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Johanna-Mai Riismaa: “There is always hope for the future”

There is always hope for the future. Large scale crises accelerate change, and there is always both good and bad in there. Right now I meet a lot of people and organizations that are extremely active, trying to find new solutions, trying to create relief to the changing society. I have never witnessed this level […]


There is always hope for the future. Large scale crises accelerate change, and there is always both good and bad in there. Right now I meet a lot of people and organizations that are extremely active, trying to find new solutions, trying to create relief to the changing society. I have never witnessed this level of activity close by, and I find it extremely inspiring.


As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic I had the pleasure of interviewing Johanna-Mai Riismaa.

For over a decade, Johanna-Mai Riismaa has been passionate about helping teams of volunteers to fulfill their purpose. Johanna’s top expertise is team motivation, which is shown by her past experience mobilizing teams of over 400 volunteers. Her drive brought her to co-found Zelos, a task delegation app that makes volunteering easier for events and organisations.

When the COVID-19 crisis struck, Johanna decided to pivot her startup towards supporting civic initiatives that have arised with the pandemic. This resulted in the creation of a software bundle that allows people to launch community helplines.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Johanna-Mai! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I was born in Estonia, which was part of the Soviet Union. When I was seven my mother smuggled me to Finland, where she worked as an architect while I got to see very different cultures from a very early age. Estonia gained full independence a few years after, so we moved back, and I grew up in a very hectic environment where everyone was still figuring things out — a wild world where everything goes. The moment I turned 18, I took the opportunity to study abroad and travel, taking me on a 15-year quest of living all across Europe. I studied theatre production and worked for a variety of projects, mostly in arts and culture.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I think all of our company staff is heavily impacted by N. N. Taleb’s Antifragile and the concept of thriving in disorder. A lot like the wisdom of Pippi Longstocking, my personal heroine from the time I hadn’t yet read Taleb.

I’ve founded companies and ventures all my life, and I really value the feeling of independence. The entrepreneur life has taught me that some commitments tie you down more than others, and make you vulnerable to unforeseen changes. For example taking on many loans will really limit the scope of what decisions you can make down the road, as all options will need to include a way to make payments. And in case of a financial crisis, there may no longer be any good options on the table, and you need to start taking the bad ones.

Both Taleb and Pippi suggest that the way to thrive in disorder is to be less affected by things outside your reach and influence (like all types of crisis), and it’s something I try to achieve both in business and personal life.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

A garden doesn’t grow in a day.

Leading teams and communities takes time, effort and good planning. Some plants bloom next to each other, while others wither. Some will overgrow and some will not bear fruit. You cannot be upset at a flower you’ve planted for any of this. It might need a bigger pot, or long for different soil. And it will take years for a gardener to learn how to plan the beds.

Nature can also run its course, but if your goal is to harvest the expected crops (and achieve things with your community), you need to learn to take advantage of the seasons.

These are the lessons I’ve learned when recruiting, mobilizing and supporting volunteer teams at different events — and gardening. It’s always a setback when you change the gardener and bring in a new team leader. And it’s a huge setback to lose the existing plants and start from scratch — building on top of an existing community takes time and years, but is always worth it.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

In early March, Zelos Volunteer Management saw literally all clients go dark for 2020, as we were mostly servicing large events with a supportive community. That left us with a lot of free time and resources to help the teams addressing the pandemic.

We developed a community add-on for our task management app, so community leaders could receive help requests from the people in their local area. We’ve now supported the launch of community helplines with a variety of focuses — grocery delivery, mental health hotlines, and so on.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

When someone lives through a heroic moment, decides to act, and achieves a positive outcome is the moment they become a story that is an example to others. I think these stories are extremely important to encourage action in such situations — since they are proof that there can be positive outcomes. The story of a person catching the baby thrown from a burning building will encourage us to try to act the same. Positive things cannot happen if you don’t try, and we need heroes to encourage these attempts at doing the right thing. Even if the chances are slim. Especially if the chances are slim.

But we live in times with a lot of pressure to succeed. It’s hard to take action when the chance for success is low. A hero is a person who knows that they might not achieve the purpose, but they just cannot not try.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Courageous to act. When heroes are described as “selfless”, I interpret this as quick action where one doesn’t remain pondering about their personal interests, safety, authority, or consequences, and does the right thing. 
    My dog is absolutely a hero for standing up to the garbage van that collects our trash, definitely the ultimate scary situation in his dog life. He is selflessly confronting the noisy machine, putting himself at risk while trying to keep us safe.
  2. Has skin in the game.You’re not a hero for donating other people’s money. You’re not a hero for giving advice from afar. If you’re not directly involved in the situation, it’s not real.
  3. Doesn’t obviously profit. Sometimes dangerous and scary situations can yield a high level of return. If the likelihood of exiting from the situation with personal gains is high, you’re not a hero, but a fortune hunter.
  4. Is humble. Putting the world before your own personal interests need a fair share of humility. Creating a positive impact requires understanding first that it’s not all about you.
  5. Has integrity. To inspire others, a good hero needs some honest pride in what they’ve accomplished. No bragging, no denial. We need a fair story to set a good example.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

Difficult and scary decisions are made in difficult and scary situations. But actively searching for scary situations doesn’t make you a hero. A bungee jumper is not a hero, maybe just a bit brave and reckless.

The nurses, doctors, and essential personnel working in the COVID-19 crisis are heroes. They keep doing their job when everybody else flees in horror. This awful situation brought out the hero that was in them all along.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

Zelos was in an obviously sticky situation with all events and social gatherings canceled for the foreseeable future. Suddenly we had zero clients lined up instead of a year full of events to look forward to.

I think it was because we were so suddenly dipped into the pandemic, losing everything, when we realized that we are not alone.We were in the crisis together with everyone else, and emerging from a disaster can never be a solo gig. We needed to live through the crisis, and we realized there were many others who needed solutions as well.

We started by participating in a few hackathons and pulled in some external developers as volunteers to adapt the product to community use. Once we had proof that communities really benefit from our collaboration, and are able to mobilize themselves to fight the pandemic, we actively started looking for these collaboration opportunities and discovering new ways how people can provide crisis relief by simply collaborating and self-organizing.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

There are a lot of media heroes with exaggerated stories that set unrealistic expectations on what you need to do to become one. I feel that this distances us from the motivation to act — why bother saving one life if people on the front page are saving thousands? Should I fight for a small community initiative, when others are leading massive projects? Often these stories are not told in full, and all big changes still start with someone standing up and doing the right thing.

At Zelos, we don’t have access to the projects and content of the charities and communities who use our software — but we see activity data. And it’s an ultimate pleasure to see a new project that starts getting traffic, meaning that they have people joining the cause and committing to items on the to-do list. We don’t know what their tasks, goals, or motivations are; but seeing a group of people coming together (even if it’s remotely and digitally!) is what moves the mountains, whatever the cause. The number of team members in these projects is our hero count.

There are plenty of monuments for unknown soldiers. I think we need those also for “the unknown nurse”, “the unknown EMT” and maybe for “the unknown man who wore a mask”.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

As an experienced team manager, I’m probably trained to take all people’s projects with ultimate caution. And a pandemic is something that requires extreme collaboration from everyone, not only the high performers. I know from experience how hard it is to get everyone to comply with rules and regulations — much easier with a selected team, almost impossible with the mixed variety of everyone who happens to live in the same location.

With globalization, urbanization, and traveling as a lifestyle, we have a lot of extremely different people inhabiting cities around the world. Communicating information to all of them in an understandable way is extremely difficult even when the information is clear and concise. But now administrators need to communicate instructions that change based on new information uncovered every day.

To add insult to injury, many media channels are making a profit out of fear and panic clickbait. How do you compete with clickbait? When the pandemic hit, I used to play out lots of communication-related trainwrecks in my head. Now I’ve stopped, and am just trying to learn and take notes while keeping up with the news.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

There is always hope for the future. Large scale crises accelerate change, and there is always both good and bad in there. Right now I meet a lot of people and organizations that are extremely active, trying to find new solutions, trying to create relief to the changing society. I have never witnessed this level of activity close by, and I find it extremely inspiring.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

The crisis has triggered a lot of altruistic volunteering, there are examples of overwhelming volunteer recruitment programs around the world.

My favorite is the United Kingdom National Health Service receiving 750 000 volunteer applications in a week. It’s only human to respond with a willingness to help when it’s about fighting a big common enemy. I’m sure most of these people were not considering themselves as volunteers before.

My takeaway here is that we’ve underestimated the relevancy factor in community engagement. It’s not about recruitment processes or attractiveness of the volunteer program. The ability to attract a community is directly related to how relevant a cause is, and its ability to communicate that relevancy.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

I feel that I’ve learned a lot about mass media. I’ve always been interested in how filter bubbles and social networks construct perspectives for us. Now there are so many examples about what happens when people are pressured to act from this limited perspective, and what is their response when we change the rules in society,

This is especially interesting in individualistic cultures where personal freedom and opinions are highly valued. When individual thinking is encouraged, and people are expected to analyze and accept new rules instead of blind obedience, you get such a variety of interpretations.

It’s a huge lesson on how contradicting results two neighboring communities can produce — some will self-isolate themselves for months, while others will arrange mass gatherings to protest lockdown. It’s a great example of society displaying its underlying nature.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

The pandemic is giving us a reality check on the value of community and local production. With travel and movement restrictions we’re more likely to pay attention to our neighborhood — people living next door, businesses operating down the street. I really hope these experiences will change our behavior also in the long term, and we find ways for more communities to find value in supporting their neighbors and local businesses.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Start close by, start small, but keep your eyes on stars. Don’t abandon a cause because it seems too small. Small things grow, and it’s best if you grow with them. Every garden was started with a single flower, and no gardener started out with a field of a thousand blossoms.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂

Education for the youth. Learning practical skills for self-sustainability and mental health at an early age are extremely good tools to provide an enjoyable life in the world we are heading for, no matter problems we might face. I’m thinking of handicrafts, gardening, meditation, poetry, and fixing or mending existing items instead of buying new ones. I think we’ve lost focus on many of these valuable practices that make it easier to live a good life as a human being.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Melinda Gates!

How can our readers follow you online?

@johannamai, 
@zelos_app

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thank you!


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