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Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services
Women in Food Safety

Being an Ambassador for Science and Food Safety: Seek Out, Don’t Sit Back

By Melanie J. Neumann
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Melanie Neumann, Neumann Risk Services

A key focus of Women in Food Safety is to highlight female leaders in various food safety career paths. This month we have the privilege to speak with Jennifer McEntire, Ph.D., SVP of Food Safety & Technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, who has a storied career combining hard-core science with policy development that is risk-based, science-based and pragmatic to implement.

As many know, I am a lawyer. With that, I feel compelled to disclose the following disclaimer: I have worked alongside Jennifer as a business and industry colleague, and I consider her one of the most impressive, influential yet humble people I have ever met. Given my first-hand knowledge of her professional and personal contributions and unquestionable character, our conversation quickly dove deep into candid discussions about her career path, focusing on her passion for policy and seeing trade associations as a vehicle and a collective voice to influence and shape policy. Jennifer’s insights on being female in our industry are truly enlightening. See for yourself.

Melanie Neumann: Can you please summarize your career path to your position today, or what I like to consider your “path to produce?”

SVP, Food Safety, United Fresh Product Association
Jennifer McEntire, Senior Vice President, Food Safety and Technology, United Fresh Produce Association

Jennifer McEntire: I grew up in Long Island, which is not exactly the epi-center of agriculture. I liked science but didn’t want to be a doctor. At the time the University of Delaware looked through all the postcards (yes, I’m dating myself!) of kids interested in science and sent packets of information about the food science program. It was the best thing that could have happened to me! It was a small program; there were only four people in my graduating class; so I really couldn’t fly under the radar. I am the first person in my family to go to a university and I had no idea what graduate school was. Tons of people took me under their wing. I was able to do food safety research as an undergrad, which allowed me to jumpstart my graduate education. I truly had no plan to get a Ph.D. I wanted to work! But during my freshman year of college my biology professor nonchalantly mentioned that graduate students in sciences get paid to go to graduate school. I was like, WHAT?!? It was a no brainer. The more I got involved with the food science clubs at UD and at Rutgers (where I got my Ph.D.) and the more I networked with professionals at regional meetings of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), the more I learned about the breadth of career options. I knew I didn’t want to be an academic so I didn’t do a post doc. (That said, I love mentoring, training and professional development, and have been lucky to weave it into every job I’ve had). I liked the product development side but thought I might get bored in one company. Although I am an introvert, I like hearing different perspectives and meeting very different kinds of people. Once I saw the nexus of disciplines and perspectives in Washington D.C., I was hooked. Although I’ve always worked in the general food safety arena, at IFT, The Acheson Group, GMA, and now at United Fresh, each role has been vastly different and I keep realizing how much there is to learn.

Neumann: Much of your career centers around trade associations. Why did you choose this sector over others in the food industry?

McEntire: Trade associations provide me with a vehicle to fulfill my goal of being an “Ambassador for Science.” I was fortunate to have a rare opportunity as USDA National Needs Fellowship at Rutgers, which allowed me to work for both FDA and a trade association, the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), towards the end of my Ph.D. program. I quickly fell in love with the buzz of D.C. and realized this is where the action is—the intersection of science, law, policy and the power of networking. I accepted a permanent position with IFT in their D.C. office after graduation to continue my quest to learn more about the inner workings of D.C. as well as provide IFT with an even greater voice based on science. I’ve now been in D.C. over 20 years. I understand why it turns some people off, but I love it. I’m constantly meeting new people and really love being a conduit between the industry, the regulators, policy makers and others.

Neumann: From the start it seems like you were fortunate that you were able to start your career at the strategic level, or “forest”. What advice would you give someone who perhaps had a more typical start in a technical role, or “trees”, and wants to gain strategic roles in the industry?

McEntire: From the get-go at IFT I was pulling together expert panels, meaning I was constantly around experts, which was exhilarating for someone in her 20s. But I realize that’s atypical. Part of what I love about working in associations is the ability to connect people. Those are opportunities exist at every level. “Seek out, don’t sit back.” This advice applies equally personally and professionally. If you want to understand how your current technical role supports your food safety strategic plan or corporate strategy, seek out who you believe can answer your question and ask. If you have a suggestion to improve your role or an aspect of your food safety program, speak up. If you would really like a mentor but no one has assigned you one, seek them out. What worked for me early in my career and what still does today is that I study people. I may be at a conference listening to a presenter, and I will ask myself “what do I like about their style of communication?” or “What about them is capturing my attention enough to listen to them?” Adopting certain aspects you like, (or dislike and want to be sure you avoid doing!), and adapting your style to incorporate them is a great way to professionally evolve. This said, don’t lose yourself or your own style by impersonating or assimilating too much of others’ ways. What sets you up for success is designing an approach that leverages your personal strengths and is unique to “you”.

A key message from my perspective is not to sit back and wait for the career you want. Rather, my advice is to proactively seek out opportunities, answers to questions and relationships with others in your company and/or in the food industry that you believe you would benefit from interacting.

Neumann: Have you experienced challenges in being a female in this space?

McEntire: Subtle challenges, sure. In my case I feel it was more my age than my gender that I needed to overcome. But specific to gender, my biggest perceived challenge was the pressure I placed on myself. These self-imposed challenges were expectations I put on myself in part due to societal expectations or roles I thought I needed to play as a mother, partner, community member and as a professional. I expected to perform at 100% at all times in every role, and over time realized that isn’t sustainable, or even sane, to expect of yourself!

As a younger professional I knew that I had hurdles to overcome when I walked into a room (sometimes I still feel that way). What I learned over time is how the power of data helps in situations where, real or perceived, I felt that my audience wasn’t tuning in to me as much as others in the room. That is when I became even closer friends with data and gave thought about how to construct and communicate my key points. I learned that with sound facts based on sound science to support my position, I was the most informed person on that topic in the room, and my ability to successfully negotiate and convince the other stakeholders increased considerably. This was especially true when I tied the data to tell a compelling story. The most effective, influential professionals I have encountered, some I consider my mentors, are master storytellers—relying on facts when presenting their case in a way that tells a story.

Neumann: Do you have any additional insights or advice to share with women in food safety regardless of where they are at in their career journey?

McEntire: If you love what you do, and you do it well, be bold and be brave. So many people, male and female, saw a potential in me I wasn’t even aware of, and they made serious investments in me. I find that in the field of food safety, that’s pretty common. We are a friendly bunch! So reach out and start talking to people. You’ll be amazed how many people will chat with you at a meeting or return your email.

One thing that concerns me, and I don’t yet have enough anecdotal data to tell if younger women are more prone to this than their male counterparts, is this expectation that they have to know their full career path from the time they are 18 years old. They seem to put a lot of pressure on themselves to “have it all figured out”. As someone who is “Type A” and very much a planner, I can confidently say that no part of my career has been planned. I never ever could have predicted that I would wind up where I am today. I maintained an openness to new opportunities, listened a lot, and considered new information that became available. I did my best to not burn bridges, while at the same time sticking up for myself and for others. Food safety is hard. It takes a thick skin and at this point in my life I have to say that having a network of women food safety colleagues as a support system makes some of the more stressful days much easier.

Check out the Women in Food Safety column to learn about more female leaders like Jennifer. Join the conversation on For Women in Food Safety on LinkedIn.

Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series

2021 FSC Episode 9 Preview: Professional Development, Training and Mentorship

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series

This week the final episode of the 2021 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series takes place, and appropriately closes out with an afternoon of insights about navigating a career in food safety. The following is the agenda for Thursday’s episode, which begins at 12 pm ET.

  • A Modern, Multi-Layered Approach to Professional Development in Food Safety, with Darin Detwiler, Northeastern University
  • What I Wish I Had Known Early in My FSQ Career, with Jill Stuber, The Food Safety Coach and Tia Glave, Tia Glave Consulting
  • Mentorship Minute and Career Development Journey: From QA Technician to SVP, a conversation between Deborah Coviello, Illumination Partners and Brian Perry, TreeHouse Foods
Melody Ge, Corvium
Women in Food Safety

When We Work Harder Together, the Sky’s the Limit

By Melody Ge
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Melody Ge, Corvium

John Carter, area Europe quality director at Ferrero, has been devoted to diversity for more than 20 years. This time, it’s our pleasure to speak with him to hear his perspective on female professionals in the industry and how his male peers can help encourage a diverse environment and break unconscious bias.

His background in engineering, along with an MBA, has given him a scientific mindset when making decisions. After his first job with Campden BRI in the UK, John had positions at Kraft/Mondelez, Metro, Danone, and is now at Ferrero; in that time, he has gained tremendous food safety and quality experience. As is the case with many food safety professionals, John is proud to be part of an industry where he can use his technical knowledge to protect public health. “Food safety is not competitive; it’s a global collaboration, and a rewarding field,” he said.

John Carter, Ferrero
John Carter, area Europe quality director at Ferrero

John advises young professionals to avoid limiting themselves to one function. Explore different functions within a business; if you have been working within food safety for more than 20 years, you might not focus on the full scope of the food industry or food operations. To move forward into an advanced position, especially toward a senior management position, John explained that one should have a helicopter view of the business and vision. For example, moving from food safety to the quality management system, to operations is one option, allowing you to see the big picture. “Don’t hesitate to explore other functions. At Kraft, we used to say that to be a senior executive, you need to do 2, 2, and 2, meaning you need to do two countries, two categories, and two functions. Afterward, you can say you know the company,” he said.

In the future, John hopes to see at least a 50-50 ratio of male-to-female professionals, or an even higher ratio of females.

Melody Ge: What is your most important piece of advice to aspiring—as well as current—food safety professionals?

John Carter: Walk the line and find the balance. To illustrate my point, I’ll tell a story about my experience at one company involving a recall of raw milk cheese due to positive E. coli 0157. It was quite a significant issue, but no one got sick, and we had the products withdrawn from the market. One of the questions we had at that time was why we were selling raw milk cheese. Why don’t we just use pasteurized milk and cheeses? However, the reality is that, in Europe, raw milk cheese is in the DNA of some countries. It would be hard to even think about their diet without raw milk cheese. So there must be another way to manage food safety apart from just pasteurizing the milk. How do you do it? What else can you do? Where are the risks? We, as food safety professionals, must answer these questions. So walking the line between the commercial impact and the risk is crucial. Hence, the skill of the job is to know how to make the decision properly. It’s very easy to say ‘no’ to everything, but it might not be business friendly.

What’s more important is to say ‘yes’ after a thorough risk assessment—for example, ‘yes but…’ or ‘yes with a condition of …’ Every day, we are confronting this issue. The skill in food safety and quality is to give these conditional yesses. It’s based on a logical, scientific and rational assessment of risks. The partnership with the business is that they see us as an enabling function rather than a blocking function.

Ge: Let’s focus on female professionals—any particular pieces of advice for them?

Carter: Be confident! Between men and women, there is this confidence vs. competency conundrum. Typically, men behave more confidently. ‘Can you do this? Yeah, sure!’; in contrast, for women, ‘Can you do this? Oh, well let me check, I am not sure.’ They may have the same level of competence, and maybe even the women are more competent (it’s the reality). I read a book recently called Why Men Win at Work by Gill Whitty-Collins. Gill also mentioned this in her book: We shouldn’t expect men to be less confident; we should encourage women to be more confident. (On the other hand, if I look at the women in my team, typically their competency is very high!)
The other thing is to be who you are, and keep up the competency. I will use emotional behavior as an example. A female quality manager who reported to me once was criticized by a senior colleague (a male) for being too emotional. I am more critical of the colleague, not the quality manager, because I think we as male managers need to understand emotional behavior instead of removing that behavior. She is emotional for a reason. A man’s way of dealing with that emotion might be to get angry, while a woman’s way might be to shed some tears. But the root cause is the same issue and has the same action plan. Thus, it’s important to get over the differences and manage her talent—and not label it, showing this kind of emotion as a weakness. For example, I would like to believe that crying is not the point; it’s a different way of dealing with stressful situations. You need to look for the root cause of the stress and address the stress, not judge the symptoms.

Ge: Do you believe in a glass ceiling for female professionals?

Carter: I was fortunate that I had an excellent female boss at Kraft. She believed that we needed 50/50 gender equality—that 50% of plant managers should be female, 50% of country managers should be female, etc. I had a good experience at Kraft in developing and seeing many female professionals thrive. In that specific environment, I wouldn’t agree that there was a glass ceiling for females; however, I see it elsewhere for sure. In other companies, I have been thinking about how we can get more females in director levels. It is not easy to just promote at the management level because it has to be a structural change. The system change must happen. Part of what I am trying to do right now throughout my career is address the structural problem. And senior men need to be part of the solution.

On the other hand, there are many aspects to a promotion. One needs to be good, really resilient and lucky. Luck is essential, and the right time and place are important. If you are good enough and you have been overlooked, then maybe you should go somewhere else (It is that simple). I think, in today’s world, the opportunities are there, and the recognition is there. It is the right timing now to break the ceiling. Every company I have ever worked in has started to change, so now is a good time to be in that situation.

Ge: Can you share a story that has impacted you and still inspires you today?

Carter: I remember meeting someone at Kraft, and she was doing something related to IT at that time. She was managing something related to complaints and was in a position where she got to know the quality function in the company. When we had an open role internally for a quality auditor, she applied for it. I was quite surprised when she came to me, because she was not qualified from a technical perspective. But when she told me she was interested, it inspired me. I assigned her to the factory in South Africa for training, and suddenly, she moved from a desk in Munich to a factory floor to deal with the operations and team in South Africa. Of course, the factory environment is challenging, and there is no easy factory. However, she was very talented and really loved it. (It could have gone the other way, but she nailed it). Then, she returned from this assignment and became a QA manager, eventually overseeing the whole SAP QA system. Of course, this is because of her background in the IT department before the QA training. Suddenly, she had this kind of unique knowledge of something, and no one understood the computer system or QA better than her. If she hadn’t come to me in need of a change, and if I hadn’t been inspired to provide a chance to an enthusiastic person, her path may have been different. So, go for it! Once the tough times pass, you will enjoy it, and then the sky is the limit.

Ge: What’s your opinion on unconscious bias?

Carter: I am pretty excited about this topic—I think it addresses the root cause of many issues. I have been working on diversity for the last 20 years; but only over the past couple of years have I started thinking about unconscious bias. The unconscious bias part is relatively new, but I think it may help us address the root cause of many of the behavior issues that we see in today’s world. Gill also mentioned this in her book. She was a senior vice president at P&G, and until she noticed unconscious bias, she was quite happy. So, this happens to females as well as to men. You suddenly see it, and then you see it everywhere.

I can give you another example of my own. Not so long ago, in one of the companies where I have worked, there was an internal announcement about senior leadership changes. When it was announced, I saw a list of 20 names on the screen and didn’t notice that they were all men until our diversity council had a meeting to discuss this issue. The council leader pointed out that we have zero female representatives among the twenty. Wow, I was shocked! I am a man and I genuinely care about diversity, yet my unconscious bias is that I didn’t even notice that there wasn’t a female name on the list. I had to reflect. With this unconscious bias, which we can all have, we need to work harder together.

I think there is a food safety parallel: perhaps the situation is a lot like when we first addressed food fraud at the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Food fraud is a crime, and it’s possibly the oldest crime in the food industry—centuries old. Although legislation has been in place for years, it seemed that little concrete had been done about it; but after the melamine crisis in China, and various similar issues, we finally got a political imperative to address it in a systematic way. We now have GFSI guidance documents and CPOs, and we have the technology with DNA testing to guarantee authenticity. Finally, we have the tools and political will to ‘do something’ and really address the issue.

So, coming back to this topic of diversity and unconscious bias – in my opinion, this is the “food fraud” of society; it has been ongoing for a long time, and now is the time for us to make a change. We have to ‘do something’. Every company and culture has its own issues and characteristics and all cultures are different (diverse, right?) but when you have the willingness and tools to change an environment, you can take a series of steps to make that change. The time is right, but having awareness comes first.

Ge: Any last bits of advice for our WIFS group members?

Carter: I read a little book about 40 years ago, and the book’s thesis was that there are two things you need to do and have in life. One is that you need to have fun and enjoy life; the other is to learn as much as possible. In the course of mentoring many talented folks over the years, I have added two other things to this list; have patience and courage.

Patience, courage, learning, and fun! Try to live your life with those things in mind.

Melody Ge, Corvium
Women in Food Safety

Be True to Yourself

By Melody Ge
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Melody Ge, Corvium

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.

Melody Ge, Corvium
Women in Food Safety

The Breadcrumbs that Lead to Success

By Melody Ge
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Melody Ge, Corvium

It was a great pleasure to sit down with Jennifer Crandall, CEO, founder and owner of the Safe Food En Route, LLC. She has more than 20 years’ experience in food safety, and tremendous experience as a business entrepreneur.

Jennifer Crandall
Jennifer Crandall, CEO, founder and owner of the Safe Food En Route, LLC, has more than 20 years’ experience in food safety, and tremendous experience as a business entrepreneur.

Jennifer started her career in production for a variety of products after she graduated from Purdue University as a Food Science major. When she looks back at her career path, Jennifer says all the dots are connected together in getting her to where she is now—as though she was leaving her own “breadcrumbs” in each stage, and now everything has come back together. For example, after she spent eight years on the production line, she took a position at Kroger Manufacturing for the next 12 years, where she had opportunities to work at positions in corporate food technology, regulatory compliance and global sourcing roles. Jennifer said, “it was a detour at the time when I took the sourcing position, however, it was these last two positions that set the foundation and knowledge when starting Safe Food En Route“…“I went the path of least resistance, what felt right at that time, and that natural interest just linked to the next opportunity. Each time I moved around, I either learned something new or developed another skill—that’s what motivated me. I left myself breadcrumbs along the way, so when I looked back, I knew where I had been,” she said. “I don’t regret any of the decisions that I made in getting me into the position where I am today.” Jennifer shared one quote she learned from Kathy Beechem, a retired EVP of US Bank: “When you are facing two choices, always take the path with the most opportunities!” “Her words still have an impact on me. Every time I make a choice, I choose the one that gave me more opportunities to grow,” Jennifer said.

We ended our conversation with some tips Jennifer would have given to her younger self, back 20 years ago. First: Use your network more, and do not be afraid to ask more questions. Second: Do not be afraid. You have unlimited potential and are destined for great things. Decide what you want with all your heart and focus on it.

“All in all, it is crucial to understand what you want, and understand who you are!” Jennifer said.

Melody Ge: Every time I speak with you, you are very confident and comfortable in the conversation. What tips can you share on being confident?

Jennifer Crandall: Thank you, and I think it still comes with practice. There are three things I think I would like to share.

  1. Be prepared. The more prepared you are, the more confident you will be.
  2. Be on time and enforce your own boundaries. Be realistic with the time you need for preparation; you can’t prepare for everything, especially if it’s a discussion. But give yourself the space and grace to have that preparation time within the boundaries.
  3. Recognize and understand your own needs, simply as knowing yourself. It’s probably a good tip to reemphasize and work in a lot of other situations. It’s surprising how many people that do not self-reflect. I see many people living their life like a pinball machine, not knowing where they are going. That will show that they lack confidence, because they are waiting for someone to tell them where to go. Women especially will wait on other people to tell them what they are good at. If you are waiting on someone to tell you your strengths, then you are going to be waiting your whole life, because you are never going to believe what other people tell you. So know yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses.

Ge: Why and what persuaded you to start your own business? Do you have any advice for females out there who are interested in starting their own business?

Crandall: I wrote down several version of answers for this [question] and they all kind of fall into four buckets: Professional, Inspiration, Timing, and Trusting myself.

To start from personal experience in my professional life, I was feeling really burned out at one stage with corporate, and I knew I needed to change my career. I also recognized a pattern in corporate life; and in reality, people need to live their life beyond their career. At the same time, my family member was having a heart problem, and a colleague passed away from an illness soon after he retired. In addition, I had a friend’s husband pass away from cancer. All these combined circumstances caused me to reflect, as I already had some thoughts about the meaning of life. Life isn’t about just moving up in the corporate ladder.

Moving on to Inspiration: An inspiring moment happened around that time, as one of my female colleagues who was a counterpart left the company. She left a couple years before I did, and had no plan—she just wanted to take a pause in her career. I was like, “How is that even happening, what are you talking about?” She told me she did this after reading the book, The Escape Manifesto Book: Quit Your Corporate Job. Do Something Different! The book is about how people use the skills they learned from corporate careers and implement them outside the corporate environment. That day, I downloaded the audio book, and started listening to it. I listened to it 13 times during the year of 2017 (it’s a short book), and it really gave me some things to think about. I was inspired, and I am still using some of the tools the book recommended today to run my own business.

Timing: FSMA was perfectly timed with the opportunity for me to launch a business around FSVP consultation because implementation of the regulation was beginning, and Kroger had just trained me on it; I was having so many conversations with suppliers in my final Kroger position as a supplier verification program manager. In addition, I picked up about 2500 connections from my global sourcing role, and everything was really coming together. Again, like the breadcrumbs, the dots are finally connected.

On Trusting Myself: I was inspired by an interview between Oprah and Maya Angelou to write down all the people that influenced me to the point I was at in my career. I ended up with a list of hundreds of people that supported me to the point I was in life. I realized I did not fully believe in myself, but all these people on the list did. And I thought, “If they believe in me, why can’t I believe in myself?” So trusting myself is like the last kick to give me the courage to take the leap. Once I knew what I was going to do, those four factors kicked in at the same time to push me forward with my own business with confidence.

Ge: Based on what you have learned from your own career, what advice would you give to female professionals?

Crandall: Three things come to mind:

  1. Believe in yourself that you are worthy and deserving of anything you want in your personal and professional life. It is allowed, you are allowed, and as long as they do not negatively impact people, you are allowed to have them. As women, I think we always put ourselves last and never believe we are allowed to have those things. We are.
  2. Nothing beats a good friend, mentor or a coach. They will take you far. We need friends that can help give us unbiased judgment and coaching to help lead our lives. I was an athlete growing up; 25 years after being on the diving board, I still learn things from diving and from my coach. I am fascinated how the physics side of sports and the coaching can continue to help me in my real life. Coaching has guided me to where I am today. Right now, I hired a coach to guide me on how to be a better CEO and entrepreneur; how to streamline my business. And in thinking about mentors, they can be anyone, for example, listening to audio books, watching an interview, who is influencing you… those all can be mentors.
  3. Don’t limit yourself. It happens either through allowing others to limit you, or you may do it through limiting your own beliefs around other people. There are no limits on you or what you can do except how you allow other people to put them on you; or you may allow systems or structures to limit yourself. I learned that I am limitless—and there was a time when I didn’t know I was. It can still be scary now to say that I am limitless. But I do believe it. I went through a lot of what coaches call “limiting beliefs” before I got to this point.

Ge: Do you have any final tips for female students and those professionals who are working towards being on an executive team?

Crandall: For students I would say, be patient and spend time in the field. For example, spend five to 10 years to master your skills on the production floor, take time learning quality assurance and food safety systems. Learn the basics and master it. I know it is hard, but it is worth it.

For those who are working towards being in an executive position, I would say think in a business manner. In some form or fashion, add business to your knowledge and thoughts. It doesn’t have to be earning an MBA degree, but at least learn some skills to know what it is involved in being a business person—i.e., things like sales, networks, marketing, finances, and accounting. You don’t want to start an executive position without having some basic knowledge of how a business runs. Make risky choices as often as possible and make the uncomfortable comfortable. My coaches often repeat this, and I want to share it with the group. Take those risks and learn to speak the language that professionals at the executive table often speak.

Jill Hoffman, McCormick & Company
Women in Food Safety

Non-Profit Food Safety Careers: An Interview with Mitzi Baum at Stop Foodborne Illness

By Jill Hoffman
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Jill Hoffman, McCormick & Company

This month’s interview focuses on an area of food safety leadership we haven’t yet covered in our Women in Food Safety column: The non-profit sector. There are career paths in food safety in the non-profit sector and this month we’ve asked Mitzi Baum, CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness, to share her story of how she began her career and what wisdom she can offer those seeking roles in leadership or the non-profit sector.

When I met with Mitzi, I realized immediately she was a very down-to-earth leader who had a contagious energy to anyone that might cross paths with her. We started our conversation learning a bit about each other; she talked about her path from majoring in hospitality and restaurant management to working at Feeding America and to now heading up Stop Foodborne Illness. We chatted about some of the challenges we see for women in the food safety sector, and exchanged some stories and thoughts on why women face these challenges.

One story in particular that Mitzi shared was when she first realized the lack of female leadership in food safety. This story went back early in her career, more than 20 years ago, when she was asked to start engaging at industry conferences. When she arrived in the room at her first conference, she thought she stuck out like a sore thumb. There she was, dressed in a brightly colored outfit, entering a room that could best be described as “a sea of middle-aged men in gray suits”. Although this could have been intimidating for a young female at the time, Mitzi made the best of it and forced herself to introduce herself, talk to strangers, and sign up for every session and networking dinner possible. By the end of the conference, she had made lasting contacts, and her initial feels of intimidation were washed away.

Mitzi Baum, Stop Foodborne Illness
Mitzi Baum, CEO, Stop Foodborne Illness

Mitzi and I talked a bit about how the non-profit sector works, and how far some have come, especially food banks. She has watched food banks evolve from small- and less-organized operations into major operations that are being run more efficiently and offering more food options because they’ve been able to raise substantial amounts of money to improve the operational capabilities and infrastructure. food banks went from dealing with dented cans and shelf-stable products to now offering fresh produce and frozen items simply because funding allowed improvements such as freezers and refrigerators to be added to food bank locations. She credits female leadership in making this change in the food bank system.

There is an emotional component to Mitzi’s job at Stop Foodborne Illness. She frequently engages with the families of victims of foodborne illness. Each of the stories that are shared is personal, and an element of empathy is critical as she works with them to share their story.

I really enjoyed getting to know Mitzi and I’m sure you will too as the following Q&A features some of her insights and experiences as being a female leader in the food safety world.

Jill Hoffman: Could you please tell us how you started your career and how you made it to where you are today?

Mitzi Baum: My career began in restaurants. My first job was at 15 years of age in a chili parlor in Cincinnati, OH. I went to college and earned a degree in restaurant/hospitality management and liked learning about food science and the micro aspects of food. I graduated and became a kitchen manager for the Peasant Restaurant Group in Atlanta, front-of-the-house manager for the Funky’s Restaurant Group in Cincinnati; and manager for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago. I did not find the lifestyle rewarding and looked to other opportunities to apply my degree and developed skills. I was fortunate to find Feeding America (then called Second Harvest) to apply my knowledge of inventory management, food safety, operational standards and other aspects of management to the distribution of food to those in need of food assistance.

I conducted compliance audits for the food bank network for more than 13 years—traveling across the country assisting and learning from those working on the front lines. I moved into program management and then into the role of director of food safety to institute a compulsory third-party food safety audit for the network of food banks. There was a big learning curve at the food bank level to overcome, so we began to socialize the food safety audit, provided food safety improvement grants, walked individual food bank staff through the process, and we were able to successfully achieve our goal.

During my 23 years of experience at Feeding America, I developed many management and leadership skills that I wanted to flex and make a transition. The opportunity to step beyond food safety presented itself in the form of the CEO of Stop Foodborne Illness (STOP). I have been at STOP for a little more than two years and I have learned so much about leadership, management and myself.

Mitzi Baum will lead a panel discussion, “Get with the Program: Modernization of Poultry Inspections in the United States”, during the Salmonella: Detection, Mitigation, Control & Regulation virtual event on July 15 | Register nowHoffman: You have a background in the non-profit sector. What are some of the differences in working in the non-profit vs. the for-profit sector?

Baum: Non-profit work is focused on a mission or what an organization is trying to achieve. All work and work activities are focused on accomplishing the stated mission. Fundraising is also an integral part of the non-profit sector. While for-profits earn income by selling a tangible asset, the non-profit sector must work to identify individuals, foundations and other grant-making institutions that have an interest in their mission, engage and court them, and ask them for funding to support their stated activities to attain the mission. It takes time to increase awareness of a mission/organization and build a strong fundraising foundation to grow the organization.

Hoffman: You’ve also been teaching a course in the food safety master’s program at Michigan State University (MSU). How did you get into the role, what are you teaching, and what do you enjoy the most about the opportunity?

Baum: The current course I created for the Online Food Safety Program at MSU is called The Role of Food Safety in Food Waste Reduction. During my time at Feeding America, I worked in the area of food waste reduction and focused on the application of the same food safety standards that apply to retailers to donated foods. Realizing that food donation and food banks are part of our society and need was growing, it occurred to me to capitalize on the opportunity to expand the knowledge of students in the food safety program about food waste reduction. I enjoy knowing that the students taking the course have a better understanding of what happens to foods that are unsold and donated. It is an essential part of our societal infrastructure to focus on providing food to those in need and reducing food waste. My hope is for food safety professionals who take the course to be exposed to more information about the “last mile” that donated food travels.

Jaime Ragos, STOP’s 2020 Dave Theno Fellow, and I have been creating a new course for the Online Food Safety Program called Food Safety Failures. Jaime identified an opportunity to utilize case studies of outbreaks to provide a different perspective to the epidemiological investigation. The course will go live in the fall of 2021.

Hoffman: What would be your number one piece of advice to young women, students and professionals who are planning to have lead roles in food safety?

Baum: My motto is “you can’t get what you want unless you ask for it”. You must be your own advocate and ask for what you want. Communicating what you want or see as your career path as a professional is essential to achieving your goal.

Hoffman: What are the significant advantages and/or disadvantages of being a female CEO?

Baum: I never look at being a woman as a disadvantage. Women are resilient and consistently persevere. If we can’t get over an obstacle, we find a way to go around it and continue on the path or create a new one. I consider that grit and determination to be the ultimate advantage.

Hoffman: What are the significant strengths of being a female executive?

Baum: Be decisive, be direct, be transparent, be inclusive and most of all, be you.

Hoffman: What do you hope to see in the next three to five years in terms of development and mentoring women in the industry? Do you see any gaps that need to be filled?

Baum: I would like to see more women in roles of authority in the industry. Women have many lived experiences that uniquely qualify them for executive-level positions.

There have been many groups created to support women in food safety which builds community. Individually, it is imperative that each of us is proactive and mentor each other. Mentoring works in both directions; those of us that have been in the work force for a longer period of time can learn a lot from those who just landed their first job. Conversely, we can share our experiences with the younger work force to provide guidance to navigate the current work environment and manage the challenges of being a younger person beginning their career path.

Hoffman: What would you advise females who are working towards a position on an executive or leadership team?

Baum: Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Admittedly, it was very scary to leave a career I cultivated over 23 years – it was comfortable, and I knew what to expect; I did not know what I was capable of until I took a leap of faith. I have many motivational quotes on my desk but my favorite, and the one that consistently urges me to embrace change and take risk, is from Pablo Picasso, “Action is the foundational key to all success.”

Laura Gutierrez Becerra
Women in Food Safety

We Asked, You Answered: The Voice of Women In Food Safety

By Laura Gutierrez Becerra
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Laura Gutierrez Becerra

In an effort to continue supporting female professionals contributing to the food safety industry and better understand their feelings and experiences while going through different stages in their career, we released our first survey in September 2020. The results will help us provide better resources to address the challenges and barriers reported from the survey.

Women in Food Safety
Figure 1. (click to enlarge)

The participation received from the leaders in food safety who completed the survey was significant. We were humbled and excited to notice that within a couple of weeks of launching the survey, 201 responses were received from 19 different countries. Although the survey was intended to assess the situations and experiences women are going through or have gone through, responses from their counterparts, male leaders, were also received. Ninety six percent of the responses are from females. (see Figure 1).

The key survey results were shared and discussed during the “We Asked, You Answered- The Voice of Women In Food Safety” panel session (view complimentary webinar recording) at the Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series on November 5. The following are the insights we gained from the responses.

Position Levels Percentage (%)
Senior executive 14.9
Management 61.7
Administrative/Entry level 6.5
Other (Students) 1.5
Other (CEO) 0.5
Other (Research, consulting, auditor, trainer, regulatory) 14.9
Table 1. Responses by Position Levels

The survey participants hold positions at all professional levels and years within an organization. 61.7% of the total responses are linked to management levels, but only 14.9% are Senior Executive Level (see Table 1). Years of experience were broken down into five categories (see Table 2); 68.2% of the respondents had more than eight years of experience.

Years of Experience Percentage (%)
15+ 38.8
8–15 29.4
5–8 11.9
2–5 13.4
0–2 6.5
Table 2. Responses by Years of Experience

Well-rounded questions were provided in the survey, including situational inquiries, career advancement and the obstacles presented when entering the job market. In addition, opinion-based questions were formulated to understand how extensive networking is leveraged as a developmental and career advancement tool; it also addressed some of the expectations hiring managers have when hiring talent versus what the expectations professionals had when looking for their first jobs. Last but not least, a set of experience-based questions related to the encountered barriers found throughout the career journey, what is attributed to career success, the importance of diversity, and what are the career pivot points when life and career changes come up, were also presented.

With regards to preparedness after graduating from educational training and starting a first job, similar responses were provided between females and males. Women provided three different responses: 54.2% felt they were/are not adequately prepared; 40.6% feel were/are well-prepared; and 7.7% of women did not know their level of preparation; this can be attributed to no guidance received to better navigate the transition from school to the workforce and not being able to completion an educational degree (see Figure 2). Similar to women, 55.6% of men feel they were not adequately prepared; however, the remainder of male responses (44.4%) did not find any issues with the transition to their first job from school (See Figure 3).

Respondents weigh in on feeling adequate prepared when starting their first job after graduating from school. Respondents weigh in on feeling adequate prepared when starting their first job after graduating from school. Figure 4. Obstacles presented when entering the job market. Understanding the Importance of networking (female participants).
Figure 2 and 3. Respondents weigh in on feeling adequate prepared when starting their first job after graduating from school. (Click to enlarge all images) Figure 4. Obstacles presented when entering the job market. Figure 5. Understanding the Importance of networking (female participants).

The experience all participants shared regarding the obstacles presented when entering the job market revealed that, in general, 52.7% of the participants find a lack of connection with a company-experienced employee is the primary obstacle, 49.3% associate the obstacle to lack of connection to industry while attending school, and nearly 30% of participants indicate that they are lacking credentials to meet the job requirements (i.e., not having enough experience for required certifications). In this question, there two additional responses were reported: 15.4% of women did/do not know where to start and 4.5% did/do not know what qualifications the industry is looking for (See Figure 4).

The highlight between female and male responses for this question is the lack of credentials to meet the job requirements as an obstacle to a successful job initiation. In this case, a higher percentage of men (44%) reported this issue as an obstacle compared to the responses submitted by women (29%).

In terms of understanding the importance of networking, 76% of women confirm that they know how to master the skill of networking, but nearly 18% do not know how to start building their network. Additionally, there were a couple of responses from females confirming their understanding of the importance of networking; however, it is only to some extent and they have difficulty connecting with others due to the skill not coming naturally or having some limitations in terms of information sharing (see Figure 5). Only 1% of female responses reported not understanding exactly what a professional network is; whereas 100% of male respondents indicate no issues with understanding the important of networking.

When it comes to the topic of diversity and its importance within a company, 83.3% of female participants said diversity is important to them. Detailed responses are in Table 3.

Is Diversity within a Company Important to You?
11% Not important
9% Do not know
2% Do not know/Would not weigh diversity higher than finding the right candidate
Table 3. Percentages taken out of 192 female responses.

For females, significant career barriers did not fall under a single-specific category. The responses submitted identify 13 different barriers where work/life demands (41%), feeling of the glass ceiling (41%) and education/degree (5%) are found to have a greater concern among others, including students (see Figure 6.). Other barriers, such as soft skills, lack of support from management and lack of opportunity near family are categories that were mostly reported from women holding management level positions (see Figure 7.)

Figure 6. Most significant career barriers.
Figure 6. The most significant career barriers. Figure 7. The most significant career barrier among all level positions among female participants.

In the case of men, work/life demands are recognized as the career barrier of most concern among senior executives (56%). In addition , only other two reasons are reported as barriers: The feeling of a glass ceiling (reported by senior executive level and administrative/entry level) and diversity (reported by management level position) (see Figure 8).

Figure 8. Most significant career barriers among male participants. Figure 9. Career success attribution as defined by female participants. Figure 10. Career success attribution as defined by participants. Figure 11. Life and career changing concerns among female participants.
Figure 8. Most significant career barriers among male participants. Figure 9. Career success attribution as defined by female participants. Figure 10. Career success attribution as defined by participants. Figure 11. Life and career changing concerns among female participants.

Regarding the contributors to career success, self-learning/motivation is the leading category. This is followed by job experience and working with a mentor (see Figures 9 and 10). The main difference between women and men regarding their career success is educational degree, and being persistent and having patience. In this case, female responses outlined that being persistent and having patience is a success factor.

Life and career changes cause stress and disharmony in a person’s life, requiring a modification in job performance and handling of personal responsibility. The concern between men and women differs considerably. While men are more concerned about job reassignments/promotions, extensive traveling, and relocation; women reported they have 11 additional reasons to be concerned. Motherhood or taking care of dependents are the leading issues. (see Figure 11).

The survey also included inputs on what programs would better support the integration of work and life harmony within an organization. Flexible time/working location is found as the primary need from female responses in all position levels. Then, flexible/unlimited personal time off is the second identified need submitted in their responses. In addition, women in management level positions were the demographic responding to all four provided responses. This was contrary to senior executive women who found flexible time/working location as the only category to better support work integration and life harmony (see Figure 12). In the case of men, only two responses provide insight as to their need for support; 88.9% of them would like to have more flexible time/working location and 11.1% consider being part of the workload allocation process beneficial.

From all responses received, about 90% have felt stuck at least once in their position throughout their career or job. Females in management level positions with working experience of eight years or more lead the number of responses (see Figure 13). There is a higher percentage of males (22%) who have not felt stuck in their career compared to the response submitted by females (10%). Male senior executives with more than 15 years of experience have the higher number of responses (see Figure 14).

Figure 12. Better support for the integration of work and life harmony within an organization (female participants). Figure 13. Felt stuck at least once in their position throughout their career/job (female participants). Figure 14. Felt stuck at least once in their position throughout their career/job (male participants).
Figure 12. Better support for the integration of work and life harmony within an organization (female participants). Figure 13. Felt stuck at least once in their position throughout their career/job (female participants). Figure 14. Felt stuck at least once in their position throughout their career/job (male participants).

The survey also included ranking questions to understand what the expectations were/are among the participants related to their first job. Table 4 outlines the five expectations the participants chose from when answering this question, highlighting that 183 out of 201 participants place opportunities to grow at the highest level of importance. Social networking rated the lowest (81 out of 201) in importance among the total responses received.In term of gender-specific answers, both women and men identified opportunities to grow as the expectation with highest level of importance. For women, the expectation with lowest level of importance is social networking; for men, competitive salaries, and opportunities to use what you learned from school are the not-so important expectations (see Figures 15, 16, 17 and 18).

Figure 15. Importance of expectation on the first job (female participants). Figure 16. Opportunities to grow (female participants). Figure 17. Figure 18.
Figure 15. Importance of expectation on the first job (female participants). Figure 16. Opportunities to grow (female participants). Figure 17 and 18. Male participants

The expectation from participants regarding what is the level of importance when hiring new graduate employees highlights “complete the tasks as instructed” as the highest expectation among the 201 participants and experience through internships as the lowest level of importance (see Table 5).

In addition to the five options for answers, women also included three additional expectations:

  • Understanding of company culture and when is a good time to look for a new opportunity
  • Ability to solve problems, analytical thinking and get results independently
  • Learning mindset

Conclusions

Responses from 19 different countries were received from the survey with 96% being from females. Among all position levels provided their inputs, but the largest participation was from women holding management level positions (62%). With regards to the categories on years of experience, those with more than 15 years of experience had the higher percentage of participation (39%), but only 15% were senior executives.

Some key preliminary outcomes are reported as follows:

  • Self-learning and motivation are two leading drivers for career success.
  • Work/life demands and feeling of a glass ceiling are identified as the main career barrier among women and men. Educational degree is a reported concern specific to women and diversity is specific to men.
  • There are no significant differences between females and males regarding not feeling adequately prepared when starting the first job (52.4% – female; 55.6% – male).
  • 52.7% of all participants find a lack of connection with a company-experienced employee as the main obstacle when entering the job market. Lack of credentials is a significant obstacle for males (44.4%) vs. females (29.2%).
  • 100% of male responses said they mastered the skill of networking vs. 76% from female responses.
  • There are no significant differences between females and males regarding not having any issues when transitioning to their first job after graduating from school (41% – female; 44% – male). However, 7.7% of women do not know if they were/are prepared.
  • Flexible time/working location named as the primary need as people believe it would better to support integration of work and life harmony among all position levels.
  • 90% of participants felt stuck at least once in their position throughout their career or job. A higher percentage of men (22%) confirmed not feeling stuck in their career compared with the responses submitted by women (10%).
  • All responses identified opportunities to grow as the expectation with highest level of importance when first starting a career. For females, the expectation with lowest level of importance is social networking. For men, competitive salaries and opportunities to use what they learned in school are not important expectations.
  • The expectation among the 201 participants on what is important when hiring newly graduated employee report completing the tasks as instructed as the highest expectation and placed experience through internships as the lowest level of importance.
Melody Ge, Corvium
Women in Food Safety

We Belong Here

By Melody Ge
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Melody Ge, Corvium

It’s always a pleasure to speak with LeAnn Chuboff, vice president of technical affairs at SQFI. On a cozy sunny afternoon, I chatted with her for more than an hour, and a lot of memories from when we worked together came back. Once again, it was another inspiring conversation.

LeAnn considered her sister as the first mentor who inspired her to take the food industry as her career path. When they were kids, they always visited test kitchens such as Betty Crocker. LeAnn found it fascinating to see how foods were made and developed. So when she went to Iowa State University, she pursued a bachelor’s degree in food science. After graduation, LeAnn took her first job as a food microbiologist, where she found her career. She liked the science and the mission in the food safety industry. During her career, LeAnn has worked for multiple food manufacturers, foodservice operations, the National Restaurant Association, and now is with FMI.

“I find it so fascinating to see the progress we have made in food safety since I started in this industry. I find us all so passionate with our purpose.” she said, adding how she persevered through her career when there were difficulties and challenges. “There will always be difficult decisions, but if you stick with your vision, mission and purpose, then those decisions will be made for you.”

During the interview, we spent some time discussing communication, how to get your voice heard, and how to effectively communicate. LeAnn provided some of her insights, although she said she is still working and learning on it.

  1. Listen; not ‘pretend’ listening but actually hear from your audience to understand what they are saying and their needs.
  2. Understand the problem before coming up with the solution. We all have great ideas but it’s always important to identify the problem we are trying to solve.
  3. Prepare a recommendation on a path forward. When you speak up and address a problem, try and have a recommendation on how to proceed.

At the end of the interview, I asked LeAnn whether she would do anything differently if the clocks turned back to right after her graduation from Iowa State. LeAnn’s answer was a solid no. She likes her career path. When she looks back now with her 30+ years’ experience and how she got to where she is currently, she has enjoyed every step. All the ups and downs through all her experiences have made her who she is today. “I do not think I would change anything, but I would give one piece of advice to my younger self: Be more open minded.”

“I believe there are glass ceilings in some areas, but it is cracking—it’s progress. We are all talented individuals, and we belong at the executive table. ” – LeAnn Chuboff

Melody Ge: Why do you prefer the food safety industry?

LeAnn Chuboff: I like the people and the working environment. There are so many opportunities. Like for myself, first, I was a food microbiologist working in a plant, then I managed a QA department where I think training and lab management are needed. Then, I was exposed to auditing when I was managing suppliers. There are a lot of open doors and opportunities of what you can do in this industry.

Ge: Do you have any tips for females who are working towards an executive position?

Chuboff: Aren’t you feeling sad that we are still talking about this? We, as women, have provided our points, and we are all talented individuals. We belong in this place, the executive team. We also belong in the environment. I think we need to recognize our talents and embrace ourselves. We bring valuable input to business. Second, we have to surround ourselves with people who are going to challenge us, encourage us, and provide us with the criticism that will help us grow and develop. No matter where we are in our professional career, we have to keep moving and learning, and make sure we know we belong.

Ge: I completely agree. I always think female/male is a personality. Individuals shall be seen objectively, when we work, we all have two sides, sometimes the male personality is stronger, sometimes, the female personality is needed. Do you believe in a glass ceiling, by the way?

Chuboff: I do believe that there is a glass ceiling in some industries and regions, but it’s cracking, and that includes in the food safety industry. However, I am very fortunate to work at where there are many examples of strong women in executive positions. We’ve made progress, but it takes time. I do believe we are in a unique environment where men recognize the talents of women; women recognize the talents of men. Four or five years ago, there were more ceilings, with more discussions revealed—it’s definitely shattering now

“As a leader, always treat people, all people, as I would like to be treated or how I wish I was treated.” – Chuboff.

Ge: There are always discussions about work-life balance. What is your vision of achieving balance?

Chuboff: To be honest, I have to say I am not good at this one, but I am trying my best. My best advice is to commit time for your family and personal life. For professional women, it’s not easy as it sounds to flip that switch, but we need to have the switch so we can turn off work mode. Especially with working from home, it always feels like we’re working. My other piece of advice is, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I think a lot of times, we feel like we are showing our vulnerabilities when we ask for help. Actually, we’re not! Asking for help doesn’t mean you are weak; asking for help can actually help you or the employer to balance resources.

Ge: Besides what you have shared today, if you could give one last tip for young female professionals who are entering the career or during the transition of their career, what would that be?

Chuboff: One thing I believe is that as long as you always represent who you are, and remain genuine with the expertise you have, you will shine!

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Women in Food Safety: Take the Survey Now

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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The organizers of the Women in Food Safety column on Food Safety Tech have put together a survey to understand the journey of food safety professionals throughout their career, along with sharing relevant work experiences. The results of this survey will be released and discussed during an episode of the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series on November 5 about Professional Development & Women in Food Safety.

Participate in the survey now.

Laura Gutierrez Becerra
Women in Food Safety

Always Seek Opportunities for Improvement

By Laura Gutierrez Becerra
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Laura Gutierrez Becerra

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Neshat Soofi, president of JIT Experts Hive, for the Women in Food Safety Column. She shared some of her inspirational experiences working with multicultural teams and companies, and how she eventually became an entrepreneur, launching her own business. “As food safety experts, our primary job is to minimize the risk of contamination in food and protect consumer health and safety. Of course, there are other aspects of our job such as contributing to the profitable growth of companies we work for. Sometimes we get caught in conflict situations with a lot of pressure on us. Most of the time it comes down to assessing risk in uncertain situations and with limited information. Even food safety situations are not black and white. To make the right decision we need to assess the risk-taking multiple factors into consideration. One thing that always helped me was to remember why I was hired and that my reason for being in a company was to minimize risk to the consumers,” says Soofi. “Being a food safety professional also helped me understand business holistically, since as a food safety lead you have to work with many functions in a company, from sourcing to customer service, marketing and sales. As part of my career path, I even worked in different functions that provided me with different perspectives of business. This knowledge helped me be a better product safety and quality leader, and later helped me set up my own business, which provides consultation and expert knowledge in many areas of business.”

Join Women in Food Safety for a special episode on November 5 about career development and mentorship during the 2020 Food Safety Virtual Conference SeriesSoofi was born and raised in Iran and has lived in Canada and the United States for the past 30 years. She has more than 25 years of experience in product safety, quality and development working for small to large companies like Target, Cargill and Multifoods (Pillsbury). After working with some of the largest corporations, she decided to join start-up company “Brandless” to build their product safety, quality and integrity programs from scratch. After three years working in a fast-paced, autonomous environment, she started her own business called JIT Experts Hive. She leveraged her broad and diverse background to fill a gap in the market, connecting like-minded and purpose-driven hands-on experts to companies in need of those expertise in a just in time fashion. Connecting knowledge to innovation. The mission of JIT Experts Hive is to help accelerate the growth of CPG companies in food, supplement, CBD, cosmetic/beauty and household industries by providing just-in-time expertise.

Working in consumer-packaged goods (CPG) industries including food for more than 25 years, Soofi felt fortunate with what she has learned over the years. “I learned that in order to grow and succeed, I needed to step outside my comfort zone. Every job I took was very different from the previous one. Even going so far as stepping completely out of food safety and working in other areas of business like leading data governance and business intelligence, or getting into new product categories such as personal care, cosmetics and even household cleaners. What I found was that these learnings and experiences made me a better product safety and quality expert and leader. Product safety jobs are quite unique; one is responsible for results of work of many functions with no direct control over them. The ability to understand other functions, their priorities and pressures and look at situations through different lenses helps one assess the risks better and come up with better solutions. One can also articulate the risks and benefits in a way that would be more compelling and effective,” Soofi explained.

Neshat Soofi, JIT Experts Hive
Neshat Soofi, president of JIT Experts Hive

With a unique multicultural background and experience working in large corporations leading teams in different countries, Soofi advises that when working with multicultural teams one should: Learn about each country’s work ethics, how to address someone (i.e., first name or with titles), what is the appropriate way of greeting and interacting during and after work hours, and the level and importance of hierarchy.

Tactical details are also important: Be cognizant of time zone differences and schedule meetings on a rotating time zone basis; in virtual meetings/calls and in the absence of getting the non-verbal cues and body language, pay more attention to pauses, silence and the importance of clear communication so things are not lost in translation or misinterpreted.

Last but not least, remember: Never assume, and never stereotype. Each person is unique and may be very different from the stereotype in their countries, so don’t go with assumptions. And if in doubt, ask, because it not only helps you understand their preference, but also helps break the ice.

As a female leader, Soofi has also learned a lot from her multicultural female team members. “As Cheryl Sandberg has mentioned in her book ‘Lean In’, women generally have a harder time taking a seat at the table! In some cultures this feeling is even stronger due to cultural factors. What I found for myself and many great talents in my teams was that gradually pushing ourselves out of comfort zones by taking challenging assignments, leading projects and teams and being the voice and face of the team was a great way to build confidence in yourself and take your rightful seat at the table. Don’t be afraid of failure and do not internalize it if it happens. Having a mentor to help you in this journey by providing advice but also constructive criticism and course correction when needed is key to success,” Soofi says.

Another aspect is that as a woman, building strong negotiation skills is a must. “Whether negotiating for a new position, salary, etc., do your homework, know where the bottom line and the absolute non-negotiable variable are for you, but also understand where you can compromise. At the same time, do not be afraid of hearing “no” and do not take things personally.”

Laura Gutierrez Becerra: What would be your number one piece of advice to young women professionals who are planning to be leaders in food safety?

Neshat Soofi: Don’t be shy! Reach out to experienced professionals in the industry; there are plenty of higher-level peers who will be willing to help you. A good mentor is priceless. I have a personal story to share: About four years ago, I got a message through LinkedIn from someone who has just moved to the US. I had not met her before, and she asked me if we could meet and talk about the food industry and jobs in the US. We met and I happily shared my experience and advice in seeking jobs, helped her with a mock interview and resume, and anything else I could. Four years later, she is a quality assurance manager in one of the largest food companies here in the United States. We have stayed great friends, and I am so proud of her resilience and success.

Gutierrez Becerra: Is there an unforgettable story during your career journey that still has an impact?

Soofi: When I was working in Canada in food manufacturing, I was called to the processing line one day regarding a potential foreign object issue. I stopped the line to find out the root cause. At the same time there was a lot of pressure to resume production since this was an order for a major account. Under pressure, I agreed to start the line with adding inspection and controls that I knew in my guts were not sufficient. The products were shipped, and we started to get a series of complaints about foreign objects in the product. Thank god there was no injury, but as you can imagine, that major account was not happy with the situation and we lost the business with them. It was a major loss and my boss from the head office came for a visit to our plant. I tried to explain why I had allowed the production to resume and release the product because we couldn’t have a late shipment. In response he asked me one question, “What’s your job title?” I responded, “I am the food safety and quality assurance manager.” His comment was, “I am glad you remember. Your first priority is minimizing risk to consumers and company reputation. I am sure you took that into consideration when you okayed the release, [but] if not, please remember in future”. I expected him to be angry and was even prepared to be fired, but his quiet answer was more impactful. This is a lesson I remember to this day—there are rarely black and white situations in life, even in food safety. The key is to assess the risk and not let outside pressures impact your assessment and decisions.

Gutierrez Becerra: What do you hope to see in the next three to five years in terms of development and mentoring women in the industry?

Soofi: I see a need for networks like yours to connect new industry professionals regardless of gender to the more veteran experts on an as-needed basis—almost like a hotline, where food safety professionals can ask for advice and mentoring in a confidential and safe environment. This is becoming easier in a post-COVID era where virtual connections are becoming more of a norm than exception, and people from all over the world are learning to connect in ways that were not easy and personally comfortable in the past.

I also want to see a better appreciation of the importance of food safety programs in organizations, especially at leadership levels. We need to better articulate what additional values (efficiencies, better cultures, productivity, etc.) a great food safety program brings to the organization. I want food safety functions to be at the leadership tables and part of developing company strategies and directions. We can’t be only remembered when bad things happen and in the middle of a crisis. Food safety and quality leaders should be at the forefront of organizational leadership, all the way to the C-suite.