At the time, doing an extra year at university to pass the maths papers she needed for her degree felt like the end of the world for Sarah Leakey, but now she’s landed a job as a food technologist at Sensient Technologies and is living proof that hard work pays off.
HS: What is your role and how did you get into this field?
SL: I have always been passionate about food and cooking starting from year 7 food technology class at intermediate school. From there, I continued food studies through high school where I thought that maybe a career as a chef would be right for me. My cousin was the head chef at Kermadec Restaurant so I was able to do a day of work experience serving the French rugby team during the 2011 Rugby World Cup which, while a great experience, did not convince me that it was exactly what I wanted to do. A family friend worked as a food technologist at Vitaco and so after researching the career online I went for a day of work experience and was hooked. From there, I lined up all my classes so I would get into the course at the University of Auckland and four years later, graduated with a BSc in Food Science. Now in my current role, I work in the new product development team at Sensient Technologies. Sensient is a global manufacturer of food flavours and colours and in New Zealand we manufacture these locally. My role consists of lots of problem-solving and helping customers to achieve what they desire for their products using our products. I love it as it gives me an opportunity to contribute to products on the market for consumers. Alongside this, I am the chair of the Auckland Branch for New Zealand Institute of Food Science Technology (NZIFST). I find being involved with NZIFST very rewarding. I lead a group of like-minded individuals to create networking opportunities, technical factory tours, and insightful talks from leaders within the industry.
What do you enjoy about being part of this industry?
I enjoy the opportunities to help people create products. The industry is quite small in New Zealand and everyone knows someone who can help you if you need. The opportunities I have had in the food industry have been great – I have met people who have inspired me and pushed me into roles I never would have imagined. As a young uni student never did I think I would meet the innovation manager of my favourite ice cream company or my current boss at Sensient. Pretty neat huh?!
Were there any hurdles in your career that you had to overcome? What were they and how did you do it?
I can say for a fact that maths is not a strong point of mine, so I really struggled with those papers through uni. My mother calls it “crying maths” because of how hard it was for me. I spent an extra year doing my degree which, at the time I thought was the end of the world, but now I see that it made me work harder for what I wanted, and it was a bigger accomplishment when I did get there. I reached out for help from friends and tutors at university – the support is there so I encourage students to be proactive and to use the help available. In terms of my career, I have worked really hard to prove myself as I felt I had a lot to learn when I first graduated. Since then, I’ve had to step up and prove that I am capable and now feel more established and confident.
Do you have any advice for young people starting out in this industry/ is there anything you wish you’d known before starting your career?
Don’t sit back and watch or wait. Be proactive and get involved whether this be with the NZIFST or the University Food Society, you honestly never know who you will meet or what opportunities might present themselves. I had an internship when I was at university and those colleagues are now not only good referees for my CV but also friends and colleagues as well. It sounds cliche but say yes to every opportunity.
The friends you make at university are friends for life. Supporting your friends where you can is very important. I have now worked with some of my friends on their product development projects within their workplaces which is very cool. That being said, not everyone ends up in the same roles – for example, I have a friend who is now making (very delicious) award-winning cheese so the opportunities within this field are endless.
Lastly, take learnings from those who are experienced. You never know when it might come in handy or that network could be used. I always enjoyed talking to people at networking events and learning about other colleagues in this industry – you always learn something.
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