HealthTech
10 March 2020

6 Female HealthTech and FinTech Innovation Leaders Explain How They Got Their Start

Written by Celia Fox

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The Women in Digital Health initiative at MassChallenge HealthTech began in February 2018 and is focused on providing female entrepreneurs and innovation executives with the resources, content, and supportive community to help them develop the skills and confidence to be leaders in digital health.
Since launching the initiative, we have hosted various quarterly events to bring these women together to network and learn from each other. To learn more about upcoming events, sign up for our newsletter

This past Sunday was International Women’s Day, which celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women around the globe. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, the MassChallenge HealthTech and MassChallenge FinTech teams are excited to highlight some of the amazing work our female partners, startups, and community members are doing to drive innovation in Boston and across the country.

Last year, we interviewed 8 female leaders in the Boston digital health scene. This year, we’ve interviewed several female leaders from across the country and with a diverse range of backgrounds and interests, but with the unifying quality of wanting to improve healthcare and financial services and make them more accessible. 

Who Are the Women Shaping Innovation in HealthTech and FinTech?

The 6 incredible women we want to highlight are:

DENIZ JOHNSON, FOUNDER/PRINCIPAL, PERA PARTNERS 

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Deniz Johnson, Founder/Principal, Pera Partners 

What is your role and background?

Throughout my career, I have held many roles where I was the first or only woman in technology roles. It has not been a straight line, and I have had to be very creative at times. Overall, my passion lies in removing bias and making AI implementable in highly regulated industries. 

Why FinTech?

Having seen how large organizations operate, I believe we can make our financial systems robust and agile, reducing the peaks and valleys by emerging technology adoption and partnering with startups to innovate and transform. One of the major transformation tools is AI technologies. However, if AI is not put in in an implementable, inclusive, responsible way, you are going to eliminate people or groups out of the system. It has been my passion to ensure that AI technology is being used in this way.

What advice would you give to young women pursuing leadership opportunities?

Be bold, have a purpose, and be pragmatic. It’s not a straight path. Being bold and having confidence in your skills may be scary, but is absolutely necessary. Don’t take “No” for an answer. I believe “No” is simply where the negotiation starts. 

How do you balance everything?

If you do something you love and are passionate about, you don’t realize how much is it or what the hours are. If 70% of what you do feeds your intellectual appetite, the other 30% becomes manageable.

MARY BELLARD, SENIOR INNOVATION ARCHITECT LEAD, MICROSOFT 

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Mary Bellard, Senior Innovation Architect Lead, Microsoft 

What is your role and background?

I am the innovation architect for Microsoft’s Chief Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie. I manage the accessibility innovation program to bring more inclusive and revolutionary ideas to market, and run the 5-year, $25 million Microsoft AI for Accessibility program. I was part of the group that created Seeing AI and am honored to run the Ability Hack initiative in Microsoft's global hackathon.

Previously, I strategized the overall accessibility training curriculum for employees and external partners to drive progress in usable experiences for everyone. I also played a key role in developing the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk when I joined the company in 2014 and have worked as an advocate for the disability community for more than 12 years.

I am originally from Brooklyn, NY and am a firm believer that anything is possible.

What has been the proudest moment in your career?

Being a part of the effort to launch Seeing AI is definitely on the top of the list. In 2015, I was part of a cross-company hackathon team that had an ambitious idea to build a camera app using computer vision to help people who are blind or low vision get more information about the physical world around them. Because of the leadership from blind and low vision team members and several iterations of the app design based on feedback from user studies, in 2017, we launched the app for free on iOS. This app has offered value to the blind and low vision community in a variety of scenarios, such as reading a restaurant menu or handwritten greeting card more independently, and it has been a conversation starter with the broader computer vision field about how AI applied to disability scenarios can truly ignite new possibilities.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Everything is going to work out. My focus during my education changed more than once, my career has changed more than once, and I have experienced multiple moments that I thought would make or break me. I now understand that those twists and turns were part of the experience and each one offered a lesson. I was usually eager for the “thing” right in front of me, but did not always understand the patience needed for the “thing” I really wanted that was a few steps ahead. Even today, I do not claim to have enough patience in everything I do, but I am certainly getting more practice.

SUELIN CHEN, COFOUNDER AND CEO, CAKE 

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Suelin Chen, Cofounder And Ceo, Cake 

What is your role and background?

I’m the CEO and Co-Founder of Cake, the #1 brand and website for death and end-of-life. Before Cake, I worked in healthcare and entrepreneurship: I was a transaction and commercial advisor for healthcare companies, I was Director of The Lab at Harvard, and I did my BS and PhD at MIT, where I focused on medical technologies. 

Why HealthTech and FinTech?

Health and wealth are intimately intertwined, especially when it comes to end-of-life. As the consumer brand for death, we help people with health-related issues, finances, legal matters, funeral, grief, and all things digital. Not only do we have the opportunity to create enormous value for the consumer in healthtech and fintech, but we also create value for enterprise stakeholders across multiple industry verticals, from risk-bearing entities in healthcare to large banks to insurance companies.

What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

Every day we are solving one of the most essential, eternal human problems! It’s immensely gratifying when we have helped someone, and the love letters we get from users are so motivating. My team is incredibly smart and creative, and we all feel incredible urgency to make a positive impact in this space. We are all acutely aware that life is finite, and we have limited time on this earth – and we have all chosen to allocate our precious time to work at Cake. It’s a conscious choice that leads to a company culture of doing purposeful and meaningful work with ruthless efficiency.

What inspires you?

My two little girls inspire me to be the best person I can be, both at home and at work.  They approach the world with such curiosity and joy, are innately motivated to push and challenge themselves, and remind me every day to do good in the world.  We are building Cake for them, and for everyone to be able to live fully and die well.

ROBIN GLASCO, COFOUNDER AND MANAGING PARTNER, BAMBU

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Robin Glasco, Cofounder And Managing Partner, Bambu

What is your role and background?

My role is to take my passion and life/career experiences to do good in the world with my sights set on healthcare. 

What advice would you give to young women pursuing leadership opportunities?

First, change your mindset. Most of the best leaders I've encountered do NOT have the fancy titles. As a matter of fact, those have been some of the worst.  With that said, lead from where you are.  That can be volunteering to lead an employee resource group or taking the initiative to solve a pain point in your department.  Leaders do not wait for an opportunity to come their way- they create their own.  

What excites you most about the work that you do?  

Working with multiple diverse actors across the healthcare ecosystem that believe the status quo sucks and there is a better way to do things. I am jazzed that more and more startups are coming into this space.  Competition and different perspectives are how transformation happens, and Lord knows healthcare needs it.

What has been the proudest moment in your career?

Quitting my corporate job without a safety net.  While I was curled up in a ball for a few months, it is literally the best decision I ever made.  My only regret is that I didn't do it earlier.

JEN HORONJEFF, FOUNDER AND CEO, SAVVY COOPERATIVE 

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Jen Horonjeff, Founder And Ceo, Savvy Cooperative 

What is your role and background?

I always relate my background to being a patient first. I was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis and several other autoimmune conditions as an infant. I thought I was going to go into medicine for a while, but I saw the challenges my own providers were facing, so I decided to take a different route and became a human factors engineer and a human-centered designer, and then went on to get my PhD in environmental medicine. Through that line of work, I noticed my professional colleagues talking about patients, but they were not talking with them, and I saw the need for Savvy Cooperative. 

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

It has been wonderful to connect with so many patients and professionals who are excited about making sure future innovations are better. We have the unique opportunity to coach companies and innovators into the next generation of patient-centered solutions, and to have a seat at the table for conversations such as what is fair market value for patients and how can we fairly compensate patients for their time and expertise. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I am somebody who is fueled by people telling me I can’t do things. Being someone who grew up with chronic illness, I have been told my whole life that there are some things I will never be able to do like other people. This has been a huge motivator. If I could go back, I would tell myself that people’s perspectives of you will not define your success in life. Continue doing what you’re passionate about, and you’ll pave your own way. 

What trends are you excited about in healthcare?

One trend that I am seeing is that businesses and investors are starting to step back and look more critically at which innovations are going to make a true impact on patient lives and be successful. Taking this one step further, I would like to see these innovators talking to patients and getting patient feedback on these innovations so that there can be a better product-market fit, which would benefit all parties involved. 

DEVON SHERMAN, MANAGING DIRECTOR, MASSCHALLENGE FINTECH 

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Devon Sherman, Managing Director, Masschallenge Fintech 

What is your role and background?

I run the MassChallenge FinTech program which drives intentional partnerships between FinTech startups and large enterprises in asset management, banking, insurance, retail and other sectors. In my role, I spend a lot of my time getting our startups “enterprise ready” and getting our corporate partners “startup ready”. Our goal is to make the startup-enterprise partnerships as outcome-oriented as possible and avoid them getting trapped in pilot purgatory i.e. when the big players and small players keep engaging in ongoing exploratory conversations that don’t develop into POCs, pilots or implementation.

Why FinTech?

I get asked this a lot because I did not study anything related to business or FinTech– I was actually an Archaeology major. When I started my first job out of college at a big financial services firm, I found that Archaeology had unexpectedly prepared me well for the world of FinTech. In Archaeology, you work with limited data to better understand the past whereas in FinTech you work with limited data to better understand the future. I love how in both Archaeology and in FinTech you have to really interrogate the available data and information you have at hand and supplement it in creative ways, which often means borrowing from other disciplines and industries.

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?

I really appreciate having a birds-eye view perspective on the industry. By working closely with our FinTech startups, enterprise partners and data sandboxes, my role provides me with a privileged opportunity to understand what works vs what does not work when it comes to driving enterprise-startup collaboration. It’s super rewarding when I’m able to share these insights with our startups and help them to drive more value from their enterprise partnerships.

What trends are you excited about in FinTech/HealthTech? 

I’m excited by the intersection of HealthTech and FinTech and the growing recognition that our financial wellness is an important part of our overall wellness. Given how 40% of Americans cannot cover a $400 emergency expense, it important that we are talking about this financial stress and how we drive toward greater financial wellness. At MassChallenge FinTech, we’re working with our partner Build Commonwealth to tackle this emergency savings challenge and we’re also working with some incredible FinTech startups who are promoting financial wellness such as Genevity, Payitoff, SilverBills, Summer, Till Financial and Zogo Finance. 

What advice would you give young women pursuing leadership opportunities?

Keep asking questions and soak up as much insight and experience as possible in your early career. While we all know there is no such thing as a stupid question, there is such thing as a beautiful question—an incisive question that makes people dig deep and fosters dynamic discussion. Ask those kinds of questions!

 

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