Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Jessamyn Sarmiento, Chief Marketing Officer of World Food Program USA.
- What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
Sometimes it’s good to break the rules. When you first start a career, everyone tells you how things are done. That’s the way it is. Here are your parameters. Don’t color outside the lines. I learned over time not to take this so seriously. There’s a lot to be said for trusting your own judgement. You can do things differently and will end up being much more creative. Instead of adhering 100 percent to “the right way” all the time, focus on what you believe to be your best ideas. Make your mistakes and learn from them. Don’t let others box you in.
- What is your current greatest professional challenge?
The challenge now is, how do we do what we need to do but protect ourselves and staff from burnout. We are living through a global humanitarian crisis. Vulnerable people across the planet are relying on us. Everything we do contributes to saving a life. Before the pandemic started, we were moving very fast to address a worsening hunger crisis. The pandemic pushed us to move even faster. We were working at 200 percent every day thinking, this is for now, and we can catch up on other work, and on our personal health, in the summer. We are optimistic about the new COVID-19 vaccines, but it will take a while for the world to recover, particularly in hard-hit areas.
- What inspires you most about your work?
I’ve always focused on organizations that contribute to betterment of the world and society, but my position at World Food Program USA is the most critical job I have ever done. I can see for myself how the work we do is helping people. When a severely hungry person in Syria or South Sudan gets food, that food means they have a future. I sit in DC at my desk doing my work, and my inspiration is the people risking their lives to deliver aid to people in really tough circumstances in far-flung places. I am in awe of the work they do, the compassion they have, their commitment, and all the things they give up to help others.
- How does your gender identity inform your work?
As a woman and mother of daughters, I am always thinking about the women and girls we serve. Women all over the world are heads of households, protecting and comforting families. But women are overlooked compared to their importance. I like to think I bring a perspective to my work that helps me make sure their stories are being told. One of the things that we decided to highlight as an issue at World Food Program USA is how gender inequality affects hunger. Women eat least and eat last. What can we do to help change those circumstances for women and girls? Many of the things necessary for a community’s success are almost all on the shoulders of mothers and women, yet they often are the last to receive resources and opportunities. When that changes, you will see families and communities become stronger.
- How can philanthropy support gender equity?
We have a responsibility to highlight gender inequality in access, leadership and decision-making, whether it is the people we serve around the world, or the people we work with professionally. Investing in gender equity is a pathway that touches on many other issues, so it cannot be viewed as a single issue. For instance, we know from research that women are more likely to experience food insecurity. So, I look at this question through the lens of hunger, and my takeaway is this: hunger cannot be reduced solely through the delivery of adequate food. Rather we must consider the varying levels of empowerment, particularly among women, to get to the root of the problem. A more holistic approach to gender investing in areas such as health, safety and financial wellbeing can be lifesaving to people who live in vulnerable situations.
- In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?
The things we need to get to zero hunger can only be done with equal opportunities for all people. Women, men, girls, boys, transgender and gay people must have access to human rights, including the right to food. We have to have gender equality to eradicate hunger, and I think that starts with women who are hubs in families and communities. It is important to have women at the table making decisions locally, in government, and in the board room. We have to spend the next decade working to overcome discriminative practices, especially in places where there is conflict, where girls tend to be more affected. Governments need policies that advance women. We all have to think about women’s empowerment and equality as a way to improve all lives.
More on Jessamyn Sarmiento:
Jessamyn Sarmiento is responsible for developing World Food Program USA’s high-impact, multi-channel marketing and communications strategy. She and her team work to promote, enhance and protect WFP USA’s reputation and advance policy and fundraising goals that positively position World Food Program USA and the United Nations World Food Programme in the U.S. market.
Prior to joining World Food Program USA, as an Obama Administration appointee, Jessamyn was head of communications and public affairs for the National Endowment for the Arts where she led a strategic brand refresh, helped the agency navigate reputational issues and produced the twice Emmy-nominated video series, the United States of Arts. Before that, she served as senior vice president and partner at global communications firm Fleishman-Hillard, where she developed and managed a highly successful consumer marketing practice representing government, non-profit and international organizations. Her portfolio also includes leadership positions at National Public Radio (NPR). Earlier in her career, Jessamyn was appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve in his administration, first at The White House and then the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
This interview has been minimally edited.
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