Kyowa Hakko’s Karen Todd on One of the Best Decisions She Ever Made: Entering the Supplements Industry

"What hospital are you going to work for?

It was a question that, if she let it, made her doubt her choices up until that point. Going to work for a hospital was one of the expected career paths for a registered dietitian with a degree in Scientific Nutrition (and who just completed a 10-month dietetic internship). Not that there was anything wrong with that kind of work, but Karen Todd was not interested in the routine route, evidenced by her choice to also double major in Food Science and Technology.  

So, when it was time to look for her first post-college job, she headed instead to the Institute for Food Technologists annual conference. There she landed a job at Amway, focusing on the Nutrilite line of dietary supplements and functional foods and beverages, over the well-intended objections of some of her peers and mentors. It was the early 90’s, and in some nutritionist circles, working in the dietary supplements industry was akin to announcing you’d taken an interest in witchcraft. 

“They said, ‘You’re going to kill your profession,” Todd recalled. “Whatever trajectory you’re on, going into dietary supplements is going to doom it forever.” 

They were wrong. 

Todd, who is now the Vice President of Global Brand Marketing at Kyowa Hakko and holds an MBA, remembers her first job was far more of an awakening than a mistake. “I got to travel all over the world, educating people about nutrition and talking about science, and they were eager to learn” she remembered fondly. “And this was at a time when talking about supplements was considered taboo.”

Taboo or not, she regards the decision as “one of the best” she ever made, a realization she had at the first CRN conference she attended nearly three decades ago. It was there, surrounded by her new-found peers, that it hit her how united the industry was, and how focused and purposeful her colleagues and contemporaries were in service to the mission of better nutrition through supplementation. “That’s why every company that I have been to since, I have insisted we be a member of CRN,” she said. “Membership for me has always represented that shared desire to make people healthier.” 

Todd said she remembers a time when being a dietitian was about focusing on sickness, versus health. In the hospital setting, for example, people generally didn’t want to talk to the dietitian after surgery because “you were the one to tell them that they had to watch their sodium and reduce their fat.” But Todd has worked in the industry long enough to see attitudes change about supplementation, in that when you talk about supplementation with dietitians now, it’s accepted as part of a healthy lifestyle. “It’s now also about keeping healthy people healthy,” said Todd. “And that’s rewarding.” 

And Todd said the industry has been rewarding in so many other ways. It has allowed her to work in the finished product space and on the ingredients side of the business. It’s afforded her a decision-making role over the direction of research and ensuring that the science ultimately provides the consumer with what they need. She is also appreciative of the fact that the industry is opening up more and more to women. 

“There are just so many areas and facets to this industry that didn’t exist when I started,” she said. “Today there are more and more women in nutraceuticals, who are accessing venture capital and starting their own businesses. It’s a big dynamic change.” 

Todd should know. She is the chair and one of the founding board members of Women in Nutraceuticals (WIN), a non-profit the mission of which is “to empower women in nutraceuticals to unlock their personal and professional potential.” 

The want to lead an initiative like WIN, Todd said, had been “bubbling up for a long time.” 

“Finally, there was a group of industry veterans who all get that there is inequality within the industry, on boards and research particularly, and so we decided we needed to form a group to advocate for these things,” said Todd.  “We knew raising awareness about these issues was important, but we also really wanted to drive change, and champion diversity of all kinds, and really understand how it can impact change and growth.” 

Todd is clearly no stranger to either. She has witnessed an explosion of branded ingredients flood the market since she has been in the industry, many of them lacking the scientific research or traceability savvy consumers these days expect. She understands how these products can weaken public perceptions around brands that have spent years establishing the industry as worthy of consumer trust. It’s a position she strongly believes is worth defending. 

“Supporting the brands that are backed by scientific safety and efficacy will only help the industry overall,” said Todd. “It elevates us all.”