AUSTIN, TEXAS — If you’re searching for career success, Heather Mendoza, Ph.D., recommends looking outside your comfort zone. That’s where the director of research and development at Nulo has always found her drive, passion and motivation throughout her pet food industry career.

“I’ve found that I have grown the most when I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone,” she explained. “If you feel stagnant in your career, there’s no better time than the present to take a risk.”

In the following Q&A, Mendoza shares how her educational and professional journeys before and during her time at Nulo have led to ongoing personal and professional growth.


PFP: How did you get your start in the pet industry, and how did that experience lead you to where you are now?

Mendoza: I’ve always been fascinated by and drawn to work with animals. Early on I considered careers in zoology and veterinary medicine, but after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in pre-veterinary science I decided to deviate from my long-time plan to apply to vet schools and instead focused on gaining some industry experience.

I accepted my first full-time position in the pet food industry in 2010 with Natural Balance Pet Foods. During my time there, I had the honor of working alongside several unforgettable mentors who inspired me to pursue animal nutrition as an exciting and viable career path that was still aligned with my original mission to work in animal health and stewardship. To bolster my knowledge in this area, I took up a Master of Science degree program in monogastric nutrition while working full-time. That program gave me a foundation for conducting research, biochemistry, nutrition, metabolism, formulation, and even exposed me to sustainability topics that would later serve me in industry.

Shortly after graduating, I had the opportunity to attend my first SuperZoo tradeshow in Las Vegas. With eyes wide and mouth gaping in wonder at the size of the pet product industry, I probably looked like a kid in a toy store as I wandered the massive exhibit halls for the first time. It was at this event that I was introduced to the founder and chief executive officer  of Nulo Pet Food — Michael Landa. At that time, Nulo was a young, up-and-coming premium brand, and as it turns out Michael was looking for someone to support with product development, which was exactly what I envisioned as the next step in my career path. Through Nulo I was connected with Greg Aldrich, Ph.D., who was not only a renowned nutrition consultant but also an associate professor at Kanas State University. My appetite for higher education was still ravenous and I jumped at the opportunity to join Aldrich’s lab to pursue a Ph.D. while continuing my role at Nulo. The Ph.D. program is where I really dialed into the intricacies of commercial pet food processing, food science and safety, and all of the specialized skills necessary for conducting independent research.

I’ve now been with Nulo coming up on nine years, and it has been an incredible journey and privilege being part of a high-growth brand. During my time with Nulo, I’ve had the opportunity to work with the highest caliber manufacturers across the globe, develop an incredibly diverse range of premium products, and work alongside some of the most knowledgeable experts in the industry. When I first joined Nulo, I expected to gain some experience in product development, and as it turned out, Nulo quickly became a catalyst for rapid professional and academic growth. Since graduating with my Ph.D., I’ve also taken on the titles of wife and mother of one amazing daughter (with our second on the way).

“If I hadn’t laid the groundwork by investing in my education, or taken the opportunities that were outside of my comfort zone, my career path would be vastly different,” said Heather Mendoza of Nulo.

I couldn’t be more grateful to Nulo’s founder Michael, my graduate advisor Greg Aldrich, my husband, and all of the mentors who have guided me along the way. If I hadn’t laid the groundwork by investing in my education, or taken the opportunities that were outside of my comfort zone, my career path would be vastly different. I see where I am today as the result of many years of hard work, personal investments (time, finances and family), and the doors opened by my mentors that allowed me to continue growing.


PFP: What has been your biggest challenge — personal or professional — related to your work in the pet industry?

Mendoza: One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced related to product development is trying to satisfy the increasing demand for unique and disruptive innovation in lightning speed concept-to-market timeframes. This requires keen awareness of potential market opportunities, meticulous attention to every detail, efficient utilization of internal resources, cooperation of external stakeholders, and constant cross-functional coordination across the organization to execute properly. There’s rarely any margin for error with this strategy, but when done right it allows us to bring more innovative solutions to our customers in shorter periods of time. The pet food industry is rapidly evolving, and shelf space is a limited asset, so nimbleness and speed to market are essential for success.


PFP: Tell me about a professional accomplishment in the pet industry that you are proud of.

Mendoza: Introducing innovation into the market is one of the accomplishments I’m most proud of in this role. Bringing ideas to life and seeing the difference they’re making in the lives of pets and their owners is deeply gratifying. I’ve had the privilege of participating in the commercialization of hundreds of products, and it never gets old to hear a friend, family member, or customer’s testimony of how Nulo has helped their pet look better, feel better, and ultimately live their best life. The process of innovation allows my academic and professional experiences to come together in a very technical yet creative role that keeps me excited to come to work every day.


PFP: What is top of mind for you and/or your business in the industry right now?

Mendoza: Scaling our brand to reach more people and pets across the world is a top priority right now. Nulo has established itself as a premium brand in the United States, and our mission to inspire better lifestyle and nutrition choices is something that resonates with pet lovers across the globe. We’re working to amplify our message and ultimately improve the lives of more pets.


PFP: If you could pick three trends influencing the industry today, which are the most important and why?

Mendoza: The open mindedness of pet owners to try alternative pet foods. All pet parents know what’s best for their companions, and for decades kibble and cans have satisfied the expectations for premiumization, convenience and cost. But with advances in processing technologies and nutritional research, more pet owners seem open minded about trying alternative formats even when they come at higher costs or less convenience. These alternative formats range from raw, fresh/frozen, and minimally processed options like freeze-dried, air-dried or cold-pressed foods. This promotes infinite new product possibilities as the market continues to embrace innovative processing technologies.

The growing field of gut health research and its connection to other body systems. The gut-brain axis, links between gut health and behavior, metabolic diseases, and much more are beginning to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge as more research specific to dogs and cats is published. We’ve known for a long time that diet has a direct impact on our health, wellbeing and longevity, but how diet composition and format influences the gut and how the gut communicates with the rest of the body systems is an incredibly complex and fascinating topic. I think this field of research is going to provide insights that could change how we feed our pets in the future.

The emerging focus on sustainability. Sustainability has been a rising priority in many industries. As regulations shift in response to environmental challenges and companies take ownership of their corporate and social responsibilities, there is mounting pressure from pet owners and retailers to provide evidence of progress. Companies like Nulo are working to adopt more sustainable practices that both benefit the environment while also providing a better experience for our customers. This has the potential to influence packaging materials, how pet foods are processed and transported, how ingredients are sourced, and everyday business operations as we advance in this area.


PFP: What is something about the pet industry that people outside of the industry may not realize?

Mendoza: The industry community feels small, but the pet food market size is actually larger than most of the household products we use to feed our own families, including baby foods and breakfast cereals.


PFP: What advice would you give to other women in this industry?

Mendoza: I’ve found that I have grown the most when I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone. If you feel stagnant in your career, there’s no better time than the present to take a risk. Apply for the job you don’t think you’ll get. Enroll in that class to learn a new skill. Take the time to invest in your personal growth, so you’re prepared to seize the path-altering opportunities when they come your way. No one is going to hand success to you, but if you’re focused on your goals you’ll recognize when a door has been opened and you’ll be prepared to act on it.

And most importantly, don’t miss out on something great just because it might be difficult. Your goals don’t have to be grandiose; they can be something as simple as changing a daily habit or as large as completing a graduate degree. No matter what your next goal is, the most important thing is that you’re taking action to make it a reality and advance forward from where you are today.


PFP Just for fun, do you consider yourself a dog person or a cat person? Or, if you have pets of your own, tell us a little bit about them.

Mendoza: I consider myself an all-animal person — I couldn’t possibly choose sides. I’ve had the privilege of caring for several types of small animal pets throughout my life, including dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents, birds, fish and reptiles. Every one of them had endearing characteristics that I look back on and cherish. But evidence suggests that in recent years I’ve been favoring dogs, specifically, two Siberian huskies — Nero and Loki.

Heather Mendoza with her Siberian Husky, Loki

Heather Mendoza with her Siberian Husky, Loki.

Source: Nulo

Nero came into my life shortly after I took my first position in the pet food industry, and was by my side through two cross-country moves, both graduate programs and was even in my wedding. I still think fondly of Nero as my “soul dog,” and don’t expect to ever have a connection with another pet quite like the bond I shared with him.

We brought Loki, our 3-year-old Siberian Husky, into our lives about a year before Nero passed away at 11 years of age. Loki has a lively personality, is very playful, has a luxuriously soft coat that our toddler loves to cuddle with, and is embracing his role as our family dog. We look forward to being a multi-pet household again once we’re out of the infant and toddler stages. A house full of pets and babies is a lot to manage, even for me.


In her current role as director of research and development at Nulo, Heather Mendoza, Ph.D., helps develop a diverse range of premium pet food products and works alongside industry experts throughout the pet food industry. Before joining Nulo, where she has now worked for nine years, Mendoza worked as a customer care supervisor for Natural Balance Pet Foods. Mendoza earned her Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture and Master of Science degree in agriculture from California State Polytechnic University – Pomona and her Ph.D. in grain science from Kansas State University.

Continue reading about other female leaders featured in our Women in the Pet Industry series.