Risa Schulman, Ph.D. is a consultant in the functional foods sector with over 12 years turning scientific evidence into successful dietary supplements and functional foods. She also acts as an executive coach for women executives in the industry.
Fi: The first functional foods that emerged in this industry seemed a little spotty in terms of actual function. Some of them seem like gimmicks. How has the caliber of functional foods evolved?
RS: The market is still divided between those companies that have invested into the generating science needed to back benefits or develop new ingredients, versus companies that are jumping on the bandwagon. They either use borrowed science inappropriately or they generate poor, inadequate science and/or make functional claims on products that have no business doing so, such as sugared cereals or soda. Kudos to those companies that have taken the rigor of the science to the next level. These people are the trailblazers who will establish the validity and longevity of this category and they'll come out on top as the category continues to mature.
Fi: You were a key participant in the development of POM Wonderful science-driven pomegranate products. Do you think that could be replicated or do you thing the regulatory challenges are now too intense?
RS: I do think it can be replicated. It requires two major pieces. The first is top quality science. The other is top quality marketing/PR. The teams working in both of those areas have to have a deep understanding in a sector-specific way as well as be able to overlap with one another just enough to work as a high-performance team. Building that is an art in an of itself and that is more key than the regulatory environment in repeating the success of a POM.
Everyone has tried to figure out what they did and use them as a guide. Not too many people have had the success at the level of POM. Functional foods are different from regular foods and different from dietary supplements. You really need to have a clear understanding of the sector-specific requirements to make this work.
Fi: One of your areas of expertise is executive and small business coaching, focusing on women scientists and entrepreneurs. Are companies fostering this, or are women seeking guidance themselves?
RS: It’s really both. There is still paucity of women scientists making it to the mid- and senior levels of corporations. This is due to exclusion from informal, old-boy networks, a lack of women role models and the lifestyle issues that have to be juggled with a high-powered career.
The other piece of it is that as scientific executives move up the ladder they so often expose gaps in their management and interpersonal skills that are specific to scientists because of the nature of their earlier training. Practical companies are embracing coaching for their top performers not only to retain them but to act as role models for the next generation. Individual women are also engaging coaches on their own if their companies don’t yet offer it or if they are entrepreneurs and they need to create their own structures.
Fi: I understand you enjoy kayaking. What do you love about it?
I'm a naturalist and I spent a lot of time in a lot of different field environments and one of my favorite environments is water. I love kayaking because a kayak sits very high in the water and you can slip yourself into little coves and inlets that are often inaccessible in any other way and that are sometimes only four or six inches deep and you can observe. You can see fish nurseries and crustaceans and water birds. And because these areas are so inaccessible they are usually very quiet and it’s just an amazingly peaceful place to relax.