We moved to Chicago five years ago. A massive city, and an epicenter of the food industry. I was at once excited and overwhelmed—afloat in a great lake of network overload. Removed from my comfort zone, I searched for ways to meet people and integrate into this new community. Upon suggestion of a trusted friend and experienced networker, I decided to try my hand at volunteering at an event hosted by the Chicago Section of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). That singular decision launched one of the most fulfilling journeys in both my professional and personal life.
Now, five years later, I have made countless meaningful and personal connections, developed long-term relationships, and made an impact in my professional community. What started out as a way to navigate the complex circuitry of the Chicago food landscape has turned into a personal voyage for industry advocacy, leadership and contribution.
Inspired by my own experience, here are five benefits of engaging with a professional organization like IFT:
1. Professional Development – Safe Ways to Stretch Into New Roles and Skill Sets
When Pam Coleman, vice president of research services at Merieux Nutrisciences and incoming President-elect for IFT, first started volunteering early in her career as a bench chemist, she found opportunities to lead groups and committees. “I developed new skills in a really safe way. As a volunteer, you can try new things, test the waters, and get relatively diverse experiences to see what you enjoy, what you don’t, and where you want to develop and explore.”
The wide range of opportunities in industry organizations can offer a glimpse into future career development or offer a learning experience that rounds out your professional repertoire. For example, joining a finance committee can stretch you outside of your comfort zone, but prepare you with skills and perspectives for future management roles. Participating on a fundraising committee can sharpen your influencing and organizational skills. Leading a technical group can offer opportunities to deep dive into a technology or discipline that can spark a passion to develop expertise in a new area. These cross-functional opportunities may not be readily available in your company, but industry organizations are always looking for professionals to volunteer.
2. Develop Your Network & Identify Mentors
Industry organizations are flush with peers and potential mentors. Networking at events and symposiums will bring you into contact with people doing the same things as you are, facing the same challenges. You also have the opportunity to interact with the regulatory sector to learn from them. “Early in my career, my former manager built relationships with regulatory technical leaders at the USDA through industry organization involvement," said Coleman. "It was a great advantage for us when we ran into analytical challenges in the lab—she was able to personally call them and get suggestions and insights. They developed a rapport. This was a big lesson for me as a young volunteer. Your network can be an analytical asset.”
Mentor opportunities abound as well. I have personally found the more I engage with my organizations, the more trust I built within my network, the more mentorship opportunities naturally develop. I’ve honed valuable professional and life skills through these relationships: Conflict resolution, contract negotiations, and 501(c)3 organization creation to name just a few of the arduous tasks my organizational mentors have helped and supported me with. Building relationships across technical disciplines also holds advantage. As a microbiologist, it is fascinating to work with product developers and learn where our challenges and opportunities intersect. Not only can you network with technical peers, but also industry partners, vendors, suppliers and competitors to bring a well-rounded perspective to see the industry through a truly holistic lens.
3. Gain Industry Insights
What’s new in your industry? What emerging trends are on the horizon? Engaging within industry organizations can bring keen insights well before they are published in our industry magazines and keynote presentations. Educational learning opportunities through technical committees, short courses, and symposiums can bring key advantages to giving you and your company a jump on implementing new technologies and trends. Understanding regulatory changes, implications, and perhaps most important, insights on how regulators will interpret and enact changes can also be gleaned from organization engagement. You can also gain exposure and experience with new business models such as zero-based budgeting and account-based marketing, which can lead to additional opportunities and advantage for you and your company.
4. Create Your Personal Brand
Who are you in the Industry? What do you want to be known for? Through industry engagement you can develop your personal brand and carry that image into your career. Do you strive to be a facilitator and connector? Run for a leadership position. Do you want to be known as a technical leader and subject matter expert? Lead a technical committee or task force. Do you want to be seen as a reliable contributor? Offer to develop content for a technical newsletter, or volunteer for a marketing committee. Not sure what you want your personal brand to look like? Try multiple roles and opportunities to see what inspires and fulfills you, and then pursue that with gusto. “When I look back and think, ‘How did I go from a bench chemist to this?'” reflects Coleman, “I am certain I wouldn’t be where I am in my career today if it weren’t for my experiences and opportunities in organizations like IFT.”
5. Personal Fulfillment – Increased Health & Happiness
Industry advocacy and engagement can bring an immense sense of personal fulfillment, especially when you are able to contribute and make an impact on the organization. Not only that, it can make you feel better, too: A 2010 United healthcare/VolunteerMatch (UHVM) study found that volunteering has a positive influence on physical and emotional health. One of the common objections to engaged volunteering is time, or lack of it. However, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School recently found that volunteering not only makes you feel more accomplished, but that it can also “make you feel more ‘time affluent’ and less time-constrained.” In the words of my trusted networker friend that set me off on my volunteering journey five years ago: “The more you do, the more you can do.”
Note: This post is an adaptation of “The Value of Industry Engagement in Professional Organizations,” originally published by Food Safety Tech.