Back up your decisions, acts and plans with facts and supporting evidence. Then you have justification and validation that your gut is right. I believe that one of my greatest strengths is being able to see the big picture (for example, the US feminine hygiene market) and then knowing what needs to be done to maximize the market potential. So, you kind of know where you want to head, but then it is equally essential to justify the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. What would this mean, and why will it work? And how can we get there, is it practical, will it reap the expected returns?
I had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Robinson. With a 30-year background leading technology companies, Helen Robinson is an entrepreneur with interests in a diverse range of innovative organizations. A theme of Helen’s career has been a strong passion and drive to improve the quality of life for all, and to deliver value to stakeholders through innovation and technology. She specializes in forming and growing businesses which ‘do good’ on a mass scale. Helen is the CEO, Director and founding partner of Organic Initiative, (Oi). Founded in New Zealand (NZ) in 2015, the company’s guiding mission is to remove plastic from hygiene products, starting with feminine hygiene. Today Oi is the fastest growing feminine hygiene brand in NZ and can be found in more than 10,000 stores in the USA, including Walmart and H-E-B, and online at Amazon. Helen has held a range of executive roles over her career including CEO of Microsoft in New Zealand and Vice President of Pivotal Corporation’s Asia Pacific division. While she boasts a strong background in tech, her passion has always been in finding ways to save the environment. She helped found and was CEO of the TZ1 Registry providing transparency and integrity to environmental markets, facilitating its sale to Markit Group where she went on to act as Global Managing Director, Markit Environmental Registry. Acting as an Independent Director for a range of diverse companies, Helen was the inaugural Chair, The Network for Learning Ltd, responsible for transforming all schools in New Zealand to modern learning environments. Helen was recognized in the 2017 Queen’s Honours Awards as an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM). She won the New Zealand Supreme Women of Influence Award 2016 after taking out the Board and Management Category and received the award for the Most Inspiring Individual at NZ Innovation Awards 2017. Helen is married and has three adult children. She moved to California in 2018 to launch and grow Oi in the competitive U.S. market.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to start on your career path?
Mycareer has been made up of three parts: 1) leading tech companies; 2) chairing and directing a diverse range of companies; and 3) helping lead change in the environmental, sustainability and health markets.
It would be great to say I planned my entrée diligently into the tech world, but actually I “fell” into it. A rebel at heart, leaving school halfway through my final year, I planned to work a while and then study law. However, following a stint at a bank where, surprisingly, I learned the art of entrepreneurship, sales and marketing (another story!) I was offered a role as the “Assistant DP Manager” in a mid-sized distribution company.
With a pretty good basis in math and sciences, perhaps it was inevitable that I loved computers (not the technical side but their application), and it was there that I fell in love with business. I believe that when conducted ethically and responsibly, business has the power to improve the lives of everyone in a society.
With no tertiary qualifications available in tech back in the early ’80s, it was “easy” to land leadership roles, despite being a female in a male world. (Time for a quick shout-out to the girls-only Catholic school I attended where we were taught that girls can do anything, and if you met my sisters and school friends, this could not be disputed!) At the ripe age of 19, I was appointed DP Manager, and at 24 led the largest IBM and HP reseller business in NZ. This was the start of my tech journey.
In the mid ’80s I was asked to join the board for a tertiary institution’s computing department where we started classes in computing, then went on to become a Director, then Chair of the NZ Business Excellence Foundation, then to act as a Director of the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, which is our country’s equivalent of NOAA. This was the start of my governance career (albeit always while working in a full-time leadership position).
Governance has taught me so many things: the importance of great directors, how to listen and learn, the necessity of business intelligence and risk, of diversity in all forms, including thought, and how to get the best outcome for the organization. It has also taught me that my rebellion as a teenager is alive and kicking. And that, unfortunately, there are still the boards of some companies that cannot be flexible (another story!). All in all, however, as a Director for some diverse organizations, I am exceptionally proud of the change that we have created.
“Do good at scale” became my personal mission long ago. I believe that a single person, and a single organization, can truly drive change in the world. The TZ1 Registry was part of TZ1 Market which was set up to form a carbon trading platform. Traveling the world to help environmental markets have transparency and ensure its assets have authenticity, made it easy to see that to do this well we had to have a global presence. This little Kiwi company set up offices in New York and London, which I commuted to weekly from NZ (yet another story!). We went on to sell the TZ1 Registry very quickly to the amazing Markit Group (the TZ1 Registry is now called the Markit Environmental Registry).
In 2014, I was introduced to the sobering reality that conventional feminine hygiene products were made from plastic, which is neither healthy nor biodegradable (and yet half the population uses these for half our lives!). We formed Organic Initiative (Oi) in early 2015 to remove plastic from hygiene products, starting with feminine hygiene. Our brand promise is always to be the best we can be, and slowly we are taking the market by storm. It is truly a “do good at scale” play. All women deserve healthy and biodegradable sanitary products, and the world deserves sustainability.
Did you set out to start a movement? If so, what was your vision?
Utterly and entirely! Oi is all about helping encourage all people to be healthy and to look after our world. Oi’s brand is a ‘provocative, positive protest.’ It is designed to help educate the market and to emphasize that we all have a choice to make a positive change for our well-being and that of our planet.
Oi exemplifies my desire to do good at scale. Ours is a drive to complete change across the world market by taking plastic out of hygiene products, starting with feminine hygiene.
The world is groaning under the weight of toxins, plastics, and chemicals. Here’s a stat that will shock you — the average sanitary pad has the same amount of plastic as four grocery bags. Whoa! We only have one earth — there is no Plan B. With all the amazing technology, are we really getting better? Health problems continue. We continue to pollute our planet. We continue to just purchase what we’ve always bought. It just made sense to combine great technology with natural pure ingredients for our health and for the environment. We want to stand up for what’s right and make a difference in the world to make it a better place for everyone. This isn’t a female issue — this is a human race issue in our opinion.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
This is not so much funny, nor a mistake (lots of those too, but another time!), but rather incredibly insightful. At the beginning of Oi, I spent most of my time on the road selling to supermarkets.
At one supermarket, there was a young Muslim male buyer. He was very pragmatic and like most buyers excited to carry Oi. When we started to discuss which SKUs he would take, I realized he had no idea the difference between an applicator tampon and a non-applicator tampon (in New Zealand most women use non-applicator tampons as opposed to the USA where most use applicator tampons), or actually even what a tampon was. I asked him if he would like me to explain. It was a most respectful conversation, and he was completely delighted to finally understand what they were stocking, and what these actually were.
Can you share some of the lessons you learned along the way?
So many lessons here. Firstly, men care about the women in their lives, and the health of their bodies. (I believe that fundamentally every human being cares about every other human being, this is our basic trait let down only by a few.)
Most men still do not know about periods or feminine hygiene products. Men have typically been left out of what is such a normal life occurrence for far too long. Oi has the potential to not only drive change for women’s health and for removing plastic from hygiene products but also to help create the conversation to make periods normal. While there may be sensitivity about the topic in some segments of the population, and we must be respectful of that, what inspires me is that young people want to be included, to understand facts about life and the planet and to help make a change for good.
Recently I met a family of six, a husband and wife with four daughters. Every time one of the girls gets her first period, Dad takes her out for a father/daughter celebration. Here’s a dad that supports his daughters and that is teaching them to be proud and joyful about a natural occurrence they will experience for the next 40 or so years.
In the USA (and the rest of the world!) there is openness about safe sex, HIV risk, drug use, mental health, breast cancer, guns, etc., but we don’t talk about periods — really! This particular dad was so refreshing and a great example of where men can help lead change as well as create normalcy and transparency in the everyday occurrence of periods.
At Oi, we learned early on that to involve men in the conversation is essential; our approach is to start by saying, “You’re a modern man aren’t you?” What can he say to that!
Can you describe how you, or your organization, is making a significant social impact?
Each year, people in the US generate about 128 thousand tons of waste from FemCare products and over 5 million tons of refuse over the lifetime of their periods. Since we launched in 2015, we’ve removed thousands of tons of waste — equal to 8-times the height of the Golden Gate bridge.
Plus, we are helping thousands of women remove potentially harmful chemicals and plastics from their bodies, while we help women and young girls feel more empowered about the contributions they are making for a cleaner earth.
We base all significant policies and procedures on human rights as set out by the United Nations declaration of human rights. This extends to everyone, our customers, suppliers, employees, our communities and shareholders. Additionally, we believe that “charity begins at home” and that there are thousands, even millions of people who suffer in our communities every day. Consider the young girls in many areas who do not go to school because they do not have access to sanitary products. Or women who are trying to rehabilitate themselves after facing challenging times. To support causes like these, Oi proudly supports numerous social enterprises and charities, both in New Zealand and in the USA.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?
This isn’t so much a single individual as about the numerous people who have told us how we have helped them.
The best way to learn about our customers and their needs (and how we should do things differently) is to get out and about — in stores and shows talking to people directly.
Virtually every time I talk with customers, someone tells me how much Oi has helped them. At one show, a woman threw her arms around me and thanked me for “changing her world”! She told us that she had had 2-week-long periods since she started menstruating, and since changing to Oi,` these are now 3 days long. So many women have shared that they could not use conventional products (due to reactions) but can use Oi, meaning they have tremendous freedom no matter what time of month it is!
While there are not yet any clinical studies on the benefits of 100% certified cotton FemCare products (and there should be), we have enough anecdotal feedback to be completely certain of the changes we are making in women’s health. Recently, when in a Walmart store, a young girl and her mum were so excited to know that she could make a real difference in the environment. Many young girls are driving the product choice for Oi, more for the world’s climate than for their health. It’s great that our young people will drag us older folk into making good choices.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1. Just like we are seeing a movement to ban plastic bags in grocery stores, Oi would like to see a ban on the use of plastic in all hygiene products. It can be done, and it would make a huge difference for individuals’ health, communities and the earth. Initially, large retailers could take this stance, which may help pull regions, states and then national governments to legislate such a change.
2. Tampons are considered medical devices and as such are not required to have their ingredients printed on their packaging. We believe this is wrong — we know what we put on our skin but not inside our bodies — really! This would be such a simple move for politicians to make.
3. Oi supports efforts to eliminate taxes for healthy biodegradable sanitary products. Some states and countries have removed this tax, but this includes all sanitary products, not only healthy, biodegradable ones. If we can’t get number 1 above implemented, then just like there is a hefty tax on cigarettes and alcohol, why don’t we put a bigger tax on plastic hygiene products?
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Unbeknown to most, everyone is or can be a leader. A title does not mean that you lead. Leadership is about influence and removing barriers that prevent people from maximizing their potential.
Just because you have a “C” at the start of your title does not mean that you lead. Great warehouse staff can drive change; great assistants can make things happen and influence outcomes. Greta Thunberg, the well-known teen climate activist, is not a business leader, but she is a leader, influencing millions of people, young and old that our current thinking is not good enough, that action is needed to fight the climate change battle and save our world for future generations.
A great leader will hire and develop the best people for the best roles. The older you get, the more you realize that you cannot possibly know everything and that the only way an organization can be successful is first determining the right roles but then essentially ensuring that you bring in the absolute experts to fill those roles. I swear everyone at Oi is far better than me in most areas, that we all have our own specialties, experiences, skills and talents. With a “Better Together” mentality, you can have an equal team of diverse expertise driving the best outcome possible.
With these best people filling the right roles, then all that’s left (after managing risk, cash, strategies and everything else!) is how you deal with ambiguity. I believe that the best leaders are not afraid to make decisions calling on all resources they have available, and all their experience and gut feeling. The best leaders will manage ambiguity and make the right call at the right time. As Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is a hallucination.”
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.]
1. Always follow your gut/listen to your intuition. Early on, when working for a large tech company, we would use an interview panel to hire new team members. Initially, when the rest of the panel was keen on one candidate, but all my instincts cried out differently, I didn’t speak up. I learned that if my intuition told me someone was going to be a good fit — or not — that I needed to follow that intuition, even if other people in the room disagreed. Most times, my gut is right! (Except when you know you really shouldn’t finish that bag of potato chips!)
2. Back up your decisions, acts and plans with facts and supporting evidence. Then you have justification and validation that your gut is right. I believe that one of my greatest strengths is being able to see the big picture (for example, the US feminine hygiene market) and then knowing what needs to be done to maximize the market potential. So, you kind of know where you want to head, but then it is equally essential to justify the ‘why’ and the ‘how’. What would this mean, and why will it work? And how can we get there, is it practical, will it reap the expected returns?
3. Don’t allow yourself to be bullied by anyone. This is especially important for women leaders who must always stand up for what they believe to be right. Despite my position as a leader, some have tried to bully me. In my 20s, running a large New Zealand-based IT company, there was an executive who called me one day yelling, swearing and in general, being verbally abusive. I didn’t let him scare me, and I didn’t back down. In a professional manner my response was, “Tom (name changed to protect the guilty), when you are ready to calm down and talk rationally, call me back.” Then I hung up. Women need to learn this lesson early on in business and life. Don’t let others walk all over you. Don’t let a need to be liked to overshadow the more important goal of being respected and trusted. And finally, even in business, always treat people the way you would like to be treated. That’s not an unusual piece of advice, but it is one we in the business world forget all too often.
4. One person can change the world/one person can make a difference. Too often when we work for a large corporation or face a daunting task, we take the easy way out and say it can’t be done. Well, it can be done and thousands of successful leaders show us how every day. Everyone should have a (Kiwi) “can do” attitude. I’m very proud of the thousands of tons of waste Oi is removing from the environment, and the enormous difference we are making for so many millions of women across the world.
5. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s easy to get caught in the weeds, but actually, the weeds aren’t important. Always focus on the bigger picture. What is dragging you down today won’t be tomorrow. Then, when you need to do something you don’t enjoy, get on and do it straight away. Difficult tasks compound every day they don’t get done. I tend to see the best in people. There are many situations when I should have made changes the second I realized to trust my perception. But far too many times, I wanted it [the situation or person] to improve so badly that it seemed easier to try to resolve the situation than dealing with it and moving on. If only I knew!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was incredibly fortunate to have fantastic parents. My mother was one of the smartest people I know, raised six kids, then went back to school at the age of 44.
A successful businessman, my father was incredibly supportive of us all. One of his favorite sayings was, “give ’em hell” whenever there was a challenge ahead, often adding, “don’t let the buggers get you down.”
To me, what dad was really saying was don’t live life with your head down. Live and work with full intensity and purpose. He was telling me to stand tall, be positive, but he also reminded me to be warm, friendly and engaging and not to let myself be swayed by insolence or negativity. These quotes have helped me immensely over the years.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/helenrobinson99/ or on Twitter at @helenrobinson99. You can follow Oi on Instagram at @organicinitiative and on Twitter @Oi4me
Your work is making a massive positive impact on the planet, thank you so much!