ViVE 2022: How female founders, executives are driving the future of health tech

MIAMI—International Women's Day was Tuesday, and, at the ViVE 2022 conference this week, the impact of female founders and executives touched almost every conversation about the future of healthcare and tech.

Health tech veteran Jennifer Schneider, M.D., announced during the conference the launch of her latest venture, Homeward, a startup focused on improving rural healthcare. Schneider helped build up chronic condition management startup Livongo and is now reuniting with former executives to improve access to high-quality, affordable primary and specialty care in rural communities.

Schneider's experience with health tech goes back to a five-year stint at Castlight Health, including serving as chief medical officer. She then took on the roles of CMO and president at Livongo, which was sold to Teladoc in a massive $18.5 billion deal.

She has seen the rise of female founders and executives in tech companies and venture capital firms and the impact it's had on the industry overall.

"I think we're making progress, and we haven't made enough, period," she told Fierce Healthcare during an interview at ViVE. "I applaud the men and women, including investors and operators, who support women in leadership positions."

There is definitely more room for women in the top leadership positions in healthcare. Women continue to occupy just a fraction of leadership roles in healthcare despite making up 65% of the healthcare workforce—this holds true across all healthcare leadership roles, according to a 2019 Rock Health report.

Fortune 500 healthcare company boards increased female representation from 22.6% in 2018 to 26.0% in 2019. U.S. hospitals continue to have more female representation than Fortune 500 healthcare boards and executive teams do, at 37.1% in 2019, Rock Health reported. VCs and startups made the least progress—the percentage of female partners at VCs grew by 0.4 points and the percentage of deals closed by female CEOs of digital health startups increased by just 0.6 points.

At the same time, digital health startups focused on women's health care pulled in $1.3 billion in funding across 26 deals so far in 2021—nearly doubling all of 2020's funding with four months still left to go.

Industry leaders say they see progress being made throughout the indutsry.

One venture capital executive pointed out the lack of "manels," or all-male panels ,at the ViVE 2022 conference, a problem that plagues many conferences. A skim of the speakers during panel sessions showed a diversity of leaders including women and people of color.

Julia Hu, co-founder and CEO of Lark Health, points to the number of women rising to the top positions at some of the largest healthcare companies as one mark that progress is being made. There's Karen Lynch, CEO of CVS Health; Gail Boudreaux, CEO of Anthem; Felicia Norwood, who serves as president of Aetna; and Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, just to name a few.

"These are great strides and it's impacting the startup community as well," Hu said.  "My hope is that as the ecosystem of female leaders expands, that will pull up the startup communities and bring more awareness to women's health needs."

Hu said women make up about 49% of the team at Lark Health, which is a digital chronic condition management platform.

Schneider believes the shift to more flexible work arrangements during the COVID-19 pandemic has been one positive trend that will ultimately help women in the workforce.

"I'm a working mom and I always say I'd hire a working mom any day of the week because they know how to get stuff done. They know how to prioritize because they have to. During the pandemic, a lot of the home health burdens and education burdens fell to women. And that felt like a setback. But at the same time, I think there's an acceptance around flexibility of working that is very beneficial for women," she said.

When Schneider was hired at Livongo, she told the leadership team that she was not available when her kids got home from school in the afternoon until they went to bed.

"It was a little bit of a shock. But I said, 'I will overdeliver, but I'm not going to change how I work.' Now, did I work when my kids went to bed? I sure did. Did I have the best social life? I sure didn't. But I made it clear what my priorities are. I think that's that's really the the trick for women, you can have it all, but you just can't have it all in the same moment," she said.

Leah Sparks founded Wildflower Health in 2012 to empower women by providing value-based maternity care that improves the health of mothers and babies. The company just scored a $26 million funding round, including investment from Providence Ventures, to drive further innovation in the women's health space.

"It has been incredible to witness the shift in investor interest in women’s health over the past 10 years," Sparks told Fierce Healthcare. "When I raised our seed round in 2013, I was consistently told women’s health was a 'niche.' Today, significant funding is coming into our space with so many talented female founders getting funded."

She added,"'My only pause with all the investment in women’s health is ensuring we have a path to sustainability for the innovation—that there are mechanisms to pay for new models of care and new technologies in women’s health. My aspiration for Wildflower is that by ushering in value-based payment models for women’s health, we will actually build partnerships and create pathways for these innovative women’s health companies to participate in the outcomes they create."

To open up the health tech field even further to female leaders, mentorship plays a key role, Schneider said. 

"I think that women have an obligation to pay it forward and to mentor to other people. That goes across the board for all aspects of diversity, economic diversity, racial diversity and age diversity. It will only change if you do it with intent," she said. 

Board leadership and management at digital health startups and VC firms need to recognize "whose voice is not at the table" and then make strides to address it, she said.

Key advice for aspiring women leaders in health tech

Schneider's top advice: Always believe in yourself.

"If you're going to bet on anyone, you've got to bet on yourself all the time. The other thing is to be clear about what you need to be successful. And all somebody can do is say no. There's a saying that you don't have to sit in the best seat in the theater, but you have to ask for the best seat."

Gabrielle Lukianchuk, vice president of marketing at ConvergeOne, also encourages women to lead with confidence and authenticity.

"It is easy to lose confidence if you are the only women in the room, so even more important to be confident and to always bring your best self," she said.

"Have grit," she said. "Think about the long game and what is possible. I always like to think about what the possibilities are, in some cases break down the problem and then a plan will come into view with a healthy dose of passion."