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In this interview, an International Business Manager shares the challenges of working in the Health Food Industry and how he got where he is today.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: I work in international business and I run a company that manufacturers healthy foods.  My title is manager and I have been in the food industry for over 10 years.  If I had to describe myself in 3 adjectives, I would say that I am: innovative, competent, and community-oriented.  We also have an IT consulting services division for our firm.

Q: What’s your disability? How has it affected your professional life? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: My disability is related to having a damaged nervous system and a sensitivity to acoustics due to working for years in environments that contain a lot of electronics, specifically sound, radio and electromagnetic devices. I ended up with a disability that acutely affects my ability to perform when I am in an environment where those elements are present- which has made it difficult to gain employment and perform in the tech industry unless I prepare potential clients for my condition and needs in advance. In the past, even though I have requested a quiet and wave-free work environment, it has not always been possible on the part of the client and so I have had to spend tens of extra hours coming in on weekends in order to make up lost productivity time in order to stay even. So in that sense, it has hurt me because I typically end up giving up much more of my life than I otherwise would to meet the needs of the client. On the other hand, when I am working in an environment that is not affecting me, I have enjoyed the positive feedback from clients regarding my output and work ethic. I have experienced a small amount of discrimination, but I would have to say that most potential clients are looking for a perfect situation: greatly skilled worker, great reputation, no potential problems. When one of those isn't completely right, I'm not sure I would blame them for being reticent to change their work environment. The service arm of my company, which provides IT consulting (in addition to our food business) does not hire me out as an employee anyway.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: My work encompasses wearing many hats in order to both research and manufacture food products that will be popular with the public. Because our product line focuses on healthy food, we normally have fewer options when it comes to ingredients and therefore have to be very creative in order to please people that prioritize taste over health. I tend to be very hands on and do the basic laboratory research as well as serve as a taste tester for most of our products. Something that most people don't know about the food industry is that it is very competitive and our company therefore cloaks a lot of their new product research by appearing to be doing something else. This may seem overly cautious, but when we have not done that, our ideas have demonstratively sailed out the door and into the product lines of our competitors. Another surprising thing for people is that our competitors themselves do not ask for people to gather information like that. It is instead, normally consultants that launch man-in-the-middle attacks and then try and broker the information.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: I would consider myself a 10 in terms of job enthusiasm. I love working with food and most the people in the industry are pretty fun to be around. It helps that the US has a lot of obesity that could be partially overcome if the food in front of people was healthier to begin with. That notion makes me feel like I am helping to contribute to the healthier lives for people in the community. I also like working in IT consulting.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: This job has been one of the most rewarding that I have ever had. I'm fairly lucky to be involved at the level I am doing something I enjoy.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: When I look at my accomplishments and experiences, I would say that they are fairly unique in that most of the people that were aware of my disability were expecting that I would just stop working and not be active in industry any longer. By continuing on and fighting through the challenges- working extra hours and compensating for productivity loss during the day, I have learned a lot about what it means to start with a less than perfect situation. The bottom line is, even if you have adversity because of your disability, you do not have to give up and collect a check if there is a chance that you can still be productive and want to.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: My first job as a teenager was on a farm working with produce. It wasn't high paying, but I enjoyed it a lot. After that, I worked in the food industry a few times before deciding to get involved full time many years ago. In my case, I wasn't recruited, but published some ideas and found out that people enjoyed them, so I decided to work for a company that did similar things. I likely wouldn't change anything if I were to do it again.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: One thing that I learned the hard way in my current job is that there aren't many barriers to entry for other firms to copy what you do. We were close to launching a low-calorie, low cost Latte three years ago and we told the wrong potential investor. Within months, our competitors had upgraded their lines and narrowed our firm's opportunity within that segment. A lot of people assume that if you have a good idea, that ideally you can make the product and release it and you will be a market leader for being first. The truth is, you can be the market leader in theory, but if your product hasn't shipped and your idea has, it can be costly.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: The most important thing that I learned about the work world from the work world is that you will find exceptions to everything you learned in school in the work world.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: The strangest thing that ever happened was on a trip to Argentina to promote our food products. We had some positive press and I was trying meet clients in Buenos Aires and found out that people were happy to treat me like a celebrity. When I visited the US embassy with business questions, the staff jokingly told me that I didn't need the business section, I needed the consular or visa section because I probably wouldn't be able to leave Argentina without getting married. In other words, I thought my products were popular, but it turns out my being single was what everyone was talking about. So it was a strange, but wonderful experience.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I'm not the only stakeholder in my firm, so it is easy for me to find the motivation to put in an extra effort all the time. I do benefit, but so do others that I know and care about.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: The challenges that I face are largely market-oriented. We compete against giants and have to be nimble and maybe better than they are to grow. The only thing that would make me want to quit in this day and age would be if I were working for a company that did not understand that people that already have a disability can be adversely affected by sonic, radio and electromagnetic devices. I'm fortunate to work for a company that understands that and has banned any tool that produces that type of wave from our facilities.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: My job has been described as 'life-eating' because I really don't get to separate my personal life from my business life. The way that I compensate for it is including my personal friends in my company work. Going out to restaurants is part of my job and something that they really don't mind. It isn't that stressful because I work for great people.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: My firm is on its way to being public so it is difficult to determine the salary range because most of the pay that would make my salary a normal one is locked up in stock options. I don't think I am paid enough and neither does anyone else in the firm, but we are all committed to reaching a point where we are.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: I rarely take vacation because it currently throws our projects off schedule. On the other hand, I travel for work and so can sometimes arrange to take the weekend of at a place where I am visiting.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: To be able to do my job, I would recommend that you get a 4 year business degree and maybe an MBA because most the people that you compete with at your level will have that background. I would also expect that you would have several years food industry experience as a worker and a passion for food.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: I have talked to friends about what I do and have always been an influence on those around me. What I would tell them about my job and industry is that there are a lot of potential benefits to working in it: job security is better than most industries, the products are fun to work with, and the people are enjoyable. I would also mention that a potential downside is that success with product management is not always an every product occurrence and that I know plenty of people that have tried and not been either happy or successful.