July 7, 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 Ivelyse Andino, founder and CEO of Radical Health. Ivelyse, welcome to Her Story.
Ivelyse Andino 0:33
Thank you so much for having me. Super excited to be here.
Sanjula Jain 0:37
Your career is quite impressive. You have a couple of different stints in different points of health technology and now you’re blazing forward this area in what I’ll call health fluency, which we’ll talk more about later today. Just to ground everyone, tell us a little bit about what Radical Health is and what your mission is today.
Ivelyse Andino 0:55
Radical Health makes it really easy for people to come together, connect with people who have lived experiences, know how to access, engage with, and be equipped to navigate a healthcare system that is really challenging. We use circles to have conversations and our app helps people know what questions to ask before, during, or after a clinical visit, to make sure everyone has equitable and safe access to health care today.
Sanjula Jain 1:24
Thinking about your journey across healthcare and leading up to what you’re doing today, do you consider your foray into healthcare leadership more accidental or intentional?
Ivelyse Andino 1:38
I would definitely say this was accidental, but it’s a hard one to choose because I often say that my entry into healthcare was determined by the zip code I was born into. We all know in healthcare, your zip code determines your health, but for real, where I was born in the Bronx and where I live now is what shaped me back then, gave me a passion and a drive. I often say what I do today, as professional as it is, it really still is personal for me. It was a lot like a ping pong ball, back and forth accidentally getting me to where I am today.
Sanjula Jain 2:17
What’s really unique about your story is that a lot of the issues you’re trying to solve are grounded in experiences you had growing up in the neighborhood that you did. Tell us a little bit about how your childhood and where you grew up shaped your professional ambitions at that time. What did young Ivelyse actually want to be doing growing up?
Ivelyse Andino 2:37
I thought I was going to be a doctor. I showed up at undergrad and I was like (you’d be declaring your major), “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna be a doctor.” It was the first time I realized you don’t just show up and say you’re going to be a doctor. People in junior high school are prepping and kind of know what’s happening. You get ready. I always knew I’d be in healthcare, the doctor path just wasn’t it for me. It was the first time I’d seen that there’s a system at play here that you have to know about or even just understand to get into. Beyond that, I knew that being in community is the biggest motivator for me. That’s been the piece along this whole journey that has shaped me, kept me, and still does. I didn’t become a doctor. I ended up in marketing and doing that in healthcare and getting to work really early in some of the nice early spots of biotech. I did what was called then a “national broadcast.” Basically, it was the first iteration of Zoom where we have folks in a television studio and streaming out. This version that we’re doing now is much easier, but I got to see the ins and outs of healthcare and the biotech side and then double down in health tech, so it was really, really early there. I got to see how what we know today as health tech was made. We created a platform to let doctors prescribe apps. All of the experiences toward my professional journey were all really special and taught me so much, but also forced me to look deeper. I was often the only woman in all of those rooms, the only person of color, the youngest. I’m grateful for those experiences, but they also forced me to look at what I wanted to see differently.
Sanjula Jain 4:41
After a series of incredible stints in that healthcare technology space, you then decided to build Radical Health which is the first Latina-owned-and-operated Benefit Corp in NYC. That’s really using the power of conversations to make healthcare more equitable. Tell us a little about the origin story. Where did the idea come from? What were you thinking at that time in terms of wanting to make the pivot from more of the “traditional job” to doing something on your own?
Ivelyse Andino 5:11
It was interesting for me because when I started Radical Health—I talk about community often—I didn’t know what I was doing. What I did know was that I had worked at a bunch of companies. I made a lot of people a lot of money, but it felt so far removed from where I lived, my communities, communities like mine. What I was doing in the day-to-day didn’t have any impact on what I was doing at home. Radical Health started around my kitchen table. We brought basically anyone I met. I was like, “Do you want to come over and have a chat?” I would pull people in the subway if I saw they were wearing scrubs and be like, “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but I’m having a chat at my house. You want to come over?” I started building around that and listening to what people were saying. Not just healthcare providers but community members, teachers, government folks. It was in those conversations that people elevated and said, “This isn’t working for me.” We had one teacher who was saying, “I teach kindergarteners and their parents are coming to me and I can’t do anything. I don’t know how to help them but I’m seeing folks every day.” Radical Health started in those conversations. I always knew I could do something like this. I never doubted my ability to start a company. I never doubted my ability to even challenge a whole existing healthcare system to think about doing things differently. I’ve always been a little bit of a rabble-rouser, you could say. In starting Radical Health, it became and still is a product of building with people and listening and changing the perspective. I don’t have all the answers. I’m just really good at listening and building with folks.
Sanjula Jain 7:05
You mentioned that you grew up in this very unique community in the Bronx. I know you have some family experiences with your mom and things like that which I’d love you to talk a little bit more about as well. What were you looking for through those conversations? What were you ultimately chasing for in that regard?
Ivelyse Andino 7:22
I think I was looking for solidarity. I was looking to be heard myself. I worked in health tech, I worked in oncology with biotech. While I was working in the middle of this industry, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was so hard to be literally in the middle of this system, seeing drugs that come came through from the FDA being rolled out and hearing all these success stories of people choosing elective treatment options, and then seeing my mom in a Bronx hospital without any of those options. I never even met her attending. To be in the middle of that and to feel so alone but then go to work every day and be at the forefront of innovation and tech and “I’m changing this” and “we’re doing all these great things” but knowing that’s never reaching me felt really lonely and really isolating. I imagined, “If it’s so hard for me, and I’m quick-witted and I’m smart and I have resources, I can’t be alone in this.” The contrast was also that everyone at work was like, “This is great! It’s working so well! Hooray! Let’s keep going!” So in those initial conversations, I was looking to be heard to make sure I wasn’t imagining something like this, it wasn’t just a unique experience to me, that navigating the health care system was hard, it was difficult, and—even though I had all the tips and tricks and tools—it still was unfair and unjust. In those conversations, I wanted to be heard. What I found—which was like magic—was that, in looking to fact check or double check my feelings, so many other people felt that way. It wasn’t just community members. I anticipated that maybe there would be people who are parents themselves, they live that, but then I started hearing from folks who were in health care or inside industry saying, “Oh, no, it’s just as bad from the inside and the outside. You’re not alone in this.”
Sanjula Jain 9:32
I think what’s so powerful in what you’re talking about is this gap and the different silos we see, and you are at the epicenter of a lot of that. I know you’ve also shared with me this idea of feeling like you never quite fit into some of those sub industries. Are you a health tech person with a technology background? Are you really health equity, public health accumulate? How do you think about our industry’s notion of defined roles or sectors in the context of what you were seeing and what you were trying to do when you were thinking about Radical Health?
Ivelyse Andino 10:02
I was young. I didn’t really know all the sectors and silos. I didn’t know that there were specific subsets of healthcare. Because I got to come up in the biotech and then health tech space, no one had been doing that before, so I was like, “Oh, wow, this is a space.” I had a lot of freedom, so I didn’t necessarily feel the constraints of like “this is public health and this is how it’s done” or “this is epidemiology and this is how it’s done.” I felt a lot of fluidity. It was in that space that I could imagine other things, but I still feel like I don’t fit into any industry. I have a semi-tech background, but I’m not a developer, so I don’t feel like I’m straight in the line of tech. What we do is health tech, but it is centering equity and using tech as a means to advance health equity, which might fall under public health (and folks would love to catch us in the public health). I’ve had a lot of people like, “Oh, well, that’s nonprofit work” and we’re like, “No, no. What we’re doing is carving out another space that meets people, communities, and systems where they are. Other industries like finance and education have all seen this momentum, this shift, this changed. We’re pushing that, but again, centering the people and the communities that haven’t had a seat at that table to build with.”
Sanjula Jain 11:37
You’re bringing this intersectional view, which is so much needed in the industry. The way I would look at it is you’re using the technology scale, the impact from a public health point of view, but it’s really education. A lot of the conversations you’re forging are driving this behavioral change. Being a little bit on the education side, too, there is this perception in the industry on education/public health that you can’t really make a business out of it. It’s like, “How do you actually commercialize that? How do you sustain it? How do you get the funding to do those things that are needed over a long-term basis?” Talk a little bit about the business model of who Radical is working with and how you support yourself to continue to scale these conversations.
Ivelyse Andino 12:23
This was one of the things early on like when we talked about not fitting in. I tried to raise money for Radical Health and I was like, “I’ve got this! I’ve worked at health tech startups. I’m made for this!” I couldn’t get any funding. When you don’t know, you don’t know (which is almost better sometimes), but I didn’t know then that black or Latina women receive 0.001% of all funding. I didn’t know that I was in this rare unicorn league of women CEOs, of black Latina CEOs. I had no idea. Thankfully, the industry has been a little bit more vocal to say, “Oh, yeah, this is a challenge and we’re going to try and work on it or at least be aware of it.” I had to bootstrap Radical Health. We got down and dirty. We found clients who aligned with us and believed in us. The way we run today is B2B to B2C models, so we work with providers, we work with employers. They hire us and license Radical Health to be available to their communities or employees. What’s really important here is to the point of how this impacts both, especially on the financial side. What we know today is that 90 million Americans don’t have basic health information. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, who you know, it is just complicated. I mean, what’s an mRNA vaccine over ____? We’ve all seen that this year. It’s wild. When you don’t understand what’s going on, we start to tap into “health fluency,” so the ability to read and write and understand basic knowledge but then also the actual knowledge of health care. Understanding the pieces, the ways that the system works, that you might need authorization before you can get a procedure done. Then we run into perception: “How do my customs and my culture impact how I view the healthcare system?” I’m Puerto Rican. We use Vicks Vapor Rub (a menthol rub) for everything. That’s your first run. Before you do anything, you got to use some Vicks. That’s just the culture, that’s just the perception. Before I call my PCP, we’re going to see what we have here and make it work. That’s my unique cultural perception, and others have different ones. Those are pieces we need to incorporate into this understanding. The last component when we think about health fluency is confidence and trust. Only 44% of black Americans actually trust the healthcare system to do what’s right for them. That’s 20% less than white counterparts. We’re seeing that people don’t understand. We have this lack of health fluency that doesn’t encompass all the things I mentioned. We don’t have confidence in a health care system. People who have low health fluency ask about 50% fewer questions when they’re in a doctor’s visit. I think about it as a job interview. We’re like, “Do you have any questions?” And you’re like, “No, no, I’m good.” It doesn’t make for a good experience. To the financial piece, it’s just costing us billions and billions of dollars. Someone with low health fluency who’s on Medicaid costs about $10,000 a year, which is four times higher than someone who has high health care fluency that’s around $2,600 a year. This is a community/cultural/people issue, but it’s also a financial issue that we are working really hard to fix.
Sanjula Jain 16:22
I love this concept of health fluency because we’re not talking enough about that. One of the things we’ve talked a lot about and we’ve seen as an industry (especially coming out of this last year) is this concept of health equity. Without being insensitive about it, I think health equity has become the new buzzword for healthcare this year. What does that actually mean and how do we solve it? How do you think about the connection between health fluency and then how the industry is thinking and talking about health equity? What do you think the broader industry needs to do to help support what you and Radical are doing but just the broader ecosystem to push the needle forward as we think about the next five years of the health care system?
Ivelyse Andino 17:07
I’ve been working on all these things talking about health equity. I’ve been doing it for so long and no one knew what I was talking about for a long time, up until recently. Once I was moderating a panel and I had to give a disclaimer that we were going to talk about health equity and racism in healthcare. To get people ready to know that was a conversation I was going to talk about, I had to prep it with my panelists. Thankfully they were all on board. It was a conversation that was happening but people weren’t listening to. Now health equity is all the rage, it is the hottest thing. In some ways, I have a really hard time because not everyone who talks about health equity understands or is actually doing something to move the needle. When we think about health equity, it’s not just that maybe our services are in Spanish or French and that we’re making ourselves a little bit more accessible. That’s one piece, and that talks right to the literacy component. Can people read and understand what I’m saying? Health equity is so much more. It involves looking at the systemic barriers. When we talk about the actual knowledge: knowing what your rights are, knowing how a system works, and how to adjust or move through that. When we think about how this all plays in right now, there are a handful of companies and a few more on the way that are led by people who have lived experience. That’s one of the big things I always look for. Do you know what you’re talking about? Do you know how this impacts? If you don’t, that’s okay, because you can still be an ally, you can still come alongside us, but I look for who has lived experience, who’s doing this and understands it? There are a few companies coming through that are really centering this and I think we’re right at the beginning. A lot of old companies have pivoted to health equity, but I think we’re right at the beginning. It reminds me of the early days of health tech where we saw a lot more folks, a lot more companies coming up and opening the doors, to see new innovations that encompass this idea of intersectionality, that encompass the idea of working together and creating real solutions that are built by and for communities have been locked and ignored.
Sanjula Jain 19:54
That’s so powerful. As we talk a lot about in the health tech and innovation space, in many ways, you in Radical were a pioneer in this space when started up in 2015. As time has progressed and there’s a little bit more awareness around the issue, now you’re starting to see more of these companies and initiatives following suit. You also mentioned how hard it was to get funding and I think part of that is also just the lack of awareness of how the industry was talking about these issues back at that time. What advice would you give to other female founders, especially women of color, who may be trying to start something or create a market for an issue set that may not be as “mainstream” at that time and push through that? How do you think about that?
Ivelyse Andino 20:44
For anyone who’s considering entering or starting a company, an initiative, or even just shifting: I got really great advice from an advisor and investor who said, “You’re not wrong, you’re just early.” There was something about that, and that’s something I carry with me now. I’m wrong sometimes, but I’m often not wrong in the conviction and in what I know to be a problem. I’m just early. For people, for the women of color who are jumped into an industry that wasn’t created or designed for our full participation, I’d say do whatever you can to stay the course. You are likely early, you’re not wrong. What also really helped me was knowing my worth and my value and honestly, bootstrapping my company is what gave me the longevity and sustainability to keep at it for so long. It’s waiting for the industry to catch up. I talk a lot about not getting those checks early on, but I think not getting those checks was probably one of my biggest blessings because it forced me to find the other pockets. We started outside of healthcare doing health equity work in education, but it forced me to find the other pockets where people were a little bit more eager, a little bit more open to prove this concept and model to generate revenue that allowed us to weather a pandemic, do all the work we’re doing, and to now be in a place where we are leading where we’re modeling. We’re showing that you can run a company, be profitable, have incredible impact on multiple levels, and build a community in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Sanjula Jain 22:38
That’s such great advice. Thank you for sharing that. As you think about the last was six or so years of Radical Health and different stages as the organization has evolved, how has your focus or the things you’ve had to think about as the leader of the organization evolved alongside the evolution of the organization?
Ivelyse Andino 22:59
I did not know that I would be a finance raise, like venture capital pro. That was never in my roadmap. That’s probably the biggest shocker right now. In many ways, I’ve grown up alongside Radical Health. When I started, I still had this mindset of blending in, fitting in. When I worked in healthcare, I had to dim myself or dull my presence. I would straighten my hair and you’d never find me with a bright red lip in a corporate office. I had to hide the pieces of me that made me, me. Radical Health allowed me to step into who I am, all the beautiful pieces of my culture, my body, my brilliance that I could bring to work. Early on, that was the biggest gift I had to offer: I could be real, I could be in the community and with CEOs as the same person. That was one of the earlier lessons. As we’ve grown, I’ve had to run a company and learn how to operate and do finances and taxes and hire and do a lot of the things that were more on the operating side than the service side. Now it’s exciting because I get to do a lot more visioning, a lot more “where are we going,” a lot more collaborating, and even imagining things I never thought would be possible. It’s been one of the biggest joys that maybe I don’t often highlight, that I’m growing and evolving alongside my company.
Sanjula Jain 24:47
Leadership is a constant learning journey so that’s definitely a testament to that. I think what you’re referring to, I love this word that you used earlier, around this idea of almost physically muting yourself. It sounds like you realized over time that you didn’t have to do that. Do you think that was just a personal reflection? Going back, do you think younger Ivelyse would have the confidence to know it was okay that to fully embrace who you were? Or do you think that was just part of the evolution of our industry, the timing, where we are? How do you balance personal confidence with where the industry and the ecosystem actually are to be able to be comfortable to do that?
Ivelyse Andino 25:27
I think about how I started. I was taught to do great work, work twice as hard, do whatever you need to do to get the job done, just conform. In most of the places—even in school, at work especially—I was the only Latina for sure. There were a few other women, but there weren’t even enough of us. We were often scolded if we spoke up. I remember having a job early. I was probably 16 years old and I did this program where I went to high school one week and then I went to work another week. I worked in financial services and it was incredible, but I remember getting told that my outfits were too bright, my colors are too bright. Something like that feedback, I can understand maybe, but now I think about that as the beginnings of “don’t be too loud,” “don’t be too bright,” “stay under the radar.” You carry that. Over and over again, I’ve spoken up in meetings, but I wish that confidence had been instilled early on. For the people listening now—young people, young women—that confidence is something I had but was broken in me and instilled not to listen to and I had to find it along the way. I had a lot of great men—mentors and bosses—who would go into rooms and didn’t know anything and would be so confident. I remember watching and saying, “Oh, you could do that, why can I?” What made the big difference for me to find that confidence, to shine out was actually not being inside of a large healthcare system or large corporation. Being on the outside, being on the outskirts and fighting my way in gave me the space to do that and being in community with other women, other women founders, other folks who are also on the outside and seeing their freedom really inspired me and gave me back the confidence to say that it’s not just freedom in how I dress or how I talk, it’s also freedom in how I think and how I challenge the current healthcare system.
Sanjula Jain 27:59
That’s great. You touched on a couple of themes we love to talk about but underlying a lot of what you said is how there are a lot of great mentors and colleagues that help guide us along the way and often instill a set of belief systems that we think early on in our career and then as we progress we realize, “Oh, maybe they’re not actually as true as we may have thought or were told to believe.” Learning some of those belief systems are is half the challenge. I know we share some family in Tampa. Are you in Tampa or are you in the Bronx today?
Ivelyse Andino 28:35
I’m coming to you from the Bronx, with all the Bronx beauty. We have birds as airplanes. There will probably be a motorcade of motorcycles coming down very shortly. This is the Bronx at its best.
Sanjula Jain 28:52
I love it. When you talked earlier about having to physically mute yourself, you had this great story about when you got your first gray hair. Tell us about that.
Ivelyse Andino 29:04
The average age of health care employees is 65, so I feel like I’ve often been the youngest. I got started really early, so I had to fight to be taken seriously. When I got my first gray hair, I was so proud of it. I would place them—I actually got two at the same time. I clearly was very stressed—strategically on the top of my head so folks would know that I wasn’t like— I mean, I was in my 20s. They would maybe think I was a little older. I have a few more now, so I’m a little less particular about where they stand. I try to actually hide them a little more now, but it was a moment where I knew I needed to like camouflage in some ways and use whatever I had to fit in and to blend in and to be taken seriously.
Sanjula Jain 30:04
Thank you for sharing that. We talk a lot about how people are trying to make themselves look younger, especially in the tech world, but that phenomenon exists on the other end where you have a lot of young founders who are trying to place forward in an industry that is a little older. There are many fun facts about your story that I love, but one worth highlighting is you actually founded Radical Health while you were on maternity leave, which is a rare thing. Talk about what you were thinking at that time and the origin story behind it.
Ivelyse Andino 30:39
I’ve worked my whole life. I started working when I was 16 and in high school. I went to school one week and work the next. I’ve always had a job, and I’ve done everything: waitress, bartender, I’ve done it all. For me and my family, I had to work. I didn’t have the luxury of taking time off. I was in school. I went to school full time and I had to work, so that carried into my corporate career. I’ve worked at startups, I’ve worked for agencies. I was no stranger to the grind culture. Then I found myself pregnant and was super excited and like, “Okay, here we go!” While I was on maternity leave, for the first time, I had a break. Some people might not see that as a break, but for the first time, I didn’t have to work hard for anyone else. I had a little person. Everyone’s journey is not the same, so I want to caveat that, but taking care of a brand new baby was so much easier than working at a tech startup and it gave me the freedom and space to be creative. It gave me the freedom and the space to organize, to be home. For a lot of us in this year of the pandemic, we’ve been home more than the rest of our whole lives, so I guess you can call maternity leave my pre-mini-quarantine. It allowed me to stay home. It allowed me to have space and time to explore the things I wanted to do, to organize, to invite people over, and to sit and create.
Sanjula Jain 32:31
That is so powerful, and you’re right. In some ways, those parallels to COVID quarantine are there. I and a lot of other friends and colleagues have shared similar sentiments where they’ve had this space to think and reflect and be more creative. As you play that out looking forward, how do you hold yourself accountable to create those spaces for yourself when you’re not on maternity leave or in the middle of a pandemic so you give yourself that freedom to reset and get out of that day-to-day grind, so to speak?
Ivelyse Andino 33:03
I’m not. I’m still struggling with making space for myself. I’m still struggling with making space to just be and not work and not mom and not friend. I’m still really, really struggling with that. I try my best to do the things we all know as this idea of like self-care and vacations, but I’m learning that self-care isn’t pretty. It’s actually sometimes really hard, sometimes it’s discipline, sometimes it is accountability, and sometimes it is the hard choices. It’s still very much practice for me. It’s still very much an exercise. It’s kind of like going to the gym, it’s hard to do, but I get to do that. I have such an incredible crew of folks around me from the people I work with, my crew of other CEOs and founders, and our investors. I have such a crew around me and they’re so incredible and honest and challenged me to take that space and to take that time and to know that rest and free space is also a radical act of healing and care.
Sanjula Jain 34:30
The other piece of that—I’m curious about what you think—we sometimes chase after these big extended periods of time. Time is one of our most precious resources, but sometimes it’s the small little day-to-day habits that give us those outlets. Do you have a daily habit you try to stick by that’s your centering mechanism?
Ivelyse Andino 34:51
I don’t know if it’s centering, but I’ve started this new practice in my life and I’ve been doing it for a few months. I drink water every day. I will not let coffee touch my lips unless I have these two cups of water. I use that as a moment to like, “Before I even start this day, I’m going to hydrate and care for my body.” My other founder hack is I have a salad before every meal. That is also another just stop. Like, “Before I can get to my mac and cheese, I’m going to eat a salad.” Some salads are really great. Some of them are not. It’s a way of pausing and taking a moment. That’s the practice right now: before anything enters my body, especially around food, I want to be mindful and slow down.
Sanjula Jain 36:01
Thank you for sharing that. Those are the things that make all the difference. They’re so important and you’re also making me feel better about myself because I always say, “If I want those french fries, I need to have some salad with that, too,” so I have a salad and fries combo. I think that’s great. I love what you’re building and we’re excited to see what you continue to chart forward with Radical Health. You’re only just getting started, but as you think about advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Ivelyse Andino 36:30
To the young Ivelyse, to my younger self, I would say, “You’re early, you’re not wrong. Do it boldly, do it bravely, and—even if your voice trembles—you have to speak up.”
Sanjula Jain 36:48
Beautiful. You have many more chapters of your book to write but, as you think about the legacy you want to leave behind, what would be the title of your autobiography?
Ivelyse Andino 37:01
She Did It Her Way and She Did It Anyway. If you would have told the younger me that I’d be here today, if I look back many years from now, I want to know that it was done in truth, in authenticity, and love. Even when everyone else said, “This is wild and crazy,” I still did it my way. My way being in community.
Sanjula Jain 37:36
Absolutely. This has been so inspiring. It’s so apparent just how authentic and energetic you are and that shows in all your work, so thank you for all you’re doing to move the needle in our industry and shake things up. We appreciate it. We’re really excited to see where Radical is headed.
Ivelyse Andino 37:54
Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here. This has been a joy and fun. Thank you for holding space so we could chat and learn from one another.
Sanjula Jain 38:05
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