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"Women's empowerment should be at the centre of all careers today!" - Silvia d’Alesio [Interview]

From music entertainment to food packaging engineering, Silvia d’Alesio’s career spans four European countries. A global outlook is key in her role today as Content Specialist for Seeds&Chips.

She talked to us about the importance of packaging as an ingredient in a successful sustainable food product. When it comes to women in food, Silvia wishes to see more women reaching top-management levels in the food industry.

Can you give us a brief summary of your professional career to date?

“Although I always worked in different sectors, often taking on very humble roles, my professional career began with my university career. Training was the first ‘place’ where I experienced my skills and capabilities. This is where I exceeded my limits, where I found the passion and the opportunity to share it with others. I obtained my BSc in food sciences and technology at the University of Naples. This experience later gave me the possibility to join the International Erasmus Mundis MSc Food Innovation and Product Design (FIPDes). This European Master Degree fosters cooperation between four universities from four different countries.”

“The FIPDes was my springboard. I collaborated with the prestigious Netherlands Packaging Center (NVC), the association of companies that provides packaging activity. An active contributor to its ‘web retail packaging project‘, I enhanced my consulting and designing skills. I worked in particular on a research project on logistics requirements for packaging suitable for e-grocery shopping. Later I became Brand Marketing Manager for a local (Italian) food supply company which in turn led me to join a bio-based packaging start-up as a consultant. I now collaborate with Seeds&Chips, the food innovation global summit. Together with a staff of brilliant colleagues, we challenge ourselves to build a global platform of stakeholders throughout the global food chain. We try to build awareness about the importance of implementing innovation in the food supply chain.”

What was the attraction of the food industry for you and where did the passion for food packaging come from?

“Before packaging I studied and worked in the entertainment and communication sector. I also volunteered for a nursery school in my town. These experiences led me to work with young people. I had a strong need to channel my resources towards a path that I felt could make a significant contribution to the greatest number of people possible.”

“Childhood obesity is widespread in my native region. A couple years ago, the region also faced a shameful waste management and toxic waste scandal. These experiences brought me to change career and focus on food supply chain and agri-food sciences and policy. This is a way for me to make a small contribution for a greater change in society. Your desire to change becomes crucial when people around you suffer from diseases likely caused by the toxicity of the earth.”

“My studies allowed me to discover the variety of activities behind the agri-food industry. I took in consideration both production and innovation flows. They are different but are both fundamental for the efficiency of the whole system.”

“And I approached the packaging design world with the same vision. Thanks to the holistic vision of the Swedish School, I understood that packaging design is a sector that operates in a context including food industry and materials. The theories behind food packaging enabled me to reconnect with my creative side and feel more satisfied with my work.”

What do you see as the most challenging part of your current role?

“Innovation embraces the deep understanding of all project processes. It also includes all involved actors. Consequently, communication is an essential element for a good collective result. The biggest challenge (and the one giving you the most satisfaction) is being able to create the most effective and efficient solution. This starts from ideas-sharing to transparent communication with all the people working on the project. It must also take end-users into account. Maintaining the relationship among people working on a common project is vital. This relationship is key to the growth of the project and its potential expansion.”

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You studied food science in Italy, France, Ireland and Sweden. Can you tell us what the biggest benefit of this international experience was for you?

“The semesters of study and work that I attended in these four different countries (including my semester as a trainee in the Netherlands) taught me to be fast, resilient and to keep an open mind. The support from my classmates, all international students, gave me strength. I found a real family in them and learnt a lot and shared marvellous moments: projects, dinners, accommodation-search, transport, jobs, travelling and studying… and a warm hug in times of need! Our conversations around meals we shared enabled me to discover cultures and countries I might never visit.”

“I also had the opportunity to learn more about local cultures from the students with whom I was working. These academic experiences and the years I spent living abroad helped me to experience the culture of the place, local citizens’ customs and truly experience where I was.”

You participated in projects around food packaging and logistics at Lund University. Could you tell us more about these projects?

“Out of all the projects organised as partnerships between industry players and Lund University, I worked more particularly on how to minimise food waste within communities (households, restaurants, supermarkets, etc.). I also looked at the role  packaging could play in minimising such waste by influencing consumer behaviour. These projects aimed at providing a system for the design thinking process of food and packaging innovation. This helped providing conceptual solutions adapted to the business canvas.”

“Next, we planned and performed a team-based project, watching trends and technologies, coming up with conceptual solutions and prototypes. We would then evaluate the prototype in terms of desirability and feasibility as well as ecological, social and economic factors. Through this project I verified that innovation does not always mean reinvention, but can also mean making the right changes to the previous line of products and products, and these changes should reflect the habits and rhythms of end users.”

Sustainability in food production and packaging is an important topic. What is most challenging in designing sustainable packaging for food products, in your opinion?

“Sustainability cannot be considered separately from food safety. The close link between the two creates many barriers to changing food technologies and food packaging solutions. It is particularly significant when it comes to the restrictions imposed by food safety regulations that however set-up useful thresholds and indexes of security levels for each food category.”

“This creates another challenge: how do you harmonise a policy of cohesion among EU countries regarding the values and guidelines of food safety regulations?”

“The interaction between foods, materials and the product shelf life remain key factors to determine the feasibility of a new solution. Although it is important to have an approach that is holistic and based on open innovation (thinking in a circular rather than a linear path), it however seems quite complicated to start a project without considering the hypothetical end problems that may arise regarding the end life of a product (i.e. life cycle assessment).”

Would you recommend that other women pursue their careers in the food engineering sector?

“Definitely! Women’s empowerment should be at the centre of all careers today. The contribution that the feminine attitude can give in every work context is important. With the term ‘attitude’ I am referring to responsibility, precision, hard-work, management skills, a global overview and the capacity to see potential consequences immediately.”

“However, I observe a rise in the number of women that are protagonists of the most important activities concerning food waste, food technology, eco-sustainability, innovation & sustainability management within the most important food companies.”

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