Women Of The Food Industry – Gemma Smyth, Managing Director
Gemma Smyth is the managing director of Gemma Smyth Communications Ltd.
I met Gemma Smyth about a year ago now. She invited me to sit on a panel for a workshop she was holding for small producers at the Bord Bia HQ. A panel, Caitriona Redmond was also sitting on as it happens. We met for a coffee before hand to get to know each other and talk through the programme of the day. The day went really well and I got to meet small producers who I often found on my table (hello there Velvet Cloud)
Since then, I’ve met Gemma Smyth a few times and she remains a constant in my inbox. I’ve subscribed to her press releases as they are relevant to me. Not only that but since I’ve finished my last contract, she’s been emailing me job opportunities. Kindly, with no expectations in returns. I love a woman who simply supports people. Not only is she a master at her game, she is also just plain sound.
I’m talking to women in the food industry, what brought you into this category and what do you do?
I am a communications consultant working predominantly with clients in the Irish agri-food sector including Bord Bia; Bloom Festival; Alltech Craft Brews & Food Fair; Pearse Lyons Distillery; Certified Irish Angus Beef and the Agricultural Science Association. I also provide training and communications services to start-up food and drink companies to help in launching their business and products. My first exposure to the Irish food sector was as Public Relations Manager for Agri Aware, the public promotion body funded by the agri-food industry. In this role I worked with a range of organisations and brands and developed a keen understanding of the nuances and politics which make the industry tick. I also developed a strong network of contacts which I brought with me into subsequent PR consultancy roles and ultimately these formed the basis for my client portfolio when I founded my own business in 2014.
What do you hope to achieve in the next 5 years?
The main aim for the next five years is to continue to be able to adapt and grow my business in order to keep pace with the ever-evolving communications environment. The media landscape has changed so much since I started. We have moved from a heavy reliance on print and broadcast channels to an age where people expect the news of importance to reach them without having actively sought it out. People are consuming media in a completely different way and any of us working with the industry need to ensure that we are offering a service which reflects this. I will also continue to strive to achieve a healthy work-life balance. The nature of my job is that I am ‘always-on’ but I work hard to prioritise and ensure that I have enough time for my young family, and for looking after my own physical and mental health which is so important.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry in Ireland?
We have certainly made great strides in raising the visibility of women in the food industry in the last decade. There are a number of really strong women at the helm such as Tara McCarthy, Bord Bia; Siobhan Talbot, Glanbia and Zoe Kavanagh, NDC (to name just a few) who are great role models for others. To build on this momentum I think that first and foremost we need to encourage women to believe in themselves and in their right to hold senior positions within the industry. There are plenty of really capable and inspiring women working in Irish food but often times they are just not willing to put, or push, themselves forward. We all need to shoulder the responsibility for mentoring, encouraging and advising our peers in order to challenge the status quo.
The industry certainly seems to be paying more attention of late. I have recently done some work with Ceres, a newly founded women in agribusiness leadership network which aims to develop and promote leadership and diverse thinking within the industry. In addition, the Agri-Food Diversity and Inclusion Forum (AgDIf) led by Bord Bia and Aon, in partnership with the 30% Club is monitoring and measuring trends in the industry and plans to offer advice and guidance on how to implement diversity and inclusion considerations into recruitment processes. The key synergies in the approach of both of these groups is the need to promote diversity generally– not just gender equality – in order to ensure that the food industry is attracting and retaining the best talent to serve the industry, rather than just token gestures to meet gender quotas.
Tell us of one woman in the Irish food industry who consistently inspires you. and why
We are so lucky to have many impressive women holding senior positions in leading food organisations who continue to pave the way for all women in the industry. However, on a micro level, I continue to be inspired by food start-ups whose passion, ambition and belief in their offering drives them to push past all of the barriers to entry in the food industry. In the last number of years there has been one woman in particular who I have consistently admired for her energy, enthusiasm and determination to grow and deliver a project which she doggedly believes in. I began following Aileen Cox Blundell’s blog ‘Baby Led Feeding’ in its very early days shortly after starting my own family. Her dynamism and passion for healthy food for kids was inspirational and I have watched with admiration as she has grown her offering and her following hugely in the last three years. In this time, she has created and launched two cook books and has been engaged as a brand ambassador for Dunnes Stores. I was thrilled to then come across her last year in the bootcamp stage for Food Works – the accelerator programme for food and drink start-ups run by Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and Teagasc. Through this programme she has progressed her idea for a healthy children’s food product and she is currently preparing to launch it to the market. Her ambition is infectious, and if her passion for the project is anything to go by, she is sure to be a huge success.
Have you had a wow moment to date in your career? If so which one was it and why?
In my first job out of college I had the pleasure of working with one of Ireland’s best loved chefs, Neven Maguire, on a secondary school’s project which highlighted the journey from farm to fork of our food. The prize for the winning group was a night in the beautiful McNean House and the opportunity to meet with Neven Maguire and some of his suppliers. I was lucky enough to have to accompany them on the overnight trip to Blacklion. The WOW moment for me was not the beautiful food and hospitality experience at McNean House – which was second to none – but it was the journey we were taken on in meeting Neven’s suppliers which included meat producers, vegetable growers and artisan food businesses. We travelled to a number of rural locations in and around County Cavan and we got to experience first-hand the respect Neven had for his suppliers and his passion for sourcing quality ingredients for his restaurant. That day for me was an eye opener on the importance of provenance and sourcing for a successful food business – a learning that followed me throughout my career and shaped my understanding for the industry and all of the links in the food chain to the consumer.
What have been your down moments in your career and how did you deal with them?
The joy of having my first child in 2013 was fairly quickly followed by the realisation that I was going to seriously struggle to continue to work from 7am-7pm every day as had become the norm in the PR agency I was then employed with. The reality of having a little person to look after whose waking hours mirrored my working hours hit home hard and although nervous at the prospect, I knew a change had to come. I explored options for freelance work initially starting at 3 days a week and very quickly this had become 5 days which is testament to the strong network I had developed in the agri-food industry in my career. Looking at it from the outside it may appear that I jumped from the frying pan into the fire as my client portfolio grew but the key difference for me in having my own consultancy versus working for one was primarily the flexibility working for myself offered while managing the demands of a small family.
Of course, running and growing my own business has also thrown up some down moments over the last few years – most notably in terms of managing the workload at particularly busy periods which would result in me working many late nights and long weekends. I finally hit crunch point at the start of this year and knew something needed to change if I was going to manage the upcoming project pipeline. In the short-term I brought in a number of freelance consultants to work on specific projects to give me some breathing space, and in June of this year I secured office space in the Spade Enterprise Centre in Stoneybatter, hired my first employee and incorporated my company – a big step in the evolution of Gemma Smyth Communications Ltd!
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think the best advice that I could give my younger self is to quickly learn the power of self-belief, positive thought and backing yourself to succeed. I would encourage myself to trust that there is nearly always a solution to every problem and not to waste time worrying unnecessarily. I would also encourage myself to value the importance of networking at a younger age as Ireland, and the food industry in particular, is a small place and the development of strong networks should never be underestimated. Finally, I would encourage myself, and anyone with an interest in the food industry to check out the many excellent graduate programmes on offer from semi-state organisations such as Bord Bia to global food businesses such as Kerry Group and Glanbia. I did not come across these opportunities until much later in my career but they offer graduates an amazing opportunity to learn while working within the industry and provide an excellent platform for career progression.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
The role of a communications is so broad and every day can be completely different to another so the skills required are many and varied! If I had to choose the top skills I would say: 1) Strategic and critical thinking skills – communications consultants are required to be able to advise an organisation at a senior level on the most appropriate external and internal communications strategy for any given situation from a crisis to an acquisition to a product launch ; 2) Strong organisational and multitasking skills – as a consultant you are managing multiple clients and projects at one time, none of whom can miss a deadline because you are working on something else; 3) A keen interest in current affairs and knowledge of the media landscape – not only is it enough to understand a client’s sector and organisation, a communications consultant must also be able to offer an external perspective in order to identify broader issues and opportunities of relevance 4) Strong attention to detail, writing and proof-reading skills – with any communications activity an organisation is presenting itself to a target audience and attention to detail is paramount in order to make a good impression – be that at an event, visual communications or written materials 5) Finally, creativity and an ability to think outside the box to bring something new for a client in a crowded market.
You’ve had the day from hell and you need comfort food. What’s your go to dish?
My husband’s speciality – a pan-fried medium rare Certified Irish Angus Beef Ribeye steak smothered in a buttery garlic sauce with onions and lots of green veg accompanied by a rather large glass of red wine!
Tea or coffee?
Ah don’t make me choose! I LOVE my coffee in the morning (Ariosa Coffee from Lilliput Stores in Stoneybatter is my absolute favourite) but you just can’t beat a good cup of tea – especially in my Mum’s kitchen in Sligo (always Lyons, never Barry’s!)