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EPISODE 009 : 05/06/2021

Lenka Jelinek, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Green Zebra

Lenka Jelinek, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer for groundbreaking retailer Green Zebra, describes her journey to digitize the channel of the convenience store grocery retailer. Jelinek outlines the challenges and opportunities that she has encountered in her transition from compute market leader Intel to a leadership role at market innovator Green Zebra.

Green Zebra has changed the face of grocery retail in underserved and high-density, walking-friendly communities, and Jelinek is helping pave the way.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Lenka Jelinek

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Topics discussed in this episode

  • Lenka Jelinek’s engineering background at Intel in toy development
  • Lenka Jelinek’s transition from Intel to the startup world
  • The importance of having a nimble, local, healthy business model
  • The challenges of innovating in brick and mortar stores

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:06] Welcome to SparkPlug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe making mobile locations smarter today at SparkPlug, we’re happy to welcome Lenka Jelinek, Chief technology and innovation officer for Green Zebra. Laika has an exciting background in technology innovation and joined Green Zebra to help them lift their retail loyalty to the next level. So very excited to welcome you today.

Lenka Jelinek [00:00:36] Like Thank you and Ashley, thank you for inviting me. 

Ashley Coates [00:00:41] We’re so happy to have you here. Lenka will you start by telling us a little bit about your history at Green Zebra and what led you to this innovative company? 

Lenka Jelinek [00:00:51] Maybe a good place to start, especially before a Green Zebra, because that kind of sets the stage. So I consider myself lucky to have worked at Intel Corp. for 16 years, and I started there as an engineer fresh out of college and eventually grew to take on more leadership roles. And you know, and I say I’m lucky because during my 16 years, I got a chance to work on some really fun and industry changing projects ranging from will aid to wireless power to actually retail side products such as believe it or not, toys. And you know, and at the same time, I kind of hold my interest to not just create technology which as engineers love to do, but also to figure out how to translate that technology into something that people actually want to buy and enjoy. And that turns out to be a much more challenging endeavor. When I decided to leave Intel, I made a shift and that led me to work with small companies such as Green Zebra. 

Ashley Coates [00:02:03] That is fantastic. And you came out of a really fascinating world at Intel with, as you mentioned, toy development and the innovation hub work and lab works. Can you tell us how how it was going from Intel into the startup world? 

Lenka Jelinek [00:02:19] I loved it. I think one of the one of the nice things about starting out and kind of getting your chops working for a larger company is that you don’t have to worry about where your next paycheck is coming from, and you don’t have to worry about even purchasing technologies and trying new things. I think it was a great place to be creative and to not have to worry about those things once you grow in your confidence and skills. I think translating that to then to the small startup company, the smaller companies, I think, really is an opportunity. You know, the challenges are different, but the world is more nimble. You can see the effect of your decisions a lot more immediately and especially in the retail world. I really love that. I love the fact that in my current job, we can make a decision and sometimes within 30 minutes, we can see a little impact on that item being sold or that customer walking away happier. 

Ashley Coates [00:03:23] You mentioned the vision of Green Zebra. What is the goal of Green Zebra and how does that mission get realized in the real world? 

Lenka Jelinek [00:03:32] So the mission of Green Zebra is to bring healthy convenience to the world out there. And when I think of healthy convenience, I guess the best example one of the examples could be if you imagine you take Whole Foods, combine it with your 7-Eleven and you sprinkle in a little bit of Panera. And that’s what Green Zebra is. 

Ashley Coates [00:03:59] I like that. 

Lenka Jelinek [00:04:00] So, you know, and I know one of the missions also for Lisa is to bring this access to communities that normally may not have access to healthy foods. Because if you look around where a lot of convenience stores, they tend to be in neighborhoods where maybe you do not currently have your Whole Foods for a variety of reasons. So having smaller format, more nimble but still, you know, local healthy model we think is pretty attractive financially and from being of service to the community. 

Ashley Coates [00:04:33] Absolutely. It sounds like you’re really changing retail for the better, and maybe you can expand a little bit on what the differences between your everyday for profit retailer and a retailer like Green Zebra that really wants to make a positive impact on communities. 

Lenka Jelinek [00:04:52] And let’s be frank, we are not a nonprofit, so we are here to bring value to our shareholders and our investors, very much so. But I think just the format of healthy convenience itself lends the value to. A community we know the urban centers are growing. We know that Gen Z are now 26 percent of the population. Forty four billion dollars in spend. And they gravitate to brands that are more local, more sustainable. But at the same time, give them a choice and give them good value for their money. And so I fully believe that we can be a financially forward on top of a company that brings that value to the shareholders and investors. And at the same time, be of service to the community. And maybe it’s a nimbleness in our design that differentiates us from the traditional other companies. 

Ashley Coates [00:05:49] Absolutely. Nimbleness is very important. That’s fantastic. Can you also talk about the fact that Green Zebra is a female founded and female led company? And why is it important to have women run companies? 

Lenka Jelinek [00:06:04] Why wouldn’t it be important to have women led companies? To me, it was one of the things that drew me to Green Zebra. I wanted to find a company that I can do good and do well and help my skills and my experience to promote women and technology which don’t always have the same same opportunities. And, you know, they say technology and you may think Green Zebra well, but it’s a it’s a it’s a store. Nowadays, that differentiation really is less and less. It’s hard to find a business even in retail that doesn’t have a strong technical component. And so I wanted to bring that to the table, and I love the fact that the company is female founded. You know, the CEO’s female CFO is female CEOs female and now the CTO is female. 

Ashley Coates [00:06:58] That’s fantastic. 

Lenka Jelinek [00:07:00] All four of us also have daughters that we’re hoping to be role models to for the next generation of leaders. 

Ned Hayes [00:07:07] Wow, what a great model. According to case study from Harvard Business Review. You were brought on to initially analyze consumer loyalty, a Green Zebra and what changes you saw had to be made. 

Lenka Jelinek [00:07:22] One of the early insights that I got by analyzing the data and we can talk about the challenges of analysts losing data. But one of the insights that I saw is that we were trying to apply a loyalty in a way that a traditional store grocery store would apply. So one example being buy one, get one free, and that is a pretty common model, but it did not translate to financial value for us. We people do not shop us the same way that they shop a traditional grocery store, and we needed to recognize that and apply that to our marketing models, to our technology infrastructure, in our decisions with products we carry. And how do customers interact with those products? And what technology supports that? So that was probably one of the first insights that I got on our loyalty program in terms of zebra cash. The other insights that I got in this will now lead into more the technical side, the there’s a lot of innovation in loyalty nowadays. If you look at what exists out there, but applying those innovations to a market that is a brick and mortar store is extremely challenging. Google is not the company that invented the notion that data is valuable that has existed long before them. And these companies that provide the middle layer for small to midsize retailers know this, and they are securing that sandbox as much as they can and holding on to that value. And they know that it’s really hard to migrate because when you think about the set up that retailers have, we have cash registers. We cannot easily convert to a little square tablet, right? Because we need scales to be able to weigh things we need may be data security in a different way that a small mom and pop retailer may need. So we have infrastructure needs that are not satisfied off of the by the off the shelf technology that I can easily buy. And so we’re dependent on these retailers that are really guarding that sandbox. But at the same time, they’re having a hard time keeping up with the times. And so, you know, the example that I sometimes give people is you don’t think twice about getting data nowadays in, you know, a new company and the downloading and in a way that you can then process it and. Rolled into AI algorithms and get some insights. I have a hard time right now getting data in a format that I can run on Excel Pivot table off of our backend is, you know, just one step ahead of doing things with pen and paper. It’s not for the lack of wanting to do that. It’s because the the midstream technology providers that cater to your small and midsize retailers are also behind the times and are struggling to keep up. And the way that data is managed, the way that data is presented, the way the data is accessible so that I can look at trends, I can analyze them so I can connect them to an AI engine or partner with a third party. There was a guy named Howard that I know spoke with that we really wanted to do some interesting things together. You know, that is not easily possible right now because that back end just does not support integration. 

Ned Hayes [00:11:15] Right? So what did you put in place once you understood the challenge?

Lenka Jelinek [00:11:20] We had lots of interesting ideas for what to put in place and then COVID happened, and we had to, like everybody else, do a complete right hand turn from our plans to scale out scale up, grow stores, roll out a new loyalty program. We had lots of really fabulous plans that I still hope that we get a chance to execute. But with the onset of COVID, just as we were going through these transitions and ready to take on this additional investment, we had to pivot. And that’s that’s where that past some loyalty still does remain important. We definitely would believe that I was listening to some of your previous guests, such as Joe and Skip, and they were all talking about the importance of making shopping effortless and the fact that customers have little tolerance for friction, but yet still want to feel some kind of affinity and customization and white glove treatment that is still very important. And we still have things like digital punch cards and such which our customers can take advantage of if we want to grow that beyond. And I think now we think with post-COVID will be the chance to do that. 

Ashley Coates [00:12:40] Yeah. And I think Lenka, you’re starting to talk about this a little bit. But what about consumer behavior changes, changes you’ve noticed in terms of consumer behavior in the post-COVID world and what you expect might happen in the future? What behaviors have you noticed change have changed during this time and what do you expect will continue to change in the future? 

Lenka Jelinek [00:13:07] It’s interesting you ask that actually, Lisa and I were talking about that just this morning. We’re not quite post-COVID, but we’re not quite where we were throughout this last year. So we’re kind of in this crystal ball period where many retailers, I suspect, are trying to read the crystal ball of what’s coming, what will my life look like when COVID is truly over? Whatever that means. And one of the things that I think about is the role of online shopping that certainly has become a very significant customer behavior during COVID because of safety concerns and convenience and sometimes even just supply. Only one retailer didn’t have it. You just place that online order from the next one that is going to go away. It’s one of those things that drove that behavior. So then the question that we’re left with is what’s next? Is there an attraction to shopping online that will stick with customers? And we know it will. I’m a firm believer in online shopping being around. However, for customers in our segment, you know, the convenience, the spontaneous. I need something and I want it now that instant gratification of walking to a store and walking home with your dinner in your in your bag, right, right, then and there, and maybe through a couple of other things that you need it at the same time. You know, how does that translate to online in the post-COVID world? Will it? Does it even need to? We all tend to think that the latest and greatest technology and innovation and sometimes in fad has to be something we all need to do. There’s almost a certain amount of peer pressure. And you know, and again, I love technology. I’m a technologist, right? However, that doesn’t mean that we all need to do it. Sometimes it just plain does not make financial sense, and sometimes it may not make sense for other reasons. And so we are actively evaluating that and talking about it right now. 

Ned Hayes [00:15:16] So it sounds like consumer behavior you see changing over time. If I could extrapolate out five 10 years and have you be a futurist, what do you think the future of retail loyalty looks like? 

Lenka Jelinek [00:15:29] I think people will be drawn to places where technology and the human interaction are like yin and yang, yet where they form this perfect circle, this symbiotic relationship. I think in the retail experience, I think, is where you actually could possibly see even better then. And then other places, because there are elements of shopping that are filling and need in you to maybe interact with another human being to get a recommendation to have somebody tell you that looks great on you or you will love this. This new sauce we just got from a local vendor really hits the mark. You want to hear that you want to have that interaction at the same time. I think technology can help us get rid of all the boring stuff, you know, all the stuff that can be replicated streamlined. You don’t need humans to do that. You don’t need to be tracking inventory and standing there, counting how many things we have left on the shelf. And you know, and that’s actually part of what I’m trying to do right now is to do that while we work on the back end. Let technology take care of that and free up the time for us as humans to do the things that we do really well. And so for us, at Green Zebra that translates to our in-store stewards being there to be able to answer questions to help curate what it is that you put in the basket. And sometimes to just say, Hi Ned, hi Ashley, how are you doing? It’s great to see you again today. 

Ashley Coates [00:17:13] It’s exciting, Lenka, that you’re starting to work on what the future of of Green Zebra might look like. And on that note, we actually have one last question for you. What is your personal mission and how do you want to be remembered? 

Lenka Jelinek [00:17:29] We actually said personal. I have lots of professional missions, and we could talk about that for many, many hours, I’m sure. But on the personal side, I am probably like many people out there. I want to create positive ripples in the world. And you know, a couple of years ago, I read this book by Daniel Laporte called Desire Maps that really made me think about the why behind the what? Why do we set certain goals? Why do we make decisions to say no to something and yes to other things, and why? What does that mean to me? And as part of that exercise identified these four words that are like a personal compass to me. And so when I’m faced with a decision and that decision could be what’s the next opportunity that I take on or what type of events do I want to attend with my family? You know, I always ask myself, Will that make me feel appreciative? Will that make me feel gutsy? Will that make me feel playful or will that make me feel like I’m contributing? And my personal mission in life really is to find opportunities where I can answer yes to these questions as often as I possibly can and send those positive ripples into the world. 

Ashley Coates [00:19:04] Thank you so much for sharing that with us. 

Ned Hayes [00:19:07] Thanks for being with us today, Lenka. This is a great conversation. I look forward to seeing the future of retail and loyalty and tech at Green Zebra, and I hope that as COVID recedes, you’re able to recover and expand. 

Lenka Jelinek [00:19:21] Thank you. We look forward to that future as well, and I welcome both of you and any of your listeners do stop by and experience the Green Zebra experience. 

Ned Hayes [00:19:35] Thanks for listening today to the SparkPlug podcast hosted by me, Ned Hayes, and brought to you by SnowShoes For smarter mobile location, Spark Plug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe all content and copyright 2021 SparkPlug Media.