Stevie Hretz Enjoys Putting “Humans First!”
Stephanie (Stevie) Hretz is the deputy director of the Office of Policy and Program Development’s (OPPD) Risk Management and Innovations Staff (RMIS). Prior to starting the position in June 2021, Hretz served as a biological science technician and microbiologist in the Office of Public Health Science (OPHS) and a senior staff officer in RMIS. In her current role, Hretz leads and supports a diverse staff of scientists that includes chemists, microbiologists, food technologists and veterinarians. The team develops sampling program instructions, supports innovative food safety technologies and collaborates across FSIS to bring many perspectives cohesively into policy.
Her 20-year FSIS career began while Hretz was an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia (UGA). She was seeking a job that complemented her education so she could learn both inside and outside the classroom. She responded to an ad in UGA’s school paper, and landed a part-time job as a lab technician in FSIS’ Eastern Laboratory in Athens – right down the street from UGA – where she worked from 2001-2005 while completing her bachelor’s degree in microbiology. Wishing to expand her perspectives in public health beyond the lab bench, Hretz attended graduate school from 2009-2011 at Florida International University where she completed her Master of Public Health degree. During this time, she analyzed samples with OPHS and attended classes virtually.
In addition to her promotion earlier this year, Hretz recently graduated from the Federal Executive Institute (FEI) whose mission is to “challenge [federal] executives to cultivate the skills, attitudes and behaviors critical to dynamic and transformational public sector leadership.” This year’s program was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Said Hretz, “My job makes me feel like there is always something to learn, always another part of my brain to flex and that you can make a difference on something significant from anywhere in the Agency. I encourage others to step out of their comfort zone and keep growing. There are people there to help you.”
OPPD and OPHS staff members visit a Salmonella Initiative Program waiver establishment in 2018 to observe the innovations that the establishment had incorporated into their process. Pictured (left to right): Staff Officer Jabari Hawkins (OPPD), Deputy Director Stevie Hretz (OPPD), National Program Leader Mark Carter (National Institute of Food and Agriculture), Gina Thomas (establishment employee), Senior Chemist Randy Duverna (OPHS) and Supervisory Public Health Veterinarian Ahmad Jilani (OFO). Photo courtesy of plant employee.
Importance of Mentoring and Teamwork
In 2019, Hretz participated in the FSIS Mentoring Program where she was matched with Pete Bridgeman, Executive Associate for Employee Experience. Said Hretz, “Pete has really helped me see, through his example, that you can maintain wellness and balance while moving into advanced roles in the Agency.” With his guidance and support, Hretz has seen some major goals that they set together come to fruition – being selected for FEI and becoming a deputy director, for example. Bridgeman continues to support Hretz in achieving her career goals.
Throughout her career, Hretz has been a member of many high-performing teams, both in the laboratory and in headquarters. Hretz doesn’t just incorporate teamwork in her job. She says, “Teamwork IS my job. Policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it takes the unique perspectives of many program areas to make the best decisions,” she explains. “Drafting policy is about gathering that information, finding common ground and gaining consensus before moving forward.” The need for policy comes out of the working groups with representation from all program areas. These working groups are collaborative teams made up of representatives from OPPD, OPHS, the Office of Planning, Analysis and Risk Management, the Office of Field Operations and others. These teams identify, prioritize and implement FSIS priorities and evaluate progress to inform data-driven strategies to improve food safety.
Hretz employs a “humans first” approach. She explains, “It’s the belief that employees are people first before they are ‘human capital’ and that we should care about them holistically.” She builds relationships and begins with the working groups’ input regarding priorities and concerns; then it goes through the clearance process, which includes the working groups, OPPD directors, program area assistant administrators, and the FSIS Administrator. Her job is to find the “sweet spot,” making sure everybody’s concerns are addressed and needs are met. Hretz finds negotiation is key to finding unique solutions and common ground. She is proud of her work; “I am privileged to see the impact of my role in real time. One key piece of policy is evaluating effectiveness, and I love to see where we’ve made progress and to follow the data to continuous improvement.”
FSIS Core Values Personified
While she embraces all four FSIS Core Values – Accountable, Collaborative, Empowered and Solutions-Oriented – Hretz believes Empowered most closely aligns with her own core values of Authenticity, Advocacy and Autonomy. “I have been empowered over my career to bring my entire self to work and to spread that empowerment to others. Embracing our diversity means creating a space where employees can be their most authentic selves, so that the Agency fully benefits from everything they have to offer,” she said.
Her supervisor, RMIS Director Dr. Melvin Carter, believes Hretz demonstrates all four FSIS Core Values. “Stevie is all of these and then some. You don’t have to worry about her being accountable because she is usually out in front of the solution,” said Dr. Carter. “During the process, she collaborates across the Agency to get the right subject matter experts involved in the conversation and the solution. She is empowered and she makes sure that those working with her feel the same. For many, she is the ‘go to’ because of her ability to gather consensus and remain goal oriented.”
Outside of Work
While working at the Eastern Laboratory, Hretz participated in the Partners in Education Program, which provides mentors, science educators and other resources to local elementary schools. A student whom Hretz began mentoring in third grade is now a 2019 graduate of UGA and the first in her family to attend college. Hretz’ protégé is now pursuing a certificate to teach English as a second language. She says that she is proud that her former protégé has embraced the idea of “humans first!”
Hretz married Matt Willcox on Halloween in 2010. Although their 10-year anniversary trip to Ireland was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are busy planning a “do-over” trip. In addition to roller-skating, she enjoys coaching her Greyhound (a retired racer named Luck Dragon) and Ibizan hound (named Levert after R&B singer Gerald Levert) in dog sports where they compete in conformation (the official word for “dog shows”), agility, dock diving and scent work competitions.
During the pandemic, Hretz shows Levert in a virtual dog show via video from their backyard. Photo by Matt Willcox.