Sheri S., Vice President & Director of the Product Technology Center (PTC)
Tell us about your career path at Nestlé Purina.
I was a biochemistry major and worked in the food science department during my undergrad at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I developed a passion for engineering and obtained my Master's degree in Agricultural Engineering prior to starting my PhD program and working as a Fellow with the USDA. From there, academia seemed like the obvious choice. A few years passed and I decided it wasn't for me. I received a call from Nestlé Purina's Research and Development Center in St. Joseph, MO, accepted a role as a Process Engineer, and went on to spend 10 years in Product Development. I've always remained open to global projects in which I've learned a lot from—I've worked on assignments in both Brazil and Europe.
There came a point when I stopped to think, "what's next?", which brought me to people leadership. Not what you might think though. I started as a Maintenance Manager in an international factory location. It was a stretch for me, but ultimately made me better at R&D because I became comfortable with the degree of ambiguity and took the time to learn our operations. It felt really good to see product go out the door!
Ultimately, R&D was my passion and I returned to engineering as a Manager, then a Group Director, and now I currently serve as the Vice President of the Product Technology Center (PTC). It's funny because this is what I imagined in my 10-year plan when I decided I wanted to become a people leader. If I would have scripted how to get there, I would have been totally wrong. It goes to show you, focus on a goal and you'll get there.
What made you decide to join Nestlé Purina?
After I determined academia wasn't for me, I started to consider places I could use my skill set and came across opportunities in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. Nestlé's culture topped other CPGs, and after a lot of research on the organization, it appealed to me because of the diversity amongst the people and the work I would be able to do. It is a lean organization, meaning I won't have to worry about "trimming the fat" as they say, and I'll get to do impactful work.
What are your primary responsibilities as a Vice President at the Product Technology Center (PTC)?
As a Director, I was hyper-focused on operations like manufacturing and engineering. As a VP, I spend my time planning work to develop products that meet consumers' needs. I'm more focused on the front end of the business, but my understanding of Nestlé research definitely comes into play. It takes a long time to conduct meaningful research and develop a new product. Sometimes things don't go as planned, so I need to envision pretty far ahead. I've also gotten back to some basics, like nutrition, food experience, and ideology.
As a female in STEM—what's it like? Any advice for others considering a similar career path?
Very rewarding with its own set of unique challenges. It is interesting because there are obstacles in the U.S., but those issues magnify themselves when you're working in a global role. I would say age presents its own set of challenges, too. In a STEM field, it is important to establish credibility. A lot of those biases subside once you're credible. It's a big mountain to climb, and women can struggle due to the fear of speaking up and being wrong. It's okay to be wrong! I once had a boss say to me, "I know you know the answer; why aren't you speaking up?". I actually have a daughter who is about to graduate with a degree in Industrial Engineering and enter a STEM field. I tell her not to take a step back from the table–continue to work hard and problem solve, and the rest will come.
As a female in senior leadership, have you experienced any of the same (or different) challenges?
Nestlé Purina is actually pretty unique in this sense. In R&D, there are a significant number of female leaders. In manufacturing, we're still working to become even more gender balanced, but I can see the work being done. Recently, I was proud to see a former female co-worker of mine named the Factory Manager at our newest facility in Hartwell, GA. In my opinion, by the time you become a leader, you've established credibility, so I don't run into as many obstacles as others may.
Tell us about the most exciting project you've completed or are currently working on.
With the launch of Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diet with probiotics, the fundamental research on the impacts of probiotics on pet health was (and is) really fascinating. So much so that I'm now taking probiotics for myself! It is exciting for me to learn new science and how it is applied to the product and even human health.
What we're doing to learn more about the human-animal bond and how animals make our lives better is central to what's next. Observing the interaction we have with our pets and being able to measure, quantify, and understand how that benefits humans is exciting to me as both a pet parent and a scientist. I enjoy this challenge and excitement in my work.
What additional advice would you tell someone considering a career path in STEM?
Ask for feedback! It can be hard for women to do so, but it allows you to gather insight as to how people view you. Don't take constructive feedback as negative—use it to continuously improve yourself. I think this is also important as a female to not get pigeon-holed, per se. You own your career, so don't be afraid to raise your hand, put yourself out there, and take a risk. It might make you feel uncomfortable, but that's good—it's how you know you're growing.
Outside of work, what are you passionate about?
Animals, spending time with my family—my kids are 22 and 17. I also like to read and hike. I read a lot of historical books—I'm reading one on historical leaders right now. I also read some thrillers just for fun! Beyond that, staying up to speed on scientific research and leadership.