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“The concept of ‘leaning in’ has been so impactful in my life”
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“The concept of ‘leaning in’ has been so impactful in my life”

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by Shayna Sappington
02nd Apr 2024
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Jenifer Tangney recently returned to work after a six-month sabbatical travelling the world. Along with a much-needed recharge, Jenifer shares why she availed of the leave and the many benefits she's experienced since.

After working for 25 years, Ornua’s Jenifer Tangney decided she could do with a break. Since taking her first around-the-world trip at 28, a passion for travel has coursed through her veins. Now in her mid-40s, she decided it was now or never to take the expedition of a lifetime – spending six months traversing Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Aruba and Spain.

Here, she shares her story, explaining how she was able to take a sabbatical leave through her employer’s policy, her favourite places on her travels and the benefits she gleaned from her experience.

Jenifer has worked at Ornua for 11 years, an Irish agricultural cooperative best known for producing Kerrygold butter. She was initially drawn to the dairy industry because of “the co-operative ethos of growing up in small-town Ireland” – aka Foynes in West Limerick. “That sense of being part of a community was very important to me growing up,” she explains.

Originally studying Home Economics to follow in her nana’s footsteps as a teacher, it wasn’t until she got a taste of the business world that she changed tack. “At 20, I did a six-month placement as part of my university education in Kerry Co-op. Once I experienced the business world, I knew I was going to go down that route.”

She went back to complete her Master’s at University College Cork in Food Science, Food Business and Food Technology, before working in the fisheries industry and then landing back at Kerry, where she was hired as a quality manager.

Five years on, to celebrate paying off her post-grad fees, Jenifer spent nine months travelling, ending up in New Zealand and once again at a global dairy company, this time Fonterra. “It was kind of all written out for me. Life has a funny way of figuring itself out,” she laughs. And when Jenifer returned to Ireland, it was no surprise that she’d land back at Ornua, where she’s been for over a decade now. “It was meant to be and I’ve always felt that way about Ornua. I’ve had such an incredible experience with them.”

Her passion for the industry also comes from a common love most of us share – food. “I’ve known dairy for a lifetime. I love butter, but I also love food, I always have. There’s something wonderful about being part of an industry that brings joy to people as well. Everything that we do is for our Irish farming family community, and if you see what we do and the impact that we have globally, it’s amazing.”

Jenifer cut her teeth in Ornua working in business development during her first eight years alongside entrepreneur and mentor John Leahy, whom she gained valuable experience from. Then when he retired, she decided to play to her strength as a people person and move into change management.

“The core of everything I love in a career is all about people. I love the buzz of working with great people and seeing them energised and engaged in some of the work that we do across Ornua.” In her role in change management, Jenifer helped introduce new processes, new ways of working and new IT systems across multiple sites in Dublin, Spain and Germany.

Naturally, this involved a lot of travel and was a massive time commitment, which Jenifer enjoyed at the time but eventually took its toll. “I lived in Spain for four or five months, so I was giving up quite a lot. I think there’s a lifecycle for that type of job. You can only do it for so long. You’re the people person; you’re in front of a business of maybe 100, 200 people so you’re trying to gauge how people are, interject where you can and try to positively introduce new ways of working and that can be quite challenging at times.”

It’s no surprise she thrived in that intense environment, as Jenifer is described as a “powerhouse of passion and positivity” by her colleagues; it’s an energy she often uses to encourage her team. “I’m a big motivational phrase kinda gal,” she laughs. “I think one phrase that sits with me is one that Mum always says: ‘You’ll never regret doing the right thing’ – that’s something that you can fundamentally live by.

“During COVID, I started giving myself a yearly phrase. So, the first one was ‘lean in’, which was quite impactful in my life at the time. It was that point of, if you feel uncomfortable, keep going.” And lean in is exactly what Jenifer did when it came to taking a much-needed sabbatical.

Ornua offers a range of people-focused policies which are available to all employees across the global business, including Sabbatical Leave for personal or professional development. Jenifer availed of this for six months and initially was apprehensive about taking the leap. 

“I was really nervous because, let’s call a spade a spade, I am a single woman in my 40s. I had been in a pressurised environment for quite a long time, and I felt like I needed to take a break for myself. Normally, people take this type of leave when a crisis happens, but I was not in that space. I don’t have any children, and I’d been working for 25 years at this point, so I felt like I could do with a bit of a break.”

She started the conversation about six months in advance, and found the process fairly simple. Once she submitted the paperwork, it was a matter of working with the key stakeholders involved and ensuring there were no gaps during the transition. And, to her pleasant surprise, her leave announcement was well received by her colleagues. 

“Everyone was so supportive, so I had nothing to be nervous about. The reactions I got were interesting because people would say ‘you’re very brave’ – but I didn’t feel brave in what I was doing. I just feel like you live life today, and getting to grow old is a bit of a privilege. Waiting until you’re retired to do this kind of stuff doesn’t feel like the right thing for me.”

So, Jenifer’s adventure began. “At first, I treated it like a holiday, and spent three weeks in Vietnam with my friend Emma.” The next stop was a family-focused trip to Australia, where she spent a month with her brother and his family. “They had welcomed their third baby, so it was really important for me to spend some time with them and not be under pressure time-wise. From a family perspective, it was the most incredible experience.”

From there she called into New Zealand for a few weeks to visit old friends, making sure to stop by one of her favourite places, Waiheke Island, off the coast of Auckland. Then, Jenifer’s solo stint of the journey began, and she travelled around South America, visiting Chile, where she stargazed in the Atacama Desert, before moving on to Northern Argentina. “It’s very rare in your life that Mother Nature has you in the palm of her hand, but I definitely felt this when I visited Argentina’s Iguazu Falls; it was one of the highlights of my trip.”

From there, she flew down to Patagonia and explored the Los Glaciares National Park, seeing the “amazing” Perino Moreno Glacier, before taking a 26-hour bus journey to San Carlos de la Bariloche, a city surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakes. Then it was on to Buenos Aires and eventually Aruba, where she met another friend and was treated to the most luxurious stay of her whole trip. “My best friend had won a holiday through work so I got to stay at a five-star resort at the end of all my travels – how lucky am I?”

Jenifer finally returned home for six whole weeks to spend time with family and throw her mum a 70th birthday bash. But after a miserable bout of Irish summer weather, she hopped over to Spain to spend her last bit of time off walking the Camino de Santiago in the sunshine.

When sharing about her trip, Jenifer points out that travelling in your 40s is very different than your 20s. “When I was travelling for the first time, everyone was young, hip and cool but the nice thing about being older is there’s no script anymore. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. There were times when it was very hard, and I had to push my own boundaries, but it has most definitely broadened my mind. 

“It also gives me a bit of confidence that anything is possible and nothing is forever. It’s difficult and it’s challenging, but once you give yourself over to something, the rewards keep coming, whether that’s people in your life, or new experiences or opportunities. To be surrounded by so much nature, that’s one of the key things that I’m trying to bring back into my life at home. There’s a whole lot of Ireland I want to explore this year.”

Now, back in the driver’s seat at Ornua, Jenifer has returned to a newly dedicated role at Ornua as Corporate Social Responsibility Manager, which she’s excited about. “It’s in ESG, environmental, social, governance and responsible sourcing, so my responsibilities sit within the social pillar,” she explains. “It reflects the level of change that has happened across the sustainability space.

“This role encompasses all the ways Ornua has a positive impact from a societal perspective, but also how we operate our businesses – the employee engagement, our charitable donations, our sponsorships, and how we can bring that to life, most importantly, for people within the business and the communities in which we operate. It needs to be authentic for us, but also the environment is changing; there is a new protocol coming in from a European legislation perspective, so we are going to have to start to report on these types of activities over the next 12 months.”

Jenifer has been in her new role for just three months, so she’s still settling in and trying to adjust to working full-time again. “I definitely feel recharged, but it’s a challenge to return to a new job. I’m lucky to have such a supportive team, and it gave me further appreciation for some of my female colleagues who have come back from maternity leave. I feel like I’m in a place of change and that can feel uncomfortable at times. But I think that over the next couple of months, I’ll settle in and I’ll be fine, but I think you’d probably be like that in any new job.”

As far as her day-to-day, Jenifer says no day is the same. “Yesterday I was talking to prospective charity partners and we had a team strategy session. Right now, it’s all about strategy, development, and understanding the landscape. We’re shaping what the next five years look like. I enjoy being in such a positive role like CSR. I feel like I’m doing something good and I’m engaging with people on something that they want to be involved in. There’s a lot to do but I know with the team of people we have, it will be a success.

“I know this sounds cliche, but Ornua is like a family. I would have never said that I was going to be in a company for over 10 years, that was not on my radar. My colleagues are now really close friends of mine. It has evolved over time of course, but when I think about what 10 years has given me… it has given me a lot of authentic knowledge. I’m very lucky in the roles that I’ve had and that I’ve gotten to work in different parts of the company and build relationships.”

Jenifer credits these relationships as her “secret sauce”. “It’s a network that I’ve built over some time, and I understand how different functions of the company might operate and how best to work with them to try to achieve a collective goal. I am also lucky in the fact that I understand operational capability and the process of dairy production. Listening to the voice of the customer is critical, a fact that also rings true in the social sustainability space.”

Throughout her career, Jenifer says she’s grateful for the support Ornua’s given her, firstly through her education where through the support of Ornua she completed her second Master’s in Business and Leadership in UCD’s Smurfit Business School, qualifying in project management and as an Executive Business Coach – then in her recent sabbatical leave.

“It’s amazing to work for a company that gives you so many opportunities, like this sabbatical and then welcomes you back with open arms. It’s fantastic, and I am genuinely grateful for the experience.”

Jenifer Tangney

About Ornua

Ornua is an Irish dairy co-operative that markets and sells dairy products on behalf of its members, Ireland’s dairy processors and, in turn, Irish dairy farmers. Ornua is Ireland’s largest exporter of Irish dairy products and has annualised sales of over €3.4 billion. Headquartered in Dublin, Ornua has a strong global team of 3,000 employees, operating from 10 business units worldwide, including 16 production facilities. Ornua’s core purpose is to build profitable routes to market for Irish dairy products.

Ornua offers a range of people-focused policies which are available to all employees across the global business. By recognising the importance of key milestones in employees’ personal lives beyond their professional lives, Ornua is committed to creating an environment where female leaders in particular feel supported, and a culture where they can bring their whole selves to work at every life stage.

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