May 19, 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 thrilled to welcome Esther Farkas, Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer of Unite Us, which is a technology company that brings together care networks of social and healthcare services. Esther, thanks for being with us today.
Esther Farkas 0:40
Thanks for having me. I’m excited.
Sanjula Jain 0:42
What’s interesting is, as we think about healthcare as one of the most highly regulated industries, your background as a lawyer is particularly relevant. Let’s start with a little bit about what you do at Unite Us, particularly in your role. Where are you spending your time these days?
Esther Farkas 0:59
I have a dual role here. I came in as a lawyer. I’m Chief Legal Officer, so I oversee all of legal and compliance. I have a background in transactional law, so I’m a very business-minded lawyer. One of the things I’ve been doing for the last year or so is also overseeing corporate strategy. That’s a nice intersection of my skill set here and I’m able to make an impact across the organization in a couple of different areas. It’s a great fit for my skill set and my personality.
Sanjula Jain 1:26
That’s great. Unite Us recently raised a big Series A of about $150 million. Congratulations to you and the team. I know you have played a big role in thinking about Unite Us’ growth journey and the fundraising efforts. Tell us a little bit about that process.
Esther Farkas 1:41
I’ve actually been here for all of Unite Us’ rounds, from the series seed on to the Series C now. There’s always, Is this the right time? Do we really need to raise? How much do we raise? Is this part of where if we raise now, what are we going to use it for? How are we going to grow? Starting about last fall, we got into the mindset of, “Okay, if we had more money, what will we do? How would we accelerate what we’re already doing and get our technology more places to help more people across the country?” I worked with the two founders to put together a pretty aggressive growth plan for how we could expand our geographical region, bring our technology, more places, and then we came to a realization that, okay, if we’re gonna do this, yeah, we could use what we have on our balance sheet, we’re not running out of money we didn’t need to raise. We got to a point where we saw the potential of what this company could become if we had these funds at our disposal to hire people to put it towards sales and marketing to put it towards hiring local people across the country and to grow our existing product line. That’s how we came to it and then—because we’re a fairly mature startup (we started in 2013)—we’ve had a couple investors following us along our journey, so there were people that knew the company believed in what we were doing, understood the mission. And that was a big piece of it for us, we wanted to bring people in that align with our mission to help people and to use our technology to provide services to vulnerable populations. Ultimately, all these venture funds, yes, they look at returns, but do they believe in what we’re doing? And do they believe that what we’re doing is the right way to get services to people? We try to look for investors that aligned with that. Our lead investor iconic is a mission-driven fund. We felt like they aligned with our values and could help us go could use their resources, and invest resources to help us go the way we want to grow, which is to continue to make an impact with our mission.
Sanjula Jain 3:38
For those who may be a little less familiar with the Unite Us, in many ways, you are a health technology company, But almost broader than that too because you’re working with governments and thinking about the ownership of healthcare as a collective responsibility. Tell us a little bit about what Unite Us actually does, and how you work with not only healthcare partners but those beyond the traditional domain and healthcare.
Esther Farkas 3:59
What we say is we’re a technology company that connects healthcare with social care. That’s a lot of big words just to say we are a technology company that helps people get services they need. A classic just real-world example is if you’re at a hospital and you’re being discharged, and you don’t have a place to sleep right now without our technology, maybe you’re given an address of a shelter nearby or in your neighborhood or one that you visited before. Or maybe you’re given a card or a leaflet. Our technology makes it possible to electronically send a referral to a homeless shelter, and to have that shelter then record the outcome whether that person showed up, got the help they needed, and then perhaps referred on to an employment agency perhaps referred on to a food bank, also our platform and tracking how this person got the help they needed and helping their care coordinators who are social workers at the hospital or care coordinators at these community-based organizations. Make sure that they’re getting the help they need, which isn’t just one thing but a wraparound service that they need to get back on their feet. It helps both the community-based organizations and these healthcare providers get people care and track the care they’re getting to make sure that they’re getting the services they need.
Sanjula Jain 5:07
As you mentioned, you’ve been at Unite Us basically from the beginning and have seen that evolution of the company. Let’s backtrack for a second now. Leading up to Unite Us, how did it all start? I know your family is from Hungary and you spent the early part of your childhood there. How did coming from an immigrant family in the United States influence your career aspirations from day one?
Esther Farkas 5:29
That’s a huge influence on who I am and where I’ve gone with my career. We moved here when I was nine. Hungary was still communist, so it’s a very, very different place. My little third-grade friends had a lot of questions for me and what communism was like. It seemed like a different world at the time, which is hard to imagine now because people think of Hungary as part of Europe, but I was very much an outsider. I knew that if I worked hard studied hard, I would be able to perhaps do things that I wouldn’t be able to do, I’m hungry here. And that’s a classic immigrant talk track, and that my parents sacrificed a lot to come here, they give up their friends, their careers, both doctors, they have to start all over. There was a little bit of weight on my shoulders to make sure that I did what I could do with myself here. That’s a big part of who I am. And also having come from essentially, like, I say, nothing my parents were doctors, they’re intellectuals. But when we moved here, we did have almost nothing to our name. And we moved to a fairly affluent community outside the choice so that I could go to a very good public school because if there’s anything my parents said it was that if you move to the right place, you can go to the right schools. Detroit was, at the time in the 80s, very segregated neighborhoods. I saw that growing up that formed how we think about health equity, how we think about our impact on health equity here, that’s always been something that I’ve been interested in. That combination of knowing that I had to probably work very hard, and then seeing what it’s like to have nothing and the help from your neighbors, from people around you all contributed to why I ultimately join and believe in this organization and what we’re trying to do with technologies.
Sanjula Jain 7:16
You mentioned both of your parents were physicians at that early age. Did you aspire to also be a physician? Was there feeling pressure to follow that path? How did you think through that, as you were preparing to go to college and figure out what to major in at Duke?
Esther Farkas 7:30
As with any immigrant family, you have to make sure that you pick a career where you can make money. As long as you’re a doctor or another profession where it’s very clear what your path to making money is, you’re all good. So that was hammered into me and I can become a writer or something where you can’t make money because you need to make sure that you have a career. So being the child of two doctors, I’d always been interested in math and science. So like, it just seemed like the natural path for me to become a doctor. And to I did always have this, I don’t know what to call like this feeling inside me that I wanted to help people somehow. So like, whether that’s in my day-to-day as a doctor, or as I came to realize later in life, you can help people, perhaps not so directly, but indirectly by making an impact in their lives. I knew that that had to be part of my career. So I was on a path to become a doctor I went to do, I went through the whole pre-med program. Then my dad got very ill my junior year. That made me see the world differently and question what I was doing, as it does to a lot of people when you have a family crisis or any health crisis like that it made me think more deeply about what I wanted. Is this how I want to spend my life Do I want to be in a hospital setting day in and day out? Do I really love this? At the time, I was also shadowing a doctor at Duke who was treating very, very sick patients and it was emotionally very hard. He became a little bit detached. I saw that process happening. It made me question whether this was the right path for me. I started thinking about how else I can make an impact. Are there other careers where I could still make money as my parents wanted, make sure that I was independent? This desire by immigrants and teaching their kids about making sure that they pick a career where they make money, comes from a desire for them to be independent, the whole concept of financial independence and knowing what it’s like not to have money because you’ve come here with nothing. It’s not greed. It’s very much about independence. That’s how I’ve always thought about having a career and earning a living as could I be financially independent. Can I take care of my kids? That type of stuff more than anything. Then I chose to go to law school. At the time, I thought that I wanted to spend a lot of time doing international human rights law, which again played into this idea I had. I wanted to make sure that, whatever I did, I was somehow making an impact and helping people, so I did that for a little bit. I joined a law firm to repay my law school debts, like a lot of people do right after college. I found much to my surprise that I really enjoyed transactional law. What I really liked was writing and litigation, then I got to actually doing it and realized what I really like is negotiating and contracts and bringing people to the table and making sure they’re aligned and thinking about all the details of something we’re trying to accomplish together. I liked litigation less than what I thought I would like because it can be adversarial at times. There is a lot of writing there. I saw that that didn’t fit with my personality as much, so I got into mergers and acquisitions, and a lot of public mergers and acquisitions, which is the last thing I would ever have thought I would do.
Sanjula Jain 10:47
We kind of bonded over that earlier. Going back to the immigrant story, we were all brought up with this idea. Most of you out of the intent of our parents thinking we don’t want to struggle as much as we did. But also it was because they didn’t know what else was out there. Part of why we started the show was to educate our broader communities that there are so many different paths and career options out there that it’s not always that linear that you have to go to law school or med school or the traditional paths, so to speak. Your journey explains that you have to try a bunch of things to figure out what you actually love to do and where your strengths are, so it’s a nice evolution to see. Going back to healthcare, it’s your expertise is something that we probably don’t see a ton of, and a lot of the ecosystem today, and it’s highly needed. As you think about the way healthcare is becoming more regulated. The government is now the largest payer and regulator of health services. How do you just from your vantage point, think about where the industry is headed, and how we should think about strategies in that context of what it means to be a regulated industry?
Esther Farkas 12:00
Obviously, we operate in a highly regulated environment. Yes, we’re a technology company, but we’re a technology company that a lot of healthcare players use payers, providers, and government. We see a lot of regulations moving towards value-based care and making sure that social determinants of health, which is it, for lack of a better word, provide or specialized into our technology, become a part of how a health plan considers whole-person care. So if you think about how to make people healthier, and how to make sure that they don’t end up back in an emergency room, or hospitalized, or being costly, how can you help them get back on their feet? And how can you move some of the care into the community instead of the hospital setting? So have these shelters, these food banks, these mental behavioral health centers, also be a part of the care team. Even under a very recent example, is there’s a new HIPAA amendment proposed that would allow any covered entity to share information with a social care provider as if they were sharing with another health care provider under to simplify like care coordination and function. So that’s the Office of Civil Rights, recognizing that it’s necessary to share information with social care organizations, because that’s part of the care continuum. That’s where we see a lot of regulations. There are also Medicaid regulations coming down, saying that any managed care organization has to have a social determinant of health component to its care plan. There is both at a federal and state level very much a recognition that people need more than just medical care to make them healthy.
Sanjula Jain 13:43
Do you envision the next decade of health care—we think about the leadership competencies and the skill sets that we’ll need as an industry to grapple with these changes—do you think we’ll see more of those who trained in law entering into this field? Or do you think there are other routes or certain skill sets that people need to be able to think through these types of partnerships and working with states and working with payers, working with these different entities?
Esther Farkas 14:07
We need to start thinking about healthcare regulation, health care, law in a broader sense. It’s not just about being a narrow expert in regulatory law. It’s not just about understanding HIPAA. It’s about understanding the whole continuum of care that might apply to a person, including if they’re getting care at the community level if they’re getting care at home if they’re getting care through telehealth or some kind of virtual session. It’s not just about showing up at a hospital anymore. There are now dozens of different ways people can get care in their homes and their communities. And regulation will have to follow that in a way that will be interesting to see. It gets very, very much centered around like let’s regulate a health plan. Let’s regulate a provider where people show up in person, but we’re moving towards a more inclusive care model.
Sanjula Jain 15:00
Back to your journey as you worked your way to building that comprehensive view of the landscape. After graduating from the University of Michigan for law school, you went to the traditional big law environment. The latest McKinsey stats say what is about 47% of law associates are women, but then it’s only about 20% that end up being Equity Partners. I have talked a lot about how that’s a tough environment for a lot of women to be in, tell us a little bit about your experience in those early years practicing in that environment, what was it like? What did you have to face being in that minority group?
Esther Farkas 15:36
I think that’s right. That’s a time in any young woman’s life where you are thinking about, do I want a family? Do I want to settle down? When you’re at law school, you’re in your mid to late 20s. You start at this law firm, you’re in your late 20s to mid-30s. You probably meet a partner in your mid to late 30s. For women that is the time when you’re thinking, do I want to have children? Is this going to be something I can do together with this very high-pressure career? I think that’s why you lose a lot of women. That’s why they don’t end up pursuing those leadership roles inside a law firm because it is very grueling. And there is this seven, eight-year period where that has to be your focus in life. I think a lot of people are not prepared to say that they are going to necessarily not start a family at that time, or focus on other things. My experience was maybe even slightly tougher because I chose something inside a law firm that is very male-dominated. Mergers and acquisitions and public mergers. And acquisitions is this very, for whatever reason, male-dominated area. At the time I came in, there were no female partners, and the partners were supportive for sure. But there are just some connections you can’t make with male partners that you can with female partners, and there are some things that you’re never going to be able to learn from them. One of those things is like, what’s my negotiation style. I think men negotiate differently than women. I don’t know I ever found a male partner I could look to and think, “Okay, I really like the way he negotiates. It fits with my personality, I’m going to learn how to do this.” I think if I had some female examples, I probably would have been able to do that better. I had other female mentors and other groups within the firm, and that was very, very helpful, but I could feel the burden on them as well as being some of the only women out there and having to mentor all of the incoming women. As you say, there’s a lot of incoming women and then very few at the partner level, so I could sense that they felt this burden as well, and that’s just one woman. It might not be that my negotiating style lines up with her. It would have been nice to have five or 10 or 15. There was that. I became pregnant in my fifth or sixth year. I didn’t feel like I could tell anybody because we have to sit across a male partner and tell him about your— It’s something I think is fairly personal. I had to keep working hours, and often all night. It would be four or five in the morning and I was still working and not feeling great. Everyone handles their pregnancy differently, but I didn’t feel great. I didn’t perform great. I think they understood that maybe on an esoteric level, but do they really understand? Looking back, what I wish they had said to me was like this is just a blip in your life, this is just nine months or this is just two years, you have a 30-year career ahead of you where you’re going to keep performing, take these nine months, or however long when you’re not feeling great and just still do what you need to do. But maybe you don’t need to be of the highest performing level and working all night every night because your body’s doing something else. That’s what I try both to men and women that I manage, just make sure that they understand that when they have a baby when they’re getting married. It’s just one blip in their life that is very important and they should focus on a very long career. If you’re having a baby and you want to be home or your wife gave birth and you want to be home for three, four months, take whatever you need because you only have a baby once, twice, maybe (in my case) three times. They’re looking down at 20, 25-year career. That one piece of your life is completely off track. It shouldn’t reinvent the way you think about yourself as maybe not the highest performer. I think that’s what happens to women like, “Well, maybe I can’t do this because I can’t do it right now.”
Sanjula Jain 19:37
That long view is really important because you’re right, we tend to focus on the here and now. How do you think about it in the context of the long progression?
Esther Farkas 19:45
I couldn’t continue to work the hours that I needed to succeed, and I could see that. I had two kids at that time. They were little and I would never see them. I knew that, so I was like, “I have to think about something else to do that still makes sense for me.” I’m not going to be able to see them at home and I didn’t feel like I could perform at work in my seventh year, which is pretty common. Before I would have had to get into like a year or two of very, very tough work, I laughed, and I thought for a while about what I wanted to do, and how I could keep doing something I was interested in. But without having to sacrifice what I thought was an important time in my kids’ lives when they’re very small. I ended up getting connected to another former associate at the law firm we were at who was great, and he was thinking the same way. We realized we were both very interested in startups, then helping entrepreneurs and helping small businesses, and using these skill sets we got from working at a big law firm (he was there for seven years as well) and giving that benefit to small entrepreneurs who don’t always have access to that type of expertise because it’s expensive. We started our own law firm, and we focused on startups. In 2013, that’s where I met Dan, one of the founders here. He was one of my first clients. He believed in me, he believed that I could help his company, and I want to say that I believed in his mission. I liked him. Honestly, I was just trying to get clients at that time. Over the next seven years, before I joined full time, at the end of 2018/beginning of 2019, I really got to know Dan. I got to know the company and its mission and saw that it was a great fit for me.
Sanjula Jain 21:33
Let’s go back birth to the fact that to make sure we appreciate this, you hit the tipping point in the traditional law arena where you said, Okay, I need to do something different, that accommodates the lifestyle that you want for yourself. But whereas a lot of women may be either take time off from work or take a maybe less intense job, you ran your own firm, so I guess it’s all relative, but that in itself—running your own business, building it from the ground up—is also no easy undertaking, so tell us just a little bit about that process. What was that shift like from being in more of a corporate setting where the paths were defined for you to now having to branch out to new skill sets, like client acquisition? What were you thinking at that point in time?
Esther Farkas 22:20
I loved it. I think I’ve always been a little bit entrepreneurial. I liked thinking about more than just the business of providing legal advice. Where are we gonna have offices? What’s our logo going to look like? What’s our website gonna look like? How do I like business development, which had a big law firm. You do no business development at all because these firms and the one I was at have been around for 100 years. The clients come to them. There’s very little in the way of getting to know us and “use us,” so I loved all that. I found my style when I was working for myself because I could see real-time what people needed and wanted from me, and some of it wasn’t legal advice. A lot of it was just business advice because they’re like, you’ve seen other companies like mine, what do I do next? How do I get this transaction done? By putting a structure in place that makes sense for both sides? What is the other side thinking? I found where I could help people with my skill set better than I had at the firm where I was like swimming in very narrow lanes, you’re providing very complex advice on very complex transactions based on the most complex regulatory laws. So like sec regulations looking at Delaware law, it’s that was like, Yes, I can interpret something and advise you on this one thing. This was like, I need help with everything. Can you help me do this, this, and this? Then when they saw that I could and they asked for more advice along those lines, that’s when I think about how I got into corporate strategy here. That’s probably the genesis of it is just thinking about the bigger business picture for these entrepreneurs for seven years.
Sanjula Jain 23:56
What is so powerful about that story is it sounded like you created the own opportunity for yourself. You couldn’t really find the outlet that would give you that opportunity to do all the things that you really thrived in, and we’re viewing the world and you said, “Okay, well, I’m just going to create it and build it.” Not a lot of people can do that. It does take this entrepreneurial drive, so that’s really great. If you now fast forward to your work at Unite Us, what’s important to highlight is you’re really forging these partnerships. As we talk a lot about, healthcare as an industry is very siloed. You are bringing all these different stakeholders together. Tell us a little about what the process is like for you. What are some of the challenges you face when you’re bringing all these different stakeholders that historically have not worked well together and getting them to forge these one-of-a-kind partnerships that have never historically existed?
Esther Farkas 24:49
That is a challenge that we face and you have health plans that are competitors in a market and we say to them, “Look, you guys are all plugging into the same network to provide services for all of you remembers, so you can help us build out this geography and this network and then your three next competitors in the state. We’re also going to plug into this very network.” So we do think of our customers as partners. I know that may like sound trite sometimes, but I hope they think of us more than as vendors, as working together to build these social determinants of health space that didn’t exist five, 10 years ago. As we do it together, we listen to their feedback, they listen to our experience working across the country. If they’re regional, they’re based in like California, Nebraska. They understand their region. We have national experience that we can bring to the table that helps them think through some of the challenges, but it was a challenge. I think they understand that working together in this area will get more people the help they need, so there is some of that in there. Obviously, they’re competitive, but they are trying to help their members be healthier. I think they see that working together will yield more results to do that, and their memberships are constantly changing and evolving. We started the conversation, being asked to build siloed networks. I think we’ve moved past that. Hopefully we’re at a point now— I think we are. It’s been two, three years since we’ve been having those conversations. I think people are comfortable with this model now, where they do all work together in these areas. Perhaps they have communities where they’re stronger and they have community partners that they prefer, and we bring those onto the network for them, but ultimately, everybody can refer to those community partners, and it makes the whole network stronger. We have one platform across the country, one instance, so any feature that any one of them suggests to us (and we take all their suggestions super seriously) we built into the platform and we roll it out across the country. There’s no single feature that anyone pay or provider has that others don’t. To their credit, they’ve been great. They understand the mission. They see the impact of having these measurable outcomes. Ultimately, we’re all aligned because we want to help people get services.
Sanjula Jain 27:06
There are so many great lessons in that for a lot of other organizations that are trying to all come to the table and that I want to shift a little bit now to your personal leadership trajectories within each of these milestones, from the early days of law school, to actually working in the big law firm to creating your own to now being in a startup environment, it’s pretty evident that you’ve always been focused on just doing what you love creating value and helping others. At what point did you start viewing yourself as a leader? One of the questions that we like to ask all of our guests on the show is as you think about your foray into leadership, formal or informal. Do you consider yourself to be an accidental or intentional leader?
Esther Farkas 27:47
For sure accidental. I’m a classic introvert. I’m much more comfortable one on one than I am in front of big groups. And I’m certainly much more comfortable at home with a book than I am out at, like a networking event. It was probably when I was at the law firm, I was probably my third fourth year in and I was managing the management structure at a law firm is very fixed. You know who you’re managing at each level and you know what guidance you’re supposed to be providing for them. There’s no management training. It’s very much about what you take away from it and what you feel like giving out. I was managing an associate at that time. He was very junior and very unsure of himself and his skill set. We had several conversations where I hope I helped him see where he could get from here to there, and I started thinking of myself as someone who could help people be successful. That’s how I still continue to view my leadership style: how do I help the people I manage build a career and be successful in what they do and use their skill sets to their maximum potential? For me, that’s what being a leader is more than giving a speech in front of a crowd or getting out there and being super inspirational with my oratory skills. That’s where I ended up. That’s where I’m most comfortable and hopefully most impactful, here and other places I’ve been.
Sanjula Jain 29:07
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t have many female role models or examples of those leaders to look to understand those styles. I know one of the things that you and I both have in common is we have these strong mothers who are working women and have built amazing careers and shaped for us the expectations of being in the workplace as a female. As you think about your leadership trajectory, from the early days to what you were told on how to behave or how to act, how has that shaped your thinking about what it means to be a female leader?
Esther Farkas 29:41
My mom is an amazing person. She’s a cardiologist. She was one of the first female cardiologists. She practices in North Dakota. She’s the only female cardiologist in the state, but she was also always there for us as kids. She enjoyed cooking, she made us dinner. These aren’t like not things you have to do and if you have a career, but she did a really good job of balancing her career, which is very high pressure and high stress, with being the person that we needed at home. I think about that a lot and how I can do that. I also think about how you can stay being yourself and not having to emulate necessarily men in leadership positions by dressing or acting or talking like them, but being a woman in a leadership position and being comfortable dressing the way you want to. Not necessarily in business suits, which are very much made for men’s bodies, but perhaps dressing in a more feminine way or however you’re comfortable, not having this ideal of a leader that looks like this, which is a man because most of the leaders in the country look like that and they are men. Do I have to look like that? Or can I take a different path and be a different person and be like, someone who dresses speaks differently, has a different leadership style negotiates differently, brings different things to the table, but it’s still a leader, but maybe not like the traditional definition of a male leader. The path my mom’s forged in cardiology and how she’s been able to do that, one of the things she does very well. She’s loved by her patients. She’s an expert, but her patients love her and they feel cared for by her. I’m not saying men can do that, but I think that’s unique to her. Maybe it’s not something that all doctors at her level think about as being important anymore. That’s the path she’s forged. That’s her whole personality, and not just whatever she is supposed to focus on, as a doctor practicing in this traditionally male field.
Sanjula Jain 31:40
As you and I have talked about, it’s like we start this path a little bit more guarded and acting the way that we think we’re supposed to act. The parallel I have is that my mom would say, “Maybe you should keep your hair shorter in the workplace because that’s more professional.” Then you dig into that and that’s probably what it was like for her generation. Now we can define your own styles and it’s about what value you bring, like the analogy to your mom and her patience. I know you spent a lot of time internally at Unite Us leading “lean in” circles, trying to help change those expectations and bring other women and promote diversity internally. Talk a little bit about how you’re tackling that for the company today. How are you redefining some of those expectations a lot of us have going into it?
Esther Farkas 32:24
As a company, we’re very focused on diversity. And we have been since the beginning. So one of the things obviously, is gender diversity, I try and again, like be an example to other women leaders to say like, as he said, you can be your own person, and there is no one type of leader. And that one type of leader necessarily has to be this example of whatever, you can be a leader with your own style. We had a book review session on lean in which obviously classic now everybody knows it, but like, what did it get right and wrong. We talked through that. And we talked about my path and how I always have worked very hard. But sometimes I felt like I had to define what hard work meant to me and not have it be defined by this law firm or like this organization where I didn’t have the flexibility to see my kids and to do what I needed to with my free time. I try and I hope to make people think critically about their role and their gender in their role. The younger generations are even more flexible than our generation is at being themselves and leading and having their own style. I love that they wear what they’re comfortable with. Yes, it’s professional, but is it this stock uniform that you’re supposed to wear as a leader? No, but they’re still leaders. They speak differently, they lean into their feelings a little bit more, and I think that’s great. There’s this idea that you have to be a wooden leader that doesn’t always empathize because they’re busy leading and don’t have a personal life don’t have feelings. I hope that’s on the way out because you’re a much more effective leader if people see you as empathetic, as someone they can relate to, a genuine and real person who has faults, but hopefully has strengths that can help you succeed and is willing to learn from everybody. I learn every day from people I manage and I encourage them to give me feedback. I ask questions because I think that’s another model of a leader, too: make sure you’re teaching but you’re always learning, too. There’s a lot more that goes into it. It’s a long road. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not one session. It’s not two, it’s constantly being there for people and constantly being available to guide and hopefully serving as an example.
Sanjula Jain 34:44
Absolutely. To that example point, as you’ve mentioned, your family and you have a couple of kids and you’re juggling all of that with demanding roles. What advice would you have for other women and men who are trying to juggle the personal and professional? How do you make it work for you and your family?
Esther Farkas 35:01
I think the greatest gift my mom gave me was that I never feel guilty about having a career. I know that I turned out okay, and she had a career. I have three daughters, so I view it as an example for my daughters that they can take to be successful outside the home or inside the home. Whatever the point is, I had the choices I have. They saw me when I was running my firm, I was at home, I work from home all the time, and they saw me being happy and succeeding there. And defining that, and then they now see me as like a traditional office job, if you will, and like they come into my office, and I hope they’re proud of me and I serve as an example to them. One thing is to never feel guilty about what you’re doing because, yeah, maybe you’re not at home for every tiny thing that happens, but you’re there for the big things. That example is lifelong. A strong mother or father who takes their work seriously, and has a good work ethic, and can also be there for you. That’s one. The other thing is how this last year and a half has taught us that you can work remotely pretty effectively, and I think it’s a really nice way to balance family with work obligations. We love traveling, so we take a lot of trips out west, internationally, whatever. I think that should be a part of everybody’s life, whatever it is they do. Maybe it’s not traveling, whatever they like to do with their free time while also like working remotely. If you don’t have to sit around an office all day, you can balance family time and like doing things with your family with remote work.
Sanjula Jain 36:41
Your daughters are really lucky to have you as a role model there because, the more we see others do it, the more it’s going to shape what they do, and they’re going to pass that on to the personal habits piece. The travel and all those outlets are really important. It’s always interesting to hear the other day-to-day level, like do you have some ritual or something that you have to do that sets you up for making the most of that day and feeling like you’re optimally productive. What’s the thing you do for yourself?
Esther Farkas 37:09
I get up early, I work out. I take my daughter to school and I love that. We carpool with some other kids. And it’s just it sounds like it’s a chore but it’s not like they’re all it’s like a 10-minute drive. And they’re all chattering in the car, they pick their own music. It makes me feel like I get my day started with little kids being happy and loud. And just like makes me realize this is life and I’m going to get into the office in 10 minutes and there are going to be some difficult things I’m gonna have to work out, but it’s not everything. It gives you the perspective to be able to handle those difficult tasks and not think that the world’s crashing around you just because, like two things, three things you have to solve. And then at night, I always make sure that I get home to read with them. They all like come into our bed, and they all read whatever books they’re reading at the time. And it’s just like a nice end to the day. And then usually I can’t get back up and I fall asleep.
Sanjula Jain 38:11
That’s very sweet. I know we’re hitting up against time. Rounding us out, I know learning is a big theme in your life so, as you reflect on your various experiences, is there something that you believe early on in your career, whether it’s some piece of advice that you were given or something that you believed you had to do that you no longer believe?
Esther Farkas 38:33
When I was coming up in the law firm environment, every piece of advice you gave was seen as having to be essentially perfect. Basically, before you write an email, before you ever advise a client if you haven’t done five to 10 hours of work checking into it, then you haven’t done it right. It took me almost a decade to unlearn that and to say (1) you can make mistakes. You have to own the mistakes, but if you own those mistakes people understand. Two, at some point you have the experience and knowledge to be able to advise without doing hours and hours of work. You should always do your research. You should always do work, but this idea that everything you say and everything you write down has to be absolutely perfect and unimpeachable can paralyze people. I think that is the biggest thing. Obviously, I do my best and I try to not make huge mistakes, but I see that not everything I say is unimpeachable. Something I said might be wrong and someone may come back to me and say, “Look, think about this differently,” and I’ll learn from that and think about it differently. I don’t have to feel bad about not getting it completely right. Particularly for women, I found that can be paralyzing. I think women have this idea that they have to always be perfect at all times. When you reinforce that with that kind of work environment, people won’t take risks, they won’t innovate, and they won’t go past their point of comfort, which is what you need to move the needle.
Sanjula Jain 40:12
I’m sure someone has already coined this term, but I think the “perfection paralysis” is something we all deal with. I think it takes a fair amount of time to start realizing, “Okay, it doesn’t have to always be that way.” The final question then. As you think about the legacy you’d like to leave behind, and I know there are plenty more chapters of your book you have to write, but what do you want to be known for as a leader in our industry? What would be the title of your book or autobiography?
Esther Farkas 40:39
She Tried Really Hard. I’ve been very lucky. Obviously, I had all the tools I needed and I’ve had the support of my family and friends. I was very fortunate to grow up in an environment where I was given opportunity. I don’t know, probably The Introverted Leader. It is tougher if you lean towards that, but it’s not impossible. It’s a different path. A lot of traditional leaders are really extroverted, so it’s a different path, but it’s definitely achievable. I’m still getting there. I’m still learning. I’m still trying to get myself comfortable with things that make me uncomfortable just because of the way I am.
Sanjula Jain 41:22
It’s a lifelong process. Like you started off saying, you have to take a long view because we’re learning and growing every day. I think that’s really powerful. Esther, thank you so much for spending some time with us. Your story is incredible, a testament to what it takes to create opportunities and forge the way ahead and think intersectionally, so we really appreciate you spending some time with us.
Esther Farkas 41:46
Thanks so much. I really enjoyed it.
Sanjula Jain 41:49
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