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How I Got My Job: Launching Vertical Farming Innovations After a Career in Packaged Snack Foods

Stephanie Jack always knew she wanted to work in food, and her journey took her from Frito-Lay to the “smart produce” business

A collage featuring a portrait of Steph Jack, leafy lettuces, and berries. Photo by David Cortes

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Stephanie Jack.

Stephanie Jack’s parents met while working at Heinz — specifically, when her mother was auditing her father’s department. She grew up visiting the company’s food processing facilities, in awe of her behind-the-scenes access to the creation of her favorite packaged goods. And one of her most vivid childhood memories involves helping her father with an emergency sweet-and-sour sauce packet explosion. “That early experience of seeing how food is made was really formative for me — I was hooked,” she explains. “And I thought working on physical products like consumer packaged goods would allow me to combine my tactical and creative sides.”

Jack earned a business degree at Wake Forest University to prepare herself to pursue this career and then landed her dream first job at Frito-Lay (despite bombing the interview). The genuine passion she displayed for the industry convinced the hiring managers that she’d excel in the marketing analyst role, and they were right. She spent nearly four years with the company.

After a stint in the beauty world, Jack missed working in food and found herself drawn to mission-driven brands, so she jumped at the opportunity to join the product marketing and innovation team at Bowery Farming, a company dedicated to vertical farming, a practice of growing crops in stacked layers, often in a controlled environment. Bowery cultivates its produce in tech-powered indoor farms just outside major cities, so the greens don’t have to travel far to get to the table.

Three and a half years after coming on board, Jack now oversees the development and optimization of Bowery’s product portfolio, which includes a variety of leafy greens and herbs. Here, she shares her path to this position, the aspects of her job that she loves most, and how vertical farming is changing the way we eat.

Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?

Stephanie Jack: I am the director of product marketing and innovation on the commercial team at Bowery. I lead the leafy greens and herbs portfolio, which is Bowery’s core business. My favorite part about my job is launching new products, from conception all the way through to execution. This suits the pop-culture fanatic in me, as it’s part of my job to have my finger on the pulse of macro trends and consumer desires. I also love working with and learning from all the people at Bowery who have diverse expertise and experiences. Every day, I work with a variety of teams at Bowery, from agriculture science to farm design to supply chain to farm operations.

What would surprise people about your job?

I never thought I could care so much about kale — but I really do! It might surprise people that part of my job takes place in the farm. I go to our R&D facility in Kearny, New Jersey, about once a week. I remember the first time I walked into our production farm, lettuce buzzing all around me, greens everywhere, up and down, side to side. It was a bit overwhelming to see just how technologically advanced it is. I still get that same feeling of awe whenever I’m at the farms. Seeing our products come to life, become a tangible thing, that’s always an incredible day for me. It might also surprise people that we have an internal sensory panel at Bowery. It’s a very fun part of my job. We are taking a list of sensory attributes and evaluating products against it; we think about aroma, texture, nasal pungency, and more. Sensory science is a real thing and I’ve loved learning about it.

Did you go to culinary school or college?

I majored in business with a concentration in marketing at Wake Forest University. Wake is a liberal arts school, so in addition to diving deep into my major, I learned a lot about areas outside my major. This paid big dividends in my career. For example, in my sociology courses, I learned so much about how people relate to one another and communicate. I still think about lessons I learned in those classes when I’m working cross-functionally in my current role at Bowery.

What would you have done differently at school or paid more attention to?

If I could go back and give my younger self a single piece of advice it would be this: Invest more in relationships. So many of our professors had professional lives beyond academia, and they had so much to offer in preparation for building a career. I got to know my professors, but I didn’t always go that extra mile to attend office hours and maintain relationships after college finished. Knowing what I know now, I would have been full of questions for my professors on different aspects of their professional experience, hurdles, and accomplishments.

What was your first job? What did it involve?

My very first job was organizing the shelves at TJ Maxx. After college, I worked as a marketing analyst at Frito-Lay in Dallas. I started on the Sunchips brand. It was a real crash course in marketing consumer packaged goods, with lots of experience in different areas of the business, from managing the budget to working with the food science team to developing new products. It provided real ground-level learning about what it means to be a part of a team that’s living and breathing a particular brand.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

I think the biggest challenge for me was wanting to make a big impact, but not knowing how. I needed to learn how to manage up and how to effectively influence across teams. I wanted to have an impact right away, but I had to learn to slow down and accumulate skills from those around me, like how to navigate a big company and how to nail a presentation. I’m especially grateful for all the women in leadership at Frito-Lay who took the time to mentor me, to act as confidantes and allies, and who were always available for career advice.

What was the turning point that led to where you are now?

After my work at Frito-Lay, I joined a beauty startup. There was so much overlap with food — food and beauty are both intimate categories and they mean a lot to the consumer. But as much as I loved the product innovation I was involved with, that job only reinforced my passion for food. First, I missed food and wanted to return to the industry. Second, it became increasingly important to me to work for a company with a mission that aligned with my personal values. Bowery is working to reimagine the future of food. We are growing more food, with less resources. That commitment to securing food for the future really drew me in. I wanted to work at a transformational company, especially one with a community focus like Bowery.

When was the first time you felt successful at Bowery?

I remember walking into Brooklyn Fare and seeing our Farmer’s Selection greens on the shelf. This was the first Bowery product that I played a significant role in shaping, from ideation to execution. I identified certain food trends and developed a strategy to reach a hyper-culinary customer. I worked with Bowery’s agricultural scientists to make those limited-edition greens a reality. I stayed awake at night poring over the details of the packaging. And then one day, I saw it on the shelf out in the real world. This was a really satisfying moment for me, to see something that came from our minds, was grown locally in one of our vertical farms, and then, within days of harvest, was on the shelf.

How did the pandemic affect your career?

To zoom out for a second, the pandemic exposed many tension points in food. It really showed us the limitations of food supply and the weak points in our food system. This gave me a renewed sense of pride that I’m part of a team that is working to try and solve some of those big issues.

Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?

At Bowery, I’ve been so fortunate to have both formal and informal mentors. Mentoring can be so valuable at each stage of your career, and I feel so lucky to have a job where I’m surrounded by so many women in senior leadership positions. I learn from them every day. Just yesterday, I had a meeting with our CCO Katie Seawell, my manager, and she was coaching me on advocating myself and refining my communication and leadership style. I’m sure I’m not the only woman who struggles with this, but I’ve had to push myself to thoughtfully disagree when I disagree, to push back and stand my ground. My mentors at Bowery have modeled this for me and I’ve learned so much from them about how to be a conceptual thinker, to think bigger.

How are you making change in your industry?

Our products are benefitting the consumer. All of our produce is pesticide-free — even our strawberries. (Strawberries are some of the most pesticide-intensive of all field-grown crops.) Our greens are no-need-to-wash, which is both convenient and helps with shelf life. Bowery produce is reliable: in freshness, in flavor, in yield, and in quality. All of this is solving problems that are very real to food lovers.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

Never underestimate the power of collaboration. Incredible things can happen when we put our minds together to solve a problem. And one of Bowery’s core values really resonates with me: Be kind to the core. This has an impact on my work every day.

What advice would you give someone who wants your job?

My advice is to be curious and inquisitive. There is so much involved in getting a product to market, in understanding what consumers want and why they want it. If you stay curious, inspiration may come from unexpected places. Look outside your industry. I’ll also echo what I said earlier about not being afraid to disagree. Disagree thoughtfully when appropriate and stand your ground. Diverse perspectives are essential to how innovative products get made.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in New York City.