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.
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.
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.
The agenda for the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series has been released. The announcement about the annual Food Safety Consortium being converted to a virtual series due to the COVID-19 pandemic was made last month. Due to a demand to provide attendees with even more content, the event has been extended a full month and is running into December. Food Safety Tech is the media sponsor.
The event will begin every Thursday at 12 pm ET, beginning on September 3 and continue through December 17. Each week will feature three educational presentations, two Tech Talks, and a panel discussion. Weekly episodes include food defense, food labs, pest management, sanitation, food fraud, listeria detection, mitigation & control, professional development, women in food safety, supply chain management, COVID-19’s impact and food safety culture.
Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, will serve as the keynote speaker on Thursday, October 1 at 12 pm ET.
“Human connection is so important for events, and we know we’re not the only game in town. That’s why we’ve invested in a Conference Virtual Platform that can facilitate discussions, discovery, and connection that can continue whether our event is offline or online—and not end with the live streaming,” says Rick Biros, president of Innovative Publishing and director of the Food Safety Consortium. “Simply, the experience other food safety conferences are offering is not conducive to learning, staying engaged or take into consideration that you have a job to do during that week. This is why we have designed the Consortium’s program with short, manageable episodes that are highly educational.”
Registration for the 2020 Food Safety Consortium Virtual Conference Series is open. Keeping in mind that registrants may not be able to attend every week due to scheduling conflicts, there is an option to watch the each session on demand.
Tech Talk Sponsorship
Companies that are interested in sponsoring a 10-minute technical presentation during the series can also submit their abstract through the portal. For pricing information, contact IPC Sales Director RJ Palermo.
About Food Safety Tech
Food Safety Tech publishes news, technology, trends, regulations, and expert opinions on food safety, food quality, food business and food sustainability. We also offer educational, career advancement and networking opportunities to the global food industry. This information exchange is facilitated through ePublishing, digital and live events.
About the Food Safety Consortium Conference and Expo (The live event)
Food companies are concerned about protecting their customers, their brands and their own company’s financial bottom line. The term “Food Protection” requires a company-wide culture that incorporates food safety, food integrity and food defense into the company’s Food Protection strategy.
The Food Safety Consortium is an educational and networking event for Food Protection that has food safety, food integrity and food defense as the foundation of the educational content of the program. With a unique focus on science, technology and compliance, the “Consortium” enables attendees to engage in conversations that are critical for advancing careers and organizations alike. Delegates visit with exhibitors to learn about cutting-edge solutions, explore three high-level educational tracks for learning valuable industry trends, and network with industry executives to find solutions to improve quality, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the evolving food industry.
“For Women, By Women in Food Safety” is a professional group that was formed in January 2019. Comprised of outstanding female leadership, food safety professionals and students who are passionate about this field, the goal is to provide a community and networking platform for the industry to share their stories and experiences, help young professionals, and grow together. Hopefully, the lessons and challenges that are shared will prove useful throughout one’s career journey.
“I see this group as means of connecting young, female food safety professionals to other females in food safety roles so they can share insights from their own experiences in their careers,” says Jill Hoffman, group committee member, and director of global quality systems and food safety at McCormick & Company.
Meet the Group Founder
Melody Ge has 10+ years’ experience in food safety and is passionate about food safety on a global scale. She holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science and engineering, starting her career journey with Beyond Meat as the technical director for product development and food safety and quality control. Following this position Ge established the compliance and integrity program at SQFI, and then worked as the deputy QA director at Lidl US. Currently, Ge is the head of compliance at Corvium, Inc. where she continues to foster food safety culture using advanced technology within the industry. As a non-U.S. citizen, Ge is fortunate to work with different cultures and industries, including retailers and manufacturers, using her multi-language skills and expertise in food safety. Ge believes in women’s leadership and in using their strengths to be successful in their roles.
Meet Some of the Committee Members
Jacqueline Southee, North American Representative, FSSC 22000
Jacqueline Southee is an agricultural scientist with a Ph.D. in animal science.She has an academic foundation with what one might call “earthy roots”. “I worked in the animal welfare arena for years before taking a career break to relocate from Europe to the USA and raise two boys. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to return to work with FSSC 22000 in 2013 and have enjoyed building the profile of the organization’s certification program in North America,” says Southee. “I also have experience in (and have encountered challenges) developing and evaluating standard operating procedures. This is becoming more relevant today in the food industry as regulations demand worldwide consistency in the use of standard approaches to minimizing risk and controlling hazards,” she says.
One of Southee’s greatest attributes is her “internationalism”, her experience working professionally with different cultures and fields, and her ability to communicate with all levels of an organization. She believes that there are huge opportunities in food safety for women of all ages and a need for a range of experiences. It remains important to communicate, encourage and to share in order to cultivate the next generation of food safety professionals.
Jill Hoffman, Director of Global Quality Systems and Food Safety, McCormick & Company
Jill Hoffman started her journey in food safety in college with a major in food science, when her exposure and desire to pursue a career in food came to her while taking a human nutrition course. Since then, Hoffman has had many roles in food manufacturing, both in food safety and quality as well as in operations management. In 2019, she completed her master’s degree in food safety at Michigan State University, which resolved her dilemma of pursuing an advanced degree without having to go back to school full-time (not an option for her!). Hoffman found the online master’s program was perfect for her to pursue an advanced degree in an area that truly interested her and was relevant to her career.
Currently, Hoffman works at McCormick & Co., Inc. as the director of global quality systems and food safety. At McCormick, she has been able to grow as a food safety professional as well as gain valuable experience working internationally and understanding the dynamics of working across cultures. She enjoys working to develop programs and solutions to address the ever-changing food safety and quality challenges that present themselves.
As Hoffman’s career continues to grow, she has learned and values the importance of work/life balance. She actively works to ensure balance between the two, as it is so important to take care of all aspects of yourself, not just your professional self. “The things we do outside of our ‘work self’ can help to grow and shape us as people just as much as the formal coaching and learning that we do in our day-to-day jobs,” Jill says.
What prompted the launch of a group that focuses on female professional development in the food safety sector?
Read the interview with Melody Ge, Technology Helps Your Food Safety Employees Work Smarter, Not HarderMelody Ge: I started this group because I received many questions from students about building their careers in food safety. I would love to help more, and I know my own experience is limited, so I wanted to leverage the knowledge of so many outstanding women out there. Hence, I formed this group with the hopes that it could be a resource to those who are seeking solutions in the industry.
Jacqueline Southee: I believe the food safety sector is growing exponentially with increasingly diverse requirements for a wider skill set, which needs to be communicated to young food scientists still making academic choices and building their proficiencies and talents. In addition, new opportunities are being created by this global industry that the next generation of food scientists need to be made aware of.
Jill Hoffman: I see this group as an opportunity to bring women together to share stories and challenges that have arisen throughout their careers. The group gives women an ability to learn how others have navigated both challenging and rewarding moments in their careers so that they can incorporate this awareness into their own journey. Additionally, this group will help with sharing the diverse opportunities in food safety. Everyone has a different road they’ve traveled to get to where they are today, and it’s important to share these stories as a testament to knowing that everyone doesn’t have to have traveled the same pathway in education or career experience to get into a role of ensuring food safety.
How do you see this group positioned in the future?
Ge: I would like to see this group sustain itself in the food safety industry and become a safe harbor for women to talk about their passions, experiences, challenges and learn from each other so ultimately, we all can be stronger in the industry together.
Southee: As the industry becomes more global, its success will depend on tech-savvy technologists and food scientists who have a wide range of skills, including in information science, regulations, quality management systems, economics, politics and climatology. The list is endless. We need to make sure the lines of communication are open, the opportunities are open to all and that we can help shepherd young women through.
Hoffman: I think there’s a flexible vision for the group to grow into a recognized forum for women to engage in at all points in their careers. The group will grow into an active space for sharing, learning and networking among food safety professionals and female students pursuing an interest in the field of food safety.
We can do this together!
Are you interested in helping the group? Although, it’s a female-focused group, we are open to all feedback, support, and partnership opportunities to grow this group together. We hope to hear from you. You can join the group, For Women, By Women in Food Safety or direct message Melody Ge on LinkedIn.
Currently, this is a LinkedIn group, and all committee members have joined voluntarily. However, with support from Food Safety Tech, we are planning on writing monthly columns for the publication, scheduling in-person meet ups at some of the industry conferences, and engaging in mentoring programs, webinars and more activities in the near future. We hope our visions can be achieved throughout the team efforts together.