We recently sat down with Dr. Heidi Kleinbach-Sauter, Senior Vice President, Global Technical Center of Excellence for Dairy & Chocolate at PepsiCo, to discuss how far STEM initiatives have come and, more importantly, where they are headed next. 

Heidi is uniquely qualified to share her perspective.  With more than 25 years innovation and R&D experience in the CPG Foods and Beverages industry, Dr. Kleinbach-Sauter has a proven track record of identifying innovation opportunities, leading and commercializing a large number of foods and beverages innovations in more than 10 different consumer goods categories that have delighted consumers in many parts of the world and have driven impressive business results.  

Do you think the public is sufficiently aware of the STEM challenges our nation and our employers confront?
A decade ago, few Americans were familiar with the acronym “STEM”—other than to associate it with the stalk of a plant. Today, across government, industry, the education sector, the non-profit sector and the news media, the acronym is instantly understood.  We have made remarkable progress in a short time.  Our success in putting STEM on the national agenda is testament to the tenacity of its proponents’ unwavering belief that STEM innovation, meaning developing new and impactful approaches to fill the future STEM talent pipeline, must be unleashed. 

How has the STEM conversation evolved?
STEM 1.0 rightly focused on strengthening the STEM education system and inculcating in young people STEM skills. The next phase, STEM 2.0, which we are entering now, marks a crucial turning point in how schools and employers are collaborating to make the transition from classroom to career seamless. 

Aspiring STEM hires must understand that the highly technical “hard” STEM skills they acquired at school (STEM 1.0) are merely “table stakes” when it comes to landing a job.  The
real work begins the first day on the job, when new STEM hires must transform their academic skills into actual products and services others are willing to pay for.  It will also be important to teach the future STEM workforce additional capabilities which are not part of a traditional STEM education, i.e.; employability skills, digital fluency and Innovation Excellence to name the most critical ones - all from a demand side and employer perspective. This is the heart and soul of this new approach coined STEM 2.0.

You’ve said the way schools and companies work together on STEM issues must change.  How and why?
For STEM 2.0 to succeed, the gap between the often binary worlds of “school” and “work” must be closed. 

In the past, schools concerned themselves with skills impartation.  Teachers transferred learning to receptive students in a one-way intellectual transaction.  Alternatively, in the workplace, students were called upon—often for the first time, and often on the first day—to lead information transactions.  The roles were reversed.  The new STEM employee had to “educate” peers and supervisors about the salience of his or her ideas and innovations.  Thus the transition between school and the workplace, for many, was no easy feat.  And while some companies offered transitional guidance for their new hires, just as many did not.  The result was a “sink or swim” career environment where—despite entering the workplace with equal technical credentials—some STEM employees flourished and others stalled. 
STEM 2.0 strives to remedy that through offering career focused experiential learning, one example being the STEM Career Accelerator Day.

So how are R&D leaders helping emerging talent transition from STEM 1.0 to 2.0 inside PepsiCo?
One of the first things we’re doing is dispelling the myth among new STEM hires that invention and innovation are interchangeable activities. 

In our culture, we celebrate inventors—from Thomas Edison in his lab to Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in the garage.  While these remarkable individuals can and do change the world, so too can teams inside established companies—provided they recognize that a creative spark is just the start, and must be supported by a robust innovation process that transforms an idea into a commercial offering. 

This evolution requires a shift from focusing on solving complex technical problems to defining and redefining the right problem before solving it—and doing this in the context of the market and business environment of the future.  

What steps has PepsiCo made to enable this conversion?
PepsiCo works closely with STEMconnector®, a national hub for all STEM matters that works closely with corporations and other organizations to support STEM capacity-building.   

Last year, STEMconnector and PepsiCo piloted “STEM Career Accelerator Day,” which offered a firsthand look at how STEM translates from the classroom to the workplace.
Conducted simultaneously at corporate workplaces, on university campuses, and online, the event brought together 4,300 U.S. high school students, their parents and teachers, Arizona State University and corporations such as PepsiCo, Honeywell and Tata Consultancy Services.

Participants were introduced to the concept of “Excellence in Innovation”—specifically, the discrete scientific steps and critical employability skills that propel a product from drawing board to commercialization and final purchase.  Students received insights into jobs and STEM skills needed for these jobs.  Along with mentoring by seasoned STEM professionals, students also participated in hands-on activities designed to bridge the gap between academic theory and commercial action.

At PepsiCo, STEM scientists and others in R&D openly discussed the innovation process for new products, and how six new products—among them Gatorade Frost Glacier Cherry, Tostitos Cantina tortilla chips and Muller Quaker Yogurt—evolved from “interesting idea” to products now tracking to achieve major annual retail sales in the U.S.  Next, students were challenged to apply their STEM knowledge—and experience “Innovation Excellence” in action—by creating new food and beverage products themselves.

Our pilot proved immensely successful.  So much so that this year, we’ve expanded the program to become a full week of STEM related events.  From October 19-23 we are opening up several PepsiCo locations to welcome students, parents and their teachers to learn more about STEM 2.0 and the STEM skills needed to be successful in a world leading CPG company like PepsiCo. The event will be led by PepsiCo’s STEM Council and supported by Operations, Finance, BIS and R&D, and will for the first time ever be expanded to PepsiCo Mexico.