Job: Senior Regulatory Affairs Manager, Apeel Sciences
Location: Santa Barbara, California
I was connected to Katie through her sister Taylor, a fellow YoPro. With her 10+ years of experience in the workplace since graduating from college, Katie's story is a great look into what our young professional careers can become, especially for those of us earlier in our young professional careers. Moving out west at age 36, switching careers after 12 years at one company, and acceptance of each move you make, are just a few of the topics we discussed in this interview, but I'll let you read the rest.
Give us a little background on yourself.
I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and grew up in the suburbs of Concord. From there, I went to NC State University and that set my career in motion. I was fortunate enough to have some wonderful professors who got me excited about science and pointed me towards biochemistry. After graduating from NC State in 2005, I completed an internship at BASF in their crop sciences division, in Research Triangle Park. I landed in this hub for agricultural innovation and was excited about the possibility to use science to improve agriculture and make it more sustainable. From there, I joined Syngenta, and spent the next twelve years there. Over that time, I held a number of roles in research and development, product safety, and global regulatory affairs program management – supporting the development of genetically modified crops and, in doing so, realized how important and stigmatized the science was. This developed a deep passion to increase awareness of the value of the technology, how much it can impact a sustainable food system, and really just changing peoples’ opinions about all the misleading information that is out there.
12 years is a long time, especially for our generation. What made you leave?
In May of 2018, I joined a small – but fast growing – startup company, Apeel Sciences, and moved to the west coast. Before Apeel, I had been supporting the development of large commodity crops, and an opportunity presented itself to work in the postharvest produce space. Apeel is focused on solving another pressing issue in agriculture, food waste, and has developed a solution that is transforming the produce supply chain. Over 40% of fresh produce is lost from farm to fork. That’s a staggering number. With Apeel, the quality and shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables are extended by an invisible, edible coating that is made from food waste itself. I am now in a very different part of the agriculture industry and really inspired by the challenge. Making the switch has been an incredible learning experience, especially going from a large global company to a smaller company in growth phase, but most of all it has been really fun.
Can you talk about your experience moving across the country and what that was like with a family?
It’s my husband and I, plus our dog, though he is practically like our child. The piece I left out before, is that I always knew I wanted to go back to graduate school after I left NC State, but like a lot of people, I started a job and life kept moving forward. A couple of years ago, I thought if I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it. While I was working at Syngenta, I applied to the MBA program at NC State and went back to school part-time while still working full-time and graduated last year. It never seemed like there was room in my life for anything else, but graduate school taught me that there is always room for more. You just have to find a new normal. Making such a big move was scary but also really exciting, and we had the ability to do it. 12 years with one company is a long time and I didn’t want to become stagnant. Not stagnant in the sense that my career wouldn’t be able to progress there, but in the sense there was more out there, more to see and do. I am so fortunate to have had such an amazing opportunity – and very happy that I decided to take the leap.
What made it possible for you to take off out west? Two things really made it possible for us to move. First, my husband has a job that allowed him to transfer. This was important because it meant he didn’t have to sacrifice his career for mine. He has always supported me and was willing to go along with this big life adventure. I am also fortunate to have an incredible support system of family and friends that are the best cheerleaders, including my mother, father, and sister who inspire me to reach higher on a daily basis.
What have you learned from being in the workplace for 13 years?
I’m still learning. Every year I think I’ve got it and then I’ve learned something new, but a few things come to mind. I have only been able to have the opportunities that I’ve had because I’ve had a network of folks who supported and believed in me. Without knowing it, building these relationships early in my career was so important for me. You never know who you will work for or work with down the road, and which relationships will turn into deeper ones later on in your career. I didn’t know how important this was until after I had already taken much of it for granted. Building your network is crucial because you never know where that will lead you in the future. Another thing I have learned is the power of confidence. I wish I had been more confident early on, but you have to really be willing to accept your imperfections. We all have them. You are always going to be learning and growing in your career, and it is okay to be imperfect. Those imperfections shouldn’t knock your confidence or keep you from seeing opportunities, so don’t let it. Once those opportunities come around, you won’t lose anything from trying. Nothing lasts forever, you need to experiment with your career and with life! Take chances, learn, and grow.
What has your relationship been like with your mentors?
As I’ve gone further in my career, I have realized how important it is to have good mentors. I have been fortunate to have some wonderful mentors and probably didn’t even realize they were mentoring me early in my career. Mentorship, whether it is direct or indirect, is super critical. Having recognized that, I would say I am always looking for ways to become a better mentor myself, particularly how my actions as a leader and a manager impact the people I work with. The number one thing I want to instill in people is the ability to be confident. One way I do that is through putting those on my team out front. I also intentionally ask for feedback because I never want anyone to feel uncomfortable telling me their true opinion.
What have you learned from leaders throughout your career and how has it impacted your own leadership style?
There is one specific individual that comes to mind. It was a leader I worked for right before I left Syngenta. He really loved people and wanted them to succeed. He supported us in a refreshing way, would give constant feedback, and made sure that we felt appreciated, no matter how big or small the accomplishment was. He was a huge advocate for our team and was never concerned about taking any of the credit. He wanted us to accomplish things as a team, not as individuals. I heard him say once that “you hire good people, put them in a position where they will succeed, and you will be successful.” I think that is how I have tried to look at my own professional career. I don’t need to be successful on my own, but I do want to succeed as one team. That’s what he taught me.
What have you enjoyed about being a young professional?
I derive an incredible amount of satisfaction from my career, and sometimes I have even let it define me, which has been both good and bad. Since we moved to California, I have tried to focus on the simple things to bring some calm to the constant storm of tackling the next obstacle. This in and of itself has been really enjoyable. Spending time with our dog, hiking or enjoying the beach, and just exploring our new home. I also love all the people I work with. They are incredible and have taught me so much. What I enjoy most is being very content with where I am, but also excited about the future and what’s to come.
Do you ever feel like you have focused too much on your career?
The short answer is yes. I know I have sacrificed a lot because in some cases, I probably have not always been the best daughter, friend, or sister I could be because it is really easy to get caught up with work and not take care of these important relationships. I have always strived towards a balance, but I think balance for everyone is different. I haven’t found mine yet, but I am always thinking of how I can bring more into my life. For people who are early to mid in their careers, it is so important. Make a deliberate effort to find that balance for you and keep working at it!
What have you learned about yourself since you joined the workplace?
So much. I would say that I have learned not to take things for granted. To dive in fully and commit to the challenges you take on, no matter how big or small. I have also learned to not focus on or compare my path to that of others. I read an article recently about how more and more women are delaying life decisions in general. We are getting married later, having kids later, going to graduate school later. Making big life decisions later can sometimes make you second guess yourself, like, where you are and how you got there and did you make the right decisions. I have learned to accept that I am going to change and grow and I make decisions that are best for me at the time. This realization is empowering and helped me develop a deep sense of gratitude for all the steps that led me to where I am today.
The YoPro Know's Takeaways:
– You never know who you will work for or work with down the road, and which relationships will turn into deeper ones later on in your career
– You have to really be willing to accept your imperfections – we all have them
– Good leaders hire good people, put them in a position where they will succeed, and as a result, are successful
– Learn to accept the learning; don't accept that you need to be in a certain place in life at the same time as someone else
– Balance is different for everyone