A couple of weeks ago I attended the XX in Health retreat in the Bay Area. One of the Rock Health’s initiatives, XX in Health, aims to drive change in healthcare by connecting and empowering female visionaries. At this retreat, a selected group of 130 female leaders came together to share their stories and discuss healthcare challenges and opportunities. The event had a particular significance for me, as it was a combination of two of my biggest passions: health/healthcare and women initiatives.
Hearing the stories of “battle to success” from female leaders such as Colleen Retain (COO, Health Care Services Corporation – with $50bn in revenues), Janet Widmann (Executive VP of Markets, Blue Shield), Bridget Duffy (Chief Medical Officer, Vocera), and Julie Goonewardene (President, KU Innovation and Collaboration & AMA Board of Trustees) was fascinating! Although I knew this would be a great event from the beginning, I walked away a lot more informed, inspired, and empowered than expected.
It’s important to increase the participation and leadership of women in any industry. However, after the event, I realized that women are uniquely positioned to have a particularly high impact in the healthcare industry. Read on to see my highlights for why women play such an important role in the healthcare reform.
1) Women are Chief Medical Officers in families: As Anula Jayasuriya (MD & Founder of Evolvence Fund) talked about, 80% of women are currently the Chief Medical Officers at their homes. They are the ones making decisions about the family’s health insurance, choosing doctors when needed, and taking care of family members when they are ill. As potential customers and decision makers, women are uniquely positioned to understand and tackle healthcare issues and design creative and scalable solutions.
2) Healthcare needs design thinking; empathy is the foundation of design thinking: As Vivek Wadhwa (VP of Innovation and Research, Singularity University) — the only male speaker and participant in the event — said, to fix complex healthcare problems we need creative design thinkers. He emphasized that “design thinking” requires empathy, and that women are socialized to be good at the core elements of empathy: listening, understanding, and caring about other’s problems. Thus, women are well positioned to take major roles in deciphering healthcare problems and designing solutions that address the customer’s latent and unmet needs.
3) Women are needed at every parts of the healthcare ecosystem: At the retreat we tried to understand the challenges that hinder female founders to get funded (particularly for female-focused businesses). The first problem we identified was that many male venture capitalists have a hard time understanding and thus funding women-related businesses (e.g. True & Co and Wildflower). Also, female VCs might be concerned as coming across as too pro-female if they invest in a high number of female founders. Another challenge is that venture capitalists are in the business of pattern recognition; they constantly search for entrepreneurs who have similar attributes to previous successful founders, especially those who have built unicorn businesses. That demographic is currently more similar to Mark Zuckerberg: a white male in his 20s, who’s a computer science dropout from an Ivy League school. Thus, female entrepreneurs and minorities, in particular, are at a disadvantage for fundraising.
During the retreat, a female founder whose company is focused on engaging and informing women during pregnancy shared her fundraising story. A prominent male VC said to her, “I invest only in companies that I can use their products; I’ll never be pregnant, so I won’t invest in your business.” Stories like this could frustrate and hurt, and they definitely illustrate the disadvantage of funding female-focused businesses.
Given the accountable, driven, and creative group of women congregated at the XX in Health retreat, we decided to tackle these types of problems by getting more involved and leaning in even more. We committed to increasing the sheer number of females who invest as angel investors/VC; we committed to starting digital health companies; and we committed to taking leading positions in large healthcare corporations.
Having more female VCs who understand the problems that female founders try to tackle will increase the likelihood of success of fundraising for female entrepreneurs. Having more successful female founders will lead to hiring more female executives and employees, and these female executives will potentially desire more female board members because they understand the value of diversity. See how this could build upon itself like a snowball and help us get more women in the healthcare system?
4) Diversity is the name of the game; be a woman and lead like a woman: Seeing women such as Colleen Retain and Janet Widmann at top executive positions of large healthcare companies was refreshing. The best part was that they both mentioned that at one point in their careers they realized that they didn’t need to act like men to be taken seriously. They both realized that the diversity and unique perspective that they brought to the table as a woman was what made them stand out. These women started getting comfortable being a woman and leading as a woman. As Janet said, “Being authentic is the best gift you’ve got. So take the advantage of being different.”
Indeed, more than anytime, we currently need diversity in small and large organizations. We need to embrace our differences (background, gender, ethnicity) and get involved in “making the healthcare work as it should“ (Jonathan Bush, CEO, athenahealth).
I’m excited to have the opportunity of enhancing healthcare through my work at athenahealth/Epocrates. I would like to invite all the women who are involved in building products or starting and leading organizations that solve healthcare problems to find ways to connect and support each other in this journey. At athenahealth, we have the Women’s Leadership Forum for exactly that purpose. Also, XX in Health started a great initiative across the nation to empower females in healthcare. Let’s all of us come together and join our male counterparts to disrupt the broken healthcare system and change it for the better.