My Path to Product Stewardship: Els Weeg Aerssens
I had originally wanted to go to veterinary school, but high school graduates from my class were being very strongly discouraged from pursuing veterinary medicine as a career path. I graduated in 1977 and, at the time, there were too many veterinarians in Belgium and the neighboring countries (“A vet for every cow” was a commonly used joke as I recall). The prospects for employment in the field were far from good. I didn’t want to pursue a five year degree only to find that my chances of employment in my field were virtually nil, upon graduation.
I decided to pursue a degree in agricultural engineering instead. In terms of curriculum, it was quite similar. In terms of job prospects, it offered much more flexibility. During my senior year I began applying to graduate schools in the US. Having spent the first 22 years of my life in Belgium, I really wanted to see something different and studying abroad was attractive for that reason. Besides, the US had always intrigued me. I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at Michigan State University, in the Soil Sciences. I studied biochemistry and microbiology.
My first job was with The Procter & Gamble Company (P&G), working out of the European Technical Center in Brussels, in a department that was named Professional and Regulatory Services. It was what we know as product stewardship today, although the term product stewardship was not yet common in those days.
It was pretty new to me. I had completed just one graduate level course in regulations pertaining to chemicals and environment. I had a whole lot to learn, starting with how new chemicals are registered in Europe. The REACH regulation we know today was still 15 years from being conceived at that time. Under the older legislation (the 6th amendment), you first submitted a Base Set dossier (minimum data set), then a level 1 registration, then level 2, with data requirements increasing at each level, as the tonnage bands became larger. As part of that first job, in my first three years with P&G, I was responsible for the placement of most of the “classical” OECD protocols for toxicological testing, with various contract laboratories, at least once.
It’s a great experience, for someone who aspires a career in product stewardship, to get the opportunity to actually place those tests at the labs. It’s one thing to read about, for instance, the guinea pig maximization test, but you don’t really learn how the test works, what the caveats are, the important details, until you have to place it yourself. You’re spending big money, and it’s company money, and the last thing you want to do is waste it! It takes a long time to run through all of those test protocols with the labs, but once you’ve done it, you will have all that knowledge under your belt.
I remained with P&G for nine years, first in household cleaning products, later in paper products. At that stage in my life, my husband and I had two young children and two more-than-full-time jobs. We agreed that the family took precedence and it was clear that at least one of us needed more flexibility. I started a consulting practice, which allowed me to keep working but with much more control of when and how much I worked. I consulted for nine years, and that was a good period of growth for me as well. As a consultant, I had the opportunity to work with more companies in a shorter period of time. I became familiar with a greater diversity of products. There was more variety in the nature of the projects. I was exposed to many different company cultures.
For product stewards, the more you’ve seen, the better equipped you’ll be to handle the next project, tackle the next problem. This is my fifth year with Dow Electronic Materials (EM). I feel very fortunate to have had this progression of learning and growing throughout my career, because it prepared me for what I do today. At Dow EM, we create thousands of products across six major businesses. We work very closely with our customers in the electronics industry. The chemistry often challenges us intellectually, the competition is tough and the pace of change is rapid. The global regulatory climate of the last five years, with respect to chemicals and products, has been changing at an unprecedented rate. This is the most challenging product stewardship function that I’ve ever been part of. I still learn every day, and I don’t ever expect to stop. As a matter of fact, if you are considering a career as a product steward, know that you are signing up to be an eternal student of everything. If that appeals to you, you may be on to something.
“What are the attributes of a good product steward?” you ask. I would answer that with attention to detail, a high level of accuracy, excellent follow through, good communication skills and very organized (you have to keep track of a lot of stuff!). You can’t comply with the regulations by about 80 percent. It’s got to be a 100 percent thing, all the time.