Women in Business Q&A: Dr. Jasmin Hume, Director of Food Chemistry, Hampton Creek

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At Hampton Creek Jasmin directs research combining biochemistry, materials science, and food science to characterize and identify novel plant proteins to make transformative, sustainable foods. Prior to entering the food industry, she worked designing semiconductor surface chemistries at STMicroelectronics in Italy. Jasmin holds graduate degrees from both NYU and Chalmers University as well as a bachelors from McGill University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My background is in hard science. Throughout my career, I have received questions from people who don’t understand science and therefore may not appreciate how it can be used to solve big problems.

As a scientist, I recognize that we need to improve our ability to communicate what we do and break it down in a way that makes it accessible to a wider audience. This challenge has prompted me to focus on how to better communicate my work to those outside the scientific sphere. Developing critical communication skills and exercising them has enabled me to effectively interact with stakeholders of other areas within Hampton Creek, allowing me to become a better leader to help my team’s work progress.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Hampton Creek?

Most of my experience comes from academia. I completed my undergrad in Chemical Engineering at McGill University in Canada and my masters in Material Science and Engineering at Chalmers University in Sweden. After graduation, I worked at a semiconductor company in Italy developing DNA biosensors for three years. During that time, I became very interested in how research and technology can be applied in an industry setting. I simultaneously recognized that if I wanted a great career in research with unchecked opportunity for growth, I needed to break away from the perceived glass ceiling in the industry that is associated with education level. I decided to leave industry and return to academia to obtain my doctorate in Materials Chemistry at NYU.

After graduation, I moved to San Francisco and didn’t know how I would apply my degree but had faith in the tech innovation happening, particularly in the biotech area. I never really imagined that I would apply my skills to food but understood that the intricacies of biomaterials and everything I studied throughout my PhD candidacy are essentially the foundation for protein-containing foods, which make up the vast majority of our diet. I didn’t necessarily know this at the time, but my course of study was the perfect prologue to my work at Hampton Creek, where we systematically screen and characterize plant protein to understand how it can form a functional base for all kinds of food.

Beyond the technical skills I learned in grad school, I also developed entrepreneurial experience in launching a company and from an investor standpoint through a summer associateship at a venture capital firm. This armed me with a unique set of hard and soft skills allowing me to better communicate with a non-technical audience, ultimately making important connections in how tech can provide commercial value if leveraged properly.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Hampton Creek?

Highlights: Without a doubt, the highlights for me at Hampton Creek revolve around the opportunity to work with the most talented team that I can imagine. Everyday I come to work and learn new things: how to process raw materials, how to better analyze data, how manufacturing and operations are key for the success of our company. I couldn’t have hoped for a more stimulating environment in which to learn. It's also a thrill to do something as bold and audacious as apply technologies like chemistry, biochemistry, automation, and data science to food. There aren’t many people who come from backgrounds like mine [in chemical/materials engineering] who get the opportunity to leverage their knowledge and skills in food. Hampton Creek has given me the creative autonomy to apply my background in areas non-traditional to food to disrupt the industry by making a significant positive impact to consumers and the environment.

Challenges: We are a relatively early stage company and we have lofty goals. We are incredibly ambitious in our pursuit of a better food system, and the way we in which we tackle the problems at hand. Not only are these goals ambitious, but the ways that were trying to achieve them are completely novel. We’re basically taking consequential risks. To some extent, what we’re working on is unproven.

Recently we received our first major patent for our discovery platform, unearthing new plant-based ingredients through the application of machine learning. Previous to this landmark, the identification of food properties by way of this approach was uncharted territory. There are definitely challenges in being able to assert that this discovery process is a viable approach and whether we can generate the data to prove it. There are also challenges in getting alignment across the entire company-- given that our timelines are longer on the R&D side, we need to know what product category we’re going to produce three years from now to be able to deliver novel solutions on time. We're a young company, so this alignment can be challenging at times.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you can’t do it. And it’s hard. It’s so hard when you’re young and you don’t know exactly where you fit in or what options are available to you. But if you’re interested in something and you question things, pursue that path and don't stop. Don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t do something or that girls aren’t good at something. That’s all B.S.

Before landing at Hampton Creek, I wasn’t aware how a background in materials science and chemical engineering could be applied to food. I suspect this is also true for a large portion of our R&D team, particularly on the discovery side. It’s a very non-traditional route, and these opportunities are only continuing to open up.

At Hampton Creek, we’ve produced products that are on shelves and served on people’s plates in a very short period of time. Coming from the med-tech space, this is unheard of. Drug development, medical devices and other research may never see the light of day or reach the consumer market due to lengthy regulatory approval processes. It’s extremely exciting and gratifying to see your work come to fruition, particularly on relatively short timescales.

Try to put your fears aside, and acknowledge that you might fail. In fact, embrace it. If you have a solid education and are bold enough to apply it in an innovative way you are bound to face challenges that others on a more traditional course will bypass. Be creative in what you think your skills can be applied to. It’s never a linear path. Look sideways, look adjacent to your field and industry and find a problem that you’re passionate about solving!

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

There are two words that I keep written on a sticky note on my laptop to remind myself of everyday. The first is “resilience.” In any environment, but particularly in a startup, things change. You need to be able to adapt to that change and to a certain extent, be comfortable knowing that things are going to continue to change. This has been a very important lesson and a skill that I believe will be incredibly useful for the rest of my career.

The other sticky note-to-self is “integrity.” Integrity for me manifests across a few different areas. Integrity in the data and the science that my team and I produce. I love being a scientist because the facts are irrefutable if collected with integrity, and one can always go back to the data to verify. If you have high integrity in the scientific work that you produce, then you are always confident and aware of what your response will be. For me personally, integrity means acting in such a way that when I reflect back on my past actions years from now, I can be proud of my job performance, my collaboration with teammates, and the way I handled challenging situations.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

My mind and energy are with Hampton Creek for a large chunk of my day and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have occasional dreams about the work I’m doing. Outside of my job, I love to travel. I have lived in a few other countries, so I have friends scattered all around the world. Most of my family is in New York so I try to visit there at least once every few months. In San Francisco, I enjoy spending time with my friends and my dog, exploring the beautiful Bay Area, and doing things that are good for my body like swimming, and yes, Bikram Yoga.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

One of the biggest issues I see for women to have a fulfilling career is in the struggle to maintain work life balance, especially as it relates to family planning and devoting time to taking care of loved ones in need. As we as a society strive towards gender equality in the workplace we also need to think about increased parity in the responsibilities at home.

I believe that there are big shifts that need to happen in this country concerning women in the workplace. As a dual Swedish/American citizen, I have experienced an environment in which all women are expected to take a significant maternity leave, and fathers, paternity leave. In the U.S., as people are driven very hard to succeed and climb up a corporate ladder, they may also desire more balance and consider having a family, which is totally normal. Acceptance of this balance and support of the desire to have a family is essential to work/life balance.

This issue in particular must be recognized on many levels--corporate, governmental, federal-- in order to keep very talented people who desire work/life balance in the workforce. Otherwise we’ll continue to see incredibly talented women who join the workforce in their mid 20s, drop out in their mid 30s and never return. That’s a loss of educational capital we can’t afford.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? Who is your mentor?

I think mentors are very important for everyone, at any stage in their career. I don’t believe the mentor/mentee relationship needs to be formalized in any way, but there’s always some whose career path either you strive to emulate or just want to learn from. And, they also likewise have an interest in spending time with you. I have mentors within and outside of Hampton Creek. People I've worked with in the past, family, or friends.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

My three sisters and my mom, hands down. Somehow, we have all chosen STEM-based professions. My mom and one of my sisters are physicians, another sister has a doctorate in conservation biology and another is an architect. They are powerful, independent women who have paved their own ways in different areas of their respected careers. I admire their determination and passion for what they do.

What do you want Hampton Creek to accomplish in the next year?

There’s a hesitancy to talk about science when we talk about food. It’s closely tied to consumer perception. There’s a desire for more natural food, but making natural foods and using science and technology to make food are not mutually exclusive, and people don’t understand that. We can’t be scared to say things like that and dig into why it’s true. There’s no way we’re going to be able to feed the population in the next few years without turning to tools that are provided by tech. We’re at a stage where we’re borrowing technologies that have been born through necessity by other industries and we’re putting them to good use in food to solve big problems like finding alternative protein solutions. This requires technology. We need to start talking about it openly and crafting messaging that helps the consumer better understand and embrace this approach.

We have humongous goals, releasing new products that have never been made before, using ingredients that have never been made before, with technology that is completely novel. We’re a small, nimble team and I don’t think people truly appreciate everything we’ve accomplished so far given how much work we still need to do.