Mieke Van de Capelle

Mieke Van de Capelle: “We need to help students who want to pursue a career”

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Founded in Geneva in 1895, Firmenich is the world’s largest privately owned fragrance and flavour company. We interviewed Mieke Van de Capelle, the company’s Chief Human Resources Officer, about how she approaches diversity, equality and inclusion in her work. After the publication of our article “All inclusive”: Perfumery confronts inequalities in the eleventh issue of Nez, here’s the full transcription of our conversation.

Diversity and inclusion issues are being debated throughout society, are you paying more attention to gender equality in your work today?

These issues are not new, they have actually been on our minds for decades, and it is good that they are finally becoming mainstream. We are always striving for gender diversity: 50 % of our fine fragrance perfumers are women and in our consumer product division we have 60 % men and 40 % women. Company-wide, 41 % of Firmenich’s staff are women. We are approaching parity!

Do you think about ways to improve your approach to these issues in the future?

Certainly, the gender debate was one of the first to emerge, but the discussion does not stop there: inclusion is also a topic that concerns minorities in the broadest sense of the word. We have to take into account the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Our industry also needs to be more representative of the different ethnicities that make up our societies, wherever we are based, which means being in tune with realities that are different in New York, Paris or Singapore. 
So, there’s no reason to stop there, especially as the debate on ethnic diversity has become very important, and as we want to speak to various communities, particularly Asian ones, which are evolving rapidly. We are currently looking to integrate more Asian talents in our teams. We are also aware that the North African community is underrepresented in many hires in Europe, as is the black community in the US. The work we do thus extends into reflections and debates around the role of schools and education in general, as these profiles are already under-represented in higher education. We need to give these people the means to access our industry. 

Studies in olfactory culture are often elitist and expensive. Is this something that a company like Firmenich can work on?  

Absolutely, but to act on it we have to take into account the different educational systems of the countries in which we work. For example, we have a large part of our business in the United States, where there are no perfume schools like the ones we have in France, and the tuition fees are often higher for the degrees leading to the fields of fragrance, cosmetics and flavour. So, we need to rethink our approach to students interested in chemistry, to catch their attention before they finish their degree and project themselves into a professional life that ignores our sector. There may be many students in high school who are very interested in perfume but who do not know how to access to the perfume industry, or cannot afford it. This is part of the debate we have with our American teams: how to identify potential talent, give sponsorships, give scholarships, support people in their studies? We need to help students who want to pursue a career in our field, even though we know that some will drop out. It is a small price to pay to surround ourselves with the best perfumers of tomorrow. In the United States, the stakes are high from the end of high school, in France many choices are also made at the beginning of higher education. Companies like Firmenich must support the variety of recruitment.

So, it is important to follow this path in the long term?

It’s a question of relevance and representativeness. Today, we are very attentive to the work of influencers. They have extremely diverse profiles, and they set the tone. The questions that arise are: do the talents that work for us reflect the diversity of influencers? Is the way we recruit, the way we give a voice to people around us, in line with this new reality? We know we have a long way to go to get there. Of course, the risk is to take this lightly, as a marketing goal, the interpretation of the flavour of the month, but this would be a mistake. Because behind these influencers there are millions of people who, at some point in their lives, share their emotions, feelings, anxieties and aspirations.

In this context of globalisation, what links does Firmenich have with the perfume industry in Grasse, which used to dominate the sector? 

Firmenich is a Swiss company with a worldwide presence, we have a natural ingredients factory and exceptional perfumers in Grasse, in our new creation workshop, the Villa Botanica. Grasse is at the origin of our work and it is still an important centre for us, among other centres which are sometimes bigger, like the ones we have in China or Brazil. We have set up creation workshops in Shanghai and in São Paulo, we have been established in Brazil for decades. 

The perfume industry is also present in particularly poor areas of the world, where perfume is not sold much but where raw materials are abundant, such as the Comoros or Madagascar. How can these areas and their inhabitants be included in a more egalitarian dynamic?  

This is indeed a crucial question, which addresses the sustainability of our action. We are dependent on natural raw materials, and we must continue to cultivate them: if we do not help the development of agriculture, there will be no more harvests, no more perfume. Therefore, we need the farmers and their motivation to participate in our work. We have a big project in Madagascar, a country where the culture of vanilla is very important: we are building schools to train future generations of farmers. We are introducing new techniques to improve working conditions and harvests, and we are also setting up price guarantees for products such as vetiver, ylang-ylang and of course vanilla. Thanks to this system, even if, in some years, due to climate change for example, the harvest is smaller than expected, our purchase price for the production will allow the farmers to continue to do their work in good conditions. Last winter, the major farmers’ demonstrations in India reminded us that if their work does not pay enough, they are forced to stop, sometimes to change jobs, and in this case everyone loses.
Our responsibility is thus to secure markets for them, year after year, but also to contribute on human rights issues. This is part of the management of sustainability in our industry. We observe the practices on the ground and document them, to make sure that the legislation is respected, that there is no use of forced labour for example. This is our responsibility. We engage with farming communities to ensure a sustainable business for all. 

The challenge seems to reside in the building of a harmonious development in all the social environments crossed by the company’s activity.

Yes, and these questions are important beyond our industry. I lived in the United States for four years, from 2008 to 2011. I was in Chicago, a city that represents the American soul, its diversity but also its lack of inclusion. I saw that companies were making a lot of effort to show numbers, to be able to say: “I have more women, I have more blacks, etc.”. But the numbers themselves are not able to give a voice to people, this is why we need to enable them to find a source of fulfilment at work. Employees want to work in companies that reflect their lives. If their voice is not heard, it doesn’t work. The situation today is paradoxical: there are a lot of people who don’t feel included, who don’t know how to move forward professionally, and at the same time many companies don’t know how to find the talents of tomorrow.  
We are only a reflection of society and we should not ignore its evolutions, trends, demands and shortcomings. As a responsible company, we must be able to see this and act. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not, but we have to do it, because our goal is to evolve to stay relevant through our creations. By doing this, we give jobs: not just to the thousands of employees who work for us, but to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on us, including farmers and their families.

“All-inclusive”: Perfumery confronts inequalities – Summary

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