How one HR head juggles a dual career

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Director of talent Emilia Cirker heads up the HR team at a promising tech start-up but she’s also known for her culinary prowess and competes in Food Network’s highly acclaimed Cutthroat Kitchen – here, she spoke to HRM about balancing both passions.

“It’s been an overwhelmingly amazing ride,” says Cirker. “About 10 years ago, I was a full-time recruiter, I loved it and I really never expected to stop being in the corporate world but life just happened and I was able to stop working full time and go to culinary school which has always been my dream.”

After graduating first in her class, Cirker temporarily abandoned her HR inclinations and pursued a culinary career, quickly working her way up the ranks in restaurants.

“I started working for a local football team called the Redskins and they really took on this new focus of feeding the players really healthy food,” she told HRM. “That caught a lot of publicity which in turn caught the attention of Food Network and that’s how I made my way onto the show.”

However – a change in circumstance prompted Cirker to reconsider the corporate world.

“I realised that I just couldn’t maintain the lifestyle and the hours that it takes to be a full-time chef and also be 100 per cent of a mother whenever I could,” she admits. “It was a tough decision to go back to the corporate world but it was actually really serendipitous.”

Cirker’s now CEO – Rami Essaid – was in the process of building web security start-up Distil Networks and invited the accomplished chef on board.

“I was very cautious about going back because I didn’t know if I had just given up everything that I had built in the culinary world and Rami and I had a really honest conversation at that point and he said; ‘I will never stand in your way, in fact I will applaud your efforts, I really want you to keep one foot in the culinary world,” she told HRM

Essaid’s promise was quickly put to the test.

“Maybe about six to 12 months after I first started, I got the call from Food Network,” revealed Cirker. “They said; ‘We want you one the show, that means you have to give us your phone, you can’t bring any electronics, you have no access to email, you can’t read the newspaper, you can’t buy a magazine, you can’t call home for eight weeks.’”

The start-up, which now has over 100 employees, still in its grass roots stage and has just was six other employees when Cirker first started.

“When I heard the details I just thought there would be no way. We’re building a start-up – he can’t lose his only HR and his only recruiter for two months, I’ll lose my job,” she told HRM.

“I went and told him about the opportunity and without batting an eye his exact words were; ‘God I hate you and I love you so much.’”

It’s a response that, Cirker says, was both generous and business savvy.

“There are a ton of different ways in which it positively impacts the business,” she told HRM.

“There is just so much evidence available these days that proves how much personal happiness positively effects productivity and engagement at work.

“You can’t argue it any more – happy employees are healthier, they’re more energized, they’re creative, they’re curious, they’re proactive, they’re constructive, they’re cooperative, they recognize other employees for their abilities.”

Cirker says that because she was allowed to pursue her passions outside of HR, it’s in turn made her a better employee and a potential role model for other workers.

“Because I have flourished in my culinary career and it’s made me so confident and it’s brought me such fulfilment as a person, that energy comes back into our company and that’s contagious energy. I feel like my direct employees, they get this super-charged shot of ‘I can do anything’ attitude,” she told HRM.

“I don’t want to ever say that I’m the inspiration but I think the energy that comes into the company is an inspiration to them of; ‘Well maybe I should dream bigger, maybe I can do more.’”

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