Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Cherie Floyd, the Chief Technology Officer for Sabra Dipping Company. She oversees R&D, innovation and product development for America’s favorite hummus. Floyd’s impressive career in the food industry and deep expertise in food, nutrition and innovation is matched by her passion for a wholistic consumer experience.
Thank you so much for joining us Cherie. What led you to this particular career path?
Iam a food scientist by training, and like most food scientists, I fell into the career path. Very few kids actually say, “when I grow up, I want to be a food scientist.” Growing up in Texas, I was very involved in 4-H. As a senior in high school, I received a 4-year scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo through 4-H, but I had to major in agriculture at a Texas school. I had attended Texas 4-H Congress at Texas Tech University the summer before my senior year and they had mentioned Food Science as a major on a tour that I took of the campus. It sounded interesting and I liked to cook, and I liked chemistry so I thought I would try it for a few years and see.
I ended up getting a bachelor’s degree at Texas Tech and a master’s and PhD at Texas A&M, all in food science. I loved application of pure science into food and the fact that you could eat your experiments (most of the time). It is a fascinating field, and although we have been preparing, cooking, and preserving food for as long as we have been in existence, there is so much that we don’t know. You add into that the collision of the culinary arts and the pure science and the sensory aspects of food and you have a really fantastic subject area to study. Plus, it’s a tasty way to spend your life!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began in this role?
I had an opportunity to travel to Israel and experience the amazing food culture there. Although I have had an opportunity to travel to many parts of the world, this was my first time there and talk about some hummus experts. WOW. I saw and ate hummus in ways that I never thought of. It really opened my eyes to possibilities of new ways for people to experience hummus here in the U.S.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we do sensory evaluations, we have a very realistic plastic model of what our gold standard hummus should look like off of the line. At my first sensory tasting, the quality manager put it in front of me and I tried to dip in! We had a good laugh. I find as a leader having the ability to laugh at yourself is valuable. And I give myself ample opportunity for a good laugh!
What is it about the position of executive at Sabra that most attracted you?
I love our product. Hummus is so versatile. You can use it in a shared setting with friends and family as a dip, a snack to get you from mid-afternoon to dinner, on a piece of toast with a soft-boiled egg for breakfast, or on a flatbread with some veggies for a quick dinner. I can’t work on a brand or a food that I don’t believe in and I definitely believe in our product, and not just the basics of feeding people.
Yes, food nourishes you, but it also brings people together. In fact, there is research on the benefits of sharing and eating food together on positive mental health. In a time when we have much to divide us, it is nice to work on something that can bring people together in very unexpected ways.
For example, a few weeks ago, I was traveling and hadn’t had time for lunch, and I wanted to have dinner with my family when I got home, so I grabbed one of our Sabra Snackers with Pretzels in the airport. I was sitting next to someone who saw me eating it and she struck up a conversation. Turns out, her family was originally from Israel and they were really into hummus — complete aficionados. Our flight was delayed but that was okay. We spent the time trading tips on making and using hummus! Time well spent. And yes, I did disclose who I was. I can’t imagine having the same conversation around other consumer goods. I would never have a 45-minute conversation around toilet paper, but hummus, absolutely!!!
In just a few words can you explain what a CTO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
My title is a bit unusual because it sounds like I am in charge of IT, but I am not. I have responsibility for the culinary, packaging, food, and process science, nutrition, and regulatory functions. We are the experts on food, nutrition and packaging and serve as the engine for new products and new technologies to drive our business. We also do a great deal of work on recipe development for consumers or customers to find new ways to incorporate our delicious products in new ways. My role is different because I have a creative, innovative side blended with a logical data-based science side. I have this mix of right brain and left brain going on. Also, I am very future focused. It is my job to see around corners and try to figure out what is coming next so we can innovate our way to where the consumer wants to be. I am always interested in what has happened but more from a learning and applying to the future standpoint.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being in this role?
Feeding people. I love making food, reading about food, experiencing food, and sharing it with others. For me, food is an expression of love and I get such a thrill out of knowing that people all over the U.S. are putting us in their refrigerator and serving us to family and friends.
Our products are made with wholesome ingredients, like chickpeas and tahini for hummus, and fresh avocados for guacamole. Recipes that we create using our products, like a hummus bowl with whole grains and veggies, can nourish people and get them through the day.
It is such a thrill to see people in the grocery store picking up something that we have made or having a conversation with someone about Sabra. My obsession keeps my family from wanting to go to the grocery store with me because I tend to stalk people that are buying a lot of our product just to see what else they buy! I also love the creativity that goes into what I do. I am surrounded by the most creative and innovative people. The amazing things that they can come up with blow me away.
What are the downsides of being a chief/leader executive?
As you move up, your peer group shrinks. As a middle manager, you have peers to talk through issues or bounce things off of. As an executive, you don’t have as many people to do that with. It is important to find that outlet externally, either through former coworkers or other contacts, to talk through issues or just to bounce things off of. As a leader, you need to grow as well, and you have to prioritize the time to do this.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a C-level executive. Can you explain what you mean?
People assume that you “have all of the answers.” No one does. We don’t read minds and we can’t see into the future. What all executive leadership teams have is a collection of very bright leaders with great experience. You learn to lean on each other to make the best decisions that you can for the business. Sometimes you get it wrong, or you learn something new and you adjust. That’s probably the most valuable tool that an executive has.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
As a female leader, you have to find your voice and it has to be genuine. Learning to speak up and sharing your opinion is key. For some reason, culturally, women expect to be asked for their opinion. That doesn’t happen. I often find that self-confidence is the biggest issue for most emerging female leaders. They don’t speak up because they don’t think that anyone will want to hear what they have to say.
It is easy to get intimidated by people particularly when you are making the leap from middle manager to executive, but you wouldn’t be in that room if your expertise and opinion wasn’t valued. Give yourself permission to speak up and take a risk. I saw a great posting on social media the other day. It was a sign that said, “Next time you are afraid to share ideas remember that before the movie Sharknado was made, someone, somewhere, in some meeting said “Hey, let’s make a film with a tornado full of sharks!’.” It’s true. Nothing that you can say could be any sillier than that!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
This technical group at Sabra is a little different from other R&D organizations that I have led. First of all, culinary is at the heart of everything we do. Every product starts in the kitchen with a gold standard culinary product and then we figure out how to make it on a large scale. We anchor ourselves first in the culinary arts and then the science, and we have a beautiful research kitchen as our playground.
Second, the collaboration is amazing. In our kitchen we have this huge table. We eat lunch there, do product tastings, and work there. It is very common on any given afternoon to see 4–5 people sitting at the table working — not in their cubes.
Our executive chef, MaryDawn Wright, designed that feature when the Center of Excellence was built, and it really defines the culture of who we are and what we do. We are a team of people with a passion for food and we collaborate to bring that to life. It’s a great place to come to every day and you have an instant sense of belonging.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
People that need to be the smartest person in the room should definitely not be executives! Yes, you get to an executive level because you have functional skills and leadership skills, but you need to remember to play your level. It isn’t your job to solve everyone’s problems. It is your job to bring together the right people with the right skills and have the right conversations at the right time. And, if you are always the one solving problems, you never teach others who will be the leaders after you to learn how to lead. At some time in your career, you will probably manage a group of people where you don’t have the technical expertise. Humility and hunger learn new things, coupled with the knowledge that as a leader you can bring other skills like leadership, strategy, and problem solving, can help you be successful.
The best executives that I have seen were confident but humble, willing to make tough decisions, balanced data with trusting their gut, open to discussion and debate, and grateful for feedback.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be present in every moment. This is something that I am working on right now. Yes, you have a million things to do at work and away from work, but be with that person right then, right there. Your people (and your family too) know when you aren’t all there. Learn to compartmentalize and to schedule time to problem solve, make lists, or even daydream, because we all need that, but when you are in a meeting or one-on-one with someone, make them the center of your world for that time. I have found when someone tells me about a time/meeting/conversation that I had with them that was impactful, I usually don’t remember the interaction, but they do. You never know when you will make an impact on someone so treat each interaction as if it was valuable.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband, Austin, has been a stay at home dad/husband for about 17 years. He is the duct tape that holds our family together and makes it possible to do what I do. The turning point for us a family came when we were living in the Midwest. We had one child at that time and we both had jobs that required travel. I was trying to get in from a plant trial and he was trying to leave on a business trip and there was a big ole Minnesota snowstorm. We ended up trading our daughter, Sydney, at the baggage claim of the airport. We decided that something had to change. As a couple, we reprioritized, and Austin stayed home temporarily until Sydney got into school full time… so we thought! About the time Sydney was starting school full time, we had another child, Jackson, and then we moved internationally for a few years, and then we moved back, and then the kid’s schedules were really hectic. Now we realize that having that constant with Austin at home makes our lives so much better than another salary ever would. We have been married for 28 years and I am so grateful to have him on this journey with me. Even when I have come and said crazy things like, “What do you think about moving to Australia for three years…”, his answer has always been “why wouldn’t we?” His second question, naturally, was, “Wait, do the kids have passports?” Always the practical one.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Data doesn’t make decisions. People do.
As a scientist, we can be over reliant on data. Data can help point you in the right direction, but at the end of the day, people have to make the decisions. You can never be 100% sure of a decision. You have to learn how much to rely on data, how much on inference, and how much on your experience. Especially in my field where I am trying to predict if a consumer will like a product! I have had products that tested very high with consumers and were complete and total failures! There are too many variables like competition, market conditions, pricing, to predict. In the end, you can’t rely on a score from a test to completely drive your decision making. It has to be some data either quantitative or qualitative from the market and then some of your own soul searching. Is this something that I would want to spend money on? Would I want to serve this to my family? Did we make it as delicious and appealing as possible? That’s the real test.
Business doesn’t happen in the board room
We often forget this, but business happens where your product is sold or used. Get out of the boardroom and make sure that you and your fellow executives spend some time seeing what the real world looks like. Who is using your product or your service? What does it look like in the competitive set? What trends are you seeing? What’s it like your consumer’s shoes? What’s it like to feed a family of 4 on $30 worth of groceries for two days? How hard is to find a satisfying, healthy snack on the go in an airport? Experiencing it live and reading a report on consumer research are two different things. You need to really try to immerse yourself in the total world of your products.
For me as a food executive, experiencing new foods in new ways is critical to keeping current to trends. This is by far the best part of my job and sometimes makes my expense reports interesting as well as discussions in customs as I come back from international trips. I ALWAYS have food to declare.
It’s okay to be human
There is nothing wrong with showing that you are human to those that you lead. It helps them to know that you too have those mornings where you can’t find your kids library book/you left your computer cord or lunch or presentation for the board on the kitchen table/the dog threw up in your shoe/your teenager left your lights on in your car and your battery was dead. It makes you more approachable. And yes, all of these have happened to me at one time or another.
If you aren’t uncomfortable sometimes, you probably aren’t doing something right
You can’t always be 100% sure in your decisions, and there are always some niggling doubts that keep you up at night. I had a mentor one time tell me that you should be uncomfortable in your job somewhere between 20–80% of the time. Less than 20%, you will soon get bored. More than 80%, you don’t have the necessary skills and will burn out or make a critical mistake. Being uncomfortable in your job means that you are taking risks, hopefully educated risks, and you can push yourself, your team, and your enterprise forward.
Remember where you came from and give back
I agree with Madeline Albright when she said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”. I would extend that people that don’t help other people. I had had so many people that have helped me along my journey in my career and my life. I get great joy in mentoring and coaching others — students, professionals, peers. I also find that I have never had a mentoring relationship when I didn’t learn something in return. Reach out and help others and teach the next generation of leaders how to lead and be open to learning from them too!
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I have a great passion for feeding children and for teaching young people how to cook easy, nutritious meals. I am amazed at how many of my kid’s friends don’t have parents that know how to cook and then they don’t know how to cook. I really think that nutrition education coupled with basic cooking skills needs to be taught to everyone in the U.S. educational system before they leave school. It would provide us with a healthier population and one that probably will share more meals together as families or friend groups which helps with mental health as well.
Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two that mean a lot to me…
“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” — Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
I gave my daughter a necklace that had this on it when she graduated from high school. Most people that I meet have the intelligence, the drive, and the skills to go far in their career and in their life. What holds most people back is a basic belief in themselves. This is particularly true of female leaders. There is a little voice in our heads that tells us that we aren’t good enough or smart enough or at the right level. Sometimes, you just need to tell that voice to shut up. There are many things that will de-rail someone. The one that is most dangerous is getting in our own way
The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” — John Maxwell
I saw this a few years ago and it is on a sticky note next to my desk. Nothing ever goes as planned. Flexibility to the new conditions and learning from change is key to surviving and thriving. The change curve is getting much faster and Darwin was right. He who adapts best has the highest chance of survival. I do tend to be an optimist, but I also believe in controlling my own destiny and adjusting my sails as needed
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I would pull together two or three chefs with different styles and we would cook a meal together. My wish list is long, but certainly Alton Brown, who I think is as much of a food geek as I am, Alice Waters, who really pioneered local eating, Rick Bayless, whose mole sauce at Fronterra Grill is so complex it brings tears to my eyes, Jacques Pepin, who inspired French cooking techniques in the U.S., and I could go on and on. Of course, hummus would be the featured ingredient!