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Laura Gutierrez Becerra
Women in Food Safety

Understanding Career Motivators Leads to Success

By Laura Gutierrez Becerra
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Laura Gutierrez Becerra

On behalf of the Women In Food Safety Group, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to interview Garry Hellmich, food safety and quality director at General Mills, and learn about his career path and leadership in food safety. During our discussion, Garry shared his perspective on how to continuously support and pursue women’s development, and offered advice to young female professionals who are interested in pursuing and/or expanding on a food safety career journey. Garry holds a food science degree from Purdue University and has dedicated his career to taking a preventive, risk-based mitigation approach to food through the supply chain and maintaining holistic quality management during the product lifecycle. His vast expertise lies in the food manufacturing sector where he started his career at Kroger and the Quaker Oats Company. From there, Garry built his experience through professional learning and getting promoted at Pillsbury and General Mills. His current responsibilities involve leading a large and high-performing global team of food safety subject matter experts at General Mills. He also shared some of his personal hobbies, which to no surprise includes cooking and baking—one of his signature personal favorites is chocolate truffles.

Garry believes in the power of continuously assessing yourself to identify and understand what your career motivators are in order to support career development. “Build your professional career, own your career and plan ahead,” he advises. Also, actively seeking career sponsors and mentors, and ensuring a dynamic team by building gender equality and diversity is key. “Food safety is not a competitive advantage—only the speed with which proactive risk mitigation is achieved is competitive,” says Hellmich.

Garry Hellmich, General Mills
Garry Hellmich, food safety and quality director at General Mills

Gutierrez Becerra: Tell us about how your career began and led you to where you are today.

Garry Hellmich: I am a food scientist; I received a food science degree from Purdue University. I have more that 35+ years of progressive quality and food safety responsibility in the food industry, including experience in RTE cereals, hot cereals, dry mixes, convenience & food service and dry meals. I started my professional career at Kroger and The Quaker Oats Company, and then in 1991, I joined General Mills (including Pillsbury) where I continued leading in food safety and quality. My first job functions in the food industry were as a laboratory technician responsible for conducting routine micro testing and quality production, as a supervisor responsible for managing the quality of incoming raw material for production release and vendor relationships.

Gutierrez Becerra: What persuaded and motivated you to focus your career on food safety?

Hellmich: I spent three years in college while pursuing a major in pharmacy. After realizing it was not the right thing for me, I decided to take a year off. During the break, while trying to figure out what to do and having lunch with my grandma, she triggered the question: Why don’t you do something involving food—you love food. Then, while conversing with other family members who worked in the food industry, I became inspired and motivated to get a food science degree. I returned to Purdue to continue school with a major in food science. I started my career at different companies, learning about the importance of food safety and implementing [those principles] right away. Pillsbury developed HACCP for NASA, so risk analysis and overall HACCP development have been key throughout my career in both quality and food safety. I enjoy working for the food industry and the fact that I can work to solve many different types of problems. For example, going back to early times in my career, we faced a product recall due to a physical hazard; we assessed the problem and emphasized the importance of hazard analysis and control measures. In addition to working through a recall and leading specific actions to manage it, I gained experience on how to ensure the demand of all impacted retail and foodservice customers is met. And also, I was inspired and motivated by the strong food industry collaboration on a prompted technical and safety solution.

Gutierrez Becerra: What has being a leader in food safety brought you at both a professional and personal level?

Hellmich: There is huge pride when seeing products on the shelf based on a project you have worked on, and this has had a personal impact as well. In working with professionals in food development—they love to see their products on the shelf and so do I; I am proud of the work they have done. [In this business], there is always an interesting problem that needs to be solved, and we gain experience from working on these challenging issues, and it helps us grow. For example, in the 90’s an allergen incident directed me to lead an effort to develop an enhanced allergen protection program at the manufacturing level, which achieved our goal to reduce consumer allergen risk going forward.

Gutierrez Becerra: What have you learned from partnering and working with women throughout your career journey?

Hellmich: I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of talented and qualified women. About 20 years ago, I was interviewing candidates for a job opening. After presenting my candidate selection (a male candidate), my manager (a female leader) challenged me with the question: Why you didn’t choose the other female candidate who was equivalent when it came to experience and would balance the team from a gender standpoint? Later in my career, I kept gender balance in my mind. You can instantly recognize that the dynamic changes when female leaders join a team. Gender diversity is important for success. Forty years ago, General Mills was a male-dominated company. Then, with an idea of making changes, the company decided to hire many female food scientists with PhDs. Today, we have almost a 50-50 gender balance within the company.

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

Hellmich: I think it is very important to identify your career motivators, whether it is [tackling] challenges, having work-life balance, job security or advancement. The first step is to assess and know yourself, and what is important for you to pursue in your career. For me, it has been security and to create value. I have stayed in food safety and quality for my entire career, despite having the opportunity to move into other areas. I have always been honest with myself on what motivates my career and what I want to achieve.

I’d like to share a story with you: One of my first female team members was about to turn down an offer for a manager position that involved moving to a different location. The reason was that there was no childcare available at the new location. I advised her to discuss her career motivators with her husband. Ultimately she ended up taking the position with the support of her husband, who stayed home as they settled down in a new city. It is important to think beyond yourself, because your family can help you.
We are owners of our own career timeline, and realizing your own expectations is important—they are different for everyone based on family and personal factors. And lastly, always invest in creating value, which will help you move up within an organization. Look ahead and make your plan. When starting a career, make sure it’s your own.

My advice for a new college graduate is that in the real world, it’s all about application. Learn as much as you can in your current role and make an investment in yourself. Be available to support your team in any capacity that will help you learn and gain experience. Always learn something new and be ready when the next opportunity comes to you.

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

Hellmich: A good mentor of mine once told me that ultimately, one key way to move up is to make your boss look good and to always be prepared to take on any of your manager’s and/or any other employee’s responsibilities when needed. Being always prepared is the highest investment you can make; focus on continuously learning a new leadership and technical skill at any position level. It’s very important to know the difference between choosing career sponsors and mentors. A mentor is assigned, and sponsor is created. A mentor advises you, while sponsors advocate for you and provide opportunities. People tend to become sponsors when they see that you create value to the team and the organization. Hence, the more value you continuously create to the organization, the further you will go.

In closing, I’d like to point out four key areas to keep in mind throughout your career: 1. Assess and know yourself; 2.Understand your career motivators; 3. Build a network of mentors for all areas of growth you are interested in; and 4. Create trust with your line of sponsors so you can truly grow yourself and earn your own career path in the long run.

Melody Ge, Corvium
Women in Food Safety

Women in Food Safety: Meet the Members…and Join Us!

By Melody Ge
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Melody Ge, Corvium

“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, Corvium
Melody Ge is also a Food Safety Tech Editorial Advisory Board member

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, Ph.D.
Jacqueline Southee, Ph.D., FSSC 22000

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, McCormick & Company
Jill Hoffman, 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.