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The Jen & Laura Show: A Blog Interview

Dr. Laura Strawn with Virginia Tech is wrapping up her 6-month immersion into the world of consulting with Food Safety Strategy (FSS), LLC (although thankfully she’s still going to help with a few ongoing projects).

Caveat for readers... we are friends, we have worked together on projects before (Jen in association roles, Laura in professor / extension specialist roles), but now we have worked together at FSS, and while there may have been minor “friend mission creep” along the way, we wouldn’t change a thing. We've done amazing work, pushed each other, and stretched boundaries.

We decided to do a Q&A: each got to choose 3 questions to ask the other person—but also had to answer herself. As an overarching comment, I (Jen) find it very predictable that my questions are extremely short and direct while Laura’s are longer, and in many cases, more than one question. I asked for 3 questions. If you count, she’s got 8. Some could say Laura is an overachiever and I am a minimalist. I say she’s not lost that academic independence. Six months in, she surely understands what I mean by that. :)

I (Laura) do Jen. ;) BUT this was way too convenient an opportunity to also reflect on FSS turning 1 (apologies SMASH CAKE not included) so I guess well I was predictably me. :) And to surprise you, here are my short and sweet answers... Though I still think yours are shorter!

Jen’s questions:

·       What have you learned about yourself as a result of this experience?

o   LAURA: I love learning new things! I enjoy communicating science, diving into a question – hunting for the answer(s), and solving complex challenges with a team! It is so rewarding. The fast-paced nature of consulting is also a rush… you just never know what is around the corner.

o   JEN: I’m not as good of a boss as I thought I was! I realize I don’t gush with compliments. I have high standards for myself and those that I work with, and have generally worked with really excellent people, so I don’t think to tell them how excellent they are all the time. I’ve learned I need to be more attuned to other peoples feelings. I didn’t learn that I’m impatient. I already knew that.

·       How did you navigate the personal and professional relationships?

o   LAURA: Generally, I am all business, but I will play along since Jen is also my friend. Working with friends has its pros and cons. For starters you are friends, so you already know they are brilliant and amazing because why would you be friends with anything less, you know they will work tirelessly hard, and the laughs and fun along the way are always a perk! Cons well all the above… ;)

o   JEN: I’m generally pretty direct and “all business” which is hard to do when you are friends with someone too. I think we blurred the line too much early on and needed to adjust about halfway through. Now we are very clear when it’s “work” vs “personal”.

·       What would you have done differently if you could start the 6 months over?

o   LAURA: Realized multi-tasking is a myth (see NYT article – seriously worth the read… my mind was blown). I am not superwoman, I want to be… husband, two kids, day job, solving food safety crises by night (joking) – I think we all want to be superhuman as we all wear so many hats. I wish I had set a better schedule for myself – of course it got easier and now at the end I would say my time management is way better. I still want to do everything – the FOMO is real - and that is the reality for so many of us. FOMO support group anyone?

o   JEN: There are definitely some changes I’d make. I’d be more insistent on knowing schedules/ availability, communicating priorities and deadlines, and basically being more on the “boss” side and less on the “friend” side.

Laura’s questions:

Yup... so long... but FSS is turning 1 and I am always curious to how you think! Especially about something as personal as your company. I also had fun answering these for myself :)

·       How do you define” impactful” when it comes to the projects we’ve worked on together? Especially as Food Safety Strategy turns! 1), which projects do you anticipate will have the most enduring impact on i) Food Safety Strategy’s and 2) stakeholder/client’s trajectory? What makes clients see Food Safety Strategy as a go to resource?

o   JEN: To me, it’s all about impact. It’s about changing people's minds, which you need to do if you’re looking for them to change behavior. Impact means that food is safer and people are less likely to get sick because of changes in practices and behaviors. I’m not going to answer 1) and 2) because I don’t like sharing details about client work without their express permission. But I’ve had the immense honor of working on some really incredible things over the past year. Some are more private- working with individual companies to improve their food safety systems (sometimes proactively, sometimes after something went wrong); others are more “association” type work—convening groups, building relationships, and trying to make progress on really difficult topics. I love it all and my hope is that it makes a difference.

o   LAURA: Impact is change, but more nuanced it's about creating tangible and sometimes intangible differences. Each client and project bring unique, real-world implications, often within short timeframes. From intense crisis management to long-term strategic enhancements and general food safety support, every project has made an impact. The key to success? The strong partnership between clients and FSS (or us). The secret ingredient is listening. Listening could be its own blog... But what makes Food Safety Strategy a go-to resource – “beyond the partnership”. Everyone at Food Safety Strategy has a passion and drive for food safety – they love “the work”. We (watch this tie back to Jen’s overachiever comment from above) don’t do average.


·       In your role as Founder of Food Safety Strategy, where would you need to lead the firm in the next five years for you to personally consider your endeavor successful? What things do you need to accomplish and how would you go about executing this?

o   JEN: I’ve decided I don’t want a big team. I genuinely like doing the work. I never want to be too far removed from the clients. The “in the next five years” part of the question: I have always hated this question. If you had asked me 5 years ago if I’d open a consulting firm I would have said no. That’s not to say that I wander aimlessly with no sense of direction. It’s that situations change and I want the flexibility to adapt so that I’m always doing the things I think will have the greatest impact. Several times a week I ask myself “is the world a better place because of what I did today”- and when the answer is no, I need to rethink things.  I have no idea how Laura is going to answer this question.

o   LAURA: Watching my friend turn her dream into her own company was and still is inspiring. After celebrating her leap into a new space with a few bourbons (shout out to the “Tom Stenzel” cocktail), I asked Jen about her vision for FSS and what success means to her. With her track record of success in her past jobs, I wondered if owning her own shop was as fulfilling. Now, FSS is turning 1... so it felt like the perfect time to ask this question again. Also, I'm proud of Jen for taking this leap into the unknown, she’s a pretty awesome consultant. To me, success for FSS means continuing the journey. FSS’s built meaningful client relationships and delivered valuable projects in the food safety space. Speculating on the next 5 years is an old school question, and it is fun to look back on these types of posts or journals (time capsule anyone?). I've learned that Jen is both adaptable and dogged. These traits seemingly are contradictory, but they actually work together perfectly. When someone possesses both adaptability and doggedness, they are not only able to embrace change and adjust to new circumstances, but they also have the tenacity and perseverance to pursue their goals relentlessly. With Jen's determination and flexibility, the next five years should be exciting to watch for FSS! 🚀 *only new school emoji in this post

·       What skill sets did I bring to the table that have enabled success or growth of Food Safety Strategy? Are there skill sets you feel you are missing or need a team member to bring?

o   JEN: First, I’m not sure how Laura is going to answer this question for herself. But here is my answer: There are things Laura can do that I just can’t do—some GIS stuff for instance, which was hugely helpful, and navigating the NCBI WGS database with ease. There are also things she knows off the top of her head that I could probably find out (e.g. who’s done what research). It’s just more efficient to lean on her. No sense in me reinventing the wheel. Then there are things that I hate doing, but she can do so much faster or more naturally- doing references and formatting, which is the bane of my existence! She doesn’t mind! So that makes for a good team- complementing each other. And complements are much more important to me than compliments.

o   LAURA: Wait, aside from my adventurous leap into the unknown with you/FSS as a new consulting firm (check out the polar plunge blog for that story 6 months ago), this blog highlights the “balanced contrast” between Jen and me. If you need a mystery solved, or root cause analysis, I can safely say we are a solid team. What skills do I bring? Well, you could always peek at my resume for a chuckle. :) In a nutshell, we are different, but it's precisely those differences that make us a phenomenal team – after all, teams composed of identical individuals are dull, predictable, and unchallenging. I could elaborate on our entertaining similarities and differences, but the truth is, we both possess a strong drive and a passion for tackling perplexing food safety questions. While we may embark and arrive at the same destination, we often, if not always, take divergent paths. And isn't that what truly makes the best teams? Having someone to challenge you, keep up with you, and provoke new ways of thinking!

Laura’s been a fantastic contributor to the team. Check back Monday for some exciting news about another familiar face who’ll be helping Food Safety Strategy continue to support our amazing clients.

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