated her leadership style, confidence, authenticity and wisdom throughout our conversation. One especially important point she made (and I agree with) was about female leadership: “Leadership isn’t about gender. To be a good leader, one doesn’t take an iron fist, but rather relationships, compassion and trust.” Sitting at the executive team table, Kerry also learned that it is important to be true to who you are.
As a food safety professional, it’s impossible to divide the line between life and work, as we can’t clock out when it’s five in the afternoon and leave an emergency behind until the following morning. Kerry keeps only one cell phone number for her team as well as her nanny. “I have to simultaneously wear both my mom hat as well as my food safety professional hat,” she said.
Melody Ge: Did you always know that you would love food safety and it would become your career?
Kerry Bridges: Actually, I was unsure about my future while at school or even shortly after graduation. However, one thing I did know was that I want to contribute to public health. Both my mom and my grandmother are nurses, so the commitment to public health was a part of me. I initially wasn’t sure what I could do with a food science degree, so I started as a bio technologist at a lab. After a very short period of time, I realized that I was not using the tools I learned from my food science degree at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. I had to shift my direction, so I applied for a position at Jack-in-the-Box. I worked with industry crusader, David Theno, and this was where my food safety journey started. I found it fascinating that I could have an impact on public health with my science background. It was incredibly rewarding to have great mentors and leaders who believed in me and helped guide my career. I love my job, and I feel a sense of accomplishment in preventing something [bad] from happening in public health.
Ge: If you could turn back the clock, what would say to the younger Kerry?
Bridges: First, I would say believe in yourself. Get involved with the industry, be exposed to the great leaders and the innovative things that are happening in food safety. The impact that you could make on the food system is powerful and motivating. Second, enjoy the ride. I remember at one point, I didn’t have kids yet, although my husband and I always wanted a big family. I was thinking about what I could do with my career, especially since I was so passionate about public health. I had a lot of stress and anxiety with the unknowns. However, now I am certain things will always work out. I left my home state of California with my husband and two kids to live in Arkansas to join Walmart. I eventually came back to California with four kids, including a newborn baby to join Chipotle. Now I have my big happy family and as well as a dream job. I wish I could have enjoyed the ride a little more instead of putting so much pressure on myself back then and believed that things would work out.
Ge: It’s very hard not to ask the question about how you balance all your times after knowing you have a wonderful big family. Any tips to share?
Bridges: Don’t sweat the small stuff. My mother used to say, “Do the best you can do, and that’s all you can do!” It’s so simple and so true. Honestly, the real answer is that things aren’t balanced between these two parts most of the time [work/life]. That’s just the reality. We all struggle, but I like to call these moments, chapters. Give yourself grace and resilience for the chapter in your life, whether it’s two days or two weeks. Sometimes, it can seem like nothing is coming together, but this is part of life. You may see everyone around you having everything figured while you can’t make things happen; chances are, those people had their own challenges and chapters at one point as well. Allowing and knowing that are important. Some days can be really hard to get through, but you do the best you can and remember that tomorrow is a new day. We can’t beat ourselves up over things we could have done. Continuous improvement is important, along with learning, and not sweating the small stuff.
Ge: Can you share an unforgettable moment that still has an impact on you today?
Bridges: I have cried with people who lost their loved ones as a result of a foodborne outbreak as well as worked with suppliers who played a role in a major recall event. All those conversations really stuck with me. In the past, working closely with the suppliers, we would ask questions like ‘how could you let this happen?’ Now, I’ve really changed my prospective—I want transparency, and I try to help them through a crisis. It’s very important to partner with them. After working with Dave Theno, my thought process on how to support suppliers changed.
I have worked for two brands that have experienced major outbreaks. Even today, I can’t leave a food safety conference without hearing about the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak or seeing Chipotle used as an example on someone’s presentation slides. Of course, my instinct is, ‘I wish they could share more good stories on how these brands have thrived and what they did afterwards.’ But at the same time, if these are examples that are going to help to raise awareness and allow others to develop the right food safety programs, then they’re worth sharing. I joined both companies after their crises, and although I don’t get the credit for developing a solid food safety system throughout the hard times, I am lucky that I can tell the positive story.
Ge: Do you have any advice for young female professionals, and where you envision women to be in this industry in five years?
Bridges: It’s important to understand there are so many opportunities within food safety. This is an open field with a plethora of options. Now more than ever, there is incremental awareness of public health and food science. To those who are young, I’d advise them to network and get involved. The women in food safety platform will really help. We need to do more to encourage and provide visibility for the younger generations to learn about this industry.
For the future, I want to see fewer limitations and more opportunities for females. There needs to be a mix of diverse role models for the youth. Chipotle is a great example of an organization that supports female advancement, which is one of the reasons why I joined. Chipotle shares my same values, which is important when looking for an employer. I hope more companies will continue to mirror this for their workforce.