In March, Fitz was very proud to see alumna Simone Sargeant (History 2009) listed in this year's Forbes 30 under 30. It's an amazing career achievement, and we sat down with Simone to talk about her path from Fitz to Forbes - a career story that offers hope (and advice) to those graduating in a period of global uncertainty.
Launched in 2011, the Forbes 30 under 30 has rapidly become one of the most widely known 'power' lists. Each year, many thousands of nominations are received - the American 'edition' accepts nominations across 20 industry categories, Asia and Europe number ten categories each and Africa curates a single list of 30. In each of the categories, the Forbes editors set about the task of selecting 30 outstanding representatives. This year, Simone was listed in the European Manufacturing & Industry category, in recognition of her work as commercial director at McCormick & Company (https://www.mccormick.com), managing commercial teams across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Russia, and also thanks to her work with young women entrepreneurs.
So what role did a History degree from Fitz propel her to the Forbes list?
"It certainly wasn't a linear path", Simone says, laughing, "...but you know, my experience at Fitz was really important in developing my confidence, and my ability to make and own my choices. Like lots of students, I definitely went through the whole 'applying for the bank schemes' experience. I felt that pressure to succeed, and Cambridge really promotes those traditional sectors, banking, law etc., and there was an inevitability to it. But as I started applying, going through the process, I knew it wasn't for me"
Rather than pursue something that didn't feel right, Simone decided instead to take a role in recruitment, based in Milton Keynes, and work out her priorities. "Themes emerged...I was strongly drawn to something international, working across countries, leading teams and setting commercial strategy. I knew that that would ultimately be a feature of banking, but it would take a long time to reach the seniority for those international doors to open. So instead I started to apply for corporate jobs, trying to pick out roles with obvious potential for growth."
From her start in recruitment, Simone moved into retail, and gradually began to build a portfolio of experience: at Argos, she learnt more about P&L, the financial management of the company; then an offer came from Heinz, and then onwards to Danone, managing their baby business with a large retailer in the UK. In 2016 she joined McCormick - a global corporation specialising in the creation and distribution of flavours, as well as the owners of Franks Red Hot Sauce and Schwartz herbs and spices - where she now manages commercial teams across several continents.
It's an impressive career path, but Simone is keen to underline the importance of values and experiences, rather than claim a 'master plan' of achievements. By focusing on what she wanted from her work, she has crafted a series of rewarding roles, each building on the best parts of her experience, and by taking this approach a career path has effectively built itself:
"’My job is to manage multiple large businesses across continents and the key to this working effectively and authentically with people in different cultures. If I had sat down five, even ten years ago and thought about what I enjoyed doing most, then 'learning about people' would probably have been my answer. But it's through developing the professional skills, often under high-pressured commercial targets and where your ability to work with people from other cultures and lead diverse teams can either define your success or failure, that I've learned to really develop what 'learning about people' means."
Clearly, a global pandemic has brought new professional challenges for Simone, as it has for everyone: “At McCormick, we experienced the impacts of the COVID pandemic right from the beginning - we couldn’t have anticipated the growth we are now seeing in some parts of the business. Individually, it's been a strange mixture of hardship and success. We've excelled by collaborating seamlessly across markets, regions and functions. We have worked remotely to expand capacity, and have made a number of hires using only remote tools, while also managing and supporting colleagues through some extremely hard experiences. The global overview - with all its fantastic diversity and cultural breadth has also been really heartbreaking at times. With some colleagues fighting to get access to good healthcare in their respective countries, it certainly puts things in perspective."
Even faced with difficult days, however, Simone is very optimistic about the future and the opportunities on the horizon for the next generation of graduates: "Although the immediate moment is challenging, there are some industries that are absolutely booming...this is what's happening in areas of the food industry. Some packaged food companies are seeing double digit growth and just as the demand in these areas is increasing, new ways of recruiting and working are opening up huge opportunities that have the potential to open doors. The E-commerce and online channel that accelerated during the pandemic is here to stay, and although online supervisions might feel draining or awkward, they are an amazing preparation for online interviews, just like in-person supervisions gave me confidence back in the day."
And it's clear that Simone sees a freedom in the changing world of work: "This pandemic has accelerated the idea that the job you take after university is only the first step in a number of steps and choices. It's really not true for most people that the first job is the one that defines us for life. Each step gives you a perspective to make new choices. I really don't think that students should put a whole lot of pressure on themselves to be finding a career at 21: find something that challenges you and that you're passionate about, and that is going to take your career forward."