Cover Naomi Vowels and Frances Atkins, co-founders of Givvable

Frances Atkins and Naomi Vowels, co-founders of Givvable, are helping businesses to embed sustainability into their value chains. They share their journey as female entrepreneurs and some of the things they’ve learned along the way

A task that formerly took one of Naomi Vowels’ clients almost eight months to do, and even then it was not fully complete, is something that can be done by Vowels’ company in less than four seconds.

“It’s a pretty spectacular operational efficiency that we’ve found for businesses,” says Vowels, who with her sister Frances Atkins, co-founded Givvable in 2020, a platform that uses AI and machine learning to allow companies to vet and review suppliers, vendors and partners for their sustainability and ESG credentials so that they can build impact into their value chains.

Givvable is not the sisters' first entrepreneurial venture together. Vowels had been working as a diplomat and Atkins as a banker when they happened upon the idea for Red Shoe Stories, fully customisable picture books where your child becomes the lead character in the story, both in name and physical attributes.

“Kids love to see themselves in things and have that relatability. Frances and I come from a mixed background, and seeing ourselves in a story is something we hadn’t had growing up. It was always blond-haired children, so being able to personalise that and see different types of children in a book was important to us,” says Vowels, who worked with a graphic designer to create 150 different permutations of the lead character for the book.

Red Shoe Stories was a creative outlet for the sisters, but also turned out to be a stepping stone. Both Vowels and Atkins had thought they would return to their government and corporate careers respectively after setting up the venture, but interest from business clients who wanted to use the books for marketing purposes started to grow. This increased the impact Red Shoe Stories was having, because the sisters were donating one book to children’s literacy charity Room To Read for every book purchased, consumer or corporate.

“We started to get these larger orders and we thought, 'Isn’t this great?'. This company is making an impact through their normal business function. It’s not going through their CSR or through a foundation, but through marketing. And that got us thinking, why don’t businesses do this all the time?” says Vowels. It was the seed for what would become Givvable.

“We started to think about how we could turn this around so we could support organisations and corporates in environmental and social governance,” says Atkins. The sisters wanted to activate the purchasing power of these corporates. “Procurement is the second largest expense of corporates after staffing costs, which means that you have an incredible opportunity to have impact through making better purchasing decisions.”

By identifying the impact of suppliers, vendors and partners, companies would be able to make more responsible, sustainable spending choices. Enter Givvable, which captures a range of attributes and initiatives of businesses that companies and governments engage with, ranging from certifications, accreditations and commitments, to the initiatives that businesses are signatories on and their membership of organisations that are supporting a particular agenda. Givvable currently covers more than 250,000 companies around the world, and aggregates data from across a thousand different sources in collaboration with Microsoft’s AI and machine learning technologies, structuring and mapping the information to tell a corporate what it means in terms of impact.

Givvable’s clients span a range of industries. “The reality is that any business needs to make purchasing decisions and it has a choice about what those look like and what impact they could potentially have,” says Atkins, who is based in Givvable’s Sydney headquarters, while Vowels works in Singapore. “Ultimately, all businesses can make better purchasing decisions.”

Did you always have aspirations to become an entrepreneur and what do you like about running your own business?

Naomi Vowels: For me, there’s always been a desire to work for myself and do my own thing, but at the time we graduated, it would have been odd to have gone out and started your own business, whereas today there would be more openness to working in a startup or giving your own business a try. Even when we started Red Shoe Stories, I was still very hesitant. It took me several months to own that decision and tell people.

Having your own business is a double-edged sword. You can set your own hours, but the reality is you work all the time, and there’s not much off time. But not having that hierarchy and being able to make the decisions and take control is quite liberating.

Frances Atkins: One of the things I like about being an entrepreneur is that you’re almost given a licence to be persistent, to be a hustler. And I own that, because this is a really tough road, and to be given a licence to be like that helps. It means that the other side knows what to expect in terms of the way that you need to do business, because at the end of the day it’s a game of survival; startups are hard.

How have you found being a female entrepreneur?

FA: Whenever anyone says to us that only 3 percent of funding goes to women, I often counter with, 'Did you know that less than 1 percent of B2B and B2G contracts go to women-owned businesses?'. So what we find as a B2B enterprise solution is that often when we’re talking to potential customers, they are not used to seeing female tech entrepreneurs. There’s correlation between the amount of business that gets done with women-owned businesses in the B2B and B2G environment and the amount of funding that they’re getting. One of the things we like to do is raise awareness of that so people understand the implications of their purchasing decisions. And one of the key things we do on our platform is highlight the diversity of suppliers that businesses are engaging with. And it’s pretty woeful—there is not a lot of diversity in the supply chains of large corporates.

Do you have any advice for fellow female founders?

FA: Surround yourself with other female founders. Seek out those groups and be part of them. We have been part of the University of New South Wales’ New Wave programme [targeted at female entrepreneurs] and that was a really safe environment for us to seed and grow our ideas. The other thing is to own the fact that you are going to have to hustle and be persistent. The sooner you get comfortable with that and stop worrying about what people think, which women typically tend to do, the better.

NV: This is not specific to women founders, but start earlier than you need to. If you have an idea and want to do it, just start. There’s a lot of lead time in anything in entrepreneurship; it all takes a lot more time than you expect.

What are you most proud of professionally?

FA: We're bringing something new and fresh [to the market] and we're convincing corporates that they should allocate budget to it and trust a startup where there’s no blueprint for how to do this—we’ve designed how to do it ourselves.

NV: We’ve raised funding, brought on big multinational clients, been featured in experience centres for Microsoft, and been supported by these large organisations—when you stop and look back, actually we have done a huge amount as a small team in a short period of time.

FA: And I think one of the things that Naomi and I don't recognise, but is huge when you think about it, is that during this time Naomi has had two children and I have three children and when you overlay that it just feels like such a huge achievement, because we don't have the flexibility of time that some founders who don't have family commitments like that have.

How do you balance business and family?

NV: It’s hard. It's taken a while to work out, and I’m not even sure I have. But I've tried to put in structured blocks of when it’s work time and when it's not. I share school drop off and pick-up with my husband, and that's a non-negotiable. In the afternoon when the kids come home, I have those two hours with them, and if that means doing an extra three hours of work after they go to bed, then so be it. But, I've carved out that time.

FA: I'm not particularly good at it. I've been trying to just make sure that when I'm around the kids I’m always as present as I possibly can be. But it's hard to turn your mind off—you are always thinking about everything to do with your business. Both [business and family] are really demanding, and we're doing the best we can. You always think you're going to get to this next hurdle and it might be different. But, as the business grows, there are more challenges and more opportunities. So you have to try to figure out the right balance. I think we’re going to be life learners. And rather than just trying to be perfect, because that puts a lot of pressure on yourself, you do the best you can, and that looks different for every single person.

As sisters, how have you found working together?

NV: It has its advantages and disadvantages. We can discuss issues very heatedly, but then move on very quickly. We had never worked with each other before, so getting insight into how we each operate, think and execute was a learning curve. But now it’s been five years and we’ve figured out how to work with each other, where our strengths are, where our weaknesses are. It’s nice to work with family—you can debate more openly and transparently than you would with a non-family co-founder.

FA: You can be brutally honest about your performance or the performance of the business, which you might not if it was a non-family co-founder. But then we’re siblings, we grew up together and would bicker as kids. And we do that as adults and that can get in the way. But I think the benefits outweigh the challenges, because at the end of the day you’ve got to be really honest about where you’re at in your progress—if you’re not as a startup, you’re fooling yourself. It’s an environment where it’s survival of the fittest. And being sisters means we start with that [honesty] and that’s really great.

What is your vision for Givvable?

NV: To be the go-to for vetting supplier sustainability. If you want to check the sustainability profile of anyone you are doing business with, you go to Givvable and we’ll tell you what credentials those businesses have to validate their sustainability profile. And more than that, it becomes embedded in businesses’ processes that there’s a check through Givvable before they onboard their suppliers.

FA: I would like to drive meaningful, sustainable action, to really move the needle. Because at the moment there’s a lot of focus on measuring and reporting. It’s ticking a box. And that’s not what Givvable is about. We’re about driving action. We want people to do things differently. And that requires a real step change in the way that we operate.


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