#BreakTheBias Series: Kara Scherer
#BreakTheBias Spotlight Series:
A Chat with Kara Scherer
Head of the new Food Safety Department at Dennis Group, Kara Scherer, tells us about what sparked her interest in food safety, how she followed her passions to find her field, and how she hopes to keep growing.
1. Hi Kara, thanks for chatting with us today. Why don't you kick us off by telling us a little about what brought you to food safety?
When I was originally picking colleges and deciding what I wanted to do with my life, I decided to get a degree in microbiology, because I wanted to do disease research and develop vaccines or find cures. But once I got into the nitty gritty of undergraduate research, I realized that maybe it wasn't the right career path for me. I enjoyed what I was studying, but it was a little slow paced and I wanted something a little more fast paced.
I had some manufacturing internships, then did a job shadowing program at the Hershey Company, and that was my first glimpse of food safety. I'd heard about recalls on the news and it just really stuck with me, so I changed my focus and found my niche with food safety. It was a way I could still pursue microbiology and prevent illnesses. So I basically started one way through manufacturing but ultimately decided to go with food. Because who doesn't love food?
2. Had you always planned to go into consultation?
Not at all. I started off as an overnight lab technician for HP Hood, which was a job that combined quality and food safety - you test the raw milk when it arrives for antibiotics and count somatic cells and then test the finished product to ensure that it was pasteurized properly. When I moved to Pepperidge Farm, I got more exposed to developing programs that get implemented at the plant, like food safety plans and all the supporting documentation and monitoring activities that go along with that. So while there is a linear path, from lab tech to supervisor to manager then field manager overseeing the quality and food safety department at a corporate level, I took a slightly different path.
"At Dennis Group you get to start almost from scratch. You're designing a brand-new facility or you're relocating a line, and you get to look at it from start to finish and call out issues ahead of time."
3. What was it that drew you to Dennis Group?
At Dennis Group you get to start almost from scratch. You're designing a brand-new facility or you're relocating a line, and you get to look at it from start to finish and call out issues ahead of time. You're saying to yourself "I know this has caused trouble" or "I know this is difficult to clean or hard to get to." I get to focus on the knowledge of food safety combined with the development of the facility itself.
4. It must be satisfying to be able to stop some of those problems before they occur.
It is, especially because in food safety or quality, a lot of times you're the bearer of bad news, you know? No one wants to hear that there will be downtime to reclean a production line, or that we may need to discard $50,000 worth of product due to foreign material. Sometimes it's a double-edged sword because you're a woman and then you're also in a field where you always have something negative to say, so they never want to listen to you. Being able to identify potential hazards prior to project execution allows our clients to weigh the cost of designing it out or managing it through internal programs.
5. What's the gender split like in Food Safety?
Where I've worked it's been a good mix, maybe even mostly women in the actual food safety field. I would say in the higher roles there are more men. But there has definitely been progress even since I started out [about ten years ago]. Definitely at the plant level there is a lot of representation and more of a 50/50 split.
"Sometimes you don't know if they aren't listening because of your field, because you're a woman, or because you look young. It can be discouraging at times."
6. Have you had any challenges or frustrations as a woman in the industry?
When I was working at the plant, I felt like my opinions and ideas or mitigation strategies or corrective actions for plant issues weren't always weighted the same as others were. I always felt like I had to go above and beyond; do the due diligence study and show the numbers and paint this lovely picture, you know. Say: If we do XY&C, we're going to save this amount of time, this amount of money. Whereas my male coworkers could just say oh, we should just do this and everyone would listen to them.
Or when management was turning over, they wouldn't have the food experience or really know the plant background. But their word would get taken over mine. I'd tell them we've had this issue before, and they'd say no, no, it's not that. And ultimately we'd waste all this time and money when the issue happens again. And then they finally want to listen to you. And I'm going, well, you could have listened to me in the first place, before we had to throw away all this food.
And there were times at my previous jobs where, even though I was five years out of school, they would think I had just graduated college. So sometimes you don't know if they aren't listening because of your field, because you're a woman, or because you look young. It can be discouraging at times. Over time, you just learn to roll with it, or come up with workarounds. If I really want to get X done, I'm going to go to this person because you know, they like my ideas, they're in operations, they'll be able to implement it. Or sometimes you just give away your ideas to someone else, or you go hint, hint, wink, wink, you should do X.
"I enjoyed what I was studying, but it was a little slow paced and I wanted something a little more fast paced...so I changed my focus and found my niche with food safety. It was a way I could still pursue microbiology and prevent illnesses."
7. As you were coming up through the industry, were there any women you looked up to as a mentor or role model?
Yes, there have been a few women that I've worked with who have been a great help, like my first boss, Wendy Landry from HP Hood. She was great. I could go to her for coaching and mentoring, and she was just very knowledgeable in the field and someone really good to look up to and ask questions. Having those conversations about the industry, learn more about it, and what I could do in it has been extremely valuable to me.
And then two others, Daniela Vonghia, and Coreen Frolish. Coreen is currently the vice president of operations for the Pepperidge Farm at Campbells, and before her was Daniela who I met at one of our holiday parties. We just really clicked. We would talk about her career and how she started in engineering and made her way all the way up through different industries. She was a strong believer in mentoring and creating a mission statement for yourself, defining what really speaks to you and what you want to do. It was great talking with them both. They're both very strong and professional; you know those people that just have that presence, they walk into a room and people pay attention? They both had that for sure.
Those three have all been great role models to look up to, they were all focused on coaching and mentoring as a management style, and I took a lot away from that.
8. Now you head a department of your own, and entering a stage in your career where newcomers to food safety might look up to you as a role model. Do you have any advice for them?
I want them to know there are so many options you can do within the food industry and in food safety. Learn what you like, learn what you don't like. Come find certain aspects of the field that you're really into. Once you get into whether manufacturing or engineering, you can bounce around. Talk to people in the industry and learn about their career paths; they may have started off in quality and then jumped to operations, or up to supply chain.
And if you do start to feel stuck in an industry or you're starting to feel like maybe you are being, singled out or left out of certain things, don't settle. Start looking for new jobs, start the interviewing process again, because you'll find the environment where you really fit in. Don't settle for an environment that that's toxic.
"If you do start to feel stuck in an industry or you're starting to feel like maybe you are being, singled out or left out of certain things, don't settle... because you'll find the environment where you really fit in."
9. What are your thoughts on the Women@DG ERG currently being kicked off?
I think it'll be great and a good opportunity to have kind of a mentorship program. I'm always experienced based; I love hearing about other people's experiences, their career paths, how they overcame certain challenges in their lives. Or maybe they haven't overcome it, which gives you that that avenue of teamwork and working together and saying well if that hasn't worked for you what's another way we could approach it? I hope it'll be a good community and offer some mentorship opportunities.
10. It's great to hear that things are improving for women in the industry, but of course there are miles yet to go. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are one tool companies can offer to help support minority employees. Are you excited to see an ERG for women at DG and IFAB?
I wholeheartedly support ERGs as a safe place for people to talk about challenges and gain avenues for attacking those difficulties for positive change. We need avenues of support to provide resources, promote diversity, and to unify our voices to be a collective in harmony.
11. The theme for International Women's Day this year was #BreakTheBias. What does that mean to you?
I really think it's all about enlightenment. Whether it's another woman seeing all these stories and being inspired and given hope to that they could also do the same thing or follow a different path than they've been taking, or even for men reading these stories and perhaps examining their own unconscious biases, maybe realizing, I didn't know that a woman could do that. I think it's about portraying women in the kind of light they deserve.
12. Thanks for this great chat, Kara! Before we sign off, you mentioned one of your mentors was big on personal mission statements. Would you share yours with us?
Absolutely. My mission is to make positive impacts across the food & beverage industry by challenging manufacturers' internal programs, balancing responsibilities, and promoting food safety culture.