Natural Products Insider interviewed Artemis International CEO Jan Mills to learn about her career, work-life balance, gender equality across the nutraceutical industry, what inspired her to join the board of directors of Women In Nutraceuticals (WIN) as its vice president, and more. This is part I of a two-part column series.
Natural Products Insider: Can you summarize your professional experience in the nutraceuticals industry, including how you got into the business and how your career has evolved?
Jan Mills: I had a connection within the Solidarity movement, so in 1990, I was traveling a lot in Poland working on projects related to the new government’s transition to a market economy. Strangely enough, the catalyst for entering the nutraceuticals industry was well-intentioned strangers patting my stomach while I was pregnant, saying “Drink this, it’s good for the baby.”
“This” turned out to be chokeberry (Aronia) juice, and many people there believed it to be a good drink for fetal development. Like so many ingredients in the natural products industry, traditional belief had a scientific backbone: Aronia is naturally high in folic acids and other nutrients good for fetal development. I was intrigued by this and (making a long, twisting story short) made a business identifying the compounds in fruit that had health benefits, extracting or concentrating them, validating their benefits, and making those compounds into ingredients.
My early career had nothing to do with food or nutrition. I began my career at General Motors, and the company put me through university at General Motors Institute and later with a GM Fellowship at Stanford Business School.
I loved the auto industry and am grateful for the opportunities GM gave me, but I couldn’t accomplish what I wanted fast enough at a large corporation. I left GM to start my own consulting firm. Consulting is lucrative, but only offering advice wasn’t enough for me. I wanted the skin-in-the-game thrill of implementation, the higher risk-reward, and the chance to mold a company that could succeed not only in traditional measures but in exemplifying the value of corporate social responsibility.
Natural Products Insider: The Women In Nutraceuticals website says your children are your “most successful projects to date.” What are your thoughts on the importance of work-life balance and the challenges associated with being successful in management while fulfilling your obligations, and having a life, outside work?
Mills: Work is my life. My children are my life. Skiing and hiking are my life. It’s all life. Where’s the balance? I really don’t know. For me, the issue of work-life balance is largely the challenge of raising kids while advancing my career. Others may have different challenges, such as caring for parents or trying to perfect your marathon time or your sculpting talent while advancing your career.
I didn’t have my kids until after I left corporate life at GM, so my experience will be different than women in corporate situations. As an entrepreneur, you have more flexibility to structure your life in a way more compatible with your life and your family’s needs. And not only can you better structure your life, but you can also choose to structure your company in a way that is family-friendly. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do.
The downside of being an entrepreneur is you will likely have times where you don’t know if the bills will be paid, and not only are you responsible for your family, but you feel responsible for your employees and their families as well. My observation is women take this responsibility more seriously on a practical level, and thus are generally more risk averse than men.
A lot of my thoughts on this matter may be outdated. I am looking backward from a place in life where I do have more control. After all, my early career and young motherhood (where I believe the work-life balance is at its trickiest) occurred during a time when you didn’t get a lot of support, were a novelty and often encountered open criticism for the choices you made.
I’d like to think that today this is less the case, but I am concerned as it seems we are shifting back to an era where too many think a woman’s choices are not her own. That said, today there is more discussion about things you weren’t supposed to talk about then—from breastfeeding during work to sexual harassment to the glass ceiling. Covid and the acceleration of working at home has given us much more fluidity in choosing the structure of our work.
Here are a few things I can pass on that may be helpful to women struggling with work-life balance:
* Embrace the concept of shifting priorities. Some days you have to be eating sticky cake at your kid’s birthday, other days you have to be at Vitafoods. If you think one thing always must be the priority, you will inevitably be consumed by guilt. Regarding kids, I believe it is healthy for them to see you have other things that matter to you. Therefore, don’t listen to the jerks who feel it’s their moral obligation to let you know your kids will suffer if they are not your only priority. Your priorities are yours alone. My adult children tell me they were/are inspired and proud of the things I did beyond them.
* In the give and take of raising children and having a career, partners are key. There’s a saying that raising children takes four arms, and God put two of them on the father. This makes sense. However, I don’t believe a father is the only option. There is love and care in all varieties. Treat it with the problem-solving you bring to your business—plan. Make arrangements, have understandings, enlist family and friends and pay for good, hired help. Our society often pushes us to try to do it all on our own, but you just can’t. Moreover, I believe in the proverbial, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Children benefit from other views.
* Don’t get in your own way. One day after returning from a long Asian trip, I found myself at 2 a.m. making healthy snacks for my son’s class—bunnies made from a canned pear half and cottage cheese tails. I was agonizing while sorting through the slivered almonds to find pieces that would make the ears equal in size. After much stress, I realized I was the problem. No 4-year-old cares if the ears match! Similarly, I remember waiting for hours in Poland for an available phone line out to the U.S. to reach my husband. Why? Because I had to make sure my husband dressed my toddler daughter in coordinating clothes, and I had to tell him where the socks were. I didn’t marry an idiot, and my daughter was not going to go out in the cold undressed. Clearly, I was the problem. I am not the only woman who has a problem letting these things go. We agonize over the silliest things, making our lives more difficult than reason dictates. I know this is anathema to our industry, but there are times when packaged crackers from the 7-Eleven may be the key to mental health.
* Set expectations. If you think you are going to read a whole book while on a vacation with young children, you are delusional or you have a great nanny. Your family should not expect gourmet meals. On the business side, manage upward, meaning tell your boss what you can do or can’t do in a given period. This is true for any project, but especially when approaching maternity leave and whatever plan you have for child-raising. Have a plan, tell it to your boss and implement. We bosses know things go wrong, but a well-thought-out plan with contingencies is always impressive. Be realistic, especially to yourself.
* If you need a vacation, go someplace where there is no cell service or internet. Sometimes we don’t have the discipline needed to impose a work-life balance. Then we need a situation that imposes it for us.
Editor’s note: Part II of this series will explore what inspired Artemis International CEO Jan Mills to join WIN’s board of directors, how she is treated by her male counterparts, why women fail to advance into the C-suite and more.