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Grad addresses farm-to-fork challenges at PepsiCo

A mentor once told Gabe Gusmini, “You and I have the same problem: We see something broken, we’ve got to fix it.” And fix things, Gusmini does.

A plant breeder by training, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumnus is a junior executive and research-and-development director with PepsiCo, a multinational corporation responsible for such brands as Pepsi, Frito-Lay, Quaker Oats and Tropicana.

Working in the Agro Discovery and Sustainability Research unit, based in St. Paul, Minn., he focuses on solving agricultural challenges and on building stronger teams to accomplish that work.

The team addresses production problems faced by farmers growing PepsiCo’s ingredients while striving to improve the crops’ processing abilities and nutritional and flavor qualities.

“What we are doing is building an organization that works with agriculturally derived raw materials so that we can drive innovation in the finished product, based on what comes into the processing plants to begin with,” Gusmini says.

Gusmini’s research unit often works with external partners with unique research capabilities, he says. Through a master agreement with NC State, for example, PepsiCo funds more than $1 million of CALS research in the departments of Crop Science, Horticultural Science and Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences.

A key project involves noted plant breeder Dr. Todd Wehner, who taught Gusmini as he pursued graduate degrees in plant breeding at NC State in the early 2000s.

Gusmini credits Wehner with preparing him for career success. “Nothing in my career would have happened if I hadn’t met Dr. Wehner. He not only gave me opportunity, but he also gave me the skills to be effective from day one in my job,” he says.

Gabe Gusmini earned master's and doctoral degrees from NC State.
Gabe Gusmini earned master’s and doctoral degrees from NC State.

Out of gratitude, Gusmini strives to give back, serving as an adjunct faculty member at both NC State and the University of Minnesota. He regularly speaks at the universities, meets with students to help them prepare for their careers and serves on their graduate advisory committees.

Working with graduate students is rewarding on two levels, Gusmini says. “First, graduate students are very innovative. They look at problems in a different way – without pre-fixed ideas and concepts and so they can really drive disruptive discovery,” he says. Second helping prepare the next generation of workers helps PepsiCo reach its talent sustainability goals.

Gusmini realized his passion for managing corporate research-and-development teams through a rapidly-evolving career. Growing up in a suburb of Milan, Italy, he dreamed of having his own farm someday. While attending the University of Milan to earn a bachelor’s degree in agricultural sciences, he joined a group of agronomists with their own consulting firm. He also launched a few small agricultural and environmental ventures with others.

In 2001 he came to North Carolina following his life partner, then a post-doc scientist in genetics. Interested in pursuing a graduate degree from NC State, he went door to door around campus looking for opportunities.

In his first conversation with Wehner, the professor asked if he liked plant breeding: “I said, ‘You know, I only failed one class, and that was plant breeding. But it’s science, and I kind of like the subject,’” he recalls. Wehner then asked if he liked watermelon. “I said, ‘I like it as a plant, but I can’t eat it because it bothers me.’”

Still, Wehner offered him a watermelon breeding assistantship, and Gusmini accepted. In 2005, he graduated with a Ph.D. He’d studied watermelon’s resistance to gummy stem blight, a disease caused by Didymella bryoniae, and he’d found genes related to flesh and rind color, yield and other important watermelon characteristics.

After graduation, went to work in Naples, Fla., with Syngenta, a global agribusiness company. While he was responsible for breeding zucchini and summer squash varieties for the United States and Mexico, he and a colleague in France began to see value in globalizing breeding programs “to leverage more germplasm and avoid genetic and resource redundancies between programs,” he says.

“The company liked a lot what we were doing. It was a new approach in the vegetable division, and so they gave both of us the opportunity to advance careers. In my case, I was offered the worldwide leadership role for breeding sweet corn, garden beans, and peas, and that’s what brought me to Minnesota,” he says.

The next five years took Gusmini around the world as he continued his efforts to globalize breeding programs and fast-track them into the genomic era. During these years, he developed a penchant for managing teams and helping them adapt to change.

“I build organizations, I catalyze the shift to new R&D approaches, I empower and develop people to take over, then I move on and go to do something else,” he says.

After Syngenta Gusmini joined a former boss at PepsiCo to help him build the new Agro Discovery and Sustainability Research unit. “That was August 2013, and I’ve been there ever since,” Gusmini says.

He sees himself continuing to work toward making a breakthrough contribution that leads to a well-fed, healthy population worldwide. “I haven’t set aside the idea of owning a farm one day – I may do that,” he says. “But right now, I’m driven mostly by my desire to make a bigger impact on global food security and quality in a shorter period of time than done before.”

– Dee Shore