We are so excited to be featuring one of our incredible FIF community members, Susan Stevens. Her journey in the food industry has grown from setting her roots in engineering roles to expanding her expertise as a supervisor. In this Q&A interview, Susan shows us the power of team management and what it means to know the operations and people side of the business, creating a healthy culture and focusing on self-development to boot.
Q. Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up? What inspired you to start a career in the F&B industry?
A. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, IL. My parents taught me from a young age that hard work and grit were tools that I would need in my tool kit. I was an extremely shy child and spent much of my childhood as a dancer to build confidence.
I didn’t intentionally set out for the food and beverage industry. I found myself gravitating towards food companies and their approach to improvement and continuous learning. I joined Cargill in an operations/engineering role after college graduation and really enjoyed the responsibility and pace of that function.
Q. Can you share what your career journey has entailed? Where are you today?
A. I joined Cargill in an operations/engineering role after college graduation. I held several engineering roles and a maintenance role before I landed in Operations Management. For 6 years, I worked as the front-line supervisor and then the manager of one section of their ingredient plant in Hammond IN. Because the technology I worked in was very specialized, I worked with several global teams and was able to support a plant start up in China in 2018 with several onsite visits.
Working in Operations Management helped me realized that I have a passion for people management and development in addition to “the work”. In 2018, I completed the CTI Co-Active Coaching program to continue to develop myself as a leader.
In March 2020 (what timing!) I accepted a new role at Fifty Gazelles (an innovation agency) in Chicago, IL. Today, I lead commercialization projects for new product launches (food service, retail, etc) for large and emerging brands.
Q. What career achievements have been the most impactful to you and those that you have helped along the way?
A. I am most proud of the work that I did to develop the culture of my team in my operations manager role. I was the first woman to occupy that role (and the first woman to occupy the supervisor role before it) and I really leveraged that to create a culture built on determination, curiosity and helping others.
Our team accomplished great things and was so collaborative from the newest operator all the way up the chain. It was so rewarding to see that even in that “rough” culture that those types of work places are possible.
Q. What are your areas of expertise for Females in Food members to connect with you on?
A. You should shoot me a note or give me a call when you want to talk operations management, external manufacturing, product commercialization or how to get a toddler down for bed.
Q. What do you enjoy doing most in your free time?
A. My husband and I have a two-year-old (Ben) and we love to take him on adventures. Pre-covid, we had great plans to travel a bit with Ben. Currently, we spend a lot of time outside with him, exploring parks in downtown Chicago. (Our record is 4 playground in one day)
In my child free downtime, I am an avid reader. I’m typically reading 2-3 books at a time. I’m currently reading the Bridgerton series and “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado Perez. I also love a good book recommendation to help me learn more about the world.
Q. What advice would you give your younger self? Or What advice do you have for those who are just coming into the food industry?
A. It is important to do a good job at work and you should focus on developing yourself. Developing yourself is not “taking a bunch of classes”. I found that I developed the most when I was taking stretch assignments outside of my comfort zone or really working to apply something that I learned (from a book, class, podcast etc).
Build your network. I made the mistake of only building my network within my own company and realized this only when I realized I was ready to leave. Continuing to check in with your network helps both them and you and it is important to take the time/effort to do it!
Q. What is your favorite “on the go” breakfast?
A. I’m a terrible breakfast eater. If I had my way, I’d eat a full hot breakfast every day and it would always have hashbrowns (extra crispy).