HPW’s Inspiring Women series profiles remarkable Greek-American professional women whose stories of success inspire and encourage us to achieve our own career goals and aspirations.
Global R & D Executive
Innovation Science & Technology Leadership
Maria is a R&D and science thought leader who specializes in guiding global, ambidextrous organizations.
Most recently, Maria was the Global Corporate R&D Vice President and Chief Science Officer for Mars, Incorporated. She was responsible for the enterprise-wide approach to Quality, Food Safety and Scientific Regulatory Affairs, and delivery of Mars’ R&D strategy in partnership with the business segments. She also led the R&D digitalization strategy for Mars by equipping the function with new digital capabilities to unlock deeper insights and agility to drive innovation and future-proof the business.
Before Mars, Maria held several senior leadership positions including Chief Science and Technology Officer at the Institute of Food Technologists, and VP Global Nutrition R&D and VP Quaker Foods North America R&D at PepsiCo.
Throughout her career, Maria has been strategically focused on translating science and technology opportunities into scalable innovation solutions. She served on the board of directors of the Chicago Council for Science and Technology, is a member of the Advisory Council at the Women Business Collaborative and is a long-term advocate for increasing diversity in STEM. She is also mentor to entrepreneurs across the globe.
Maria earned a Ph.D. and Masters in Biochemical Engineering from the University of Birmingham (UK), and a B.Eng. in Chemical Engineering from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece). She also studied Executive and Digital Leadership at Cornell University. She has presented at various global conferences and featured in diverse media including the U.S. FDA TechTalk Podcast, Wall Street Journal, Axios, AI Magazine and Food Manufacturing.
Maria is a native of Greece and holds UK and USA citizenship. She currently lives in Washington D.C.
Contributor: Frederica Bolgouras
Describe what led to your passion for Research and Development (R&D)
As a young girl in Greece, I grew up wanting to be a teacher and a scholar, professions that I greatly admired based on my role models. When I finished high school, I decided that being an industry professional was something I wanted to conquer and to pursue in life which I could not quite describe, but I knew it existed. I went on to study Chemical Engineering at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and then became inspired by a female professor and mentor, for graduate studies in Biochemical Engineering in the United Kingdom. After graduating, I had a breadth of corporate experiences, starting as a process engineer in the chemical industry, followed by many cross-functional R&D roles in the food industry across two continents within global markets. I also took a senior role in the non-profit sector, where I did a lot of advocacy and policy related work. Those varied roles, challenges, and opportunities are what led to and for which I sustained my passion for science and R&D. It is hugely rewarding to create products that enrich people’s lives and create value, to solve problems that did not have obvious solutions, to influence policy making based on scientific evidence, and to inspire and nurture the next generation of scientists and engineers.
Today, we see the collision of scientific disciplines with digital and data technologies leading to an exponential speed of discovery. For instance, we can use these capabilities in Agriculture and Food, like precision agriculture and ingredient informatics, to drive better food, health, and environmental outcomes. And we see more and more students and young professionals aspiring to become entrepreneurs. But these opportunities also challenge our existing mindsets: we need to be more agile, collaborative, and open to upskilling and reskilling.
Tell us about your passion for Women in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) and what companies can do to reduce the gender gaps of Women in Science (STEM).
My passion first originated from my own personal experiences, but it became a calling when I saw the statistics. As an executive, I had the power to do something about it.
At 28% participation, women are systematically under-represented in STEM professions. This gap can be tracked down through education and across demographics or geography. In some fields, like Biological Sciences, the representation is shy of 50%. But in Engineering and Computer Science – two of the most lucrative STEM fields – representation is still in the teens. And, although on average the STEM gender pay gap is better than the overall workforce, there are still significant variations dependent on the specific STEM field. Both participation and pay gap are hugely consequential for society, competitive advantage, and women’s economic prospects. There are many reasons which have to do with gender stereotypes, male-dominated cultures, fewer role models, math education bias, and an overall confidence gap. We are making progress, but it not enough. We need to keep going bigger and faster.
Companies have an economic and social responsibility to help reduce this deficit. They must recruit top female talent and have inclusion and diversity strategies to develop, to compensate equitably and to retain them through their career journeys. This requires systematic efforts, like mentoring, that span decades and not just a few years. In addition to gender diversity, companies should also recognize the importance of diversity of thought and how to navigate various cultural norms, especially in countries where women’s role in society is more restricted.
In my former role as Chief Science Officer (CSO) and Vice President of Corporate R&D with Mars, I had the opportunity to play a pivotal role in mentoring and amplifying efforts internally and externally. Currently, 60% of Mars R&D leaders are female and women stand behind some key initiatives, like breakthrough development of natural colors and a landmark nutritional study – COSMOS – showing promise for flavanols in reducing cardiovascular disease risk – a major public health topic.
And in another role prior to Mars, I championed an initiative called, Million Women Mentors, which I am proud to say is still in place today.
What advice would you give to professional Hellenic-American Women given the challenges today for women who are seeking a leadership role in the science and technology sector?
Growing up in provincial Greece, I’d never been exposed to the possibility of a career in a professional business role; it felt out of reach, and it has been a lot of trial and error. So that’s the first piece of advice I’d give: know that a leadership role is well within your grasp.
Be Proactive: I recommend seeking out other women and men in science and technology, who would serve as both mentors and peers. Seek out companies and other organizations, like professional societies that will support your leadership ambitions and a culture that promotes inclusion and diversity. Role models can help visualize an ambition, build confidence about the possibilities, and open-up support networks.
Have a Learning Ethos: Be curious, seize opportunities to expose yourself to new skills and expand your expertise because science and technology are moving at a frenetic speed. Build your leadership and people skills, both informally and formally. Effective leaders are first and foremost people leaders. And work to broaden your skills in adjacent fields – like economics, supply chain, social sciences to increase your thought leadership and to drive better and bigger outcomes.
Be Adaptable: Adaptability is central to professional success but also central to character. Since at any one time our character can be tested, we must make a big leap. Scientists must make leaps all the time, the scientists we remember are the ones who made the biggest leaps of all. And leaping does not have to be across an ocean, it could be as simple as leaping two floors in the building to take a job outside your comfort zone or to work with people you don’t know.
Be fearless and pursue your dreams and ambitions. Seek advice, take as much as you can. And as you grow, remember to give back to those behind you. Show them how it is done.
Who has inspired you the most in your life?
There are so many, and the list continues to grow.
Both my parents helped shape my character, they repeatedly stressed the importance of education and hard work. I was the first in my family to go to college and we know that education is a great equalizer. I learned about commitment from my mother, who worked so hard to look after the family without many amenities. Later in life, in her 70’s, she catapulted herself into community work. My father taught me courage and encouraged me to be a voracious reader. Les Misérables was my first book, and it heavily informed my values system.
As I was learning about the world I had heroes in my head like the 15th century navigators, Emily Pankhurst, the British Suffragette, and Marie Curie, the first woman and person to win a Nobel prize in Physics and Chemistry. Later, I learned more about her bravery in WWI, going into the battlefield with her daughter to save the lives of wounded soldiers. It is there that she realized the value that X-rays could bring to military and civilian medicine.
When I think of scientists, the attributes that inspire me are about vision, integrity, and an unwavering dedication to science and humanity.
What Impact has your Greek heritage had on your aspiring career?
It has been always foundational and a constant reference. Our heritage is steeped in pride, persistence, honesty, and family. And growing up in a small town added another dimension as to how you navigated the rules of the community while you asserted your own independence.
I feel that a long education in the Classics and the magic of our mythology shaped my view of the world. Talking about role models, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, is a powerful and well-rounded role model for women. She is a brilliant, military strategist yet a pacifist at heart, using wisdom to meet our justice. And in a VUCA world, Heraclitus’ “everything flows, and nothing stays” remind us that change is constant.
Are you active in the Greek Community in your area?
When our daughters were young, they attended Saturday Greek school both when we lived in New York and later in Chicago. In addition to the education, exposing the young to our beautiful language and culture, Saturday Greek school was an institution for all generations. I found it to be a magnet, a reminder of home, a place where I could interact and help organize events and celebrations. Being newcomers to Washington DC and empty nesters, I now look forward to connecting and immersing myself within the Greek community in this area and finding ways to contribute.
Given the COVID pandemic, how did you handle stress and which wellness/coping exercises, and mechanisms would you recommend?
Like everyone else, the COVID pandemic hit us abruptly and took a few months to adjust. Before the vaccines were available, we also moved from Chicago to Washington DC and saw our second daughter off to the University of Vermont.
Exercise was a huge outlet and reassurance of continuity in my life. Biking for miles and power walking along the shores of Lake Michigan or the Potomac River were good for the body and the spirit. I was very quick to return to Pilates as soon as the studio could reopen safely.
Both my husband and I love to travel to visit our families in Europe and see new places, but this was not possible for a long time. I took comfort in reading many travelogs and escaping in faraway places. I also focused on the beauty of my immediate surroundings like creating a photo album of the magnificent Lake Michigan through the seasons.
The hardest thing was connecting with family and friends in person. After many virtual coffee breaks, we dared to meet outdoors whatever the weather. I will never forget our going away party in our neighbor’s backyard one February afternoon in Chicago, surrounded by snow; but also filled with lots of laughter and the warmth of a bonfire and friendship.
My advice would be to be physically and mentally active and stay connected with the people that matter to you – family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Do the things that you love and give you joy, like visiting a museum, attending a concert or volunteer, but take the right precautions to protect yourself and others and put your mind at ease. Live in the moment!
What are you most proud of having accomplished today?
Innovating great and useful products that enhance people’s lives is a source of pride for me. From the rich and smooth coffee formulations of my early days to the tasty and nutritious Quaker cereals of the recent past, I recall each journey with delight. And I will always remember the humbling experiences in consumers’ homes around the world. They taught me so much that I did not know, like why calcium fortification matters to their children when paychecks need to stretch at the end of the month.
I am proud of my time in the non-profit sector and the advocacy work to increase awareness of the importance of the science of food and the need to increase public funding for research.
In my most recent leadership role at Mars, I had the opportunity to champion cutting-edge science and provide global solutions for tomorrow, like the digitalization of R&D, and solve problems to make food safer or more sustainable. Being a steward to science and scientists, I was able to guide breakthroughs for the benefit of the company and the good of the broader industry. And using the CSO role as a platform to promote STEM, I was able to give the younger generation a voice to replay what they are thinking and feeling, like the Mars Fellows at the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting earlier this year.
Finally, my own journey of growth, adaptation, and learning; as a scientist and business leader, I am as data-driven as anybody. But, when it comes to the big decisions about my loved ones, my heart has always had an equal vote.
Who has inspired you in your career? Let us know at email@example.com