When I was named as one of the 100 Women Leaders in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in 2012, I was thrilled by the honor of being named to the list, but troubled by the need for the list itself. Sadly, women are vastly underrepresented in the ranks of STEM professionals. In general, we aren't graduating enough qualified professionals in STEM in the United States, and women are an even smaller percentage of this group. While this is a complex problem, I believe that one of the biggest challenges is a lack of credible mentors in the field to excite and inspire students and young employees about the myriad career opportunities that can result from a STEM education.
For me, as a high school graduate, I didn't have a clear picture of what I could do with a math or engineering degree as I was trying to decide on the right education to fit my passions and talents. When I think about the amazing experiences and opportunities I've had working on innovation in highly scientific and technical environments throughout my entire career, it strikes me how lucky I am to have taken this career path. But I had no idea what was possible as I was making big life decisions 20 years ago.
Before I started university, I did a two year on-the-job training as a lab technical assistant at a large food company in Germany. A female mentor encouraged me and helped me make the connection between science, technology and innovation. She explained how my work could help companies grow the top and bottom line and build a sustainable future. We had weekly meetings where she showed me the eventual impact of the work I was doing. This hands-on experience and close working relationship with my mentor made clear the dynamic path ahead of me with my degrees in food science, food technology and nutrition.
Mentors play a critical role in bringing new people -- and particularly women -- to careers in STEM. Female leaders must be role models to advocate for the possibilities of STEM education and support programs that inspire more of our best and brightest students, especially those from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, to study in STEM fields. In my role, I am able to mentor young employees and encourage students to see STEM in a different light.
I lead teams of food scientists, engineers, inventors, statisticians, nutritionists and product designers, so I know the critical importance of continuing to fill our talent pipeline with high caliber STEM-educated talent. My team develops new, delicious and innovative snacks that consumers enjoy every day. When I talk to students, they are excited by the idea of working on our brands, but they don't make the connection to the need for science, math and engineering to make and deliver foods that are convenient, shelf-stable, safe, and most importantly, taste good. This is the role that mentors in the industry must play: encouraging students to pursue STEM by showing the creative, diverse and unexpected career paths that can result from degrees in these fields.
Industry mentors -- particularly women in positions of influence - are one important link to increasing the pipeline of talent. To encourage more mentors and to help solve the pipeline issue, I -- along with other leaders -- am working to create a STEM Innovation Taskforce. The taskforce is comprised of some of the most experienced and talented professionals in innovation. Members of the taskforce will be asked to act as champions for their focus areas and to help mentees understand the process behind innovation. We are building a network so that connectivity will be a driver of success as young people advance through the program. With the proper resources and the passion driving our members, we believe the task force will create programs that unlock the change needed to develop future STEM leaders.
Throughout my career I have seen the importance of innovation as way to improve many aspects of our everyday lives. And I know from my experience that a STEM education is the foundation of my success. My colleagues and I must return the favor and help develop future generations of leaders by helping them connect the dots from a STEM education to rewarding and impactful careers.