Jasmine Whitbread

Doctor of Laws Jasmine Whitbread

Tuesday 28 January 2014 at 11.15 am - Orator: Mr Bill Ray

Mr Vice-Chancellor,

It is very appropriate that it was Nelson Mandela who said:

“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

And there is perhaps no one in this room today more qualified to underline that point than Jasmine Whitbread, to whom we are awarding the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of her profound contribution to child welfare.

Jasmine has a Swiss mother and an English father who instilled in her and her brother, at an early age, that it was important to ‘make a difference in the world’. After attending the local comprehensive school in Twickenham, she was the first member of her family to attend University, coming here to Bristol to study English in 1983.

Jasmine enjoyed the eighties to the full (who can forget the overwhelming combination of grey and pink decoration and black ash furniture), from punk rock to going skiing whenever possible. She worked as a waitress in Clifton, shared a house in Cornwallis Crescent and had a great social life. Her dissertation was on Hemingway and she was encouraged to enter an English competition by a particularly inspirational tutor, which, to her surprise, she won. In Bristol, she developed the ability to formulate and structure arguments – an ability that would be enormously valuable throughout her career.

She graduated in 1986 and at that point, she asked a question that will be familiar to many of us: what next?

The answer, in Jasmine’s case, was to join the Marketing Department at Rio Tinto Zinc in Bristol. It was a small management job but through it she was introduced to Cortex, a software supplier who offered her a job in Boston Massachusetts. After two years at Cortex she decided to join Voluntary Service Overseas in Uganda, which proved to be a pivotal period in Jasmine’s life and one encounter turned out to be particularly important. She met a woman named Marion, who was just an ordinary woman, but she lived behind the factory where she worked, and despite not having the full use of her arms and legs, she looked after her one-year-old child in an incredibly confident way and had exactly the same hopes and aspirations as any other Mum would have. The seeds were sown for her choice of career.

However, after two years with VSO and more travelling, Jasmine needed a new challenge, and with the help of her Mum, who Fedexed her a suit to New York for the job interview, Jasmine joined Thomson Financial in Boston in 1994. This was possibly a surprising move given her subsequent career direction, but Howard Edelstein, her boss at Thomson Financial, believed in her talent and in five years Jasmine was promoted from Marketing Director to Managing Director. The nineties also saw the birth of her children, Holly and Felix, and she attended the Executive Program at Stanford.

Although Jasmine left Thomson to join Oxfam in 1999, she learned some valuable lessons. Firstly, Thomson was, to say the least, unhappy and offered her a very large sum to stay; secondly, Oxfam initially rejected her, causing Jasmine to re-evaluate herself and, when Oxfam did ask her to re-apply, it confirmed that this was indeed her career.  If you like, her destiny.

At Oxfam, she was appointed Regional Director for West Africa, with responsibility for twelve countries. Jasmine and her husband, Howard, who is here today, moved the family to Dakar in Senegal, and perhaps regretting not speaking Swiss German with her mother, Jasmine insisted the family speak French at home, something Holly and Felix may not yet have fully recovered from.

Jasmine brought focus and clarity to this role and returned to the UK in July 2002 as Oxfam’s International Director, responsible for their worldwide programs.

In 2005, Jasmine joined Save the Children as their UK CEO. Save the Children was founded in 1919, in England by a lady named Eglantyne Jebb, with the express purpose of helping children who faced starvation following the First World War.

The organisation’s vision is both simple and compelling: A world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation.

However, Save the Children grew by replicating itself in other countries so that by the start of this century, there were over 20 different national organisations operating independently in over 100 countries. For example in Ethiopia – each entity had its own country director, staff and infrastructure. 

This was clearly wasteful, and although some progress had been made to streamline the organisation, it was clear to Jasmine that Save the Children had to change and change fast if it was to survive and remain relevant.

As the UK CEO, Jasmine had two primary objectives. Firstly, to achieve a major improvement in its performance. She set the audacious goals of quadrupling its impact and doubling its revenues – both of which were achieved. And secondly to lay the groundwork for possibly the most ambitious restructuring of a global organisation ever attempted in this sector.

Her first task was to build a consensus on the need for and benefits of, radical change.

This involved building real trust amongst all the CEOs and developing a common vision of a flexible global network that could respond quickly to achieve breakthroughs for children in the decades ahead.

This was not straightforward. While countries were slowly unifying their offices and programs, they still reported in to 22 regional offices and 14 different headquarters.  Jasmine describes a defining moment as a meeting in Croydon (clearly it’s not all glamour) where after a particularly rousing speech by Bob Geldof, the audience pointed to her and the other CEOs, demanding to know when they were going to get their act together – or at least that’s how she interpreted it!

Finally, by late 2009, and following a meeting where the CEOs were not allowed to leave without a consensus, it was agreed to merge all international programs into one structure, and to set up a global non-executive board responsible for driving a unified strategy they called “One Save the Children”. 

In 2010 this new Board met for the first time and appointed Jasmine as the first CEO of Save the Chidren International.

Jasmine’s first task was to negotiate the legalities of the new organisation.  Fortunately, Freshfields provided legal advice on a pro-bono basis.  Unfortunately, as lawyers do, they also advised that they had never encountered anything so complicated, that the target dates were unrealistic and that there would be 120 legal agreements with 65 powers of attorney In 14 jurisdictions - not exactly plain sailing.

Further, while everyone had agreed in principle to the direction, there were many different views on what it meant in practice. Negotiations went round the clock for weeks on end. Jasmine told me that she had never attempted anything like this, that it resembled a billion dollar start up, and that there were some dark days for her personally during this period.

By the start of 2011 with the contracts still not agreed, the nay-sayers were having a field-day.  Things did not look good and something radical needed to be done.

So Jasmine took the CEOs off-site to see what was happening on the ground – no not Croydon, to Nepal.  It was a step into the unknown, but seeing the results on the ground paid off.  The Nepal country team was acting as one organisation; they were targeting a reduction in malnutrition from over 50% to under 35%. Government ministers told them that Save the Children was now the most significant non-governmental organisation in the country; the national media were positive and it was clear to everyone that none of this would have happened without the structural changes they were making. 

A couple of months later the contracts were signed, and in early 2013 the new organisation was in place.

Jasmine believes that the challenge now is to use this platform to partner with others to bring even greater benefits for children. And in early 2013, Save the Children was presented with the opportunity to bring the medical charity Merlin into the Save the Children family – thereby integrating 5000 staff in 18 countries over the next 12-18 months.  As Jasmine modestly says, no doubt there will be lots to learn along the way, but I’m confident this is the right thing to do.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, it is possible that some of us will recognize Jasmine as one of the M&S ‘leading ladies’ alongside Dame Helen Mirren, she is also a non-executive Director of British Telecom, and if everything goes according to plan, her next challenge will be to compete in the Henley boat race in the summer – we wish her well.

Jasmine Whitbread has said many times that a job is not worth doing unless it is scary and as the Chief Executive Officer of the world’s leading independent organisation for children, that reaches 125 million children annually and has a direct impact on 45 million, I would respectfully submit that she is more than living up to that principle.

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Jasmine Whitbread as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.


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