April 28, 2021
Sanjula Jain 0:03
Women make up 70% of the healthcare workforce but only 20% of its leadership. On Her Story, we’ll explore the careers of bold and influential women from Silicon Valley to Capitol Hill and learn how they’ve overcome the odds. I’m your host, Sanjula Jain and this is Her Story, a program where we explore what’s beyond the glass ceiling.
I’m delighted to welcome Kelsey Mellard, who’s the CEO of Sitka. Kelsey is a dear friend and colleague and has a tremendous career that we’re gonna dig into from policy to healthcare deliveries to now health tech, so Kelsey, welcome.
Kelsey Mellard 0:41
Thank you so much. I’m really excited and grateful to be here.
Sanjula Jain 0:43
You live in San Francisco now. Well, right now you’re actually in Tahoe, a true West coaster, but you grew up in the Midwest, tell us a little bit about where you grew up, and how that influenced your career ambitions.
Kelsey Mellard 0:55
I grew up just outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Lawrence is probably best known for KU basketball. Both of my parents were professors and had affiliations with the university, which is why we lived there, and that had a deep impact on my career. The thing that was kind of the currency in our household when I was growing up was “community, engagement, and impact.” My dad was a researcher on Adult Learning Disabilities and my mom is a pediatric OT with a faculty appointment at the University Medical Center. They’re very active parents and very involved in our community. Growing up, I would go on home visits with my mom to see her pediatric patients when she was providing pediatric occupational therapy services. Coming home seeing her make splints in the evening on our stovetop for her clients and her patients had a deep impact on how I started to think about my career early on, which is what drove me into the federal government. We can dive in a little bit more, but I grew up in a 100-year-old farmhouse outside of Lawrence, Kansas. I grew up playing in cornfields, picking up hay bales in the summer. In my mind, looking back, I had a pretty ideal childhood and a lot of time growing up with my two older siblings as well. A time of playing with our kittens and hamsters and running around outside barefoot and our parents calling us in for dinner at night was a very typical summer and fall and spring evening for us growing up.
Sanjula Jain 2:25
I also know that soccer was a big part of growing up.
Kelsey Mellard 2:28
Soccer was and continues to be a really strong point of reflection and development for me, especially into leadership roles and translating that experience from the soccer field into my career as it continues to develop as well. I started playing soccer when I was five, played through college, and continued to play pick up prior to COVID. Of course, COVID put a little damper on all of that. Soccer was a great outlet and an incredible tool for me to learn about what would drive much of my career: teamwork and leadership skills. Early on, I was playing on an all-boys soccer team. In my freshman year of high school, I was starting on an all-boys varsity team. Those dynamics felt comfortable to me so I transferred high schools so I could play with all women and then, of course, go on to play in college at Winona State in Minnesota, a Division Two school. Learning how to balance an athletic career while there are academic pursuits underway was an invaluable skill. When you think about resource prioritization, communication, and teamwork, those are all fundamental things that also allow us to be incredibly successful, happy, and fulfilled in the workplace. I was fortunate to have those influences early on. Of course, part of those experiences was shaped by some of the coaches I had. I was fortunate enough to have a high school soccer coach who figured out how to motivate me and what made me tick and that he could be really honest with me. That’s what I expected of him as my coach and that continues to feed into the professional world in which we exist today. He actually served as a reference during our recent fundraising efforts. To have a high school soccer coach serve as a reference was a pretty funny thing, and almost awkward to be like, “Hey, you could talk to my high school soccer coach. He’s known me since I was 16-years-old and had to figure out how to motivate me in order to get the job done on the field,” and off the field, because there were high expectations of who you were as a high school student if you’re going to be affiliated with a varsity sport. Learning those ropes and testing the boundaries as most good high school students do, I had my fair share of those experiences as well, which he was instrumental in guiding and shaping and keeping me on the straight and narrow and continuing to rise to the challenge.
Sanjula Jain 5:07
The coaching mindset makes so much sense. For our audience’s benefit, the first conversation you and I had, you were suggesting “you really should put your name out there for this opportunity, or that opportunity,” really had this coach mindset. I was thinking, “Well, (A) thank you, but also you just met me, but I’m so grateful for it.” That coaching philosophy probably stems into a lot of how you think through your teamwork and building your teams, which we’ll come to in a minute. I want to dig back to the soccer piece because I think it’s really interesting that you grew up playing on all-boys soccer teams. How has that shaped your perspective as a female leader?
Kelsey Mellard 5:43
It’s been something I’ve had to unravel and start to understand in a way that I don’t think I have fully appreciated. My comfort zone on the soccer field was like playing my sport, regardless of gender. I was just out there to win. I was out there to win with my teammates. I had a job to do (I was a defender and sweeper stopper position). That mentality has allowed me to think differently about how I engage in the workplace. Earlier in my career, when I was younger and oftentimes the only female and the youngest person in the room, oddly enough, that wasn’t an uncomfortable space. I was like, cool. Of course, at the time, I was not thinking about it like that. Now, of course, I can reflect back and tie these experiences together to then inform, “Oh, this is not an issue for me because of my early experience on the soccer field.” I don’t think about it as necessarily a female leader versus a male leader. I think about it as how we are having an impact and how I am motivating my team to get the job done but not always thinking about, “I’m a female leader and therefore ____.” Over time, I’ve had the good fortune of learning lessons along the way that there are different expectations of female leaders, and that’s been a little bit of an eye-opening experience for me because, on the soccer field, the expectation is to win and, to me, the expectation in the workplace is to have an impact, create an awesome team environment, collaborate with your colleagues, and win (and winning is going to look different for every company). At Sitka, winning looks like incredible collaboration with our primary care providers, creating different access points. While we have our own definition of “winning” at Sitka, the job is still largely confined to limited resources, time, teammates, and money, and how do we come together to put those to use? That’s very similar to the mindset that I grew up with on the soccer field: we have limited resources. There are 11 of us. We better figure out how to beat the opponent in the allotted time in order to continue on.
Sanjula Jain 8:08
That’s a great analogy for healthcare, really. It’s becoming more competitive and more players and more teams so that really applies to so many different sub-sectors.
Kelsey Mellard 8:18
Yeah, and I didn’t realize how strong the bonds are between those two experiences. As I said, I’m continuing to unravel and unpack what that is as I start to become a little bit more reflective in my journey through conversations like these. I’m so action-oriented that I get a ton of energy by creating, so these moments and times of reflection are really important to help me understand where I’ve been and the different points of impact I’ve received along the way to influence my career and where I am today.
Sanjula Jain 8:52
It sounds like you had some healthcare influences through your mom and how you grew up. As you think about your path into healthcare leadership,—and you’ve had a variety of roles, which we’re gonna dig into in a second, from government to tech to care delivery and payer—do you consider your foray into that space as more accidental or intentional?
Kelsey Mellard 9:09
I think it’s purely accidental, for multiple reasons. One of which is I’ve never been a person that has known what I’ve wanted to do since I was five years old, or 10, or 20. I still don’t know what I want to do. I love what I do now and that’s what feeds me and that’s what’s important to me, so I don’t think about my career as “if I reach x position at x organization, that is how I define success.” I think about it much more holistically and from a journey perspective. Each of the positions I’ve been fortunate enough to have has offered an incredible recipe of fulfilling my soul, that I feel really good about the work that I am doing, and that my contribution is tied to the broader mission of the organization. But I’m intellectually challenged in that I feel like I’m learning something most days and I’m doing it with a team of people that I deeply respect and continue to learn from. As long as I have those three items that I can really align with, then that is the path I’ve been on for this accidental career. Like many individuals, you’re an undergraduate, your parent is a direct provider of care. Oftentimes, the only route is, “Great! I’m going to go to medical school.” I quickly realized medical school was not for me. In college, I was a care assistant for a home for adults with disabilities. There were five women that lived in this house and I would take night shifts and stay there and help them do their daily activities. That’s when I realized one-on-one patient care in any capacity was not going to be the way that I could be fulfilled from an impact standpoint. From this concept of going to medical school, then I thought, “Okay, great, then law school is the next thing.” I went and interned with my aunt who has a pretty successful practice focused on eldercare in Connecticut. I interned with her for a summer and decided, “Nope, that’s not it either.” Then I went into graduate school because I wanted to avoid reality, meaning the real-life of actually getting a job, and luckily graduate school kind of put me on a path, but all of these places I’ve been able to impact and work at have taught me something I’ve been able to take to the next place and the next place. That’s the true joy of the career I’ve been able to cobble together thus far.
Sanjula Jain 11:38
Policy was your core anchor and then you looked at that from a lot of different vantage points: government, went to DC, and then back to the Midwest and back to DC. How have those different perspectives shaped your thinking about healthcare and leadership today? Walk us through some of those different touchpoints.
Kelsey Mellard 11:57
Straight out of graduate school, there was a two-year program at the University of Kansas for my Master’s in Public Administration. The MPA program at KU was the number one program for local city government officials, so all of my fellow students were aspiring mayors and city officials, so got a little bit of insight into that from a public policy perspective as to the power that local government officials have in public health. Obviously, we’ve seen the importance of public health infrastructure more recently with a global pandemic than I think we ever really cared to realize. I took that insight and decided I wanted to be part of something that’s pretty big, and that pretty large and big organization was the Kaiser Family Foundation. That was my first foray into the broader policy community within Washington, DC. My office was a block from the White House. It was the “farm town girl in a big city” type feeling that I was fed and excited by. At the Kaiser Family Foundation, I was an analyst. My whole job was to do all of the analysis for the state health facts website. I loved it. That organization is incredible and I continue to use them today as a resource. The challenge I had personally, from a professional development standpoint, was I didn’t know what people did with it. I had no idea how people digested it. Did they use it to make decisions? Was it impactful? I realized I wanted closer proximity to the frontlines of clinical care decision-making without actually going the medical route, so I went back and was a fellow at Children’s Mercy (a pediatric hospital in Kansas City, Missouri) and worked directly with the CEO there. That was an incredible experience in large part because I got to see the breadth of what it takes to run a pediatric hospital: a small city. I did everything from sit and bond reading meetings with the city to flying on the helicopter during a live transport to following a family and their son through their three-year-old son’s open-heart surgery. That was an incredibly foundational experience for me to have to really understand the complexity that our families go through, that our providers go through, that our payers go through. That is a microcosm of our healthcare delivery system at a regional level for a really important part of the world, which is our future as a pediatric population. That was a year appointment. I’d probably still be there today in some capacity if they weren’t like, “Kelsey, this is a year appointment. Your fellowship is ending. You need to move on.” It was so fulfilling. I got to take on different projects and travel to our sister hospital in Guandao, China, so I got a little international lens on what the delivery landscape looked like in China. Then I took that experience and went to the advisory board company which took me back out to Washington, DC. After some time at an advisory board company, of course, Obamacare was passing. That was, of course, a wave of energy that was coming through the DC community, the policy community, the healthcare community. I was fortunate enough to be employee number five at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation and worked closely with Rick Gilfillan, Dawn, and Joe and that initial crew to set up CMMI and hire several 100 people in a really short period of time. It was incredibly daunting. There was a cohort of us that didn’t have great depths of experience inside the federal government. We had to figure out what authority we had and how we were going to transition the perspective of our stakeholders, historically being a regulator, into being a partner. We set up a lot of infrastructures to engage providers and payers to help us inform what these payment delivery models look like, whether it’s ECOs or bundled payments or the Pioneer program. Then of course, collaborate with people like Melanie Belen, the dual eligible office and our colleague, Cindy Mann, who was running Medicaid at the time. We had to think cross-agency. How do we take the center that has incredible legislative authority and catapult the reimbursement system into a value-based system from a paper service system? There were tremendous spotlights put on us from the White House to Congress and we had to everyone somewhat aligned with the direction and the pace of which we were moving, which was incredibly fulfilling and challenging— which, of course, is what made us so fulfilling as we were able to start to engage and change the perspectives. That was really important.
Sanjula Jain 16:52
We’re over 10 years now from the time that CMMI was formed. Now we take for granted ACOs, bundled payments. That’s the regular terminology. Go back to that time when that was all brand new, it was just being conceptualized. What was that like? You’re sitting in a room and you guys are all talking about these constructs and concepts that really didn’t exist. It was all net new, so you had to come up with the idea and then figure out how to execute. What was that like?
Kelsey Mellard 17:18
It was intense. Of course, that’s probably an understatement. To dive into some of the details, Health and Human Services is right down the street from our nation’s capital, so we would greet our stakeholders every single day. We would have a ton of open-door forums. We hosted what felt like every hospital system CEO to start to grapple with what was going to work for them and for us, and how could we actually co-design this? It was a massive effort to engage the future participants of these programs because—if we were to develop these programs inside the beltway, and have no proximity to the challenges, and the reality is that the frontline of our care delivery system at the time—we would have been developing the wrong policies that no one would have signed up for. We spent a ton of time thinking about how could we create some sort of structured conversation to propose ideas, get feedback, and then mold and shape the proposed rule and legislation that we were pushing forward. You come to the federal government, you come to HHS, and there are certainly beautiful buildings within our government system. HHS is perhaps not the most stunning on the inside or the outside, so there was a little bit of a shock to some of our stakeholders as they walked down this blue carpeted hallway with very few windows and full of cubicles. That was the federal government. Of course, that’s in contrast to CMS headquarters near Baltimore, which are beautiful and pretty airy. HHS, because of the spatial constraints of how many people are trying to operate out of that building, that was a pretty striking experience people would have time and time again. We didn’t have snacks. We couldn’t offer them water. We didn’t have bottled water. There’s a water fountain. As always, our government officials are working on behalf of our taxpayer dollars, but we adopted the concept to bring that to another level of service and engagement. We made rules (like we’ll respond to emails within 24 hours) to show that we were showing up in a different way, to create a partnership with them and meet them in large part where they were from an idea perspective and from a capability perspective in order to successfully roll these programs out. I look at that, at least the environmental considerations, in contrast to Silicon Valley offices where it’s like, snacks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all in one. HHS was like, “Oh, if you’d like something to eat, there’s a cafeteria on the eighth floor where you can go buy something.” It felt a little counter from a hospitality standpoint. Of course, it’s really important to use government resources incredibly wisely, and that’s what we were doing.
Sanjula Jain 20:14
I had not thought about that, but in some ways, you guys brought true that innovation to CMMI. You were shaking things up compared to what people probably expected for a typical government agency, so to speak. That’s really great. For CMMI, you then went to United. What prompted that leap? That’s a big shift from government to a big national payer?
Kelsey Mellard 20:34
One of the beauties of these types of conversations is that we can be a little bit more honest and authentic in our conversation. Frankly, I was going through a divorce and I didn’t want to go through that divorce financially constrained. While working in the federal government is an incredible gift to serve the country, I wanted to become a little bit more financially independent in order to go through a life decision. Working at United Health Group gave me that flexibility personally and financially, but most importantly it also gave me insight into what it’s like to work for a publicly traded company in our healthcare delivery system. UnitedHealth Group continues to rise the ranks of the Fortune six company now. At the time, I think we were closer to 27 or 28, but we still had sizable impact and I loved it. It kept me in DC, it kept me a part of the policy conversation and allowed me to serve as a translator between the business of making an impact from a united healthcare perspective and an opt-in perspective. This was also a time when the UHG family in general was acquiring a lot of different assets, so to translate that into the policy land and to translate policy back to the business plan. It was a total blast to see the inner workings and the complexity of what it’s like to work at a publicly traded company. From UnitedHealth Group, I had an opportunity to go to naviHealth. At that time, Tom Scully, former CMS administrator under Bush, called me and said, “Kelsey, Welsh Carson, where I’m a partner, we are starting this company called naviHealth and I think you need to come join us. We’re going to be a bundled payment company.” I was like, “Tom, but I’m really loving this. I’m a vice president in my 20s at a publicly traded company. I’m really satisfied and feeling really good about my choices.” That conversation, of course, continued for a period of time, which eventually led to my departure from UnitedHealth Group and joining naviHealth. NaviHealth was a total, fulfilling blast and allowed me to have incredible proximity to actual Medicare beneficiaries changing the workflow of frontline providers to meet the needs of what bundled payments could actually offer them financially and from a clinical workflow design standpoint. My job, in a nutshell, was to fly around the country to these large health systems and convince them that bundled payments were a safe place to start the game of risk and to take on risk because you could limit it pretty aggressively. You could drop episodes if you didn’t want to each quarter. There was that option, so it was an incredibly flexible program in contrast to ACOs, which you would get attributed lives and you’re stuck with them. Once you found them, they were yours and you needed to manage them, whereas with bundled payments, you could actually have a lot more customization based on the clinical episodes that our hospital partners would initiate, and then we would manage from a post-acute care perspective. That was such a fun ride. We successfully stood up bundled payments across the country with very large health systems like Dignity (I still talk to Rexroth on the regular) and started the foundational aspect of my foray into Medicare and senior care. After naviHealth was successfully acquired by Cardinal, I was recruited out here to the Bay Area and joined Honor after they’d just raised their Series A from Andreessen Horowitz. I had the opportunity to work with that founding team and learn the ropes of Silicon Valley and tech and deciphering tech versus human, this whole other perspective I was able to learn. Of course, that’s why I loved it: the amount of new ideas and perspectives I had not been exposed to at that point in my career. Honor was doing really well and I was fortunate enough to have a really good relationship with Seth, who I still talk to this day. Starting companies in San Francisco is incredibly normalized. It’s just what people do. It’s kind of bizarre—and by the way, it’s not normal—but here it feels normal. The was the impetus. I was working on a couple of side projects, and that was the start of Sitka in its early foundational days after I left Honor.
Sanjula Jain 25:02
There is so much to unpack there. I feel like we could be here for hours. I want to go back to one thing you said to highlight the fact that you were a senior executive in your 20s at a fortune company. That is no easy feat. That is something to celebrate. Thinking about the Sitka piece, that’s a big leap, helping providers and payers take on risk, and then you decided to take this personal risk. What prompted that decision? What made you comfortable taking that decision? What was that decision-making process like?
Kelsey Mellard 25:34
I don’t know if I have fully digested what made me do this or stick through it as well. We’re a three-year-old company right now and it’s not always been rainbows and butterflies. The motivator there for me is impact and how I can leave a positive impact on our healthcare system, which is something that luckily I’ve learned a lot about and feel like I have a little secret weaponry in regards to understanding how it works, and what has worked in the past and what hasn’t worked. Specific to starting Sitka and the decision-making process of doing that, like I said, part of it is just environmental. In San Francisco, people start companies. It feels normal. My now-husband, who we were dating at the time, would often say, “Kelsey, you make this look so easy. You just went out and raised a seed round.” I’m like, “Well, I don’t know. We had to take a lot of meetings, though.” He’s like, “That’s still kind of you. You kind of made it look really easy, though. You selected really good partners and they selected you.” I don’t know what about me made that work. I’m incredibly passionate and I felt like I could actually take on the risk. I didn’t have kids. I was single. I was like, the worst-case scenario is I learn a tremendous amount through this experience and then I can go find another job somewhere, but this feels like an opportune time to not impact someone else’s life by deciding to start this company, should it not go well. I think that’s what people always think about: what if it doesn’t go well? I think that was my mindset. In some ways, I wasn’t thinking about if it would go well. It was always like, “What if it doesn’t go well?” I think that’s what many people get hung up on. What is Plan B? What is Plan B? What is Plan B? Until recently, until we closed our Series A and I started working closely with Bob and Brian at Venrock, I would come home and be like, “George, I don’t know if we’re gonna make it.” I would only disclose that to him at the time, of course, because (1) I didn’t know if that was really true and (2) I didn’t know if I was just continually surprised, like, “Oh, we learned something, and we’re doing this now” or “we just got this contract.” Of course, who knows what “making it” even means. I think that’s part of the challenge that we as a healthcare and entrepreneurial community get tied up in: what does “making it” mean? To me, it’s more about the journey as opposed to where you end up, as long as you’re feeling like you’re impacting and learning. I felt that every single day at Sitka. It’s been challenging, I’ve learned something, I’ve created an opportunity for a primary care provider to provide better care to their members and created an opportunity for a specialist to use all of their skills and capabilities that they’ve worked so hard to accrue in their professional life. That’s what’s led us down this journey that we’re on today.
Sanjula Jain 28:33
For our audience that is not as familiar with Sitka, can you tell us a little bit about what the company does and who your primary customers are?
Kelsey Mellard 28:41
As with any good early-stage company, we’ve had our own version of evolution. We’ve evolved into becoming a virtual provider network. We focus on creating better access to specialty expertise by partnering with frontline primary care providers. As you may know, 40 to 50% of specialty referrals today are unnecessary or inappropriate so—instead of starting that entire journey for that member, and incurring the cost, and schlepping around the healthcare system—we empower the primary care provider to tap into our network of specialty providers, request expertise, and then deliver that expertise back to their member and actually take action on it. It’s all done via video. It’s all via video message and the asynchronous nature allows us to increase the efficiency of our entire system and of course build incredible trust in bonding between the providers that can be shared with the member to increase their transparency as to what’s actually being talked about. Having these member experiences where they get to see what the specialist said back to their provider and give them lens into not being the subject of the care but actually being part of the conversation is a really fulfilling part of what we get to do. That’s what we do at Sitka by partnering with frontline risk-based primary care provider groups.
Sanjula Jain 30:05
Wow. You caught the entrepreneurial bug and you’re making it look easy, I agree. Congratulations on the Series A, that’s a big accomplishment. Tell us a little bit about the journey. From founding, how have some of the priorities for you as CEO shifted from the early days of building the company—and you’re still building—but probably now shifting a little bit more to scaling? What are some of the key inflection points you’ve had to work through?
Kelsey Mellard 30:29
I think the biggest one is that until recently, I didn’t understand what it meant to be a CEO. I was just part of the team. I felt my job was to contribute in any way I possibly could to serve the business. I still think that’s my job, but now I understand that having that CEO title actually means something. People think about you differently and have different expectations of you as a result of it. From a personal development standpoint, I think that’s been a massive learning for me over the course of the three years and to trust myself a little bit more. Very early on, I had two co-founders. Unfortunately, neither one of them are with the organization anymore. As each of them decided to depart from Sitka, that made me shift my perspective to, “Okay, I have to do this. This is on me to help continue to figure out and drive.” Of course, I’m surrounded by awesome teammates that have joined us on this journey, but there was this point of incredible loneliness when you go from a founder with two other co-founders to being the only one still affiliated with what was started. That in and of itself is a journey that we could probably spend an hour on talking about, but certainly one that was a pretty big inflection point for the company. There was never any thought in my mind that we would close Sitka down or anything like that along this way. It was very clear to me that we needed to continue to build and learn and charge ahead as the business and the market evolved with us, and that’s exactly the path that we’re on. From raising our seed round to then deciding to take on a strategic partner (which we’re really appreciative of their partnership) and then, of course, raising a Series A, all of those fundraising experiences can certainly be milestones within a company’s development. More importantly, however, are milestones of learning and product improvement and continual positioning of your product in a market until you find that product-market fit. You just have to be resilient because you’re going to get told “no” six times before you’re going to get told, “Yes, I will buy this product because it makes sense.” Continue to be curious and actually motivated by that curiosity. That has been a pretty massive propelling force for me and I think now the large majority of our team.
Sanjula Jain 33:00
You built an awesome platform and it’s going to be exciting to see what the next few years have in store for Sitka. I want to shift a little bit to the journey to actually getting to where you are now. You mentioned your soccer coach played a big role in your life, and I know you have a lot of other mentors, many people that you’ve worked with who have guided you on your career path and pulled you into great opportunities, opened doors for you. What has been the most difficult piece of feedback you’ve received from a mentor or boss or colleague? How did you overcome it?
Kelsey Mellard 33:31
I love feedback, so I think about most of it as really positive because I’m like, “Great, someone is giving me a massive gift and I want to absorb it all—the good, the bad, the ugly—so I can do something different and learn from it.” The best feedback that perhaps was difficult was that, as a female leader, people have different expectations of me. I’ve never bothered to even recognize that because I’m just doing what I know: show up to the game every day. I’m not putting on soccer cleats, but I am collaborating and learning and executing. That’s what I know how to do. In a large part, soccer taught me how and where and what to do. Because this category that we’re sitting in here today is around her and being a female leader, I think it’s important that I share that people do have different expectations of female leaders. I can be incredibly direct and I think that’s not always what our society would expect of a female leader. That’s changing, of course. The expectations of female leaders are changing, but also it’s something I have had to learn to become more aware of because of the way that it can be perceived at times. If I think I’m coming across as “driving an agenda” and “moving quickly” and “learning,” that’s not always the perception that people would have in large part because of my gender. That’s been a big challenge for me to comprehend because, again, it’s something that I haven’t really let land on me in previous positions because it’s like, “I’m just here to do a job. It doesn’t matter what my gender is or isn’t and how I identify.” That’s not true. People make it matter. Because that’s their perception, then, therefore, as a leader, you have to lean in and understand that in order to navigate it and make it part of your superpower. How to take that and say, “Great, I’m going to take this and I’m going to learn from it and test different strategies.” Not how to be the leader people expect me to be because I’m female, but how you can get a team to perform and be a female leader and use the skills and abilities that I have to do that effectively. That’s been a bit of a shift I’ve had to go through through the course of my career that I wasn’t always willing to look at because I didn’t see it.
Sanjula Jain 36:05
I think a lot of us go through that kind of inflection point along the way. In the time that we’ve known each other, you are this extraordinary community builder. You’re always talking about how we can bring these teams together and foster collaboration and communication. I think it’s worth noting, Sitka pre-pandemic was fully virtual, but you’ve been able to foster this community and you’re going to continue that model of being fully remote. Talk just a little bit about how you think about building that culture and community and how you approach that.
Kelsey Mellard 36:37
I love this topic because I think it’s really important. In large part, I had some early experiences where I would go on one trip a year with my dad. My dad traveled a fair amount for business. He traveled to DC a fair amount with his work with the Department of Labor and Department of Ed. That was my proximity to his work. I got to see him present, I would stand in the back of the lecture hall and hand out papers, so that was really formative to my career development. Frankly, the unspoken expectations in our household were “you will go do something that makes you fulfilled and has a generally a positive contribution to the world. Share your gift with the world” was kind of the unspoken expectation and I got to see my parents do that every single day. In this virtual environment, one of the things we try to do a fair amount of at Sitka is include kids, people’s families, pets, spouses, partners, roommates into the Sitka life. Almost on a monthly basis, we do some sort of general social activity that expands to the broader community of where everyone resides. From a development standpoint, everyone’s relationship with work can have tendencies to be frustrating at times because there are points of growth and it can be incredibly fulfilling, so letting their community in on what Sitka is and who Sitka is along their virtual path has been a priority. Last summer, we did a Sitka littles program, for instance. Each of the kiddos that opted in to participate affiliated with Sitka. Grandkids, children, siblings, and such participated in their own series because ultimately that’s the experience I think people will remember. Do they see their parents showing up, or their friends showing up every day on a laptop? We were just talking to my husband’s siblings last night on FaceTime. I was sitting in front of our fireplace, of course, with my laptop open. He was sitting on the couch FaceTiming and he spins it to me. They were like, “Kelsey, are you working?” I was like, “Yeah.” I think being able to own that with a sense of pride, as opposed to saying it like, “Yeah, again. Here I am working again,” can have a tremendous impact on how each of our employees feels supported given that we are in a virtual environment. The question I always think about is how we are building our employees’ communities around Sitka. How are we feeding into the locations in which they reside and the coffee shops they go to? That’s one of the ways we think about building community beyond the core team at Sitka, in which we spend a fair amount of time together creating honest conversation and finding new edges. We have a Monday morning ritual, for instance, that we start each week together. It’s a time to come together to primarily not talk about work. It could be what happened over the weekend. It could be something that you’ve learned, it could be something that you’re passionate about. We’re trying to bring the fact that we all have lives outside of work that are important to maintain and share with each other into some environment of what you can share to create deeper empathy and that sense of connection that I think we’re all starving for in this global pandemic.
Sanjula Jain 40:10
That’s so refreshing to hear. Speaking of Sitka littles, you raise your Series A and then in short order after you have to tell all your investors that you are expecting a little one of your own later this year. Congratulations. How are you planning for that as founder and CEO of your own company?
Kelsey Mellard 40:31
Thanks so much for the warm wishes. We’re really excited to be welcoming a little one in September for our first addition to our family outside, of course, our fur baby, our Spanish water dog. That time of being six weeks pregnant and closing a Series A was that weird window where no one really tells anyone yet and you’re feeling things out, like what’s going to happen? I was continuing to progress in the pregnancy positively and feeling like, “I have to tell Bob and Brian that this other thing is coming.” Of course, it probably felt like a bigger deal to me than it did them. During one of our check-ins when I was 10 weeks pregnant, I shared the news with them and said “there is something I want you to know that is really important, and we will navigate through it, but I want you to know this.” I think we probably told them before I told my family in some ways because I take that relationship incredibly seriously. They have and continue to invest a lot of time, energy, effort, and money into Sitka. I don’t know what maternity leave will look like. This is entering a new world where I won’t have a tremendous amount of control as to what happens and how the delivery goes and what the baby’s needs are after, what my needs are after. We’re in the process of starting to think about Plan A versus Plan B. It’s been really challenging when I’ve been kind of Googling around “founder CEO maternity leave.” There are a couple of instances with the Bumble IPO and that CEO having her child as part of that experience, which is really beautiful. There are a few cases and experiences like that that exist, but it’s something that there’s not a cookie-cutter approach to it. This is kind of “create your own adventure” and we’ll be doing that in conjunction, of course, with luckily some family support. We’re fortunate to have family members who are eager to come out and help and then, of course, we’ve been spending a fair amount of time building our team at Sitka and feeling really positive about the folks that we’ve been able to welcome to help us get to the next level of organization and stability. I think this is kind of a test to broader organizational design, which is not maternity leave is not unique. We as a country still treat it as a pretty unique thing because we’re not used to it occurring all that frequently in our workplaces. Same with paternity leave and baby bonding is actually what it’s referred to as these days. If you do a good job building your organization and you’re of a certain size, there should be enough infrastructure in place to keep things afloat. There are a couple of variations of plans that we have: a couple of weeks off to needing more time and how to go completely off versus part-time and what that looks like. We’re starting to toy around with some of those models. Luckily, my husband’s workplace has generous baby bonding time as well, so we’ll certainly be taking advantage of that.
Sanjula Jain 43:36
Like you say it’s “choose your own adventure.” We’ll probably have to have you come back once you can share your words of wisdom with everyone else trying to figure it out. For what it’s worth, I was chatting with another female founder who will be on the show later this season, and she was saying that similarly when she first started her company, she had her first child, and I think she returned to the office like on day 10, which she regrets and feels strongly about, but at the time, it was like that’s what you got to do. There’s really no one way to do it, to your point, and I think you’ll find out what works best for you and your family, so we’re excited to see how that plays out.
Kelsey Mellard 44:12
Yeah, thanks! We are too.
Sanjula Jain 44:14
Great! There’s so much we could get into, but I think I’ll close with a couple of final reflections. You have plenty more chapters to write in your book and I’m excited to see where you go. What would be the one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?
Kelsey Mellard 44:28
This is no light question here. One of the things I have not necessarily realized in my career or as early as I would have liked to is the differentiation between “I’m just doing what I know” and “this is who I am and here’s what I’m going to do.” I’ve always been on the path of “this is just what I’m doing” as opposed to reflecting a little bit more along the way and recognizing and taking deeper ownership of the skills and knowledge and talent that I’ve accrued. Other people will say to me, “Oh, you’re so talented, and you know so much,” but I’ve never really let that land because I always feel like it’ll get in the way. I think by not letting it land, I haven’t grown as quickly or as consciously as I could have from a leadership development standpoint, so my advice to my younger self and to others would be to listen to how people introduce you or how they refer to your experience and expertise and recognize that in yourself. Not to become arrogant, but to understand how others perceive you in order to become a better leader because ultimately, leadership is about perception and how others perceive you. We’re all the hero of our own story. In those ways, how your team perceives you is going to impact your effectiveness as a leader to incredible degrees. I think I’m finally starting to take those acknowledgments and understand them and let them land on me in a way that I was “too busy” for before. “I don’t have time to say thank you,” not to not be gracious, of course, but I wasn’t really taking the time to understand the unique lens I was bringing to the conversation. All of us have incredibly unique capabilities and experiences and lenses and taking a little bit of time to understand what makes you, you will allow you to be the more effective founder, leader, colleague, and happier human.
Sanjula Jain 46:48
Reflection is tough. With that said, as you think about the legacy you want to leave behind and you collect on how you view yourself, what would be the title of your story or autobiography?
Kelsey Mellard 47:00
I think it would probably have something to do with every day being game day and that feeling and that burning urge you get when you put on a uniform or that ritual that you have before your performance of whatever it may be—it may be a musical performance, it may be a sports performance—that’s the fire in me every single day, so I think it would be something along the lines of every day is game day and I really think about it in that way. I’m showing up for my teammates, and we have a job to do, and I get to do it with them. That feels really special and not something to be taken for granted.
Sanjula Jain 47:38
It’s so fitting for your story. I cannot thank you enough for spending some time with us today and being so candid and sharing all your wisdom. I truly am personally so grateful to call you a friend and a great sounding board, so thank you for all that you do and we’re excited to see what’s next in-store.
Kelsey Mellard 47:54
Thank you, and thank you so much for having me and for creating these super candid and honest conversations that don’t occur enough in our industry and amongst each other. I’m really grateful for your leadership in continuing to create community and really dive in and hear the true authentic versions of each of ourselves, so thank you so much.
Sanjula Jain 48:16
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