Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Stacey Espinosa, 31, global R&D senior manager for new benefits and mints, Mars Wrigley Confectionery.
I ‘m a big fruity confections fan. When I was about three, we got our first bubble-gum machine, one of those vintage ones with the red-and-black stand. It was supposed to be a present for my brother and me, but I took full control. We got cartons of bubble gum with it, and there’s a video of my parents threatening to put me in time-out on Christmas morning for eating the bubble gum. That gumball machine now sits at my desk.
It wasn’t till I was older that I looked around and was like, “Oh, people don’t eat candy the way I eat candy.” I just had it on me all the time. I remember once I was taking a test, and I started freaking out because I couldn’t press a button down on my calculator, and it was because I had sugar crystals stuck in the little button.
When I was in high school, my brother told me that candy companies hired chemical engineers. I still remember where I was in our house when he told me, because it was legitimately like a lightning bolt. I was like, “That’s my path. This is what I’m meant for. Making candy is worth figuring hard things out.”
So I majored in chemical engineering. On the first day, the professor asked everyone why they had chosen chemical engineering, and I said, “I want to make candy.” And then years later, when I got the call to work for Wrigley—you know the Miss America cry, where she’s so excited and she can’t believe it? That’s what it felt like.
I work in product development—innovation strategy and new product innovation. Pretty much making candy. It’s as awesome as you think it is. When people hear about my job, they often ask me, “Is there really candy everywhere?” And the reality is yes. Some of it is what you see on store shelves, and some of it is what our developers are innovating and tweaking.
Gum is a little bit science and a little bit art. It’s a lot of formulating and reiterating and working with consumers. What people go to gum and mints for is freshening or enjoyment, but how that’s delivered across the world is very different. For example, in the U.S., a lot of consumers associate menthol with cough drops; we think of it as medicinal. For consumers in China, it’s a more appealing taste. Whereas wintergreen tends to be really popular in the U.S., but outside of the U.S. it’s a very polarizing flavor.
I do chew bubble gum, every day. I’m a really good bubble blower. I’m always trying to see how big I can get the next bubble. Which is great, ’cause when I’m in meetings, it’s permissible to do that. The trick is, if you get gum in your hair, you can ice it, and that helps get it out. It happens to me a lot more than you would anticipate for a 31-year-old. v