Origin Story Interview W/ Yvonne Jamal, JARO Institute for Sustainability and Digitalization

Origin Story Interview W/ Yvonne Jamal, JARO Institute for Sustainability and Digitalization

Brighter Future


Apr 5, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #SustainableProcurement #CorporateSustainability #corporateresponsibility #ProcurementInnovation

Brighter Future

We’re here with Yvonne Jamal, co-founder of the JARO Institute, dedicated to helping corporations become more sustainable through improvements to their sourcing.

Thank you so much for being with us, Yvonne. Could you please introduce yourself and your startup?

My name is Yvonne Jamal, and I’m the co-founder and CEO of the JARO Institute for Sustainability Digitalization. We’re most focused on promoting the sustainable sourcing of anything a company needs to create its product and to run its business. It’s something at the core of what every company should prioritise— especially if they claim to be sustainable.

Broadly speaking, the acquisition of goods and services for companies is referred to as “procurement.” I’ve worked in it for a long time. Before that, my background was in B2B sales in tourism.

We’re a non-profit based in Berlin, and we have 48 members. Anyone who wants to get involved can join. We also run what we call the JARO Academy, with a lot of insights and knowledge that we want to spread among people.

So you run an institute and an academy?

The JARO Academy is a product we created with our network two years ago during the pandemic. It descends from the JARO Institute.

We get the word out on what we’re doing with a presence at conferences, workshops, or special events on procurement topics. We try to teach people how to build an organisation based on sustainable procurement principles, or how to include them in their existing corporate processes to create transformation within the entire organisation.

We struggled with the academy at first during the lockdown. Of course, we couldn’t run any events, and we couldn’t have in-person training, either; everything was cancelled. As a result, we decided to put all of our energy, network, ideas, and knowledge into creating an eLearning program. It now has 40 modules, all focused on sustainable procurement.

At first, the entire training was in English, but lately, we’ve been working on a translation into German— necessary for an organisation headquartered in Berlin— and even adding subtitles in Mandarin. Our idea has been to get the maximum amount of people to access what we’ve created, regardless of if you’re an organisation, a supplier, or someone working directly in procurement. We want everyone to be well-informed on what real sustainability is and how it can be achieved.

A noble mission: companies can’t be truly sustainable if their supply chains aren’t. How did you get to where you are now?

I used to work in tourism. At university, I studied business management but focused primarily on tourism management. I’ve worked abroad a lot: in the Maldives— where I met my husband— as well as in Kenya and Greece.

Climate change will transform the Maldives if humanity continues its overconsumption, and that’s what sort of kickstarted my motivation to get into what I’m doing now. But first, I had to find a way to solve this problem through either a private or business solution that would make a real impact.

So in 2013, I changed from working in business-to-business sales to business-to-business procurement, and that's when I realised how passionate I am about procurement. I love it when everyone can come together— from suppliers to organisations— to discover greener product sources and fairer purchasing practices. This path was more impactful, by far, than simply doing a little bit here and there and eating healthy organic products. I was determined to pursue this topic and focus on sustainable procurement wherever I was.

Absolutely. Though individual actions can be meaningful, encouraging clean behaviour on a larger scale is much more valuable in the fight against climate change. Where did your interest in sustainability and greenness come from?

It started when I was a teenager in school. First, I saw those classic kid’s magazines about whales, and collected signatures for eco petitions. Later on, I wanted to help in development programs by supporting aid work.

But I found that development programs were not interested in my tourism background, and I was a bit frustrated. I thought, “What can I do now?”

I wanted to help somehow, so I went to work in the Maldives and Kenya. That really opened my eyes: I saw the negative impacts, and challenges these countries were facing, due to climate change. The difference between “Western” countries and the Global South was striking.

It is striking, and concerning. What inspired you to create the JARO Institute?

I co-founded the JARO Institute with seven other association members. At first, I had the idea with my two colleagues and friends. We came together to figure out how we might be able to do it.

We didn't want an old-fashioned, exclusive-access sort of company; we wanted to build something where everybody could join. That kind of collaboration was one of the key topics we wanted to address. In our previous jobs, there was only so much we could do to work on a given problem because we had to stay within departmental boundaries. We wanted to transcend that.

In my career working for others, I was always eager to do more and to see the bigger picture, but I started to feel like I was usually two or three years ahead of my company's aspirations and trends. I’d say, “Come on, let's do something about this,” but my bosses would disagree and say it wasn't part of my job— that it was someone else's responsibility. That was quite frustrating. I wanted to do more and grow; I wanted to push beyond our limits.

As a group of founders, we wanted better communication with other departments— we wanted to change this stuck-in-the-mud dynamic.

Those experiences seem to have motivated you to get where you are today. Who do you think your key audience is?

Our key audience is CEOs, Chief Procurement Officers, and further procurement and supply chain professionals. We also speak directly to professionals in CSR— that’s short for Corporate Social Responsibility— and CSR managers in particular, who need this support due to their company’s compliance with the Diligence Act and other sustainability regulations in Germany.

Sometimes we speak to people in sales as companies’ sales teams are increasingly being asked about their procurement process. Other times to general employees as it can happen that a CTO or supervisor requests someone in their organisation to manage the sustainable procurement process of their company. Often, these people need help.

This is where JARO steps in. We educate people on what a sustainable procurement job is and what it entails. We then also support them with workable strategies and workflows. In addition, we build connections between managers and other professionals in order to multiply their impact.

What are you trying to achieve with the JARO Institute? And why does it matter?

We want businesses to understand the critical role of procurement as a multiplier for their organisation’s sustainability potential, from internal to external stakeholders like suppliers and NGOs. It’s important that they understand, on a foundational level, how to implement sustainable procurement processes with their entire team, departments, and outside partners— and that this leads to a new business model. We want to accomplish this through our workshops and presentations, and to support procurement professionals as they try to find their way.

“Procurement” might mean different things to different individuals. Why do you think people should care about it?

Every corporate expense is driven by procurement. As someone who works in procurement, you have the power to use your organisation’s money for the greater good, and to provide support to suppliers or other corporations who invest in sustainable practices and create sustainable products. Responsible behaviour as a procurer means making sure that your suppliers pay living wages, for example, or that they work in verified ways to reduce their environmental impact and to motivate and support them to do so. It also means to reflect and improve your own procurement behaviour in regards of demand management, sourcing strategies and contract terms to name a few. This is how a procurer “does their part” against climate change and toward sustainability.

There are hundreds of thousands of suppliers out there who you can influence for the better. You can truly create an impact on the market you work in, as well as on the products that exist in that market. We speak to people in procurement because, in the end, very few people have this much power in corporate sustainability commitments. Procurement is everywhere, though it may be unknown to the average person.

That’s very powerful. What do you think is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?

I love to work in a company that strives for the greater good; we’re all proud to be involved with it. I love that we can share and discuss real techniques in our presentations and workshops and help our clients to be more efficient, resilient and healthier for the environment and the society.

Seeing our methods work and our client's success is so fulfilling. Our clients have demonstrated that if you set your goals and objectives for sustainable procurement with your suppliers, you can accomplish them.

It’s important to ask a procurer about their supply chain and procurement practices to see if they genuinely understand sustainability. It’s daunting for a lot of people to even consider writing a clause into a contract with suppliers that says they should buy certified eco-energy products. One of the reasons our clients have been nervous about asking for this certification at first is because there’s a chance it can break the contract. But we’ve been able to support them in this decision: they’ve taken the leap and found no problem with their suppliers, who had either already acquired the certificate or would later go on to buy it. Again, this is extremely encouraging. I love it.

We’re very glad you’re seeing such success. Has the success always been there? Or have you had to go in a different direction than planned at some point in your life?

The biggest change in my life was after my studies when I went to work abroad. It led me to see the world's big picture and find a feeling of freedom. I was able to discover myself and know what was important to me.

Of course, becoming a mother of three children completely changed my life, too, even though it was planned. I'm so happy to have them. You could say I'm doing this work for them.

Career-wise, it was huge when I took that big step and left the traditional corporate career. I’d always worked in medium-to-large international corporations and leaving that to create a startup was profoundly different. However, in my life, and setting up JARO, I’m constantly pushing my boundaries to see what’s behind the next door. I’m curious and continuously challenging myself to see if I can do more and gain more learning experiences.

When was it that you noticed your entrepreneurial path taking shape like that?

It was very early. I was always curious to become an entrepreneur because both my father and grandfather were entrepreneurs. I was never scared of it. It was only ever a question of organisation: how could I finance this, or what exactly might I want to do? What did I want to achieve?

I was taught from an early age to have the self-confidence that it would work somehow, and if not, you just had to try something else, or search for another job. And even if a startup failed, there was always an enormous amount of experience to be gained— and the network of contacts I’d built could probably give me entry to working for someone else, if not myself.

Do you think you could say what the biggest challenges in your career have been?

In terms of JARO, the biggest challenge is ongoing: we still have a lot of work to do with limited financial resources. I’m glad to say that we’re financially stable, and that we’ve already reached our targets, but we still want to enter into new challenges for our team as there are so many topics to which we could contribute. It just requires more money. We’ll have to wait and see for now.

What do you think your biggest failures have been? And did you learn anything from them?

Well, we seem to have navigated away from huge failures because I discuss company decisions with my team, and I try to consider all points of view. On the other hand, we’ve had small failures due to special requirements in some of our work. Occasionally we’ve also had the feeling that things could have gone better in some aspects of our projects.

Did you have any big “Aha!” moments or epiphanies in your career?

I was on maternity leave at home after my third son was born, reflecting on what I wanted to do once my leave finished. I knew I wanted to do something other than return to my old job, but I wanted whatever I did to be something with a greater impact. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released during this time, showing that climate change was “widespread, rapid, and intensifying,” and I had some time to read it, as well as watch documentaries and read other studies.

It dawned on me that we needed to take urgent action to solve the sustainability crisis— a slightly different framing of the greater problem of climate change. I realised that everybody who worked in sourcing for companies needed to get a handle on this problem, and there was really no time to lose. It so happened that I knew procurement jargon, the processes involved, and what kinds of difficulties could arise, so I thought: all right! I’ve got to do this myself. That’s when I decided to create JARO.

They say luck is preparation meeting opportunity, after all. How did you find the people to start JARO?

I started JARO entirely with friends, family, and colleagues. We had the same chemistry and ideas, and we’d already worked together. I wanted to have support from my family, which meant that my husband was a co-founder. I wanted him to understand what I wanted to work on in the short and long term. We would recruit other staff directly if we met someone somewhere and thought they were very talented.

You mentioned you watched documentaries and read studies on maternity leave. Would you recommend any that you found particularly inspiring?

That blockbuster Sixth Assessment Report by the IPCC is out there, the one I mentioned earlier. It was released in 2021, and I’d recommend it very highly. It was extremely alarming— it probably lit a fire under a lot of people to go out and get to work. But there are also new reports.

Apart from that: the documentary Eating Our Way To Extinction by Otto and Ludo Brockway, featuring Kate Winslet, was very impressive in conveying an understanding of the situation. Additionally, Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet, a David Attenborough documentary directed by Jon Clay, was very impressive. It echoed how I try to educate the procurement professionals I work with because most have never heard the issues raised in it. I was shocked, for example, that most people working in procurement I’ve encountered don't know the term “planetary boundaries,” which refers to environmental limits within which humanity can live safely. This made me worried, actually— it’s almost an issue of basic sustainability literacy— so I wanted to push the topic further. Besides this, I love the documentaries of ARTE, who do fantastic research on mineral supply chains, for example about cobalt.

We wrote a guide in 2018 about how to implement sustainable procurement. It’s on our website for download. In addition, we launched our podcast last year, which is also a result of our work with our JARO members and their ideas. It’s only in German, but we hope it will be helpful for anyone involved in the acquisition of companies. It’s by procurement professionals, for procurement professionals, and we try to give them a voice. We want them to tell us how they do it, how they face their challenges, what they focus on, and what experiences they have had. We are currently preparing a third edition.

That’s great. And thank you for the documentary recommendations. What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you had to make to get where you are?

At the start of setting up JARO, it was challenging when everybody was saying, “Are you crazy? You're giving up your well-paid job for a non-profit organisation?” But I was like, “Yes.” The first two years were challenging as we had to settle and set up everything first. But now it’s working very well, and sustainable procurement is one of the hot topics in the business world, so we’re proud that we’re in the middle of everything and that we’ve made it.

Now having this success, you must realise you can't do it all at once, so you must prioritise. For example, I love sustainable tourism; however, sustainable procurement is going so well now, and it’s very in demand, so I have to push sustainable tourism back as a second priority. It hurts a bit because I'm a tourism professional at heart.

What future are you trying to help create?

The economy needs to invest time, human resources, money, and responsibility to push for a circular economy. Companies should not see regulation as a law they have to make, but they should want to do it of their own will. As procurement is trending more with consumers, companies cannot greenwash their products by doing half-hearted campaigns for customers and staff. The economy is increasingly showing that people understand what sustainable supply chains are and the impact they have.

We want everyone to work together. If scientists and NGOs tell us how to create a sustainable world, politicians and industries need to follow, or we won’t get anywhere. Change is on the way, but it needs to happen faster. However, we see that small- and medium-sized companies are engaging a huge amount now, and they’re highly motivated to create an impact.

What would you like future generations to take from your journey?

Don't be scared to try new things or challenge the status quo. Don't be scared to make mistakes, either— and stay open to connecting with people to maintain the spirit you had when you were younger and full of dreams. But also, try to find a way to make the biggest impact.

Not just that though: explore and travel the world, get high-paying positions, and get job openings that want you. But when it comes down to it, don’t lose your identity and values.

Is there any specific advice you would give young and upcoming entrepreneurs?

Always reflect on what you’re doing, as early and as often as possible— especially with help from outside yourself, like friends and partners. Try to collaborate with people as often and as much as possible, too: a strong network can help you in almost every situation.

The COVID pandemic happened just as we started working on our eLearning with JARO Academy. It was extremely concerning because we didn’t think we had the financial background to set up the eLearning— even at the outset, it seemed like it would take a lot of money and time. But we had a great network supporting us; trainers and corporate people helped us and said, “Hey, this idea is very promising; we’re willing to help you here and give you the support you need.”

If you had one lasting message to share with the world, what would it be?

Everyone should get out and contribute to changing the way we live, or it’s just not going to work. If you have the power in your job or country, you’ve got to do whatever you can to make the sustainability transformation possible. All of us, regardless of profession— and ideally on a larger-than-individual scale— must do anything we can to fight climate change, biodiversity loss, and the various social challenges we face. We must all do our part.

Thanks so much for spending some time with us and sharing a little about the promotion of sustainable corporate procurement. It is proof that meaningful work against climate change can come from places or positions that most people rarely think about. We wish the JARO Institute the greatest possible success in its mission.

The JARO Institute can be found at www.jaro-institut.de/en.

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