January 10, 2022
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 0:23
I’m Sanjula Jain, Chief Research Officer at Trilliant Health and co-founder of Think Medium. It’s my pleasure to introduce Kristi Ebong, head of partnerships and market development at Define Ventures. Kristi, thanks so much for spending some time with us today. I’m thrilled to be sharing the hosting baton with you in season three.
Kristi Ebong 0:39
Yes, thank you so much for having me.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 0:41
So you have just a phenomenal background and I’m excited to kind of cover a couple of the highlights and introduce you to our guests. Let’s start with the fact that you’ve really carved out a pretty unique niche for yourself at the intersection what I’ll call healthcare and technology. But you didn’t really formally start off that way. And from what I understand you majored in Political Science and global security. Where did your interest in healthcare come from?
Kristi Ebong 1:04
That’s a great question. And I think like everyone, there was an element of serendipity to it. And so, if I go back to my undergraduate days, I was studying at the University of Wisconsin and I took on a work study position in the Office of International Health there. It was actually through the medical school. And the woman I worked for, Dr. Judith Ladinsky, had gotten her Ph.D. in reproductive endocrinology back in 1968, so a total trailblazer in her own right. And despite the fact that she smoked two packs a day and got into trouble with her tenure status in the office, and I learned how to advocate for myself with that one, she was an incredible advocate for health and healthcare in a global context. So we did a lot of support for building out healthcare infrastructure internationally. And so an example would be particularly in Southeast Asia and in Vietnam. She would do things like support research, but she would bring surgeons, Vietnamese surgeons, to the US to train in transplant surgery, and then go back to Vietnam. And where there wasn’t a harvesting infrastructure at the time for organs, would actually bring human retinas with her for eye transplants, which I thought was fascinating. And it gave me this firsthand look at health systems infrastructure in a comparative context. I was studying political science at the time. And I started kind of really understanding there’s so many angles to healthcare delivery, that are really interesting here. And one of the other things that she did was she would bring, maybe twice a year, to Vietnam in this refrigerated briefcase, if you will, bovine ova. So like, cow eggs from American bred cows that genetically we’re producing really rich nutritional content, to crossbreed with the cows in Vietnam to help with better pediatric development. And I just thought that that was an amazing intersection of, coming from Wisconsin and this ag tech environment, getting exposure to some healthcare problems firsthand.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 3:06
Wow. So take us a step back, how did your family and kind of early experiences as a child kind of shape your professional ambitions at that time?
Kristi Ebong 3:15
You know, I grew up in a family with a lot of clinical influenced on the one hand, but some very humble beginnings in the other. So my father’s father, my grandfather, was a physician. He’s actually pushing 94 now, he’s the apple of my eye. But when he was going through medical school, they lived in, like, a trailer with no running water, trying to put him through med school. And my dad as a newborn was sleeping in a drawer that was converted to a bed. And so growing up, my grandfather was, everyone knows his name. Even to this day, when I go back to the Twin Cities, if I say his name, people say, oh, yeah, I remember him. And he did everything from in home deliveries, you know, for like back in the day, when you had a baby, he would do house calls. I actually have his old black physician’s bag, now, it’s pretty cool. And he did surgery, he did everything, because GPs in those days did a little bit of everything. So I think that really piqued my interest until I became an undergrad student and got into chemistry, and realized that clinical medicine probably wasn’t for me.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 4:17
That makes two of us.
Kristi Ebong 4:20
But I still wanted to make an impact in the space.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 4:23
So I know we won’t have time to kind of go through the entire kind of roadmap of, you know, from college to what you’re doing now at Define Ventures, but give us a little bit of a highlight. So after you graduated with your kind of non-healthcare degree, I know you later got your MBA and got your MPH. But what did you set out to do after graduating from college? And how did that kind of take you on this path to ultimately Define Ventures, where you’re at now?
Kristi Ebong 4:46
Yeah, I wish I could say it was all really intentional, but again-
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 4:49
It never is.
Kristi Ebong 4:50
It never is. I actually had just come back from studying abroad. I was in Italy and traveling all over Europe by myself. And I remember coming back trying to start my senior year at University of Wisconsin. And I met with a guidance person saying I want to get done in four or five years. And they said, well, you’re done. I said, well what do you mean? They’re like, well, you’re done, you can graduate. And so I finished out the semester, graduated early, and I think I was waiting tables at the Great Dane, you know, it’s a great brew pub if you’ve ever been to Madison, and I kept getting these letters from this little company that sold medical software. And I was like, that sounds terrible. And like project management? Well, it would give me health insurance. And I’m this, you know, recent grad looking for health insurance. This is a long time ago now, where you only could get health insurance through your employer, and the company was Epic Systems. And so long story short, I started at Epic Systems, I had a three digit employee number. I was there when they were first based in Madison, and then when they moved out to their Verona campus, and so learning technology infrastructure from the ground up in those early days, I remember when we were talking about, can we do this for the NHS in the UK? Can we do this for Kaiser nationally? Is this possible to have one integrated system across all these entities? And I remember embarking on that journey. So it’s been an interesting place to start for sure.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 6:12
That’s amazing. I mean, isn’t it funny just to see you were there at the forefront of it? And, you know, we went through this midpoint where it’s like, how do we get people to adopt electronic health records now? Or like, okay, how do we deal with the physician burnout aspect of it, and then optimizing it? And wow that’s really interesting. So, now, a lot of your work is focused on investing in early stage digital health companies, which I’m sure we could spend a whole hour just learning more about that. But along the way, kind of leading up to this road, you’ve had a variety of roles, you know, past Epic, you know, you’ve spent some time in the government and others. How would you say some of your experiences as an operator kind of across those, what I’ll call, sub-verticals of healthcare really shaped your approach to what you do today?
Kristi Ebong 6:53
I think, first of all, it’s a great question. And having been both a strategic investor at Cedars Sinai, as well as now, on the institutional side, I really believe that in healthcare, having operating experience gives you a completely different understanding of the business. And I think it helps not only to understand the business models and the challenges there, but also how to commercialize and the unique nature of technology within healthcare, not just around privacy and security, but this disaggregated value chain you have between the user, whether that user is a patient or provider, or other person in the space, and the buyer, or the person who’s actually you know, paying for it. And so having a solid understanding of what all those data points are, and how you can fit those pieces together to marry up that business in a way that you can actually grow a business to make an impact, for me, is really, really exciting. And I think an operator is ground zero for being able to do that.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 7:52
So you know, one thing, I’m sure you get this question a lot from others that you work with, or mentor, but there is this kind of perception that, I’ll be as bold to say, is probably amplified amongst women, but that, if you didn’t really officially train to do something, then it makes that path kind of harder, right? So like you didn’t go to school to become an investor, right? So as you think about your career journey, were there certain kind of skills or kind of the school of life that you felt like, okay, these are some things that I need to do to prepare myself for this next role, or this next sub-sector?
Kristi Ebong 8:23
Yeah, you know, it’s a great question because, I think, earlier in my career, say the first 10 years or so, I worked with some brilliant women that were later in their career. And I saw at the time, this is like 15 plus years ago, I saw a lot of brilliant women that hit this glass ceiling, and they would be up for maybe a promotion, or they’d be qualified for a role. But that next level up required a graduate degree or they wanted to have a family, but, you know, their partner’s job would bring them somewhere else where they didn’t have career opportunity. And so that was really, for me, the impetus to get my graduate degrees is I wanted to have the baseline credential, A, to give me credibility, and a recognizable name in the space and Johns Hopkins in medicine is a pretty recognizable name, and then, B, doing a dual degree gave me, with both public health and business, gave me the quantitative skill set that I could apply anywhere. And so I was, if you will, it sounds wishy washy, but I was future proofing my desire to have a family and meaningful work regardless of what life would throw at me, because I saw that up front. And I saw the pain behind it, and the realities of it. And I recognize, you know, it’s not always going to be about me or my career. If I want all these things, I can have everything, but probably not all at the same time. And so that was, I think, a great move to set that baseline to really launch from there and have those quantitative skills that served me now as an investor.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 9:48
And it’s interesting, I had a similar type of thinking when I decided to go get my Ph.D. in health economics where, it’s not that I necessarily wanted to go be a health economist, but it was some of those kind of hard technical skills that I think in healthcare are just so widely needed and can be cross functional. So you’re touching on another interesting point, which is, it’s no secret that there are generally few women in venture capital and kind of the financing world. And then you know, it gets even smaller when you look at healthcare investing. How has the fact that you’re kind of one of the few women in this space really in a leadership role, kind of change your approach to healthcare investments generally, but also just healthcare leadership?
Kristi Ebong 10:25
I think it’s a really real problem that pattern recognition is a thing. And so step one is saying, you know what, pattern recognition is there for a reason. We are really busy, and we only have so many hours in a day. And so if you can look at a pattern, a Stanford, Harvard background, and say, you know what, this is probably a reasonably hedged bet. Somebody who’s been in an entrepreneurial ecosystem has the network, probably has the, you know, that pedigree and that background. It’s a safer bet to make than, you know, somebody from maybe a university you’re not familiar with, you’ve never met anybody from, you don’t know the context. There’s a lot more diligence, and understanding, and context that is required to overcome patterns and patterns that have been built and created with intentionality. And I think, for me, coming from an unconventional background gives me an arbitrage of sorts, in that I’m able to see through some of the existing patterns, or some of the quote unquote rules, especially in Silicon Valley. I’m able to appreciate them and apply them, but also to question them in a unique way. And I think it’s very easy for folks to say, oh, diversity is the right thing to do. But at the end of the day, and it’s not even the stats, and the stats are there to prove it, it’s being able to have a completely fresh and unconventional way to look at something, and recognize talent, and recognize the solution to a problem. And there’s, I mean, millions of examples of this throughout history, right. And so for me, I’m energized by bringing that to the table and I actually view it as an arbitrage and not an Achilles.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 12:00
Yeah, I love that. So Kristi, you just have so much confidence in what you’re saying, I love that about you. But, you know, that doesn’t come naturally to everyone, right? It comes over time. And I think particularly, you know, I’m not in the investment world, but my perception is, you know, you really are betting early, not only on kind of against those patterns, but you know, you try to convince others and you’re trying to do it also, I guess, I’m going to call being from a little bit of an underdog position, sometimes in certain subsets, like, how have you found, I guess, the ability to persuade others and bring people along, as you are, you know, betting on others, and founders, and companies, and business models. I mean, there’s a whole lot within that.
Kristi Ebong 12:40
It’s called a hybridization, if you will, right. So it’s being able to say, hey, there’s these founders that have amazing conventional backgrounds. This is a great bet, like, we need to make a play here. But then also to recognize when somebody comes from a different background. You know, a lot of times in Silicon Valley, you look at founders as being the under age 40 set. There are incredible entrepreneurs out there over the age of 55, 60 plus. You know, looking at folks from different parts of the country who are building. And so, I don’t think that an unconventional, unconventional background necessarily says that it’s completely crazy or, you know, off center, if you will, but really being able to build a case around why a particular person and team is best suited to build in the space they’re building in. And then also, for us, at least at Define, how are we positioned to help and support and augment that, because that’s really where I spend most of my time is in the trenches with our partners, building, and quarterbacking and tackling. And so, not quarterbacking and tackling at the same time, blocking and tackling. But really, looking at, what is that right fit? And if there’s an incredible company, but I don’t think or we don’t think we can bring them value, then it’s not a good investment. And so it’s looking at all of those elements together. But again, with that constant questioning of, what are we looking at here? What’s the bet? And how do we create differentiation, if you will, especially with the team?
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 14:07
Well, for what it’s worth, in my day job, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a couple of your portfolio companies, and I’m really excited to see where they’re headed. So some great bets made there. So kind of shifting a little bit to you know, so you’re making decisions in healthcare today. But there’s also personal decisions that you know, every professional and executive has to make. As you kind of take a step back and think about your career thus far, is there any kind of big trade off or sacrifice that you think you’ve had to make along the way? I’m sure there’s many, but one that particularly maybe stands out?
Kristi Ebong 14:38
I view everything has an element of sacrifice. I was on a panel not long ago and one of the other investors said, you know, at any given point I’m not going to get an A in every category. Right? I might be a B- mom some days and like an A+ colleague, and then other days that switches around. There’s definitely days during COVID, when you feel like you’re running a C across the board, but you’re still showing up and you’re still trying. I think in terms of trade offs and sacrifices, for me, there aren’t any that are massive and paramount in my mind. I was lucky to have, or I am lucky to have, a super supportive partner. So when it comes to having, you know, three young kids and still leaning into the career, I have a ton of support there. I do think one sacrifice and trade off is that, to really be front and center in this space, I do think there’s an advantage to being in San Francisco and to being in the Bay. And I say that as someone who’s lived all across the country, born and raised in the Midwest, spent a lot of time and formative years on the East Coast, I’ve traveled for probably 15 of those years regularly. But I think for the nature of our work and what we do, there’s an energy and a perspective here that is really contagious and exciting. But the trade off is that it’s really expensive to live here, right? You’re choosing consciously to live in a city that comes with its own set of nuances and idiosyncrasies. I think it’s a great place to raise kids because they see things firsthand. It’s also a bubble in other ways. And so the conversation my husband and I had when our oldest was thinking about where to go to school was, no matter where our kids go to school, we’re going to have to augment in some way. So if they’re in school in a more homogenous environment, we’re going to have to augment on the heterogeneity, giving them exposure to different people, different backgrounds. If they go to school in a more diverse environment, but there might not be as much of that, like, access, per se, in some of those networks, we’re going to have to augment in those ways. And that happens in sports and extracurriculars. And I view life like that. It’s always about augmentation and it’s very rare that you’re going to find all your needs met in one place.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 16:53
That’s really great perspective. And as a total aside, you’re validating this theory I have within COVID, where it’s like everyone moved to a different spot, and you know, myself included, and it makes you think about, okay, where do I want to be? Do I need to be in these big metro hubs. And, you know, as you know, I’m DC based. And ultimately, I agree with you that there are just certain hubs, particularly in healthcare, that just make sense to be in. And I think you’re kind of missing out on some of those elements if you’re not always there. But you know, there are some of those trade offs and things that you have to augment. So I really like that perspective, even on a personal note. But you know, speaking of being a mom, I know that you’re pretty open about sharing this, I’d love to get your perspective. How have you thought about navigating the fact that you are raising biracial children, particularly in today’s day and age where, you know, I think it has always been tough, but probably even tougher today?
Kristi Ebong 17:41
It’s a great question. So our kids are, as you mentioned, a biracial, multicultural family. My husband’s family is Nigerian American and we live in San Francisco, which is a pretty white city. We again have to augment. And so part of it is bringing that awareness of identity and culture into our house. For me, as a white mother of black and brown kids, it’s a constant exercise in listening in community, making sure that our kids are surrounded by people that look like them, that we’re always talking about things. There’s not a lot that’s off topic in our household. I’m actually a Minnesota native. So George Floyd died not too far from where I was born. So it’s been painfully close in a lot of ways, reexamining and reflecting and taking action around, what does this mean, how do we move forward. And so the best thing we can do is make it a constant journey and experience. There’s no end point, there’s no done. I will never be there, we’ll never be fully formed in this space. And then having really strong conversations with your partner and your friends. So I have a lot of black and brown friends that I’m always asking for input, insight, wisdom, and bringing that into our ecosystem, and then leading in that way, and then using the opportunities that I have to bring, again, that arbitrage of different being different to the table and the perspectives that that gives me. And so, I think, trying to view that as an incredible strength. It’s pretty remarkable what our kids are capable of and how they’re able to view the world. And so, however we can equip them with the tools that they need to, A, be aware of how they might be perceived in some settings, and, B, be able to navigate and overcome that is really, really important. So, pretty realist.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 19:34
That’s great, great advice. And I’m sensing a theme both like personally and professionally with you. It’s like you’re really good about bringing in diverse perspectives and I like this idea of augmenting, and thinking about tools, and supplements. That’s really well noted. Kristi, this has just been phenomenal. I have like 100 more questions I want to ask you, but maybe we’ll start winding down with a couple, you know, big picture reflections that you think about in your career. You know, one thing, along the way, you mentioned having a village of, you know, community and support on the personal side. I’m sure that there have been many professional colleagues and mentors that have supported you along your journey as well. Is there something that you believed early on in your career. This could be self imposed. Could it be something that a mentor told you or a family member that you no longer believe?
Kristi Ebong 20:17
That’s a great question. And it reminds me of a conversation I actually had recently where we were talking about, when I first moved out here to San Francisco and I was talking to some friends who were raising money for their startup. And they said, well, I think first I’m going to do friends and family round. And I was like, what’s a friends and family round? What is that? And I realized this thing is called a friends and family round. And it’s a thing and it’s actually an established thing. I said, wait, so you have friends and family with a lot of money, and they’re going to give it to you and your crazy idea. And everyone’s good with that. And that comes from a perspective of being around people from all stripes and walks of life across the world throughout much of my life. and realizing, wow, there’s this incredible potential out here and this perspective of, like, you know what, you’re going to keep trying until you figure it out, and you can fail, but just fail faster, so that you can pivot and adapt. And so I used to believe that you had to get it all right, right away. And now I have more, I guess, my kids’ school, they call it flexible thinking. My little ones will be like, mommy, you need to be a flexible thinker. Thank you for the reminder, babies. It’s true that there’s this concept of flexible thinking. When you’re building and investing and creating something new, you need to build from playbooks that are out there, right? You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. But also understanding, like, nobody knows all of this and nobody gets it all. The ones that win are the ones that, like, keep going at it, think about it, they apply their smarts in the right ways, and they surround themselves with really great people and have that abundant mentality of, like, if I can surround myself by super smart people, and if I can be the weakest links, if you will, in the room, I can only develop and grow from there and what a privilege that would be.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 22:11
Wow. So speaking of surrounding yourself with great people, I know that you have an impressive lineup of guests in order for this season of Her Story. And I know that you’re really passionate about kind of what we do and kind of the mission of the program. What are you most excited for about this upcoming season?
Kristi Ebong 22:28
Oh, gosh, I think that the people that we’re bringing in front of the audience are so authentic, and so genuine. You’re not going to get sound bites. You’re not going to get pie in the sky talking points. A lot of these folks are our people who we have seen and I have personally seen grow from, like, way before something was sexy or cool, in the trenches, where it’s gritty, and it’s real, who have learned a ton and have a lot to offer in terms of wisdom. And like I love just sharing that wisdom, receiving that wisdom, because we’re all in this constant state of vulnerability. And so the more of that, the better. And I think the folks that we’re going to be listening to have a lot of that to offer.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 23:10
I can’t wait. So as you know, we like to close most of these conversations with kind of our play on Her Story. You have still several more chapters to write of your book. But as you think about kind of the legacy that you’d like to leave behind as kind of your contributions to healthcare, what do you think the title of your autobiography would be?
Kristi Ebong 23:29
She Showed Up.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 23:30
Hmm, that’s a good one.
Kristi Ebong 23:33
Because some days, you just need to show up, and then, you know, the rest will fall into place. But just showing up, and sometimes that comes from a place of extreme vulnerability. Sometimes you’re going to show up and not be the best version of yourself. But finding the grace in that will allow us to bring what we can to the table and we’re going to need everybody we can to solve some of these problems.
Sanjula Jain, Ph.D. 23:56
Yeah, beautifully said. Well Kristi, we’re so excited to have you as part of our Her Story advisory council and can’t wait to tune into a lot of your episodes this upcoming season. And thank you so much for sharing your vulnerability here today. I think we have so much to learn from you. And we’re excited to keep learning with you along the season. So thanks for being with us.
Kristi Ebong 24:13
I’m excited as well. Thanks so much Sanjula.