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Stephanie Simek has foundation for long career in produce

When Stephanie Simek graduated from American University in Washington, DC, in 2002, a career in the produce industry was not on her radar.

"I never thought I'd work in produce, absolutely not," she said.

Ms. Simek, who received her degree in international marketing, thought she would "end up in some corporation," but after a few years of corporate work, she "ended up in the wonderful land of produce marketing, and it is much better suited to me."

In April 2005, she landed a job as a marketing specialist for the National Watermelon Promotion Board because of her experience with web site design and maintenance, and working on events that she gained during a stint working at Universal's CityWalk in her hometown of Orlando, FL.

Within a year, she was promoted to marketing and communications manager at the board, and she took on numerous tasks, including the board's sponsorship and fundraising for the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit international convention and trade show.

"The PMA is a real big chunk of my responsibilities, and I felt the title of manager would help in my negotiation process," she said. "I handle complete show logistics for the PMA, from travel to sourcing products to planning the reception" that the board holds at the event every year.

She was responsible for redesigning the board's booth two years ago, and her hard work paid off when the board won the best booth award at last year's PMA Fresh Summit in Anaheim, CA.

In addition to her responsibilities with the PMA show, Ms. Simek, who now serves as the organization's associate director of marketing and communications, said that "on the marketing side," she manages the organization's retail representatives as well as the sizable application the board submits every year to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agriculture Service for export assistance funds.

"I do the entire application, which is very intensive and helps with our export activities to Canada, Mexico, and Japan," she said.

On communications side Ms. Simek works on brochures and recipes, and also works on coordinating the organization's talent, which includes chefs Harry Schwartz and Joe Poon, and Elizabeth Somer, a dietician who is well-versed in nutrition research and the author of several books on diet and nutrition, who recently began working with the board.

Ms. Simek is also responsible for "handling all of the [national watermelon] queen-related activities" for the organization, which is one of her favorite parts of the job.

"We have a really good relationship with all the [regional associations'] queen programs," she said. "There is a good bond between the National Watermelon Association and the [board], and that extends into the whole watermelon industry. It feels like a family. I'll call one of the queen coordinators, and it's just like I'm calling one of my friends or family; it's not just like a business call.

"We have a lot of flexibility and creativity within our staff, and we get to stretch our creative muscles," Ms. Simek added when asked what she likes most about working at the board. "We work on a multitude of platforms, and do it all almost exclusively in-house. Whatever we see as a big trend - social media is a really big one on the horizon for us now and we got started last year with a blog - there aren't a lot of layers to get approval to go after them, and we have the flexibility to put those ideas into motion."

Outside work at the board, Ms. Simek enjoys taking advantage of the activities in the Orlando area, where she lives.

She said that her time "revolves heavily" around her two dogs, a 9-year-old German Shepherd named Angus, and five-year-old Boxer mix named Nala, which are both rescues from shelters.

"Walking, hiking, jogging, romping, things that you do with big dogs are huge," she said.

Traveling is another favorite pastime for Ms. Simek, who caught the travel bug during a semester abroad in Spain in 2001. "I saw 11 countries in Europe (the Czech Republic, especially Prague, where her father was from, was her favorite) and I also went to China for a month, it was great," she said of the experiences.

Ms. Simek also has traveled to a number of places during her time at the board, including Napa, CA, and Mexico, and likes that she can experience new places while traveling for business. "It's wonderful that my work schedule has incorporated me going places, and I've also incorporated my work into some of my vacations."

Ms. Simek spends a lot of time with friends and family, and loves movies and music. In fact, she plans to start taking guitar lessons soon.

"I love alternative and classic rock, and my favorite artist is David Bowie," she said. "I also like new bands, and I'd like to be able to play guitar along to [bands] like the Pixies or the Red Hot Chili Peppers,

She is also a self-described "Scrabble junkie and since her family won't play with her anymore, she plays on-line, sometimes in tournaments. "I'm not that good. I enjoy it, but I can lose with dignity," she joked.

Ms. Simek also plans to go skydiving on her 30th birthday next month. While this would be her fourth jump at the Skydive Space Center in Titusville, FL, it would be her first time jumping solo.

"It's at the beach and you can see the launching pad at Kennedy Space Center when you're floating. It's an amazing landscape," she said. "It's just going to be me and the sky."

Ms. Simek said that she also has "an incredible passion for food, and that has come out a lot since this job. Before I worked for the watermelon board, I could probably count on two hands the number of fruits and vegetables I ever ate. Now I probably need two hands, two feet, and two more hands. I've completely evolved my taste for fruits and vegetables, at every meal."

She said that her current circle of friends are all pretty good cooks, and they get together and test their recipes on each other at least twice a week. "I always represent produce really well; I'll bring a total veggie dish," she said, adding that she makes "a killer lasagna."

She continued, "I've done about 15 watermelon recipes, and they always go over well," noting that the easiest watermelon recipe she makes, which is available on the board's web site, is called Fire and Ice Salsa. "That always goes over well. I don't have a party without [the salsa]," she said, adding that her favorite watermelon recipe is Watermelon Petit Fours. "They have a pineapple cream cheese frosting. It's awesome."

Ms. Simek said that she envisions staying in produce for the long term. "It is an endearing and warm environment that we work in, and everyone loves watermelon - it's contagious," she said. "In general, I really don't see myself working too far away from it. I've got a lot of roots laid in the industry; it's a job you can feel good about working in. I'm helping share all the great things, not just about watermelon, but really produce in general."

When asked what her advice would be for young people thinking of going into the watermelon industry, she replied that "if you're open-minded, genuine and can see the industry for what it is and its core values, you would be embraced and opportunities would open up. It's certainly not a suit-and- tie industry. If you're comfortable with yourself, something will come your way, and you'll go far."