May 5, 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.
This special edition is guest hosted by Lynne Chou O’Keefe, Founder and Managing Partner of Define Ventures and founding member of the Her Story Advisory Council.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 0:35
Thank you, everyone, for joining us at Her Story where we talk to amazing, innovative healthcare leaders. We are being joined by a truly great collaborator and friend, Sumbul Desai. She is currently Vice President at Apple, is a physician, was also at Stanford before this, but has also had some interesting career paths, which I’m sure we’ll get into. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your story with us.
Sumbul Desai 1:02
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited. I love this podcast. I’m really excited to be able to join, so thank you.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 1:09
Let’s start from the beginning. The beginning for many of us is often our family or how we were raised. Bring us to those early formative years and how it might have changed or helped you develop your arc of leadership going forward.
Sumbul Desai 1:25
How much time do we have? My family has played such a big influence in terms of my life and where I am today. I was born in Sweden. My family moved out to the United States when I was three. We lived in Wisconsin, then moved to Virginia, and then to New York. My dad was a scientist and he ended up in a company that moved him around a little bit in the US, so I had that background of different states. If you ever hear me say “class” or “glass,” you hear a little bit of my accent. The years I think back to the most are in high school. I remember struggling with what I wanted to be. My dad has a double Ph.D., my mom was a nurse. My dad always wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer. I’m of Indian descent and if you were Indian there were really only two paths: be a physician or be an engineer. There was really not much else. Back in the day, when I was applying to college, there was something called a “common app,” and I’ll never forget—I still have this so vividly in my memory—my dad yelled out from the other room. He’s like, “Did you apply to any six-year medical programs? Because you need to apply to med school.” I begrudgingly checked one of the boxes thinking I would never get in anyway, but at least I checked the box. I went through the application process and was asked to interview in the Rensselaer Albany six-year med program. I cried the day I had the interview because I did not want to go. I wanted to go to Columbia University and become a journalist. My parents were like, “Journalist? What is that? You can’t become a journalist,” so I went through the interview process. When you’re young, you think you’re vibrant and you think you’re being rebellious, so in the interview process I told them how I was really interested in medical journalism, thinking maybe that smart-elicit answer would push them in the direction of rejecting me. I ended up getting in. Again, I cried the day I got in, but I didn’t have much of a choice. My dad was like, “You’re going,” so I started at Rensselaer and did the six-year BS MD program. I was just miserable. The first semester I came back in December, my dad was like, “Okay, fine. If you’re this miserable, do what you want,” so I changed majors to computer science, which again, everything has a reason in life. Everything pops up for a reason. I changed majors to computer science and minored in communications, and started doing an internship at a local CBS affiliate, thinking that I was going to go be a journalist and pursue that. That led to an internship at Good Morning America and eventually a job at ABC News downline, but I definitely had a rocky path and undergrad so I learned to be resilient and gritty pretty early on, but I also learned to be pretty rebellious early on. I ended up graduating, started off at ABC News, and I lived with that constant “rub” with my parents of “I don’t understand what you’re doing.” I don’t know if they fully understand what I do today either, but back then it was never really understood what I did. I moved up the ranks, but I started to realize that some of the analytical capabilities you have as an engineer, I started to miss in some of the work that I was doing with news. While I love news and I learned a ton, what I was struck by is I wanted to understand how things got built and how you build them and like, “Why do you make the business decisions you make?” That led to me deciding to change roles. The Walt Disney Company owned ABC. I moved to the studio planning group in Burbank, California. I left New York, and that was a big deal because I was the oldest daughter. Again, my parents were like, “Why are you going to California? The Walt Disney Company? Why are you doing that?” I did go out and do that and learned a ton. That was an amazing experience. Working at The Walt Disney Company taught me a lot about some of the things I’ve now carried forward into my work here at Apple. In August of 2001, I went home to visit my family. My brother was going back to college, I went back to visit, and my mom woke up with one of the worst headaches of her life and had a massive stroke. It happened in front of me, and I was not a physician at that time. She had a hemorrhagic bleed and went into a coma right in front of me. As you can imagine, my dad was on a business trip, my brother and I were there, and we got to the emergency room. As a physician, I look back at what happened and realize there were a number of little miracles that happened in order for her to still be with us. We went to the hospital and we had to make a decision on whether to put her on life support or let her go. I stayed by her side and took care of her for the year that she was in the hospital. I mentioned August 2001 for an important reason. It was in New York right before September 11. My mom ended up getting moved out of an inpatient ICU to a rehab hospital because they were clearing the hospitals on September 11. She was in a rehab hospital much earlier than she should have been, so I ended up helping a lot with taking care of her. That’s when I fell in love with medicine. It was a rehab hospital, which was like life-changing in the sense. While my parents wanted me to be a doctor, I for the first time understood what medicine can do when it works together and the impact it can have on someone. After that experience, when I went back to Disney, it wasn’t the same. I felt like I needed to give back and do something directly to give back, which is when I decided to go back to medical school and that led to my path now. My family had an immense impact on my life for a number of reasons. If it wasn’t for my mom—and there are multiple ways my mom has influenced me over the years—but that was a big part of my story.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 7:42
It’s amazing the influence of “all these little miracles,” the outcome of it—it sounds like your mother is hopefully doing well—then to launch you where you might have started. Take us through that. You went to medical school. A clear question (and this happens a lot in the industry) is did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to practice or if you wanted to use that degree in a different way? You have had so many different experiences between ABC News, Walt Disney, so many other aspects. How did you think about that in med school?
Sumbul Desai 8:22
When I went to medical school, I will never forget the feeling of helplessness I had when my mom was in the ICU. I never wanted to feel that way again, which was a big driver of why I went into medicine: to be able to give back to people so they never feel helpless in those scenarios. I went into medical school thinking I was going to practice. I never thought I would do what I’m doing today. Never. If anything, I wanted to go into ICU medicine. I still joke around with my husband that, when this is all done, I might go back and do a fellowship in the ICU. He laughs at me. He’s like, “Really?” I love critical care and that was what I wanted to do so when I went into medicine, it was very much the intention to practice. I ended up doing an internal medicine residency and started as a hospitalist. When I was in residency, I started to see all the inefficiencies in healthcare. Having a corporate background and working in industry before helped because, when you’re first starting in residency, it’s like how do you use the operator? How do you use a fax machine? All these things you learn for the first time as a resident. Having worked before, at least I had some of that experience. The inefficiencies struck me around the health care continuum, both from a continuum of care, but also within the hospital, some of the inefficiencies around teams, communication, technology. It was during residency I had a little bit of an “aha moment” of, “Hey, let me talk to some of the administration in the hospital and see if maybe my background can be used in some way,” but I still wanted to make sure practicing was a big part of it. When I was at residency at Stanford, I spoke to our Chief Medical Officer at that time. He came from GE. He had an interesting background as well, so he understood what working at Disney would bring to the table. He said, “Hey, why don’t you come and work for me doing strategic initiatives?” I did that 50/50. I was 50% clinical, 50% administrative. He left within the first few months that I started so I was like, “Oh, what do I do now?” Amir Ruben was going to be the new CEO, so I got to know Amir and did a little bit more work around the strategy side. That’s where I started digging into how technology can be used in healthcare, and that started that journey at Stanford of like, “How do we integrate telemedicine into our practice? How do we think about virtual care? How do we do things with employers? How do we expand our primary care network?” That was the beginning of that journey. I never thought I would end up where I am today with the path I started on. It kind of all happened organically.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 11:02
One thing we like to talk about is do you feel like you’re an accidental or intentional leader?
Sumbul Desai 11:09
I would say a little bit of both. I definitely was an accidental leader in terms of how things evolved for me, but now I try to be much more intentional about my leadership. I find that reflecting and taking some time at the end of the day to reflect on like, “Did I do this well? Or did I not do this well?” I’ve also gotten into the habit of getting a lot of feedback from my leaders or counterparts or colleagues. Now I try to be much more intentional about how I lead, but I also think there’s always something accidental, like when you’re in new spaces and you’re innovating, there are things that happen accidentally and then you have to take that and run with it. If I were to categorize that, I would say I do a little bit of both.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 11:53
You were doing these different strategy projects, helping launch the virtual care center at Stanford, then you went to Apple. I’d love to hear about that transition, and you did it pre-COVID, that path of going to a technology company. Walk us through that, Sumbul.
Sumbul Desai 12:15
It was a hard decision to make. I loved working at Stanford, but I also missed some of the rigor and the intentionality you often see in corporate America. Moving fast enough was always a concern. The thing I’ve always struggled with is whether innovation happens from within healthcare or from outside of healthcare. I felt like we had done some things from within healthcare. Stanford’s done some really neat things, but it’s with an academic bend,—which is really important because you need to have the academic community come along—but the idea to be able to go work at a company where you can have impacted scale because impact was a really important thing that drove my desire in health and the reason I became a physician is to have an impact and then to be able to do it at scale and empower users to engage in their health in ways they haven’t thought about before. That intersection of technology and what I love about design and art and bring that together with science was such a unique opportunity I couldn’t say no to. We’re on a journey and we’re still early in the work we’re doing, but I’m proud of the things that we’ve done here at Apple. We have a lot more to do, but the ability to be a nexus point of bringing technology with the medical community and bringing research together while thinking about how that impacts the user in a way that you can provide features and products that are usable, understandable, impactful, was what was really exciting about the opportunity.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 13:53
You’re sitting there at Apple headquarters, and I don’t know how many people in our audience have gone to Apple headquarters, but it’s a work of art in itself in terms of the design and the thoughtfulness of the senior leadership even putting that structure together, so talk us through that. For many of us who’ve been in healthcare, we can say we want to be more consumer-centric. What has it been like being on the Apple side of the house? How have they created that via process or culture? What are some of the things you think we can take from a health care system standpoint that you feel like you’ve learned or progressed skill-set-wise at a tech company like Apple?
Sumbul Desai 14:41
There are a few things. One is being grounded in science, especially for health care type features. There are no shortcuts around doing good work. That’s true for the science and making sure you take the time to do the feasibility and understand the impact of the technology both scientifically and as well as on a user’s life. Thinking about it from both of those perspectives is really important. You always think about the design and the focus on design at Apple. That is something that is astounding and amazing and it’s in everything we do, whether it’s focusing, simplify, “surprise and delight” is an important element in terms of how our features and products are developed. The thing I always am in awe of is the attention to detail around the science behind the feature. Fundamentally, the science and the technology has to be solid. That’s when you have a great user experience. The biggest thing to take away from healthcare is to go back to the fundamentals and remember the core of what you’re trying to deliver. Make sure you do that really, really well, then other things build upon it. Then the design is seamless because the fundamentals and the design come together in a beautiful way. That’s really important to think about and healthcare.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 16:02
As you kind of look back on your career at ABC and then Walt Disney in the media world and then at Stanford and the strategic initiatives that you helped to build and innovate and now being a senior leader at Apple, were there certain edges or mentors in your career that gave you a disproportionate advantage in your leadership? What are some of the things you feel helped you get on your way in your career as you look back on the whole journey?
Sumbul Desai 16:32
A few, definitely a few. Always being humble about what you don’t know and being clear about what you don’t know. The second element I cherish—and this is what I learned from my mom—is that you’re a constant learner. My mom was a nurse. She actually was trained as a teacher and became a nurse when she moved to the States. She wanted to do more and went back to school to learn finance and go work. She ended up working at Verizon Wireless before she had her stroke. My mom was one of those people that studied constantly, so the fact that I went back to medical school later in life actually wasn’t so unnatural because it was something about how you constantly learn. Using your relationships, your colleagues, your former colleagues, your friends, your mentors, to constantly ask for advice and “how do I do this better” has been critical for me because I can always be better. I’m not satisfied with where I am as a leader. I’m not satisfied with where I am as an engineer. I’m not satisfied with where I am as a physician. I want to make sure I continuously push myself to be better. You have to have grit along the way because you’re going to have bumps. It’s not always going to be easy. I also learned that grit from my mom of watching her throughout her life be willing to take some steps back to learn and do something different. I’ve had a pretty circuitous path. I’ve done a variety of different things. Change has been the ability to have faith in myself and the grit of being willing to make some changes and adapt and learn and constantly enrich, which has been really helpful as a leader. I’m still learning. There’s so much more to learn. I’m nowhere where I want to be. In reality, we’re always a work in progress, so the ability to enjoy the process of being a work in progress is what I’m starting to really appreciate as I move across in my career, as well as in my years.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 16:50
It’s so refreshing to see a senior leader, such as yourself, be vulnerable to say, “Hey, I’m always a work in progress,” especially sitting here. You’re literally sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley where that’s not necessarily the attitude. That’s an amazing quality and you’ve excelled in so many ways in so many different phases here. What advice would you give your younger self?
Sumbul Desai 19:01
This is gonna sound really cliche, but the advice I would give my younger self is don’t sweat the small stuff. Those times when your parents are like, “What are you doing?” My mother’s illness put life in perspective for me, and you realize how grateful you need to be every day and for everything we have when it comes down to our health. With the pandemic, I think we’re all learning that these days. A lot of times, when we are all type A personalities, we think about our life and we’re like, “Okay, we need to do this and this and this.” I threw that out the window when I went through changing majors. I remember that was a tough time for me because it was a hard conversation to have to tell your parents like, “Hey, I’m not going to be a doctor.” Especially because, as an immigrant child, they put so much faith in you because you’re almost a version of them, an extension of them and their future. More than disappointing them, it was more the instability they felt they would have in terms of who you are. I learned over those years that everything works out. You have to love what you do. You have to be willing to work hard at it, but don’t sweat the small stuff because everything happens for a reason. If you look back at my life—the fact that I worked at ABC News, the fact that I worked The Walt Disney Company—I would have never thought those things would be useful, but they are. They’re very useful in the role that I am in today. I’ve been able to call on experiences and “everything happens for a reason” and being able to find the beauty and step back and look at “maybe those things are happening to me today to help me with something in the future.” Focusing on the big picture and not sweating the small stuff would probably be the biggest piece of advice, because I remember those days when I was like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen with everything.” That’s the biggest lesson I would share.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 20:50
When you were talking about your mom and changing majors, I completely understand from growing up in an Asian family in that there is no “you” and “them.” You are a unit and what you do affects the unit. Then there’s this beautiful story you just told: you broke the unit and then the unit brought you back into this next leg of your career. It’s a beautiful story and so amazing in that way. If you wrote your own story, what would the title be?
Sumbul Desai 21:33
I think it would be Breaking Boundaries. The other one I would say is Thinking Outside the Box, because I’ve never taken a straight path through anything. I have a few titles I could come up with. Savoring the Journey would be another one because of the fact that I’ve been able to take that journey. In a lot of countries where you get raised, you wouldn’t be able to do that. For example, the reason this was so stressful for my family was because in India you couldn’t take this path and go back to medical school later in life. It just doesn’t happen. The fact that you can savor the journey and have the luxury of looking back at your life and being like, “Yeah, that worked out for a reason and I can enjoy those moments.” I think that would probably be the title, but I’m not really good at this. I’m going to have to come back the next time with a better title.
Lynne Chow O’Keefe 22:26
Sumbul, thank you so much for joining us. We’re so privileged to have you because, as you said, this path you’ve been on in this journey, all of these things are coming together in healthcare now. When we think about the consumer-first vision, you being a practicing doctor and now being in one of the most preeminent technology companies when we think about consumer healthcare and technology, I can’t think of a better leader who will move the needle and create a new world for healthcare, so thank you so much for joining us. We very much appreciate it.
Sumbul Desai 23:06
Thank you. I have to say, I’m always cheering you from afar. You’re doing such amazing work that I think will be pivotal to healthcare. It’s awesome to hear the sparkle in your voice, the excitement in your voice in changing the world, so thank you for everything you’re doing to make healthcare even better than it should be, and thanks for having me.
Sanjula Jain 23:31
Her Story is a podcast produced by Think Medium. For more leadership stories from inspiring women across healthcare, tune in every Wednesday. Please subscribe to Her Story on Apple Podcasts, YouTube, or wherever you’re listening right now. You can also view Her Story episodes and video and access exclusive content on our website at ThinkMedium.com. Be sure to rate and review Her Story so we can continue bringing you insights from influential women across the country. If you enjoyed this episode, we appreciate you spreading the word to your friends, family, colleagues, and mentors who might be interested. For questions and suggestions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!