We Lead Episode Three with Yasmin Chandani
March 15th, 2022 | Story
March 15th, 2022 | Story
For episode 3 of our We Lead podcast series, we talked with Yasmin Chandani, the CEO of one of JSI’s affiliate organizations, inSupply Health. inSupply Health is an East African public health advisory firm dedicated to improving people’s access to essential health products and services. Yasmin previously served as Director on some of JSI’s largest global health supply chain projects and has a successful track record of contextualizing innovations and data-driven quality improvement approaches for building people-centered, responsive supply chains.
Hayley Dowdie: This is We Lead, presented by Voices of Public Health, the JSI podcast. The women who lead JSI’s global health programs come from all walks of life. Their stories are as diverse as the countries where they work and the people they serve. In this series, we’ll hear from women in leadership at JSI to learn more about their personal and professional journeys and what they’ve discovered along the way.
Ebony Easley: Hi, I’m Ebony Easley, Deputy Director and Monitoring Learning and Evaluation Lead for the Access Collaborative. Thanks for tuning in. On today’s episode of We Lead, we’re talking with Yasmin Chandani. Yasmin is the CEO of one of JSI’s affiliate organizations, inSupply Health, which is an East African public health advisory firm dedicated to improving people’s access to essential health products and services. She previously served as director on some of JSI’s largest global health supply chain projects, including Supply Chains for Community Case Management and USAID|DELIVER. She has a successful track record of contextualizing innovations and data-driven quality improvement approaches for building people-centered, responsive supply chains. Yasmin joins us today from Nairobi. Hi, Yasmin. Thank you for joining us.
Yasmin: Hi, Ebony. Thank you for having me.
Ebony: Oftentimes when we meet and hear about accomplished individuals such as yourself, we forget or don’t have the opportunity to get to know who you are as humans. So tell me about yourself, how would your family and friends describe you?
Yasmin: So, thank you for that. And I think if you were to pick this moment in time, I think they’d use the word “busy,” right? Really, really busy. But I think it’s sort of where I am in terms of leading a startup, and also where I am in my life with two kids, a really busy life. Also having parents, mine and my husband’s parents, who we care for, and just busy being part of a busy community. In terms of who else I am, I think I would describe myself even more than I have in the past as an introvert. I think that came out from COVID. I was reminded how much I love being by myself and having alone time. So I think that’s been such a treasure that’s come out of the last two years. I love spending time in my garden with a good book, or we have a beautiful forest here in Nairobi called Karura Forest, and I can never get enough beach time. If you put me on a beach with my book, I would be happy there forever. Sadly, the beach here in East Africa is not – the Internet is not good – otherwise I would have moved my entire household and we would be working from there.
Yasmin: And then, I love dancing. When I was younger, I used to do the clubbing scene, but now, I just dance in my pajamas with my good friends at home. My kids think that’s horrendous, of course, when we make them dance with us.
And the other thing about me is, I’m totally not a morning person. Someone said to me a few weeks ago, “Oh, we hear that all CEOs wake up at 4:00 AM.” And I was like, “Yeah, not me. I am not a morning person.” I would much rather stay up until late after my kids are in bed and get everything done then. But the one good thing that has come out of COVID, for me, is that I’ve tried to be much more disciplined about getting movement in every day. So, I tend to spend some time in the morning helping myself wake up with some kind of activity, whether it’s a walk or something a little bit more active.
Ebony: Yasmin, you’ve mentioned family, you said you have parents, you have kids, you talked about work, working late at night. It sounds like there’s a lot on your plate. I get why the word “busy” comes to mind. When you think about all that’s on your plate, what’s your take away from where you are today?
Yasmin: Not ideal. I’m trying really hard to not be so busy. I think it’s inevitable. I talk to a lot of my friends, and part of it is just the role I play, it’s a really demanding role. I mean, running a startup is no small feat, it’s incredibly rewarding, but it’s also incredibly hard. I sometimes live in this bubble, I’m like, oh, I can delegate that, but I really can’t. So there’s certain things that I just see as the rights of passage right now. I have to get through the early years of a start-up, being in that, we call it the “sandwich generation,” where your kids still need you, but now your parents are older and they need you, and you still have friends. And unfortunately, I have such amazing friends, but they tend to get shifted right there at the bottom of the list. I try and be grateful for everything that I have going on in my life. It’s certainly better than not having family, not having friends, not having a rewarding thing to work on, but I think you have to be optimistic about some of these things and just know that it will pass, at least hope that it will pass.
Ebony: So you mentioned rights of passage. What do you feel you had to overcome in order to get to where you are today?
Yasmin: So you know, I just mentioned… [chuckle] so, maybe I’ll make a bit of a joke about this. I have a terrible memory. I think after I had my kids, I lost hundreds of brain cells from lack of sleep and I just don’t retain very much anymore, unless I write it down. And I’m also very optimistic. And I think that combination helps a lot because I just forget bad things that happen for the most part, and when I approach a tough time, I think I just put my head down and just say, okay, I can get through this. It’s just X amount of days or I’ll try and look at the next day or week and just get through that period, as everyone… I think everyone goes through challenges. The way I look at, especially work-related challenges, but even personal ones, I want to grow through my life, I don’t think I’ll ever want to stop growing, and I think you can’t grow without going through a few tough times. So some of them can be really tough, but there was a time in my younger days where I think and maybe I’ll share two examples. I think where I struggle most is with people or where I have struggled most, I think is with people.
When I first entered the workforce, there were two females who should have been mentors, who I looked up to who were not very nice. And maybe they came from a generation where other women were competition. For whatever reason, they didn’t believe in uplifting, encouraging other women.
And so, I was really new to the workforce, I had no idea how to be in this industry, and I had no idea how to navigate them. Previously, I was so lucky, I had lots of super supportive people in my life. I gravitated towards them thinking, oh great, I can learn from them. And I learned the hard way that not everyone is there to help you.
Having said that, I did find my group of people. There are so many people who are willing to help other people, and I think you just have to find those people and understand that everyone’s in a different place. Not everyone is happy where they are, and so sometimes that unhappiness comes out in not so great ways in the workplace. So that was one thing, I think I had to go through a number of cycles. And it was always women. It was never men, that’s why there was a point where I was like, I just didn’t want to work with other women because it was so much easier to work with men.
That, well, changed. I became part of a team at JSI that was all women, and they were amazing, they were strong, they were passionate about what they did. We used to call ourselves the kickass ladies of the xx team. It was such a great experience that it reversed that thinking about working with women, which is a really good thing. But I think it’s really shaped who I am today, having gone through those two extremes.
I think the other thing that I’ve had to overcome more recently is understanding that as a woman leader, there aren’t that many prototypes for how I might do what I’m doing right now, and so when I first took on the CEO role, I used to question myself all the time. I was like, am I really the right person for this? I’m not doing it right because “right” looks like a lot of male, maybe white, CEO examples. And I’m sort of the polar opposite of…a stereotypical CEO. I’m really outspoken. I don’t do politics very well. I lead differently. And I think at some point I just had to decide, either I’m gonna do this and do it my way, or I’m gonna step down and let this male take over – this theoretical male can do it better than me. And I decided, let me try. I mean, I’ve had to adjust because I’m in a part of the world that is still very traditionally patriarchal. So as much as I try and I do my best, the system is not always lending itself to that, and I have comparators that look and behave very differently from me. But I have such an amazing team of colleagues and they’re great. There’s enough trust that they’ll say to me, let me do this one, you’re probably not best to do it, [chuckle] and they help me fill out where I’m not so strong.
Ebony: Considering your early career experiences working with women who you were hoping might be mentors, how do you approach younger women in their career as you’re working with them?
Yasmin: When we started inSupply, it was really important to me that it was a place where young people could thrive, and especially women. Because supply chain traditionally doesn’t attract a lot of women, and yet I think women can offer so much to a workplace. I think maybe I’m a little bit biased as well, because when we first started inSupply, I had a male colleague come to me and say, “I think we need to watch it,” because we had an entire team of women and maybe only one man for every five women. He said, “We’re going in the other direction. And that’s not healthy, either.” And it was a really good point; I have to watch my bias in the other direction. I guess, because I’m so committed to having young people and young women thrive, and I think if I can support men and women to become really strong and capable in what they do and also passionate about what they do, then we can build a really great team of people [who] try to be more inclusive in how they bring on teams and how they work with others.
Ebony: You mentioned your way of being a CEO, you mentioned that you’re outspoken, you said “I don’t politic very well,” what do you think are some of the benefits of the way you CEO?
Yasmin: I think that’s a really good question. I think that I’ve got that inner voice that always says, “Oh, here are the downsides,” but on the plus sides, I think what it means is that we have an environment of high trust at inSupply, because I don’t really play the politics game. And so there’s not a lot of space within the organization for that to come in. I think every organization has a little bit of it, but we don’t have it in a way that is noticeable or toxic. We did, you know. It’s a learning curve, right? Not because I did it, but because I was so oblivious, I didn’t put enough checks and balances when others did it. And now that I’ve learned that it happens regardless of what my example is, I’m more conscious to make sure that we keep a pulse on it and we make sure that there’s a sort of not a high tolerance. Oh, you can’t say “zero” because it’s hard, but we try not to do it.
And the leaders on my team don’t buy into that either, we’re all pretty straight shooters. There are people on my leadership team, but we have to be careful about blind spots, so I have people on the leadership team, who are really good at understanding how to navigate politics, how to navigate different personalities, especially when we work with partners and ministries. Those skills are super important, and we do a lot of individual strategizing knowing that’s a skill I don’t have. I will call them and say, “Okay, I need to go to this meeting tomorrow. I know this is going on, how do you suggest to handle it?” and they’ll give me the rundown. So I think one of the benefits is we’re very effective because I’m very aware of it as a weakness, and I acknowledge that. But it also doesn’t make its way into our culture, because I think that can be a bit toxic if it’s too much or if it’s the wrong kind of politicking.
Ebony: When you were young, did you imagine you’d be working in public health?
Yasmin: I think I did always know I wanted to work in health. Actually, no, that’s not true. When I was really young, I was one of those, my poor mother, I was one of those annoying kids that was always asking why, why, why. And I have a son who now does that to me all the time. My mom laughs a lot, she’s like, this is karma coming to roost. So when I was young, the line in the family was that I would be a lawyer because I always used to poke holes in people’s arguments, or if my mom and dad said something, I’d always find the loophole in it. But I think that wasn’t really my dream. I come from an Indian family and in that generation, you were either a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer. But in my heart, I think I always wanted to do health and I knew I didn’t like blood, and so I wasn’t gonna be a doctor, but I didn’t know what public health was, and I think what I never imagined I’d do was supply chains. I also never imagined that I’d love supply chains as much as I do.
Ebony: So how did you get here? How did you fall in love with supply chains?
Yasmin: [chuckle] I mean, it was completely by chance. I did get an MPH because I knew that that was the right thing for me as soon as I found out that there’s this field called public health where you don’t need to deal with blood and individuals, and you could do epidemiology, which to me is like being a detective. I love that kind of stuff. I went into MPH, I got a master’s in public health, and I also knew that I was much better suited to like, practical making things happen, hands-on implementation rather than policy-related work. And so when I was job hunting, I had two organizations I was interviewing for at the same time. One was JSI, and what drew me to JSI was the team. I had two interviews, one with each organization, they were like oil and water. They both had a panel of eight people, the one other organization had no women on that panel, JSI had one female on the panel. But the JSI team, they laughed, they joked, they made it a kinder process. The other organization was brutal. They looked at one line on my CV and drilled me about it; it was not a very pleasant experience.
And so when I got offers from both of them, it really came down to less about what I was going to do because in fact, the other organization was much more aligned with where my research was, it would have given me a chance to dive deeper into an area I had already started. But I just didn’t like the team very much, and so I chose JSI and they started working on a supply chain project, and I loved it. So it was a complete accident that I ended up working in supply chains, but I credit the JSI team for helping me fall in love with supply chains.
Ebony: After years in the field, I’m sure you’ve had experiences that warmed your heart, moved you, made you laugh, made you cry. What’s one of your favorite stories or experiences from your professional work?
Yasmin: So I’ll share two small ones. One is a very light-hearted one. In the early HIV days, I was intensively working across East Africa, and I had to go to Uganda almost every month. Uganda was one of the really early pioneers in what they were doing around distribution of ARVs, and I was working with the government very closely. So at the end of one very long day, I got into the elevator at the hotel and I was alone, and someone stuck their hand through the door just as the lift was closing. You know how they do that to get the door to open. And in stepped Bono, Bono from U2. I don’t know if he’s only in my generation or yours, but I used to love Bono, I used to love U2, and I froze the entire elevator ride; I did not say a word! I just looked at him and I stared at him and, poor guy, I must have made him so nervous, because for five flights, he chatted nonstop! He was like running his hand through his hair, he probably thought there was something stuck there, because I was just staring at him and not saying… I was such a weirdo. So that’s something I always look back on and I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I didn’t even say hello to him!” So that’s the one that makes me laugh at myself all the time.
And then another one, I think is maybe one that’s more of a heart-warming or touching my heart a little bit, it happened this year. So two years of no travel with COVID and we started to travel earlier this year. We’re implementing a really cool project in Northern Kenya in a county called Turkana that’s really focused on equity and inclusion. So we’re trying to make sure that as Kenya digitalizes, that some of the most marginalized communities don’t get left behind. And so specifically, we used human-centered design to modify a mobile solution for nomadic and low literate communities. And one of the innovations we’re trying out is what we’re calling paper to digital, where you take a picture and the data automatically gets digitalized. So we were doing user testing and I went to a really remote community to make sure for myself, because I think it’s really important as a leader, I don’t just hear reports from the field, but I actually see it in action.
So I went to see how is it working in the field; we sat under a tree as the stereotype goes, and that was so heart-warming. They were really warm and welcoming, of course, and they shared their stories of how this app and how using a mobile solution for them… Because in Kenya, [community health volunteers] CHVs are volunteers, they’re not always valued and treated like valuable members of the health system, and yet universal healthcare in Kenya is 100% reliant on them doing their job well. So they’re really, I think, under-motivated, under-valued.
And what they said was, when they were sharing their stories, they were saying how connected they felt to the health system, how empowered they felt, because not only did it save them time, which they really appreciated, they also loved the fact that they were sending data and they felt valued because people were using their data, their supervisors were using their data to actually make decisions. That was a really nice moment for me. I felt that it was worth it for what I do to hear that feedback, and it reminds me of the privilege I have, but also of the fact that we have opportunities to give back through the work we do.
Ebony: In your heart-warming story sitting under the tree with community health volunteers, you mentioned privilege, and so I’m wondering if you can comment on the types of privilege that you think you bring into your work and how they impact the way you do your work.
Yasmin: One thing I’m always conscious about I think, I came from a family that was very solidly middle class, if you were to use an American definition. We definitely didn’t have a lot of wealth, but in Kenya, that translates to really a lot of privilege. Now there’s a much bigger middle class in Kenya, it’s a very growing field and we’re still not at the upper end, we’re definitely not upper middle class. But I think when I was growing up, my parents struggled to pay school fees, but we always had food, we had a roof over our heads. So those kinds of things when I was growing up, I was always aware of how lucky we were. Kenya has come so far, it’s a lower middle-income country, but there are still so many very, very poor people who don’t get to eat every day.
One basic point of privilege I’ve always known I had was just having the basics. And my parents sacrificed a lot and they sent me to a private school, so I got a really good education that helped me get a scholarship for university. I also worked very hard, that was not something that was negotiable in our household. It’s not just about hard work, there are so many people that work very hard and don’t have opportunities, so I think I’m really conscious of the opportunities I have had in my life to get to where I am. I’ve also been so lucky as a Muslim woman. Depending on the kind of family and the kind of sect in Islam that you’re born in, many women have not had the opportunities I’ve had. And so I feel really, really lucky. My family is very progressive. Both my parents are deeply religious, very spiritual, but very progressive in their thinking. They didn’t treat me any different from my two brothers. In fact, for my dad, I was his favorite. We joke about it in the family.
Yasmin: So if anything, he used to build me up and encourage me more than anyone else in the family, and that’s really unusual as a Muslim girl; it makes a difference in your self-esteem and in the way you see yourself and in the way you think. He always told me, “You can do whatever you want.” He never put constraints on my opportunities that I had available to me. I think those are really big things for me that I remind myself of all the time, and I remind my kids of all the time that we have so much we shouldn’t take for granted. I think as a result, when I lead, I’m very conscious that I’ve been very lucky. I think JSI was such a great…When I say was, is a place where, for the most part, I was really nurtured and I was allowed to grow in the way I wanted to grow, no one put me on a track and said, “You have to stay there.”
Every time I got bored at JSI with my role I was in, and I said, “I wanted to do this,” I was given that opportunity, and I think that doesn’t happen to everyone. I know so many friends, I know people in my community that feel stuck in their jobs and in their careers. So I feel that I’ve been very blessed in so many ways. Coming back to the question about how that affects how I lead, I also want inSupply to be a place where people can find their way. If they have a passion, can we make it happen through the company? Because if they’re really good, I don’t want to lose them. Let them try and figure out how to change the world here instead of having to go somewhere else. I think one thing that makes me very emotional is when I go out to the field and I see other women who haven’t had the privilege I have, and who probably won’t benefit, that makes me very humble about the opportunities I’ve had.
Ebony: Thanks for sharing that Yasmin. A few times you’ve mentioned having… being a family of Indian descent, you’ve mentioned how your parents maybe thought about some work opportunities when you were younger, and I wonder about your experience leading an organization in Kenya as a Kenyan of Indian descent. How does that part of your identity impact your work at inSupply?
Yasmin: It’s a really good question, and remember when I talked about self-doubt a lot, that was a big part of it. And so I think Kenya is in a very interesting place. Very sadly, we have a long and checkered history of significant divisions along race, along tribal lines, where either the colonial government who left or subsequent governments used those divisions, who used those identities, I would say, to divide communities in Kenya. When I was growing up, Indians were very, very deliberately targeted, and it wasn’t a great time to be an Indian in Kenya and many Indians left, and not to say that Indians are blamers, I think many Indians did not, have not integrated well into the community. I mean, you could talk forever about why that is, the point is I think it’s so much better now, and it’s evolved a lot, but there’s still those memories and maybe underlying subconscious biases between different communities in Kenya.
And not only being of Indian descent but also being a woman, I sort of feel like I sometimes have two check marks against me in the leadership role at inSupply. It’s been hard to find a team of men who want to be led by a woman, and I think that’s got nothing to do with my race. That’s just a female, male thing. But now we’ve figured out how to find people. I just ask them straight up in an interview, “Have you had a female boss before?” It’s not easy, how are you going to cope with it? And I listen to what they say. And then we take it from there. And I’ve got some really amazing men on the team right now. But when it comes to Indian, I’m really conscious of that. I’m conscious that everyone has subconscious bias, including myself, and I have to check myself a lot in… So some of the practical ways I’m very careful about that is in Kenya, some people have a history of nepotism or cultural bias in selecting vendors or this or that. And so, I leave any decision that might imply that I’m favoring anyone. I remove myself from those decisions, completely from the process. It comes to me for final approval. So that, if there is any underlying mistrust, it doesn’t have an opportunity to rear itself in that scenario.
And then I also talk frankly about it with not everyone in the team, but with the leaders. I say, “When is this gonna be a problem for you guys, if I’m here? How do you want us to deal with the fact?” Because sometimes you know where the bias is, and so I think it’s not always easy… I’m not always seen as Kenyan. I think it’s complicated by the fact, also that my tertiary education was not in Kenya. It’s not just that I’m Indian or that [chuckle] I’m a woman, it’s the fact that my adult life was in the U.S. And so culturally, I bring that U.S. – I realized when I moved back here, I was firmly convinced I was very Kenyan until I moved back here and started working with a Kenyan team that has not left Kenya. And I realized that culturally I’m so American, in some of the things I do in the workplace, because my formative years were in the U.S. I think it’s complicated by all those things. And so the way we deal with it is that we’re very candid about it. We’re very careful about the jokes we make at work, because we don’t want it to become allowed to make jokes about people’s tribe or race or gender or things like that. But one-on-one, I will raise the question sometimes and say, “okay, tell me if…,” or we’ll joke. Like the police are notorious, they’re horrible, they love targeting Indians, because unfortunately, Indians are known to pay bribes. So I get stopped on the road all the time and I’m a woman, and so they think, “Oh, she’s going to run to her husband, who’ll run to her dad, and ask for help if the police stop and harass you.” And I’m, of course, not that kind of person. And both my dad and my husband don’t believe in bribing, [chuckle] so that wouldn’t have helped if I did anyway. So anyway, we joke about things like that and how each of us has different crosses we need to bear. But it just makes me more conscientious about inclusion as well. We’re really careful and we watch very carefully the balance of not only of gender, but ethnic balance in our organization. And we are proactive about trying to get people to learn about each other’s cultures, about foods in a positive way so that we can appreciate those differences between ourselves.
Ebony: Yasmin, thank you so much for your thoughtful responses. I really appreciate hearing from you today.
Yasmin: Thank you so much, Ebony!
Hayley Dowdie: Thanks for listening to this episode of We Lead, presented by Voices of Public Health, the JSI podcast. We’d love to know what you thought of today’s conversation, connect with us at JSI Health on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and share the episode if you like what you heard. To learn more about JSI’s work to improve health outcomes for all, visit our website at jsi.com.
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