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‘I am a scientist by training with an entrepreneurial soul’ - Dr Sybille Buchwald-Werner [Interview]

Article-‘I am a scientist by training with an entrepreneurial soul’ - Dr Sybille Buchwald-Werner [Interview]

© Vitafoods Insights Women in Nutrition interview with Dr Sybille Buchwald-Werner
Dr Sybille Buchwald-Werner has over 25 years of experience in the natural product industry. She says the secret of her success is that she is an “innovator beyond science” with a passion for communication and sales and a mission to support people’s health naturally.

Buchwald-Werner is co-founder and managing director of German health company Vital Solutions, which makes branded ingredients for dietary supplements and functional foods and is now part of Fytexia.

She is also co-chair of the mentorship programme at the recently formed Women in Nutraceuticals (WIN), a non-profit industry association that aims to promote social and gender equity within the nutraceutical and supplement industry.

WIN’s six-month mentorship programme includes specific workshops and review sessions and is focused on soft skills, including critical thinking, creativity, and effective communication. Its first pilot run will start in November.

You have a PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry. What attracted you to the natural nutraceutical industry rather than the pharmaceutical industry?

“As long as I can remember, I have been passionate about natural products and their effects for health and beauty. Already as a teenager, I had a collection of herbal teas, and I used chamomile as conditioner to make my hair shinier. During high school, I started to be curious about plant chemistry and to learn more about the rationale of traditional uses. Consequently, I studied pharmacy and obtained my PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry, specialising in molecular modelling.

“During my university years, I worked as a student and later as a pharmacist each Saturday in a local pharmacy in Germany. I did my own observation about peoples’ relationship to health and diseases. I recognised that most of the customers were aware that they are responsible for their own life, health, and happiness. I also had to accept that their socioeconomic status determines their lifestyle, being a key mediator for physical and physiological health.

“I felt an inner growing need to support customers with information to enable them to select a healthy lifestyle fitting to their individual situation. At the same time, I tried to identify the socioeconomic status of my customers to make sure that I only gave recommendation for co-medication and dietary supplements that were within their estimated budget. I saw that it is important to work on health maintenance while being healthy.”

Over your career, you have held a variety of roles: you were both head of innovation & research and then business development manager at Cognis while at Vital Solutions, you have held the positions of CEO and director of the board. Is it a conscious decision to try new positions and responsibilities, or have these professional opportunities presented themselves serendipitously?

“First of all, I strongly believe that we are all responsible for our own life, particularly our career path. How we react and how we position ourselves is not always a conscious decision. […] When we have doubts, others may perceive them and will be reluctant to offer opportunities, even if they were originally intended for us.

“Nevertheless, a carrier path needs determination and luck, as you mentioned in your question ‘serendipity’. Sometimes, you need to be at the right place and the right time to get the insights about an opportunity. Information is key and information depends on active communication and a strong network. I had the great advantages of starting my career in a company where communication and networking were considered to be very important.

“I am a scientist by training with an entrepreneurial soul. I joined a startup business network already during my PhD, I did courses [on] how to write a business plan, how to get funding, and how to understand markets because it was totally clear to me that I wanted to have my own company when the time was right. It was a conscious decision to start my carrier as an employee in corporate industry. My aim was to learn about work structures and to get the know-how and experience to run a company.”

What does the WIN mentorship programme involve?

“It is especially designed to launch new female leaders within the nutraceutical industry [and] it supports senior-level women in advancing their career to C-suite and board positions.

“Mentees are women who are passionate about the nutraceutical industry, comfortable with objective feedback and proactive learning, and committed to investing time in the relationship and professional development. Mentors are women or men who offer significant experience and stature, understanding of the nutraceutical industry, and a desire to collaborate on the mentee’s professional development goals.

“The key to success for mentoring is the right matching of mentee and mentor. The programme uses both individual evaluation of applicants in a personalised process as well as speed-dating to find the match based on expertise and personality fit.”

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

“Be careful with your decisions: you only have this one life and you are responsible for it. Take your time to think about it, do your evaluations, and best- and worst-case scenarios before taking a decision. Believe in your decision and execute it.

“Your decision was right at the given timepoint as you took all information available into consideration. If you need to revise it because additional data becomes available, it’s ok and doesn’t mean that the original decision was wrong. I have a favourite poem, A Walk, by Rainer Maria Rilke, which illustrates this situation.”

A Walk

by Rainer Maria Rilke

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance--

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on,
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

English translation by Robert Bly