Two sisters create a startup that puts sustainability into global supply chains

two women

In the innovative world of startups, a good idea can lead to a great one.

A few years ago, Australian sisters Naomi Vowels and Frances Atkins created a children’s book with a difference. They invited customers to go online and input a child’s name so that child could be made part of the story in a printed personalized copy.

The model was monetizable and scalable. And, best of all, everyone loved the books – including the kids.

Orders poured in from the public as well as from corporations that used the books as customized customer gifts.

Thankful for their success, Vowels and Atkins happily donated some proceeds to a non-profit that supports children’s literacy.

Giving back has always been in line with their business philosophy. They were, however, surprised that none of their customers had asked them about their corporate responsibility goals.

That made them think: How could they help companies understand why doing social good is also good for business?

Atkins, a lawyer-turned-banker, and Vowels, a diplomat, started brainstorming possibilities. They wanted to leverage their professional skills and follow their passion for social action and sustainability within a sound business model.

After several iterations, they landed on their big idea: givvable – a platform powered by artificial intelligence (AI) that helps businesses make informed and sustainable supply chain decisions.

A collection of children's books.
Above: The sisters produced personalized children’s books. Photo: givvable.

Consumers around the world are increasingly calling on industry to become carbon neutral and environmentally responsible. That means businesses must not just act sustainably themselves, they must also purchase goods and services from suppliers that do the same.

The givvable platform gathers intelligence on the sustainability actions of suppliers across supply chains.

Built on the cloud and using AI, it processes mountains of unstructured and uncleansed data into usable and searchable data formats. This information enables a company to monitor the actions of its vendors and partners and to search for new verified suppliers.

It also has a secondary function that maps the credentials of companies, organizations and governments to widely used sustainability and reporting frameworks – such as the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and those of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB).

This mapping provides industries and sectors a trusted hub for verified supplier intelligence.

Vowels cites an example of one Asia-Pacific technology and telecommunications company that prioritized U.N. SDG 13 on climate action under the GRI reporting framework and wanted its suppliers to help it achieve a 2030 net zero emissions target. So, it needed to know how many of its suppliers had set their own science-based targets, made public carbon disclosures and were committed to U.N. programs.

The platform developed by givvable is now capturing and tracking data on actions and commitments made by that company’s suppliers and maps these credentials to the U.N. SDGs. Through the platform, the company can now also find new suppliers that meet its requirements.

Above: Pitching their sustainable business model. Photo: givvable.

Similarly, givvable is also helping other companies monitor their international supply chains and vet suppliers on a range of other issues like modern-day slavery, human rights commitments and diversity goals.

The sisters believe their services are making a difference. But as is the case with any startup, the journey taken by Atkins and Vowels has not been easy or straightforward. The pair have had to work doubly hard to establish their credibility in business-to-business and business-to-government procurement spaces, where women-led companies account for less than 3% of businesses.

Fundraising by this female-owned company has also thrown up some hurdles. As Atkins puts it, “At meetings, it feels like we have had to prove ourselves worthy of being there before we can get to the actual conversation. We’ve learned through our male counterparts that that’s not the case for them. There’s an extra step to overcome before we can reach the same playing field as other businesses.”

Fortunately, Vowels and Atkins come from a long line of entrepreneurs and weren’t easily fazed. Their grandmother had been successful in business and has been a big influence on the sisters. Various aunts and uncles also helmed their own businesses and were always on hand to share their experiences.

Givvable3: a computer screen grab
Above: The platform can rate suppliers against the U.N.’s sustainability goals. Image: givvable

So, when the two knew they were onto a game-changing solution to a growing global need, both were ready to leave their jobs and dedicate themselves fully to givvable, albeit with some trepidation.

“This was by far one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Atkins recalls. “When we first started, we had a lot of naysayers. We were told companies didn’t care about sustainability and we had to overcome that by pushing through, showing people why it was important. Now, corporate sustainability is almost a given and there’s a lot of pressure to do more. Today, our focus is on conveying how givvable is the most effective way to reach our clients’ goals. Tomorrow, there will be new challenges, but we’re committed.”

“Every company will need to demonstrate their sustainability impact in the next few years,” adds Vowels. “Not only will they be looking at the way they’re working, but they’ll also be looking at the actions their suppliers are taking and whether those align with their own. The opportunity is big, our platform is ready, and we’re excited to scale.”

Working with a sibling isn’t for everyone, but Vowels and Atkins have made it work for them. They realized early on that the “unfiltered” candidness between siblings allowed them to bypass a lot of the “niceties” that other co-founders might have to grapple with.

As sisters, they already had a handle on each other’s personalities and temperaments, as well as their triggers and limits. As they got to know each other professionally, they developed a newfound respect for what the other brings to the table.

Based in Sydney, Atkins oversees product development as well as marketing and business development in Australia. Vowels, based in Singapore, takes care of operations, finance, data and business development in Asia.

“When it comes to strengths, we’re polar opposites – that makes us complementary,” Vowels explains. Atkins adds, “we naturally gravitated toward our roles based on our strengths – and it’s working out well.”

To make their idea come to life they searched for dependable tools and systems. From the get-go, Microsoft Azure has been their cloud of choice. Similarly, Microsoft AI and machine learning  software have been instrumental to structuring data and establishing the data relationships to accommodate increasingly complex requirements as their company grows.

a computer screen grab
Above: A screenshot of a givvable dashboard.

Reports are sent to clients via Microsoft Power BI to provide familiarity and peace of mind. “Using a product like Power BI means that the foundations are set. Our customers are confident about using these products, especially when it comes to security,” says Vowels. “Since our customers are already Power BI users, they can set up quickly and navigate their reports without needing to upskill or figure out a new software. This seamlessness has been instrumental.”

Two years into their givvable journey there is much to be proud of. As Atkins says, “We’ve stayed on course because we’re passionate about the problem we’re trying to solve. It’s why we’ve been able to overcome the challenges that have come our way.”

Vowels, smiling, adds, “And we’ve surrounded ourselves with some incredible people.”

TOP IMAGE: Solar panels on a distribution warehouse roof. Photo: Getty.