Let’s be honest, the thought of life after graduation is a little terrifying. Some of us are lucky and have a clear goal of where we want our degree to take us, but for the vast majority – we don’t have a flippin’ clue. Throw in a scarcity of jobs in our chosen field, and the angst surrounding our impending entry into the real world is dialled up a notch. The thing is though, despite the pretty loud discourse about limited employment opportunities in nutrition, there are a whole bunch of nutrition grads out there forging their own path outside of the usual clinical, community and foodservice areas.
Enter Jo Baker and Alex Iljadica, co-CEOs of the Youth Food Movement Australia – a national volunteer run organisation which aims to build young Australian’s skills and knowledge around food. These two Bachelor of Science (Nutrition) grads met while studying at the University of Wollongong, and started YFM just over 4 years ago. They were both kind enough to have a chin wag and share a few insights into their slightly unorthodox career trajectory.
So, please tell us…why were you initially interested in studying nutrition/dietetics?
JO – In 2007 I went on a trip to Vietnam and while I was there I spent a lot of time with the locals and therefore ate fresh, whole foods basically the whole time. Back then I suffered from a lot of digestive and skin issues, and while I was in Vietnam, they all went away. At the time, I was also looking to find a career I was passionate about and enjoyed doing every day. I loved helping people and building relationships, so I figured, with this new found interest in food, becoming a nutritionist or dietitian was an obvious choice!
ALEX – I’ve always had an equal love of art and science, and I’ve always had an affinity with food, be it conscious or unconscious. Toward the end of high school, or perhaps for a little longer I was a little fixated with dentistry. It got to the point where I was going to go to the Navy to become a dentist, but when I realised that I would have to pay back my education in 10+ years of service to the Navy, I decided it wasn’t the path for me. I also shared my desired career path as a dentist with the school’s career advisor who promptly brought my dreams to earth when she frankly told me that I wouldn’t get high enough marks to get into dentistry.
One day I bumped into a friend in the hallway at school, we were both putting in our uni preferences and she told me nutrition was at the top of her list. I hadn’t considered nutrition before that point, so I whipped out the UAC guide, sussed out the pre-requisites and the course description and thought, it doesn’t sound too bad.
While you were still studying, what was your ultimate post-uni dream job?
JO – This shifted for me over the course of my degree. Of course, when I entered I was sure I wanted to be a dietitian. I loved learning about the chemical composition of food and its subsequent interactions and impacts in the body, but I realised I was constantly asking myself, ‘yes, this is all well and good, but why are people choosing to eat this way?’. While I was studying, I also found my mind was always naturally drawn to the population level, so community and public health nutrition-related subjects were always super interesting for me. So to answer the question – honestly, I think I am still working this out… and I’m having a lot of fun doing it!
ALEX – I agree with Jo, it definitely shifted across the 4 years I was at uni. Initially my dream was to work in a hospital and help people to eat better. But then as the focus of the degree moved to a more macro level so did my dream job. It went to the policy level and eventually settled somewhere around a mix of creating public health campaigns around eating/healthy lifestyles and a government role tackling the unhealthy food environment. It was also then I realised that I’d never work as a nutritionist or dietitian within a hospital. Front line work is so important, but what gets me fired up is the potential to influence whole populations and whole countries health. I also felt that the systemic issues that were leading to the health outcomes seen in hospitals weren’t going to be addressed by dealing with individuals. I’d have to see way too many patients to change the food system that way, so I went down the path I did and started YFM.
Once you graduated, what happened next? Talk us through your career trajectory from graduation to now.
JO – As I tried dietetics and realised it wasn’t for me, I decided to graduate with a Bachelor of Science (Nutrition). Alex and I had started YFM about a year prior to me graduating but have to admit, I was feeling fairly confused about what was next for me. So I took myself off overseas for 4 months to travel to a bunch of countries and found myself working on all kinds of farms and various community driven food projects. Needless to say, this got me very excited about what we were doing at YFM in engaging young Australians and building their skills and knowledge around food.
Next I wanted to understand more about what was happening in our own backyard, so I did a bit of travel and work through farms in northern NSW and then I started a role membership and communications manager at a dairy industry advocacy body. This role gave me an invaluable insight into how an agricultural industry worked; what motivated them, what were the key challenges and opportunities and most importantly, how our food choices can both positively and negatively impact the industry. It also gave me a very real insight into food production here in Australia and the importance of sharing the real story of Australian agriculture with consumers, so that we a truly make an informed choice.
ALEX – After I graduated I went on to do a Masters of Public Health at UNSW. Around that time I did an internship with the Australian Red Cross and the food security team there. I evaluated one of their food security programs and helped out to teach young mothers how to cook and basic health information for themselves and their bubs. It was really eye opening, both in understanding the Australian food system from a community perspective, but also to learn basic professional skills that I learnt in my gap year (when I worked as personal assistant) but had let get a little dusty on the shelf.
Around the time I was finishing my Bachelor degree I was volunteering for the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance. The women and men in that organisation are definitely responsible for filling in the gaps, and answering questions about the food system that weren’t covered in my degrees. This was also when Jo and I started YFM, a space where our ideas could take shape and have an influence.
The next 3 years or so I worked part time in various research roles while growing YFM (which like many start ups, Jo and I did as volunteers). As I finished my Masters I started working at UNSW in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine. This gave me a good grounding in qualitative health research in resource constrained settings (I worked on a perinatal mortality audit project in the 3 largest hospitals in Fiji). From here I moved on to the University of Sydney where I worked in the Faculty of Health on an NHMRC funded project looking into how disability services a provided to people in rural and remote NSW. When that was up I moved to the Business School where I led research into social entrepreneurship in rural and remote Australia. I took this role to get some more commercial and business experience, which it certainly gave me. The role also helped me realise that I wasn’t that different from the CEO’s, community leaders and managers that I was supporting, and that I had the capacity to be the leader of YFM if it became my full time job. Which I’m glad to say happened late last year when we secured a multi-year philanthropic grant to support our work.
Tell us a little about where you are at now and your current role.
Alex – Jo and I share the CEO role which means we’re responsible for setting the strategy of the organisation, establishing relationships and partnerships with people and organisations in Australian food and agriculture, supporting our small team of staff and our leadership volunteers, drive the growth of our community online and through our events and campaigns, and make sure we are a financially healthy organisation.
Jo is a natural people person, she is very intuitive and is taking the lead on how we grow our community – both our chapters and our volunteers. She is also guiding how we can create the best volunteer experience. Jo is also responsible for fun (read: crucial) stuff like accounting and payroll, YFM board meetings and HR.
If Jo is about looking after the inside of the organisation, I am more focused on what is happening outside the organisation. I am good at detail and visual communication, particularly when it comes to talking about things that are complex or boring. One thing that ticks us off at YFM is the plethora of stories about other countries’ food systems, and Australian’s (us included) thinking this is how things are done in our backyard. I’m also responsible for interesting (read: pivotal) tasks like grant writing and fundraising, reporting (because we are a charity, we have to submit our social and financial reports to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission), advocacy and research.
Things can’t have been all smooth sailing…what obstacles did you stumble across along the way?
ALEX – Our dream job, which is creating thought-provoking food projects, didn’t exist when we left uni, which is one reason why we started YFM.
The other thing holding us back was ourselves, and some of this still stands today. Starting something from nothing means doing a lot of things you’ve never done before: public speaking, motivating volunteers, managing a budget, running board meetings, hiring staff, seeking funding. When you’re doing something new, and stuffing up is a high probability, it’s much easier to run away, say no, or give an excuse why you can’t pursue an opportunity. The one thing that kept us ‘in the ring’ so to speak was each other. Having someone there to share those freak out moments with, having someone there to give you a pep talk when you’re about to walk out on stage in front of 300 strangers and get personal, having someone to laugh with when you say the wrong thing in a meeting. Saying ‘yes’ to opportunities is so much easier when someone lovely is there holding your hand. And eventually you realise, and grow the confidence in yourself that you were capable of it all along. At that point, doing it together makes it all the more meaningful and fun.
JO – WHAT SHE SAID!! Many of the obstacles I have had to overcome throughout my journey with YFM have been the ones I placed in front of myself, such as a lack of self belief and confidence in my ability to do things like public speaking in front of large audiences or in front of a camera or pitching YFM to a boardroom full of executives. By stepping up to these opportunities as they’ve presented themselves, we have both grown both personally and professionally and if I’m honest, I’m a little bit addicted to the feeling that comes from realising I CAN actually do something I was almost convinced that I couldn’t.
What career advice you would give your student self?
JO – It’s OK if you don’t know where you are going with your studies. In my experience, a career is made up of a variety of roles and experiences, so it’s about enjoying the journey and not being fixated on a final destination. What sounds good in theory, is often very different in reality so pay close attention to the parts of your study or work experience which you naturally feel drawn to and get you excited. If someone told me that my degree would lead me to building a social movement of young people, passionate about food across Australia, I’d have rolled around laughing. But now that I’m here – I can see how the choices I have made have got me here.
ALEX – I agree with Jo. The person who knows exactly what they want to do and what they care about in life is a rare individual (and probably a myth). The only way you’re going to find out a) what you’re good at and b) what you are uncontrollably passionate about is to get out and have a go. Put your hand up for things both intriguing, exciting and strange. This way you’ll find out what you do like, but most importantly what doesn’t really tickle your fancy.
When you do finally find a cause that you care about and you want it to be your hobby or your job, you may be at risk of perfectionism. Now channelled in the right way perfectionism is a really good thing. But perfectionism taken to an extreme can actually result in contributing nothing – for fear the thing you’re creating isn’t perfect enough to share with anyone. Shake those thoughts from your mind, give yourself a deadline, and tell yourself not to worry if it is finished or not.
When you’re going for a job, notice the details and be creative. This might be using an interesting font or colour or putting infographics in your resume to communicate what skills you have. It might be starting your cover letter with a quote from someone you admire, or a statistic from a recent pivotal report. It might be reaching out to the HR manager via LinkedIn and sharing your resume with them via GoogleDocs. Find a way to stand out and show you care about the organisation that you’re applying to. Most of the time, it can be hard to spot passion in between the lines of a cover letter, particularly when they’re all written the same.
Does this sound like your jam? Find out more about YFM here and become a volunteer.