October 21, 2020
Halle Tecco 0:03
I felt the pull to women’s health from my own health experiences from seeing the amazing business opportunity and then seeing the women that are courageous enough to work in this space with being totally underfunded and still making it happen. There’s really no better way to support a woman than being on our cap table and having skin in the game. It really makes a difference.
Lan Nguyen 0:25
That was Halle Tecco, founder and CEO of Natalist and founder of Rock Health. As an investor turned entrepreneur, Halle shares her journey for managing stocks as a middle schooler to building the first early-stage digital health fund to launching her own consumer brand focused on women’s health. Halle spoke about raising capital for her first investment fund and the difficulty she encountered as a woman rising above common stereotypes as follows.
Halle Tecco 0:54
It’s harder for us because there are stereotypes that we’re expected to fit within. I definitely had a lot of fears of being a fraud, or I wasn’t eligible to do what I was doing. But at the end of the day, I raised the money. I ran the fund. We made good investments, we hired amazing people, and Rock Health is a complete success story.
Lan Nguyen 1:16
In this conversation hosted by Ceci Connolly, President and CEO of the Alliance for Community Health Plans, we learn about Halle’s experiences as not only one of few women in venture capital, but also one of the youngest. And lessons that Halle learned along the way. Let’s listen.
Halle Tecco 1:33
I certainly made tradeoffs earlier in my career, so that I could keep people happy, and they might not have been the best business decisions, but I cared a lot about being liked. When I started Natalist, I made a promise to myself and my family that I would set boundaries. And there’s no easier way to set boundaries than to become a parent because, you can put the gym aside, but you cannot put a baby aside.
Lan Nguyen 1:58
We’re delighted to welcome Halle Tecco and Ceci Connolly to Her Story.
Ceci Connolly 2:05
Halle Tecco, it is so great to have you on Her Story, our fun new podcast really looking at women leaders in healthcare and the journey, the journey to leadership. And I have spoken to you many times in the past, often it’s been about technology, and the VC world in healthcare. So this is really a chance to learn a little bit more about you. So welcome.
Halle Tecco 2:33
Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. And congrats on this great new podcast and everyone who works so hard to bring this to life. It’s really exciting.
Ceci Connolly 2:41
We are really enjoying it. I want to talk to you a little bit about the early years in your career — how you first got into the healthcare space. What drew you to it?
Halle Tecco 2:56
That’s a great question. So I was born and raised in Ohio, and I’m a first-generation college student and went to college under an hour from where I grew up. So I went to Case Western, which is in Cleveland, and my mom actually was a receptionist at the Cleveland Clinic for many years. So got a little bit of insight into healthcare through her. My dad was a small business owner and so kind of got the entrepreneur bug from him. So those two things kind of converged for me, but actually what my first real task within the healthcare space was an Italian class that I took.
So I minored in Italian and I studied abroad, which was life-changing for me. And one of the things that my professor offered us was extra credit for participating in a language therapy program for cancer patients. And they were looking at can language therapy, art therapy, a lot of these, you know, alternative modalities support, recovery, morale, and ultimately remission. And so I participated just for the extra credit. I was a high achiever and wanted to ensure that I got an A in that class, but it exposed me to the healthcare space in a way that I hadn’t formally participated before.
So I actually ended up interning at St. Luke’s Roosevelt, which is part of Columbia University Medical System between my junior and senior years, working with a professor there who’s doing some research on music therapy. So I, you know, kind of started out on the fringes of healthcare in a space that I really wouldn’t participate in today, but it gave me easy access. It was something that I could understand and the ability to feel like I was participating in something important and knowledge building. And then when I graduated, I actually didn’t go into healthcare, I took the job that offered me a position, the furthest away from Ohio. That was my criteria.
So I got a job in San Francisco, moved out to San Francisco, which was really exciting for me just because I spent so much time in Ohio and worked in finance, and enjoyed that, but ultimately went to business school to kind of merge, I still had the bug, I was still interested in healthcare. When I was at Intel, there were some health care clients and customers and I still had the itch. But really when I went to business school, it was like, to combine these interests and to figure out a way to take my interest in finance and entrepreneurship and bring it to healthcare.
So that’s kind of the long way. So by the time I was 25, I was committed, this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to go into healthcare and really always been consumer health and wellness is where I’m most passionate.
Ceci Connolly 5:36
Right. So in your terrific Italy story, and I’m a little bit envious, but in that, you mentioned being a high achiever, an overachiever, you know, raising your hand for extra credit. And I’m always interested in successful people, especially successful women, where the drive and the passion fits into the equation. And it sounds as if it’s been there for you since an early age. But is that a consistent thread throughout your experiences?
Halle Tecco 6:09
Definitely, I’m competitive. So even though I didn’t play sports, I’m a lousy athlete, I always enjoyed team activities where we would be on a team and that sense of competition and camaraderie, always just gave me a great boost of adrenaline.
So in terms of being competitive in a team aspect, I’ve always enjoyed my parents, even though they didn’t go to college, were always really supportive of me, and always really pushed me to study hard and work hard, and they were self-made. And they would instill in me like, this is you know, what I went through to get to where I am, and you have this great opportunity to go to college and you know, do so. And I think having that family structure is really invaluable.
But I do think some of us are born with a fire and an addiction to work. I love working. I really enjoy challenges and problem solving and collaborating with others, I find it really fun. I’m at the point in my career where I’m not necessarily working for something on my resume. It’s more because I genuinely enjoy the work that I do every day.
Ceci Connolly 7:12
And what a treat. And I can certainly relate. But I’ve got to ask you terms such as “competitive” or “ambitious” or “having drive,” sometimes those don’t always sit so well on women in business, I think. And I’m wondering if over the years it ever was, I don’t know about a handicap per se, but was it problematic ever to have that drive and that style?
Halle Tecco 7:42
Yeah, certainly growing up, I was always the bossy one. I thought of it as I would orchestrate lemonade stands with my friends and I had little businesses, I had a nail salon in my basement and I had a library, was putting things together. And you know, certainly other kids would say, “Oh my gosh, Halle’s so bossy. You always have to be the boss.” It was everybody, everybody around. And my dad is a very humble, very shy person. And I think he saw that in me and really, like appreciated that he was able to have a child who was just more of a leader, an innate leader. He’s just been my biggest cheerleader since I was little.
And at one point, I remember he scheduled a meeting, and someone who was I guess, must have been like, a wealth manager, I have no idea. But he hired this guy to sit down with me and teach me how to read the stocks in the newspaper because I was really interested in the stock market. I was probably in middle school. And so he had this guy sit down. And I had inherited maybe like $500 when a grandparent passed away. And he was like, “You should learn how to invest this.” And he had me sit down with this guy and I learned it.
Every morning after that I read the stocks in the newspaper and follow the stocks. And I bought Halliburton because the initials were HAL. I thought it must be good luck. I got Disney McDonald’s, Halliburton, ended up getting Time Warner and actually did quite well for myself as a kid. But I didn’t care what other people said because I had the confidence at home from my family. And having that I think made up for any sort of names I was going to be called. Um, it didn’t really matter to me.
But I do think that growing up and then you’re in a professional environment, and you learn how to adapt and how to be liked. I think that’s something that I spent a lot of time agonizing over. I definitely believe in the likeability trap. I certainly made tradeoffs earlier in my career, so that I could keep people happy, and they might not have been the best business decisions, but I cared a lot about being liked. And so that was something that I’ve had to work really hard on, is putting that aside and as long as you’re professional and ethical, there are ways to handle uncomfortable situations where you’re making the best business decision and someone gets upset at you personally because of that, it is what it is. And I’ve really only in the last few years gotten more comfortable with that. But it’s still something that I struggle with, I think a lot of women face.
And Alicia Menendez has a great book called “The Likeability Trap,” which is, the whole time I’m reading, I’m like, “This is me. This is me.” And so that’s something I do think that a lot of women face. And I’ve heard from a lot of my colleagues that we care so much about being liked and respected. But it’s harder for us, because there are stereotypes that we’re expected to fit within. And so when you don’t fit within those stereotypes, people automatically make assumptions about you, treat you differently. And at the end of the day, you know, you get to pick who you work with and who you don’t. And sometimes, those people pick you and it worked out best, because if there’s someone who doesn’t respect you for the skillset that you bring, even if it’s a little different from others, then you probably didn’t want to work with them to begin with.
Ceci Connolly 10:55
So let’s talk a little bit about Rock Health, the VC world. And I have to suspect, at least in the early years, maybe even still today, moving in those circles, I bet you were the only woman, one of very few women?
Halle Tecco 11:14
Yeah, there certainly were a handful of women that I met early on in VC who I really owe a lot to because they were so kind and supportive, yet firm and would give me the feedback that I needed. Beth Seidenberg from Kleiner, who now has her own fund, Rowan Chapman, Sue Segal — These were women who saw me sometimes flailing around trying to figure things out and still gave me the support and confidence that I needed to move forward. And having those sort of role models was really invaluable. And I’ll always be grateful for that; Linda Avi, who was an early advisor to Rock Health.
But yes, there still are very few women in VC. And I think my confidence has only grown over time. And when I was early on, I definitely had a lot of imposter syndrome and felt like I didn’t necessarily belong, or I had to really prove myself, where there are ample research studies that show that women are evaluated based on what they’ve accomplished, whereas men are evaluated based on what their potential is. And so that puts women at a disadvantage for coming up with new things.
And who was I to start a fund with very little work experience, very little healthcare experience. And I certainly heard that from some people. I had one reporter who was just so nasty and would write just really inappropriate things, he would comment on what I wore to a healthcare conference in DC, he literally wrote about how I came to a conference in jeans, how dare I go in jeans. And there were people that made it really difficult for me in the beginning. And I definitely had a lot of fears of being caught that I was a fraud, or I wasn’t eligible to do what I was doing.
But at the end of the day, I raised the money. I ran the fund, we made good investments, we hired amazing people. And Rock Health is a complete success story in digital health, and I’m so proud of what the team has accomplished. Yes, I faced it. But now that I’m kind of like on the other side of it, where I have proven myself, it is a completely different professional experience for me. And I now have a ton of privilege, more respect, more proof that I’ve been able to accomplish things. And I use that privilege now to call out injustices that I see in the space.
Ceci Connolly 13:35
I want to come back to that, that concept of using that privilege. And I think it’s a really interesting one for women that have become successful in their careers. But before we do, we always like to ask On Her Story if you would describe yourself as an accidental or an intentional leader.
Halle Tecco 13:57
Definitely intentional. I think I’ve always enjoyed creating new things from scratch, strategizing, how to bring a vision to life. I really enjoy all the early exercises of bringing together the puzzle pieces to make things happen. So I would say intentional.
Ceci Connolly 14:15
What is less appealing about being a leader in your experience, or what are the downsides?
Halle Tecco 14:24
Letting people down. As a leader, you convince people to follow you, join you, participate in whatever you’re envisioning. And you know, things don’t work out and letting people down is really hard. It’s interesting because I’ve now taken on venture funding for my own company. And I take that responsibility very, very seriously. I have other people’s money that I’m responsible for returning, and my husband always jokes because he’s also taken venture funding and it doesn’t keep him up at night. He doesn’t care. He’s like, “They know what they get into. They know the risk.” And so this is the [inaudible]. But his experience, he doesn’t feel the sort of the weight of that responsibility in the way that I’ve carried it. So I don’t know how much of that has to do with gender versus personality. But it is something where if someone believes in me and trusts me, I want to come through for them. Failing, you’re not just feeling yourself, you’re failing everyone.
Ceci Connolly 15:19
I bet it’s a little bit of both is my guess. And so you mentioned now getting the chance to start your own company. Let’s tell a little bit about how and why you made that pivot.
Halle Tecco 15:30
Yeah, so two years ago, I started Natalist. We launched one year ago. So it’s been a short journey, we’re still very early in what we’re doing. And I never thought I would start a company. I really enjoy investing. I love being the cheerleader for others. I love having kind of a 360 view of an industry. I really love everything that we did at Rock Health around research and events. And it was really the perfect job for me. So it had to be an opportunity that really, really drove me in it. And it really was.
So my husband and I left San Francisco, and we moved to New York, and I was teaching digital health at Columbia Business School, which I really loved. And I was continuing to invest and continuing to support Rock Health, but at the same time going through some struggles on my own in my own personal health, which had to do with fertility. And it opened my eyes to the opportunity that there is in the fertility space. And so at first I said, “This is going to be,” in 2016, I declared on Twitter, I was like, “I’m dedicating the next few years to this space, I’m going to find companies in this space, there’s just ample opportunity to make the fertility experience better, more transparent, more affordable for women.”
And so I did. I invested in a couple of companies in this space in fertility and women’s health in general, including Kind Body, Everlywell, Tia, and I was able to scratch some of that itch. But one of the things that I noticed was just the physical, over-the-counter retail products that were required. And these are technically medical devices, but their consumer, really, in my mind felt more clinical than consumer. And so realizing that I had the courage to build a medical device, I’m not afraid of that, yet had the consumer experience, had the empathy to build a brand around it that is really consumer- and Millennial-friendly. Couldn’t, like, get this idea out of my head.
And so I actually tried to find companies working on this. I couldn’t find any companies working on it. So I started interviewing potential CEOs. And so I had two folks that I hadn’t identified. And then I started interviewing, and I was like, “I’ll fund this. I’ll be on your board. I’ll be supportive, and you’ll run it.” And both of them were excited about the opportunity. But at the end of the day, I felt like I would have driven them crazy because I had so many ideas and so many opinions about what needed to happen.
And so I remember coming home and I told my husband, I’m like — at this point we had a one-year-old at the time — and I had a very cushy setup, I was teaching in the spring, investing on my own terms, I had all the flexibility I needed. And he was like, “Are you sure?” And I was like, “Yes, I can’t get this concept out of my head. It needs to exist.” And he goes, “Well, good, because I kind of want to start a company, too.” And so we both started companies at the same time again, which was crazy. But yeah, that’s kind of how everything got started. And now we spent a year in development. Now we’ve been a year in the market. And I have no regrets. It’s been really great to see the company come to life. And it’s made me a better investor.
I continue to invest. I probably do one investment a month or every other month. And I think I just bring a lot more operational expertise that I definitely didn’t have before. And just knowing it is so much harder than entrepreneurs make it look. They make it look really easy. And all the founders that I’ve backed, and now I go back to them and say, “Why did you make it look so easy? It’s not easy. It’s really hard.”
Ceci Connolly 18:55
Yeah. And let’s talk a little bit, always so important to get your perspective on what they call the “work-life balance.”
Halle Tecco 19:06
Yeah, yeah. My work-life balance now is totally different than how I worked at Rock Health. At Rock Health, my partner Malay Gandhi and I were workaholics. And we set off each other’s workaholism. And we were at the office, past dinner every night. We’d go on the weekends, because we loved it. And there was endless amounts of work to do. And we didn’t feel like we had other competing priorities. But at the same time, we were putting our relationships, our friendships, our own health, as a second-tier priority. And it wasn’t until both of us kind of left that work environment that we were like, “Oh my gosh, we worked way too much.” That was, that was intense.
And when I started Natalist, I made a promise to myself and my family that I would set boundaries. And there’s no easier way to set boundaries than to become a parent, because you can put the gym aside, but you cannot put a baby aside. We’ve created a culture at Natalist; our team is mostly moms. So we’re all in the same boat. And we literally clock off at five, we all turn off Slack, turn off all notifications, we don’t work weekends. And we’re all really committed to not burning out and creating a really good work-life balance.
That also means being extremely productive during the work hours, I don’t think I realized how unproductive I was before. I might have been working 80 hour weeks, but I was spending a lot of it working on things that were unnecessary. I wasn’t prioritizing my work time. And so I think now forcing myself to prioritize, I’m far more productive and efficient. And I’m really happy with balance, I feel really good. I love my work. But I also get to shut off and spend the evening with my family. And it’s, it’s really great. And I hope that other women can find that balance. It’s really hard, especially when you’re in your work environment where that’s not the expectation.
Ceci Connolly 20:59
As you reflect on this journey of yours, which has been so interesting and exciting and different and the twists and turns and lessons learned. And curious, if you feel there is a particular characteristic that’s given you an edge throughout all of these challenges along the way.
Halle Tecco 21:21
Probably just that I work really hard. The story I like to tell is when I was in high school, I really didn’t like carrying all of my heavy AP books home with me. And so I also played a few instruments, and I’ve had to carry those on the bus and my books on the bus. And so I would try to do all of my homework during lunch during my free period. And so I learned to be really fast working. Just like, “I got to get this done.” I’m like, I’m organized, I could never be accused of procrastinating, I do the opposite. Like as soon as I’m assigned something, I try to get it done as quickly as possible. And so I think that’s been helpful. I don’t necessarily get the writer’s block version of working. I just get to it. So I think that would be probably the trait that has been most helpful.
Ceci Connolly 22:04
And your career has shifted, interestingly, much more into women’s health, women’s issues. And you talked about bringing other women along. Share a little bit more about how you find those opportunities. What kind of strategies do you find effective?
Halle Tecco 22:27
Back in 2012 or 2013 at Rock Health, we did our first report on women in digital health and women in healthcare. And we uncovered a lot of really interesting findings. One was that most women’s health companies are run by men and women are underrepresented and black women are especially underrepresented as CEOs in digital health in startups overall.
But if there’s one area where it is most disappointing to me that women are underrepresented, it’s within women’s health, because I do believe having the first-hand experience of facing the issues that you’re trying to solve is invaluable as a founder, as an employee of a women’s health company. And so that really opened my eyes to, “Okay, there are two opportunities here. One is that women’s health is underfunded; there’s a lot of opportunity to solve problems that have been unaddressed. And the other is women have been underfunded.” And so combining these two was a really exciting opportunity for me. And so I just started spending more and more time on women’s health than other sectors. So there are a lot of places to become an expert within digital health. And I just felt the pull to women’s health, from my own health experiences from seeing the amazing business opportunity. And then seeing the women that are courageous enough to work in this space with being totally underfunded and still making it happen.
Ceci Connolly 23:57
Well, and how exciting to be in a position where you can actually say, “I’m going to put real dollars and resources into women, women’s issues, women’s health, women’s companies.” I mean, that’s so powerful.
Halle Tecco 24:12
I feel like the women that we’ve funded or that I funded, it’s more than just the money. Obviously, the money is necessary. But we support one another because a rising tide lifts all boats, we share opportunities that come across our desk, whether it’s like a reporter looking for a quote on something or a potential customer or just expertise. And so it’s been great because we have now this group of women, and we’re all interconnected in a professional way, but we’re also supportive of each other. There’s really no better way to support a woman than being on our cap table and having skin in the game. It really makes a difference.
Ceci Connolly 24:49
I agree on all of those, especially the notion of a network and support and sending opportunities to others if it’s not the right fit for you. I’m going to close here, and it’s a little bit of a silly question for someone as young as you, but I think it’s going to apply given all that you’ve already accomplished. And that is, if you were looking back and maybe giving your younger self a piece of advice, what might it be?
Halle Tecco 25:18
One of the things I tell my students is just the benefit of becoming a key thought leader within an area. So finding something that you’re passionate about personally, that you can tie to your professional career goals and becoming an expert, because that’s really how you get access to new opportunities is by being the one who knows a lot about something. And it can be something small and esoteric — being the expert on wearables for mental health, or it can be something more broad like healthcare. But obviously, the more specific you are, the easier it is to identify you as that thought leader. And with platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, we are seeing, it’s more accessible to become a thought leader because you can freely share your ideas. There’s no gatekeeper to sharing your ideas and your thoughts and your opinions. And so making sure that if you, everybody has a voice and making sure that you’re able to identify something that you’re passionate about early on, so that you can continue to build that voice in that narrative professionally is, is really invaluable.
Ceci Connolly 26:21
I certainly agree. And I think maybe it’s a great note to close on, which is, I’m going to encourage all of our Her Story listeners out there to follow you on Twitter and LinkedIn and just help us continue to spread important messages on social media and elsewhere. And I just want to give a big thank you, Halle. It was so terrific to talk today.
Halle Tecco 26:44
Thank you. Thanks for letting me run my mouth. I enjoy talking about all these things.
Lan Nguyen 26:50
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