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Heura’s all-female R&D team challenges STEM norms

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On the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Lorena Salcedo shares her experience leading an all-female research team at Heura.

Less than a third of R&D researchers worldwide are women, and only about 30% of female students are selecting STEM-related fields in higher education. This disparity continues despite efforts to engage more females in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers.

To mark the UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11th February), Vitafoods Insights spoke with Lorena Salcedo, Ph.D. As new product manager at Heura, Europe’s fastest-growing plant-based food company, Salcedo leads an all-female research and development team. She shares her challenges as a woman in Food Tech and her advice for aspiring female scientists.           

What was your path into your current role?

When I finished my doctorate, I decided that I didn’t want to remain in research. There is so much knowledge that is not applied – and I wanted my knowledge to be applied. After graduation, I worked for a meat company, already developing plant-based products as customers were asking us for them. Two years ago, a friend told me about Heura. Back then I was impressed by the texture of their chicken, and I fell in love with the brand because of the unique way that the brand communicates with consumers as well as its focus on activism.

What have been your biggest career achievements ?

I’m very proud of the fat analogue that we developed for Heura’s new burger. We wanted to incorporate extra virgin olive oil into our burger, both because of its nutritional value and as a nod towards Heura’s Mediterranean heritage. Almost all of the other burgers on the market contain coconut oil, but we wanted to find a way of keeping olive oil solid at room temperature. That way it behaves in a similar way as animal fat and delivers the same sensorial experience as beef. We also wanted to make the fat analogue with a small quantity of ingredients to ensure that the burger had the cleanest label possible. It was a significant challenge, but we were able to accomplish it by thinking outside the box.

How would you describe your experience as a female leader in a male dominated industry?

In former jobs that I had, it was very difficult to progress because of rigid structures. Here in Spain, age is an issue. Employers sometimes think that it’s dangerous to hire you because you could get pregnant. I wanted to work full time in the plant-based industry because I saw that it was trendy three years ago. But I found that my age was an issue. Heura is very forward looking in terms of gender equality.

What are the barriers preventing women from pursuing and progressing in food tech and other STEM careers?

One of the main things is a lack of role models. Everyone needs to have someone to look up to, and it can be hard to envision yourself in a field if you don’t see people like you succeeding. So I hope that over time, there will be more women in STEM, so that eventually it’s not so male-dominated anymore and everyone has a chance to succeed.

How can companies do more to support the growth of women in tech?

The main thing that companies can do is to make a point of actively seeking out up-and-coming female talent. Having a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives on your team only serves to further innovation, so it benefits the employer as much as the employee.

What advice would you give to other women forging their path in food tech and STEM careers?

Do not be afraid to be proud of your accomplishments! Never stop learning, but also trust in your abilities and your knowledge.

Do you see a relationship between your position as a female leader and your mission to drive a more sustainable and ethical food system?

Definitely! Here in Spain, more and more people are shifting towards a plant-based diet, and there’s some evidence that this trend is being led by women, and women under 35 in particular. It shows that for many women, they aren’t content with the status quo and they’re willing to make changes to create a more sustainable future.

What are your aspirations for Heura in 2021?

Despite the Coronavirus pandemic, we had an incredibly successful year in 2020, more than tripling our turnover and expanding our international presence to thirteen countries. In 2021, we want to continue innovating and creating products that help people make choices that are good for them and good for the planet.

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