AFROPUNK Solution Session 1: Disrupting Health Innovation (Key Takeaways)

 In News & Updates

BROOKLYN, NY –  On September 9, 2022, AFROPUNK, in partnership with the New Voices Foundation and National Medical Association, convened several Black and Brown digital healthcare innovators to discuss their respective journeys working toward equity and diversity within healthcare spaces via tech in the United States. The conversation ran the gamut from the experiences that sparked panelists’ interest in the digital healthcare space to the challenges they are currently facing, and how they/ their businesses are confronting said barriers through their work. Moderator Ivelyse Andino, Founder of Radical Health, summed it up perfectly by saying: 

“We are gathered here today to talk about the experiences of Black and Brown founders who are developing ideas to help improve the health of not just our people, but really all people across the country, and as with the experience of many black folks, you know, there are always barriers and challenges that are usually at the intersection of structural racism, white supremacy, and all the other isms.”

The discussion was deeply nuanced, rich, and thought-provoking. Here are the key takeaways:

The Panelists:

Change/Innovation is often sparked by trauma. 

Ivelyse Andino posed the question, “what were the experiences that led to your decision to enter the healthcare space?” The question unearthed a slew of a few uncomfortable truths amongst the panelists. The most glaring of which was the first-hand experience with and/or witnessing racially biased health care. 

Kiira Health Founder, Crystal Adesanya admitted to harboring so much anxiety around seeing the doctors at her university healthcare center that she relied heavily on self-diagnosing based on information from the internet, which had life-threatening results: 

“I had a very scary time where I actually almost lost my life due to researching and Googling mild symptoms and self-medicating for those things. And, you know, post that experience of going through that one. My health center didn’t have, you know, the resources I needed and also being, you know, an immigrant black child. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me within those spaces. And it made it very uncomfortable for me to actually seek care.”

The need for representation was reinforced and expounded upon by Ashlee Wisdom, who recounted witnessing biased care as a staff member of a healthcare facility: 

“I saw firsthand how institutional racism works within some of our premier and leading academic medical institutions. And that was very jarring and frightening for me to see like, oh, because this person brings in X number of grant dollars into the institution, H.R. wants to protect this person, and that person was also a physician. So I remember thinking, this person is racist, and she is a pediatrician, and she heads up this department. And I’m aware of that. I don’t want any of my friends or anyone that I love seeing this particular doctor.”

These two stellar examples of healthcare-related trauma were undergirded by successful fashion entrepreneur turned healthcare start-up co-founder, Edwina Bright who acknowledged that her preparedness for racism in the corporate realm and other aspects of life left her unprepared when faced with racially biased care during the birth of her first child:

“The things that I experienced, you know, I felt like I [could] accept racism and sexism when I [made] money. I don’t expect it when my life is on the line.  I was really upset with myself, like, you should expect it everywhere. This country is built on this. And so I think now that place of acceptance is moving to a place of wanting to radically dismantle these institutions and systems that have hurt us. And so that’s kind of the passion that I bring to what we’re doing.”

The underlying themes that the question evoked were representation matters, healthcare trauma is real, and biased care can severely wound and/or kill. This group of innovators wants to provide solutions that mitigate those harsh realities for patients of color. 

Ryan Mundy highlighted this when he said, “I was in this professional environment. I was seeing, you know, startups getting funded for this start. I was getting funding for that, and I was like, That’s a dumb idea. How did it get $5 million? Like, that’s not solving anybody’s problem. Here I am dealing with identity issues, stress, depression, [and] anxiety. My family’s going through every chronic disease and illness in the book, and I don’t see anybody finding that right. And so, you know, I kind of put two and two together, and I say, you know what? I’ve got the passion, I got the personal experience, and I just want to go out there and change the world– create generational health.”

  • “The goal post is always moving” Many of the panelists agreed that there is no defined path to entrepreneurial success. As a result, one must continuously be intentional about setting goals and aligning one’s business trajectory with problems one wants to solve. The above quote from Ashlee Wisdom resonated two-fold for the panel as they discussed the biggest challenges they face as Black and Brown founders in the predominantly White-male dominated space of digital healthcare. The overarching sentiment was that while they face the “normal” challenges of creating new and innovative products and businesses, this idea of the ‘moving goal post’ also encompasses the collective experience of attempting to raise capital in a landscape that does not value or acknowledge their presence. 

Crystal Adesanya doubled down on this point by saying that Black and Brown founders are not starting at the same place as their White male counterparts. In fact, she said White male founders have the luxury of starting seed funding with simply an idea–a thought–whilst Black and Brown founders are questioned heavily about their competitive advantage and made to prove their worth or value before accessing any level of funding. 

  • “We are being coded out of society,”  Erica Morris of Herbal Social BK underscored the importance of panelists and other innovators of color continuing their work and amplifying each other’s work. She stressed that products being created by mainstream founders often do not cater to/for melanated people. She gave the example of healthcare products that use facial recognition technologies that do not account for darker skin tones. 
  • Black [and Brown] people are not a monolith. Data is important.  The founders of Health in Her Hue spoke at length about using content to build an active community and using the said community as a pool to collect data on the pain points Black women are experiencing in healthcare. They have tailored their product offerings to address the pain points that come directly from their community in conjunction with other studies on Black women in healthcare. Their products include but are not limited to a provider database that helps Black women find Black healthcare providers, memberships that allow access to expert-led workshops, and online content.
  • “This is a marathon, not a sprint!” Ryan Mundy stressed the importance of patience because the system that these innovators are attempting to disrupt has impressed 400 years plus of trauma on the communities that they are serving. One cannot expect this work to happen too quickly. 
  • The needs of marginalized communities do not align with the trends in mainstream digital healthcare technology. Derrick Reyes of Queerly made the point that as mainstream digital healthcare and telehealth solutions have the luxury of focusing on trends such as longevity and anti-aging, most minority communities are focused on trying to acquire quality health services to address basic health and wellness issues. He also touched on the invalidation of the identities of many LGBTQ+ individuals by the mainstream healthcare structure. He spoke about his own struggles to find a primary care provider as an LGBTQ+ person with a degree in health from a prestigious university in NYC. Reyes delved further into highlighting the importance of digital health for LGBTQ+ communities as conservative legislation outlawing gender-affirming care for Transgender people is spreading across the U.S., limiting their access to safe in-person care. Queerly is currently rebuilding its products and services to provide access to gender-affirming and quality healthcare services for the LGBTQ+ community.
  • “We solve for access,” Ryan Mundy spoke about the fact that therapy has many barriers for marginalized communities, which Alkeme is attempting to address: 
  1. One does not know what to look for due to lack of exposure. 
  2. There is a stigma around attending therapy in Black and Brown communities.
  3. Therapy can be cost-prohibitive.
  4. A lack of cultural competency and access to Black mental health providers.

The company currently has a number of mental health video courses and other digital products that seek to cultivate an accessible, culturally competent online space to help people of color begin to manage their self-care.

  • “We’re building because we’re mission-driven. […] The Black [and Brown] folks are collaborating because racism is too big of a problem for one company to solve,” Ashlee Wisdom of Health in Her Hue implored funders to understand that Black and Brown innovators are in community with one another and to act accordingly, Natalie Occean of Medhaul co-signed this point by saying that open dialogue between founders of color in the digital healthcare space has helped to bolster their understanding of the market and to set clear boundaries around how they approach fundraising. Crystal Adesanya added that she enjoys the fundraising process as it continuously teaches her lessons about how she and others like her are perceived in the mainstream healthcare space. She wants investors to understand that Black and Brown founders are not starting from the same position or access to capital as mainstream founders.