ELC Expands Mission

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Among New Initiatives

Digital Exclusive

College interns tuned in to a virtual meeting on June 3 for an overview of the flexible packaging industry, marking the official start of the Flexible Packaging Association’s (FPA) second annual summer virtual internship series.

“We hope that you get really excited about our industry through this internship, so once you graduate, you come back,” Alison Keane, FPA president and CEO, tells the students. “Everyone is looking for talent and labor right now, and that is not unique to the flexible packaging industry.”

Keane went on to talk about the strength of the flexible packaging industry, as well as the challenges, as an introduction to the summer-long internship program. Each Friday through July, about 35 interns from 15 FPA-member companies participate. During hour-long meetings, the students either met with mentors in small groups of five or six—or in the larger group—to listen to an industry leader, says Apurva Shah, director of strategic partnerships for Charter Next Generation. 

Shah is one of about 50 members of the FPA’s Emerging Leadership Council (ELC), created nearly three years ago by the FPA Board of Directors. The summer program is just one of the successes that ELC has built since then, says Jonathan Quinn, director of market development and sustainability for Pregis LLC in Chicago. Quinn co-chairs the overall ELC with Adrianne Tipton, Ph.D., chief technology officer at Novolex in Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Texas.

ELC merged its recruitment and leadership development committees into one earlier this year to make room for a new committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The two other committees focus on advocacy and education. The ELC committees meet monthly, with the full group gathering online about every other month, Quinn says.

Focus on Diversity

The decision was made to create a DEI committee, because companies, especially smaller ones, can benefit from the shared insights that a group of professionals from various backgrounds can bring to the discussions, Quinn says.

“There are a lot of companies that might not have the resources to dedicate a significant number of people to DEI, so we can help them with their diversity journey, as well,” says Quinn, who also serves on the DEI Advisory Board for the Society of Plastic Engineers. “This gives some real attention to it and creates a support system to help member companies become more inclusive and diverse in how they go about achieving goals.” 

Initially, the DEI committee will be run by Tipton and Quinn, who point out that the formation of the committee is an example of how ELC adapted to changing needs, so FPA member companies can leverage the knowledge the committees elicit.

“The main thing is that we have to evolve to tackle challenges as they come at us,” he says. “We will look at best practices, but also look at opportunities to create a call to action for member companies to commit to DEI. It is something I am passionate about.”

Accomplishments and a Look Ahead

Quinn gets equally excited when talking about ELC’s accomplishments since it started work in earnest about two years ago. Those efforts include building various educational videos, including the “Come Grow With Us” recruitment campaign, and developing informational graphics that can help companies advocate with local and national elected leaders. ELC also has been working to identify trade schools and colleges where deeper relationships can be made with FPA, he adds. 

“The education committee is doing a great job of solidifying the ways to get the message out about the benefits of flexible packaging,” Quinn says. “It is tough work that goes to educating the broader industry. They are working and creating educational modules that can be rolled out at schools and that can be leveraged by member companies.”

He praises the members of ELC, who often do the committee work in addition to their full-time jobs. “There is a ton of passion out there about advancing the flexible packaging industry, and all these folks are interested in doing that,” Quinn says. “It’s about advancing the industry together.”

This fall, ELC hopes to hold a forum—tentatively called Flexible Packaging 101—at PACK EXPO in Chicago, Quinn and Shah said. The expo is scheduled for Oct. 23–26. The forum would be for people who have been in the industry for about five years or less and who would like a broad overview of the various components involved with flexible packaging.

“Monday and Tuesday usually are the heavy days,” Shah says about the annual event. “Wednesday, it starts to trail off, so we were thinking of scheduling something on Oct. 26 when it will be quieter.”

The idea will be to showcase the whole supply chain and how it is interrelated, Quinn says, adding that the Chicago expo is a great venue for a forum because companies already will have representatives there.

Opportunities for Growth

As for the summer internship program, the goal is to continue next summer with a virtual format, while looking for some opportunities to meet in person, Shah says. Student participation this year was similar to the previous summer, the inaugural year for the virtual internship program.

A speaker series created by ELC works perfectly with the internship program, Quinn says, noting that the summer program is a tangible example of ELC’s work. “ELC is showcasing why the future in the flexible packaging industry is so bright,” he says. “And the internship program is on its second time through with a large group of people getting exposure to the industry.”

During the introductory session in June, Quinn made a similar point to the students. “The purpose of the FPA Emerging Leadership Council is to establish a network of future leaders to drive issues and opportunities that will have a long-term impact on the advancement of the U.S. flexible packaging industry,” he tells them. ELC members include all segments of the industry, from technical roles, to finance to human resources and sales. “Every aspect of the industry is covered. We have a ton of different perspectives and a ton of diversity of thought. For people coming into the industry, we want to get your lens on what to build.”

A Personal Board of Directors

Along those lines, one of the highlights this summer was a presentation by Kasie Fairbarn, an ELC member who is the product sales manager for blown film for Windmoeller & Hoelscher Corporation. Fairbarn, who holds a B.S. in packaging engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), developed a “personal board of directors” (PBOD).

“A PBOD is a group of people who act as a professional sounding board for you,” Fairbarn says. “They are appointed by you and are people who are willing and able to offer their support, expertise, and guidance.”

Her board includes traditional positions such as an executive sponsor, mentor, and connector, she says. “But there are also nontraditional positions like ‘challenger.’ Challenger is one of my favorite positions, because this person truly challenges me to be better and isn’t afraid to disagree with me,” Fairbarn says. “I always say I have enough ‘yes men’ and [‘yes] women’ in my life. I need to hear the truth sometimes. This is the kind of constructive outcome that comes from creating a PBOD.”

She came up with the idea in spring 2020 during the pandemic. “I was feeling stuck. What am I doing? Where am I heading? How do I navigate this new normal we live in? These were questions I had, and I knew I needed guidance,” she says. She had never had a mentor, so she did some research and came across a question: “Why would you have one person in your corner if you could have many people in your corner?”

“As a former athlete, I got this concept. I want to surround myself with a team of people and not just rely on one person for support,” says Fairbarn, who was on the women’s ice hockey team at RIT and is now in the school’s hall of fame. “So, I took out a sheet of paper and started mapping who I would want on my board. I started with seven positions and have since grown my board to 11 based on my needs, professional interests, and goals.”

While similar to a mentorship, PBOD takes the relationships to another level, she adds, because more people mean a greater diversity of ideas and feedback.

In working with students this summer, she says, “I hope our students walk away feeling excited and energized and full of possibility.

“We have more control of our journeys than many of us were led to believe. Gone are the days of waiting for a mentor to choose you or for your company to pair you with one. Day one of your personal board of directors can be today if you choose it. It’s never too early to start, and I recommend letting the process be iterative. If something isn’t working, then change it. It’s your board. It’s your life.” 

Thomas A. Barstow is senior editor of FlexPack VOICE®.