When you are young and considering all the things you can be when you grow up, not many of us dream of becoming an ice cream engineer. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredibly cool job.
“If you’re going into detail, everything can be interesting. I’m just so lucky for me that it’s ice cream,” says Elsebeth Baungaard.
Of course, “ice cream engineer” isn’t Baungaard’s official title. Officially she’s product and concept manager at food multinational Tetra Pak, where she heads up the ice cream portfolio.
Baungaard’s job is to help create the machines which make ice cream, as well as coming up with innovative ideas on how to make the frozen snacks of the future. This could mean ice cream piped into different shapes, in a rainbow of colours and covered with decorations. It could be vegan ice cream, low-calorie ice cream, protein-boosted ice cream. The possibilities are endless.
Baungaard’s early interest in engineering came from a desire to work in renewable energy, but you could say it’s in her blood, with two older brothers who are both also engineers. She studied energy and production technology at Aalborg University and then spent three years working in her field of choice, followed by a spell at a district heating company. She joined Tetra Pak in 1998 and moved into her current department in 2015, before becoming portfolio manager two years ago.
Her role means Baungaard sits at the epicentre: the point between customers and product developers. She enjoys it enormously. “I’ve been working around this product for a while and then suddenly I get into the hub, the centre of it, where now this is your child and you have to take care of it! You have so many balls in the air and you have to juggle them all the time - but I’m good at it and I love doing it.”
There were early signs that she might excel in such a role. As a child, Baungaard was a keen handball player; her position was always the playmaker. “This is the one that’s in the middle, setting up strategies and tactics and making others perform well. Perhaps it’s not the sexiest, but it means you’re the one initiating things, so I think that’s in my DNA.”
The approach has proved useful in her current role. “I love being really in the middle of the process. I’m right in the middle of sales, engineering, purchasing, customers, everything.”
This central position gives her a healthy appreciation for the importance of teamwork, one of her favourite aspects of her job. “It’s what I actually love the most. I know that I’m not good at everything, but I can do something and you can do something, and together we can do something really good.”
Baungaard’s role requires her to have the creativity to explore new possibilities for ice cream, as well as the mechanical and technical know-how to ensure the machines function smoothly and safely.
“We’re working with something you’re putting in your mouth, so you have to be doing your job really well,” Baungaard says. “On top of the normal requirements for machinery, you have the hygiene aspect, too.”
Beyond managing the product team, Baungaard also works closely with clients: the companies around the world that buy ice cream-dispensing machines. This means keeping on top of what ice cream consumers want and making sure the machinery can produce it.
There is increasing demand for ice cream that comes in the shape of animals or people and is studded with edible decorations, she explains. Baungaard spends a lot of her time scouring social media to discover the latest trends and uses technology to bring those trends to life.
Recently she has noticed a fashion for intricate chocolate decorations on top of baked goods, which are particularly popular in Asia. She’s looking into 3D printing technologies to bring this to ice cream.
“You have to adapt a little faster to things, because the food we’re eating is really developing and it’s going faster and faster. The ice cream you ate 20 years ago, you don’t want to eat now.”
Staying on top of trends is not the only challenge of her role. “I’m too busy!” laughs Baungaard. On a more serious note, sitting at the centre of an operation can make people see you as omniscient. “People think I can answer any question they have about the product.” This could be everything from the price of a particular unit (among a portfolio of around 1000) to the specific angle of a cone-dispensing machine part.
“People think I know everything, so it can be disappointing to say ‘sorry, but you’ll have to talk to someone else about this instead.’”
Preparation and passion
Another major challenge she faced early on is all too familiar to many women in STEM. “I was the first female engineer in the ice cream department,” says Baungaard. “As the only girl, you really don’t want to disappoint.”
This fear drove her to take on more than was needed. “I often thought I had to do everything 100% correctly to be accepted. If I was going into a steering group meeting or doing a presentation for a project I was really prepared. I was doing too much. Then I heard my male colleagues presenting their projects and I saw they did maybe 70%, and that was ok. So I learned to do slightly less.”
That said, not all her early impulses have left her. “I still have the saying ‘prepare, prepare, prepare’! My colleagues will tell you.”
Beyond meticulous preparation, what else does the aspiring ice cream engineer need to succeed? “Passion and curiosity,” says Baungaard. “Those are the main things. If you don’t really want to learn new things or listen to people who have good ideas, then you should not be a product manager or portfolio manager.”
Those with the necessary creativity, technical knowledge and people skills could be looking at a career full of innovation, collaboration and – of course – plenty of free ice cream. Everyone else need not apply.