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Johanna ‘José’ Zeilstra of Gender Fair: “Be a painkiller not a vitamin”

Be a painkiller not a vitamin. There has been a lot of effort — and substantial resources — invested in diversity and inclusion. Yet, somehow, there has been extraordinarily little progress. One reason for that is because these efforts, to date, have been “vitamins.” They are nice to have, rather than necessary. In order to see the progress we […]

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Be a painkiller not a vitamin. There has been a lot of effort — and substantial resources — invested in diversity and inclusion. Yet, somehow, there has been extraordinarily little progress. One reason for that is because these efforts, to date, have been “vitamins.” They are nice to have, rather than necessary. In order to see the progress we want and need to see, we need to create market pressures — add a little pain, so to speak — so it will be accelerated. Our efforts must be seen as painkillers, not just that vitamin that you can take or leave. We believe Gender Fair has created market pressure for companies when consumers change their buying decisions based on our metrics — even if it is only 1%.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Johanna (José) Zeilstra.

Ms. Zeilstra has over 25 years of experience in strategy, operations and change leadership, including 8 years at PricewaterhouseCoopers and 6 years at JPMorgan Chase. She is currently CEO of Gender Fair, a platform that uses data analytics to determine an organization’s progress towards diversity and inclusion. Prior to this, she co-founded GiveBack, an innovative platform that makes it easy for companies to build authentic and impactful workplace giving and other social responsibility initiatives, sponsored in part by Oprah Winfrey.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I had a very traditional career path, to start. I graduated with my master’s degree in Business Administration and immediately joined PricewaterhouseCoopers as a strategy consultant. From there, I worked my way up the partner track until I was recruited by JPMorgan in leadership development and to help with merger integration efforts with Chase. During those 14 years, I learned a lot about how large organizations work — and, to be frank, earned a good income while doing it. I was also afforded the privilege to work and live in Canada, China, the Netherlands, and Indonesia. Yet, I got to the point where I wanted to venture out on my own to try to create value outside the traditional corporate structure.

It was a real test — and not everything I tried worked. I’ve had successes like GiveBack, a non-profit that was launched on Oprah’s last season. And I’ve had projects that haven’t worked as well in the food and fashion industries. Becoming an entrepreneur has not been without its challenges, but, overall, it has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Although I miss the steady paycheck, I have no regrets.

My current venture, Gender Fair, was built on my passion for promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I’ve been working on it for 3 ½ years and, despite more than a few setbacks, we have made great progress. We are very excited to launch our updated app, which provides consumers the ability to search or scan products to see which are progressing on gender equality and diversity. It’s my most exciting project yet.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I’d like to say we are disrupting the inequalities that have been so pervasive in the workforce! We know that women (and many men) care deeply about these continued systemic disparities. That’s why we are seeing millions taking to the streets in this country and around the world, to demand greater equality and justice. We recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of women given the right to vote in the United States (and only 55 years for Black women) — yet the World Economic Forum estimates, on our current trajectory, it will take double that amount of time to achieve true economic gender equality. That path must be disrupted. Not just for women, but as the mother of 3 boys, for men, too.

What people don’t realize is that we hold the power to affect change just by supporting brands that support women. I’m not talking about just supporting female-founded companies. We can also vote with our wallets by supporting those in the Fortune 500 who have made true advances to create environments where women are valued. Women make approximately 85% or purchasing decisions and control up to 5 trillion dollars of annual spending power. When this can be directed, by making the simple, small everyday purchases of soap, toothpaste, and detergent, we have the power to affect change. If we all simply shifted just 10% of our purchasing toward Gender Fair brands, we could create enough pressure to encourage equal pay, paid family leave, and flexible work arrangements. In much the same way Fair Trade and Organic labeling have changed supply chains, consumers can also demand that organizations support fairness in their organizations through their spending habits.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

This was absolutely not funny at the time — but, now, we can look back and laugh. We held a big event at the 10th Anniversary of Women of the World conference last year in New York City. We planned to distribute bags to celebrities, corporate CEOs, and other VIPs. The bags were designed to have our logo on one side and the Women of the World logo on the other. Everything was set to be shipped to the venue but, in some kind of mix-up, the bags were sent to our corporate office instead. We had no idea at the time — we just knew the bags weren’t there. So, we had the entire staff of Women of the World scouting out Lincoln Center to find those bags. It was only after we connected with the bag company that we realized the mistake.

Thankfully, we managed to retrieve those bags and fill them with all the individual items provided by our Gender Fair brands — and give them out to the conference attendees on time. We now look back and make sure we triple-check all the logistical pieces of any event because, too often, it’s those little pieces that can be overlooked when you are so focused on the bigger picture.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I look at any woman who has created a successful business as a mentor. That said, if I had to pick a few names, I am a big fan of Sara Blakely, who turned Spanx into a billion-dollar business. But I think it’s just as important to take time to admire women in the small business space — all those women who are running a yoga studio, a retail store, or creating a new product. It is difficult enough to be an entrepreneur. Even with women receiving only 2% of venture capital funding than their male counterparts, they manage to run successful businesses. I run a Women Entrepreneurs Network in my community with more than 350 members, and I have to tell you, these women have been my mentors, my cheerleaders, and my inspiration, especially as they pivot their businesses during COVID-19.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

As much as I love fashion, my closet is filled with classic pieces that have stood the test of time. With styles changing as often as they do, there’s a lot of waste in this industry. Too often, we — women, especially — feel pressured to keep up with the latest trends with unnecessary purchases. As we continue to focus on sustainability, I think the fashion industry could do a better job of recycling classic brands so we can reduce the amount of energy, materials, and resources used as new designs continue to hit the market. A good example of this is Eileen Fisher who takes back clothes to give them new life. In other words, this industry is disrupting in a way that is positive (recycling) as well as not so positive (consumerism).

Advertising is one industry that, in my opinion, could use a little more disruption — both in terms of leadership and outreach. While many of the companies they represent are working hard to be more diverse, many of these agencies aren’t. They are mostly run by men who don’t seem to realize that women, particularly older women, are healthier and wealthier than they have ever been. Instead of trying to make us feel bad about ourselves — to sell us on an expensive eye cream, for example — they have a real opportunity to shake things up and reach us with products and services of substance. But that requires erasing the old advertising model, which is based on a lot of outdated gender stereotypes. I believe having more women leading creative agencies could help to foment that kind of change. Think of the incredible and innovative marketing programs that could come from teams that represent different races, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, ages, and body sizes.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. Extreme Focus. There is a lot of work to do around gender equality and diversity. We are often asked to participate in conferences, sit on panels, and lead different events. While talking about this issue is great, it’s vital that we focus on a single mission: to become the standard by which companies are assessed when it comes to gender equality and diversity. Through a certification process, we rate a company on its current state and progress. We cannot get too sidetracked with talks and events — even though education, too, is an important part of the effort. We need extreme focus so we can meet our goals of ensuring there is a consistent language, as well as standardized metrics, regarding diversity and inclusion so companies can know whether or not they are doing well in this area.
  2. Be a painkiller not a vitamin. There has been a lot of effort — and substantial resources — invested in diversity and inclusion. Yet, somehow, there has been extraordinarily little progress. One reason for that is because these efforts, to date, have been “vitamins.” They are nice to have, rather than necessary. In order to see the progress we want and need to see, we need to create market pressures — add a little pain, so to speak — so it will be accelerated. Our efforts must be seen as painkillers, not just that vitamin that you can take or leave. We believe Gender Fair has created market pressure for companies when consumers change their buying decisions based on our metrics — even if it is only 1%.
  3. Collaborate vs. Compete. No one can solve inequality on their own. Gender Fair always seeks ways to partner with other organizations in this space. When we work together, we can get to where we want to be 10x faster — and 10x better. Women are much more collaborative than they used to be. I’m seeing a lot more support for one another than I’ve experienced in the past and it is through collective action that we will all see accelerated change.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Our goal is to continue to create more transparency and accountability in organizations so that consumers have the data they need to assess a company’s gender equality right at their fingertips. This is about creating a better, more inclusive world for all. It’s not good enough to pay lip service to this issue. We’ve had enough companies placing a diverse advertisement or photos of people of color on their website while not addressing the issues within their own ranks. Companies are running out of excuses for not having greater diversity in their leadership teams. Also, we don’t give credit if an organization makes a pledge or is not transparent. If they provide maternity or paternity leave, for example, they need to put it on their career site as potential candidates rarely want to ask this in an interview. Same with the number of women and people of color in their organization and leadership. The numbers matter. We know that companies track this information and transparency is important.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Funding! Despite the success of women entrepreneurs, when you look at the stats, less than 2% of funding goes to women. And that’s despite the fact their success rate tends to be higher than their male counterparts. If women were to receive the same funding as men, I think we’d see greater — and faster — differences across industries.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I’m currently reading David Brooks’ The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. As someone who climbed my first mountain for 14 years with hard work and a good income, I’m more than ready for my second mountain. My valley (in between my first and second mountain) occurred after 9/11 while working on Wall Street, a block away from the World Trade Center. I became restless and realized I wanted to do something more important with my life — something that would make a real difference in the world. It took another 5 years for me to transition out of the corporate world and set aside some money to make this change. But it’s been well worth it. Brooks’ book resonated with me because I realized how important it was to me to find something deeper than just financial success.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

To whom much has been given, much is expected.” I’ve been blessed with a great upbringing, education, career success, and health. I have no reason not to take some risks to make the world a little better than I found it. I could have stayed on my corporate path but I think finding a way to make a difference that can bring about a better life for others is something that brings much more joy and satisfaction. It’s also been a great example to my children as they forge their own paths.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The Gender Fair movement really is for everyone interested in investing in gender quality and diversity. I’d like this movement to inspire the same kind of changes that Fair Trade, Organic, and the Good Housekeeping Seal have in making the world a better place. Currently, there is no official seal for gender quality/diversity, yet consumers, employees, donors and investors want this information so they can better support those organizations, products, and services in the marketplace. We want to make it easy for anyone to identify organizations that support gender equality and diversity so you can make decisions about which companies and brands to support.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find us @genderfair on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. It’s important to me that you aren’t just following me, the CEO, but our organization. We are a movement for change — and it belongs to everyone who is invested in creating a more fair, equitable future for all.

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