In every corner of the globe, entrepreneurs are building innovative solutions to address the most pressing health challenges. Yet, the early-stage investment ecosystem tends to consolidate venture capital among a chosen few people and places. In the US, less than 2% goes to Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, and more than 75% of global venture capital goes to only three U.S. states. Village Capital’s mission—to make impact investing more inclusive by supporting entrepreneurs who have largely been overlooked and systemically excluded from early-stage investing—
made the organization a natural partner for J&J Impact Ventures.
With funding from Johnson & Johnson Foundation, J&J Impact Ventures partnered with Village Capital on the “Shaping the Future of Healthcare Work in the US Startup Showcase” to support tech-enabled startups focused on providing culturally-competent care to Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in low-income settings and communities that have been underserved by existing health systems. In addition to grant funding, Village Capital provides showcase winners non-financial support in the form of mentorship and network opportunities.
Village Capital’s CEO Allie Burns spoke with showcase winners Ashlee Wisdom, co-founder and CEO of Health In Her HUE (HIHH), and Nathan Pelzer, co-founder and CEO of Clinify Health, for a conversation about the motivation behind their startups and where their work is heading.
Allie Burns: Through working with entrepreneurs creating solutions that help people live healthy and productive lives, it became clear that increased access to culturally-competent care is a needed health solution in the market. Even more, it’s imperative that we support entrepreneurs whose work is fueled by lived experiences. How did your own experiences inspire you to found your companies? And what were the challenges and gaps you saw in culturally-competent health care?
Ashlee Wisdom: What drove me to found HIHH was the fact that Black women’s concerns are often dismissed. We feel unseen and unheard by the healthcare system and many of its providers. Our lived experiences and social context aren’t always taken into account when we interact with healthcare providers—something I’ve noticed personally in comparing my experiences seeing a Black provider compared to when I was seen by a provider who wasn’t Black.
Here’s a story to help illustrate this: While working in a toxic work environment, I developed chronic hives. I thought it was an allergic reaction, but it turns out my body was reacting to the stress of constantly fielding discrimination at work. At the time, however, my doctor only prescribed me over-the-counter medication to contain the hives, and it wasn’t until after I left the job, and the hives stopped, that I realized how important it is for clinicians to better understand and consider the lived experiences and social context of their patients. I didn’t expect my allergist (who was a white woman) to understand or care about my experience at work, and yet understanding the root cause of my condition was the key to my healing. While this experience wasn’t very drastic, there are many horrific stories of Black women who have had assumptions made about them or whose concerns were dismissed, ultimately leading to a late diagnosis or even death.
Given the fact that Black women deal with racism, sexism and other forms of oppression related to our intersecting identities, it is important for us to receive care from providers who are culturally sensitive and socially aware—but it’s not always easy to know who those providers are. That’s why I founded HHIH, a digital platform that connects Black women to culturally-sensitive healthcare providers, health content and community, while simultaneously helping to improve clinical outcomes through cultural sensitivity training and curriculum for providers.
Nathan Pelzer: I grew up with a single mother who was a nurse. While she did everything she could to ensure me and my siblings had everything we needed, she was a single parent, sometimes working overnight shifts, who couldn’t take time off to seek care every time her child had a cough or cold. There are millions of families in this country living in the exact situation I grew up in, and some face much more challenging factors, adding to the burden of receiving appropriate care based on social circumstances. My experiences growing up and seeing the challenges faced by many families in Chicago and beyond made it clear that without adequately addressing social and cultural aspects of an individual’s life, we will never truly achieve whole-person care for those who need it most.
Many of the approaches to patient engagement, medication adherence and preventative care standards do not fully take into account the socioeconomic and cultural barriers patients face in communities that have been underserved and marginalized. This results in standardized approaches to health for communities that require tailored interventions to address both clinical and social needs. Many individuals with social and cultural barriers to care will not achieve optimal health outcomes because key factors that matter to their lived experience go unaddressed. That’s the motivation behind Clinify Health, a cloud-based platform that works with physician practices in underserved communities to achieve financial stability, remain independent and improve population health outcomes.
Clinify looks to address the aforementioned challenges from a couple of perspectives. First, we incorporate social factors into the patient's care plan to reduce the likelihood of non-compliance due to factors that are non-clinical in nature. Second, we hire individuals from the communities we serve to help engage members of that community. Through this approach, we aim to overcome challenges that patients may face outside of the clinic on their journey to improved long-term health.
AB: The Startup Showcase that you both participated in is part of a broader investment-readiness program to catalyze health investments that address pressing challenges for communities that have been underserved by existing health systems. Tell us about what you gained from participating in the Showcase and where your company is heading.
AW: Participating in the Showcase helped me think through how we can effectively scale and drive the greatest impact. One of the goals HHIH set was to make our product more accessible. We are currently developing a new web experience that will be optimized for mobile devices, because we found that a web experience will make HIHH more accessible to women than an app. Our goal is to reach all 22 million Black women in the U.S. and expand our reach to other women of color.
NP: Since the Showcase, we’ve been focused on hiring the right talent, developing the most impactful technologies and working in communities with patients, moving toward our overall goal of improving health outcomes while reducing the overall cost of care for respective populations. While we are keenly focused on growth, we want to ensure we are growing responsibly and delivering value to our partners. We’re energized by our goal of continuing to develop partnerships to improve the population health of communities nationwide served by Medicaid plans and community health centers.
AB: Of the $715 billion global impact investing market, only 7% goes toward improving health. Why would you say this is, and which innovation trends do you think could inspire greater investment in health?
AW: I am most excited about community-driven solutions for care. It’s been great to see companies center community support as an important component of care. By incorporating community support in solutions, patients will feel less isolated, less afraid and better supported when seeking care.
Another area I would raise, perhaps unsurprisingly given my founding of HHIH, is culturally-sensitive care. The COVID-19 pandemic validated what we already knew—the lack of culturally-competent care plays a role in health disparities, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Now more than ever, culturally-competent care is critical to meeting the needs of all patients, especially patients who have been underserved by the healthcare system.
NP: Healthcare sits in the gray area of being a social necessity while at the same time a very commercially-oriented industry, which can make innovation in the space somewhat challenging. When you add to this the fact that the infrastructure of the healthcare system creates disparities among those who can be impacted the most and those that have the greatest ability to pay, innovation in health is often aimed at making already sufficient systems better, rather than creating net-new capabilities for a very large number of “low-margin” patients.
Whether by making payments and revenue opportunities that don’t exist today more abundant or by improving health outcomes for high-cost patients that will result in more healthcare funding to be shared across the value-chain, health-focused enterprises that show real value will ultimately be the ones that spur increased investment into the space.
The entrepreneurial spirit does not discriminate, nor should opportunity. Health In Her HUE and Clinify are two examples of social enterprises that J&J Impact Ventures has helped to uplift, with the intention of tapping talent from communities that investors have historically overlooked and supporting entrepreneurs with lived experiences to realize solutions to challenges they have experienced first-hand.