A legendary brand has a universal appeal, spanning generations, apt for every occasion and a taste for every palate. A delight for consumers but a formidable challenge for food scientists!

Sanjeev Kumar, our next pathbreaker, works with Mondelēz  India Foods Pvt Limited in their R&D Center, Mumbai., working for a few iconic brands like Cadbury Dairy Milk, Five Star, Perk, Bournvita, Oreo, Halls, etc.

Sanjeev talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his career as a food technologist, and his journey and career path across different companies Nestle, Heinz and now Mondelez.

For students, we all relate to food, take it up to the next level as a career in Food Science!

Sanjeev, tell us about your background?

I am a native of Bihar, and completed my schooling from Dumka and Ranchi (both in current Jharkhand). My childhood was not much different from a common small-town boy, I was also a medical aspirant, which was my parent’s dream. I was considered more than a mediocre student and quite active in debate and quiz. I qualified the AFMC written exam, but could not qualify in the interview. This also increased the confidence of my parents that I should be a doctor only and I should give it one more try. As my father was associated with sericulture (silkworm culture), I was also vaguely aware of ICAR (Indian Council of Agriculture Research) and dairy technology. ICAR conducts all India exams for admission in different agricultural universities in India. These agriculture universities offer different courses in the field of agriculture and allied courses. While filling up the form for different medical entrance exams I also filled the form for the All India ICAR exam. I was a medical aspirant, but as the exams were in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics, I qualified the exam and chose B Tech in Food Science for my graduation. I had never thought about it, in fact, I didn’t know what Food Science was, but destiny had something else for me which has nothing to do with what I was aspiring for or preparing for the first 17 yrs of my life. 

What did you do for graduation/ post graduation?

As mentioned, through the ICAR exam, I got admission in College of Food Technology under Vasantrao Naik Marathwada Agriculture University, Parbhani (Maharashtra). Then, I went to Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore (Karnataka),  the premier institutes in this field for MSc in Food Technology. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

It was my situation that influenced me to choose this career. After rejection in the AFMC interview, I had lost confidence and was not ready to drop one year after 12th to prepare for the medical entrance exam. I was getting admission for a B Tech degree, and just took it. At that time, I had thought if not medical, then let me pursue engineering. Looking back, I think i took a big career risk, but at the same time, I think it was one of the best decisions I took. Whether it was a calculated risk or gambling, I can’t say it now. But, there was one calculation in my mind, that there are only 52 seats all over India, hence there will be less competition in the future. I can make a difference in Food Science. 

This course was completely new to me. Neither did I know what was taught in this, nor the career perspective and if there was campus placement or any other logical question which any student should ask before selecting the course. In fact, after taking admission at the ICAR counseling in New Delhi, I came to know that Parbhani is in Maharashtra. 

With a determination to make a difference, I went ahead with this course.  Once I entered college, I started hearing a lot about the course and success stories of our alumni. This started increasing my interest in this subject. I got a chance to interact with a few inspiring seniors, motivating and supporting professors and some business leaders in this field. These people helped me further, to set a goal for myself in this field and in strengthening my belief in my choice and my determination to make a difference. 

I consider three major turning points or I can say inflection points in my path to becoming a food technologist, which had a tremendous impact on me as a professional. First it was obviously taking the first step towards being a food technologist i.e. taking admission to Parbhani. This college gave me full freedom to experiment with my thoughts and my aspirations kept my enthusiasm high in this subject.  The second was getting admission to CFTRI Mysore which helped me get associated with a big brand in this field. The third was writing my first book for students of food science. This book gave me a different identity as a food technologist and is still being loved by students after 14 yrs. This book was the first prototype of my aspiration of “making a difference in this field”

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Yea, I can say that I have tried to choose my career and take a different path, starting from choosing a totally new course of Food Technology to changing my work profile within the company where I work. I chose food technology over dropping a year to prepare for medical entrance. This decision can be called an impulsive decision, but being determined after that, to make a difference was not impulsive. Wherever you are, enjoy that moment and give your best. When you are not enjoying the moment, look for something where you enjoy and can give your best. This became my mantra of life. 

My first serious exposure to the food industry was as an intern in the Coca Cola factory in Bhopal (MP). It was part of my final semester in-plant training during graduation. I was in the quality department and enjoyed the 800 bottles of “Thumbs Up” being filled in a minute and at 4 degree centigrade. I enjoyed the moment of learning new things and tasting the best cold drinks at their origin. I cherished every moment of my learning and every drop of fizz. 

Then, after post-graduation, through campus selection, I got a job in Nestle in their production department in Pantnagar (Uttarakhand). Handling the Maggi noodle line gave me first-hand exposure to food manufacturing, people management, and understanding food technology at mega-scale. But, I was interested in Research and Development and thus I thought of changing my career. Throughout my studies, I had made good relationships with my college seniors and because of one of them, I got information about job opportunities in the Research and Development department of Heinz and then after a few years in Cadbury (now Mondelēz). Thus, I kept on building my career in the direction of my interest. 

Heinz was my first exposure to corporate Research & Development. As a student, I had different a different perception about R&D, but in reality its different. It’s not about working on atoms and DNA of food but it’s about creating a recipe, developing technology feasible at the factory level, and bringing joy to consumers. As Heinz had a very small team of food technologists, I got exposure to multiple aspects of R&D like recipe development, process development, regulatory requirements, and quality. Hands-on experience of creating products like Eggless Mayonnaise, Ketchup, Indian & Chinese sauces, and developing its process at industry scale, remained a lifetime experience for me. It helped me in building a strong foundation on which my next experience in Mondelez was built.

It’s almost 10 years in Mondelēz now. I started my career as a product developer where I was responsible for creating new chocolates.  I created the Silk Orange Peel variant as my first product in the chocolate category. Roaming around the world was always my dream, so I grabbed new opportunities within the same company. Then I took charge of the Asia Pacific region (managing 10 countries) for ensuring that the R&D professionals create the right specifications for creating the right products all the time. 

For the last four years, I have been working on recipe reengineering of existing products so that consumers get the same taste in their preferred brand without spending more money. I am the part of the team which ensures that the inflation in the market doesn’t hurt the pocket of consumers.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first job in Nestle India in their Maggi noodle manufacturing plant in Pantnagar, Uttarakhand. It was through the campus recruitment process at CFTRI. 

What were some of the challenges? How did you address them?

Being just a fresher and directly getting exposed to the industry was itself a challenge. College life and job life are totally different. To add to it, life in a factory is totally different. We were taught about science, about technology and about engineering in college, but my first job was to manage manpower. More than intelligence quotient, I needed to have a strong emotional quotient. Getting work done through the workforce of a hundred fifty people and at the same time understanding the factory and the corporate way of working was a big challenge. When we are freshers, we are judged at every step. The parameters against which we are measured are stricter if you are from a premium institute. In such a case, we come across two kinds of people – one genuinely has high expectations from you and another who will look for an opportunity to show you that you are worthless. The best way to manage such a scenario is to learn from genuine admirers and ignore the others. 

Where do you work now? 

Right now I am working with Mondelēz  India Foods Pvt Limited in their Research & Development Center, Mumbai. I can proudly say that I work for a few iconic brands which consumers love, like Cadbury Dairy Milk, Five Star, Perk, Bournvita, Oreo, Halls, etc.

What problems do you solve? 

In spite of talking about my specific role, I would rather explain what food technologists do in an R&D center. We interact with consumers to understand what kind of snacks they want, what kind of chocolates or biscuits they like and we try to understand what new they are looking for. Then we convert those insights into the product in our laboratories and pilot plants. Once these prototypes are made, we again go back to consumers to take their feedback. We do further iterations (if required) and once we are convinced that consumers are liking our product, we make it at a large scale (50-60 tons per day) at the factory. Our work involves applying knowledge of consumer behavior, knowledge of food science, knowledge of local food regulations, knowledge of technology and engineering (for factory operations), and basic knowledge of finance. Let me be clear, based on the company size and company structure, there may be a single person doing all these jobs or there may be different teams handling these activities. 

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

All those persons who are qualified as food technologists have a basic understanding of food science. Further, its personal interest, the personal capability to learn new things and personal agility to adapt to the changing world determines the success of an individual. Based on the department within R&D, skill sets differs. It also differs where we are in the organizational structure. But, overall few skill sets required to be a successful food technologist are – love for science and technology, interest in learning interdisciplinary subjects, project management skills, people management skills, a team player, problem-solving skill, IT related skills, the right attitude, and a positive mindset. 

Whats a typical day like?

A typical day depends on the work profile. For a product developer, it is generally a combination of working in laboratories creating different recipes of chocolates and biscuits. A process developer generally works with the engineering and factory team in designing a new process or new equipment to manufacture chocolate and biscuits at large scale.  Tasting products, evaluating its sensorial aspects, interacting with consumers will be a work profile of a sensory scientist.  A quality assurance professional works on plans and processes that ensure that each product coming out of a factory and till consumers consume it, is of the best quality. A professional working in a factory in the whole manufacturing department ensures that the machines and equipment work at their best efficiency and the factory produces the best quality products all the time. Apart from these main jobs, each of these professionals are involved in the day to day meetings, planning, and resource management. 

What is it you love about this job?

The best part of my job is that I get a chance to create tastier products which brings a smile on the face of consumers. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The world produces far more food than the entire population needs. But the problem is, these crops are highly perishable and thus a large amount of these crops gets spoiled/wasted. As a food technologist, we ensure that these crops are converted to value-added products with longer shelf life. We preserve foods to ensure that no one goes to bed without food. In my current role, I am working with a company which is known for its corporate social responsibilities and commitment towards healthy snacking. It works for the upliftment of cocoa producing farmers. I feel privileged to be a part of this bigger mission aimed at forming a healthier and happier society.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

If I need to pick one of my memorable works, I will pick my book “Objective Food Science” which has got lots of appreciation and acceptance by the students. I am happy that I took a risk with my MSc grade, and thought of writing something which will be useful for the next generation. This work gave me a different identity and inspired me to work more and more in this direction. I created www.foodtechpathshala.com to transfer the right information about food technology to students and professionals, I co-created a mobile app to gamify exam preparation. These kinds of thoughts and fire to do something new is based on the confidence and love I received from my first successful work. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

There is no course which will guarantee the best career. It is you who needs to shape your career. Develop your interest in the subject you are studying and look for the opportunities where you can bring a differentiation. Remember, every time you need not to do different things to be successful, but, you need to do things differently. 

Future Plans? 

I Would like to study more about new technology, especially in the field of information technology and how it can be used in the food industry. 

For those interested in Food careers, please watch a video of Sanjeev on careers in Food Science & Technology!