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Leadership Spotlight – Emma Thorpe, Technical Controller

Leadership Spotlight – Emma Thorpe, Technical Controller

Armed with comprehensive experience working in food manufacturing, Emma brings a wealth of knowledge to Ashbury. But, as with many of her female colleagues, she’s experienced the hardships and challenges of raising a young family combined with furthering her career. Her journey hasn’t been without sacrifice or struggle, and here she explains how she believes the industry can move forward to make it easier for budding female professionals emerging into the sector:

Why did you pursue a career in the food industry?

“Originally, I wanted to join the military. I applied to join the Royal Navy as a midwife and got through to the final recruitment stages, but last-minute they changed the rules: you had to train as a nurse prior to joining the forces. But with a goal to travel the world, I pulled out and decided to seek a new path.

While I was trying to figure out my next steps, my father got me a summer job at the local factory he managed. It was a great experience, and I loved the fact you were at the forefront of food innovation. Armed with A-levels in home economics, biology, geography and general studies, I thought perhaps this was an option.

The factory paid me to complete a Taster in Food Science at Manchester Metropolitan University. Here I got selected as a graduate by a local manufacturer, and the rest is history…”

What’s the one thing that someone has said to you that’s influenced where you are now?

There’s no substitute for hard work and determination.

And this is so true, particularly in manufacturing. You must work hard. But it’s absolutely worth it.”

Do you think there are any accessibility issues for women who’re looking to enter the food industry?

The UK’s food and drink industry is the country’s biggest manufacturing sector by turnover (larger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined), but I don’t think it’s talked about as much as it should be. Nor is the career path encouraged or highlighted from an early age.

I grew up in Market Drayton, a food manufacturing town, housing some of the biggest players in dairy and pie manufacturing. Despite being surrounded by leaders in this arena, I never considered it as a career. The only manner it was ever discussed was the potential of factory jobs – but little mention of the behind-the-scenes roles responsible for product or process development.  

Eager to raise awareness of the fantastic potential that this sector provides, I recently delivered a talk at a local primary school. Not only did it spark inspiration for the children, but also conversations with the adults who – again – had little or no understanding of such roles.

Added to this, you can no longer opt to study Home Economics at A-level, and degrees in this specific field are becoming less and less. 

It’s really disappointing that the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK isn’t encouraged more so. It’s very difficult to export or outsource such roles, but the drive and resources nationwide are lacking, which could discourage brilliant individuals from entering the sector altogether – let alone progressing up the corporate ladder.  

Have you encountered any obstacles to pursuing a leadership role?

“Having a family was undoubtedly a challenge. Previously, I had a very senior role in a manufacturing organisation, and had further progression on the horizon. However, after falling pregnant with twins I knew I couldn’t go back to do that job with two small children at home. So, I decided to take a step down, sacrificing my career and salary.  

Manufacturing is a very fast-paced environment: clients turn up unannounced, regular audits demand you be on-site, and travel is a must. While I’m sure many businesses would like to offer more flexibility, it’s difficult – due to the nature of the industry, you can’t just leave for nursery pick-up, or choose to work from home if your little one is sick.  

At Ashbury, involved with technical and compliance aspects of the process, we’re able to share responsibilities which can help to lighten the load a little. Remote working and flexible hours also make it much easier to navigate being a mum, as well as progressing your career. But it extends further than this too – flexibility allows you to care for relatives, prioritise health appointments, and run important errands, promoting positive wellbeing and ensuring you always bring your full attention to work and produce excellent results.”

What has Ashbury’s policies and culture allowed you to achieve that you might not otherwise have been able to?

“I joined Ashbury when my children were one. And since then, I’ve never missed a parents evening, sports day, or assembly.  

I’ve been able to rebuild my career while also being an active parent. I’m able to sufficiently dedicate my time, focus and attention to both my children and career – meaning I can always bring my very best self when I’m in ‘mum’ or ‘working’ mode. If I’d have stayed in manufacturing, unfortunately I don’t think it would have been as simple…” 

What advice would you give to young women looking to start a career in the food industry?

“Manufacturing will give you an unrivalled breadth and depth of knowledge, as well as endless opportunities to travel, experience new things, and gain a wealth of information. If you have the ability, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to take full advantage of this, and jump in head first. 

This was one of my favourite elements of the job. But when I had children my priorities, understandably, had to change. And so, I’d also say find a path that you love and suits you right now. But don’t be afraid to pivot or evolve when the time is right.  

It’s certainly not an easy career, and involves a lot of hard work, grit, and resilience. But it’s certainly very rewarding, and one I’m sure you won’t regret!”

Do you think the food industry has enough female representation?

“From my own personal experiences, I believe that it’s a very female-driven sector – there’s always been at least two or three women on the Board at all companies I’ve worked for. Roles, such as technical and product development, have typically been solely women.

But that’s not to say there’s not work to be done to ensure we promote a positive, inclusive, and equal workplace industry-wide.  

And, perhaps we take a wider stance on this – is the stigma worse for men who might ask for part-time or flexible roles to allow them to work around a young family, or to care for a relative? I believe there’s several challenges that remain within the sector that we must work together to overcome.”

Caitlin Stewart, Marketing Manager

My background in Food Science and Marketing means I have a unique combination of commercial creativity and technical food manufacturing experience. My ambition is to bring clarity to the complex world of compliance through the simple and eye-catching communication of Ashbury's services.

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