Getting to the Essence of Health Innovation for Black Communities with the New Voices + In Full Health Innovators’ Hub

 In News & Updates

​Access to high-quality, and affordable health care is one of the most critical issues for the Black community today.  In an effort to help address this issue, this year at Essence Festival of Culture™️ presented by Coca-Cola®, the New Voices + In Full Health Innovators’ Hub was born. This partnership, formed with the support of the American Medical Association’s In Full Health Learning & Action Community to Advance Equitable Health Innovation, provided an opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse on this important topic on the ground at Essence Festival for the very first time.

Five health innovation companies were selected and provided with the tools to showcase their work, network with others, and educate the public about efforts to address inequities in health care for the Black community. 

The selected grantees were:

CliniSpan Health is an influencer software platform for People of Color and underserved groups to access clinical research. They have created a digital path to go from a social media follower to a patient in a clinical trial in a few easy steps through influencer marketing. Pharma Sponsors are their customers, and underserved patient groups (racial/ethnic minorities, women, and rural people) are their users.

Culture Care is a virtual care hub for Black women seeking second opinions from Black doctors. Their telemedicine startup is using their network of Black doctors and providers to combat health disparities.

Serious Health is a tech-enabled service provider that provides shared community healthcare housing through Medicaid for underserved populations.

  • Dr. Steven Moyo, Founder & CEO, Welfie

Welfie is a digital home for health. Families can “Take a Welfie,” a Wellness Selfie by connecting their health records. Based on this comprehensive profile they match them to our “H.E.R.O.s” (Health Equity Response Organizers) who help guide their care journey with personalized health education and care coordination.

  • Erica Plybeah, Founder & CEO, MedHaul

MedHaul is an early-stage digital health company that enables safe, reliable, and inclusive transportation for healthcare providers and clinical trial sponsors to ensure treatment adherence and visit completion.

These health innovators were provided vending booths in the SOKO MRKT powered by ESSENCE from Friday, June 30th to Sunday, July 2nd, at the 2023 ESSENCE Festival of Culture™️. In addition to engaging with Essence Festival attendees around Black health innovation priorities, the innovators were also invited to participate in festival programming, including a “Meet Black Healthcare Innovators” Panel and other networking events.  

We recently caught up with all five grantees to get their perspectives on what it meant to be an inaugural New Voices + In Full Health Innovator. 

Driven to Connection

When the hub was announced, we were excited to be able to have a booth to connect with potential patients and find out who had an interest in our services.”– Joy Cooper, MD. Culture Care

Across the board, all of the health innovators were driven to apply for and become involved with the Health Innovation Hub by a desire to connect face-to-face with their core patient and user populations. Gideon Thomas, CEO and Founder of Serious Healthcare described the importance and potential impact of this type of interaction on her company’s work in great detail:

We are very much aware of the challenges that family members face when seeking personalized, affordable, empathetic care for their loved ones. And we thought that we had a clear understanding of how to best support those thrust into the caregiver role. However, our participation in the ESSENCE Festival allowed us to come face to face with the individuals we would potentially serve under our Hi Caregiver model. We learned that individuals crave community, nutrition support, mental health provider recommendations – and much more. We had a plan and a vision of Hi Caregiver, but having the opportunity to hear the needs of our community allows us to pivot and build a model that is inclusive of their communication needs. Because we are “people-focused,” having the ability to hear a need, and immediately go to work to fill a void, is a true measure of success.”

Bringing Data and Purpose to Life

As one of the largest annual music/cultural festivals in the United States, Essence Festival draws in approximately 500,000 visitors each year. Access to that high concentration of their target demographic at one event presented the potential for great exposure for all of the selected innovators and their companies. Dezbee McDaniel, co-founder, and CEO at Clinispan Health, confirmed that this was the case for his company.

“We were able to grow our database by 4% just by attending ESSENCE [Festival]. It was the biggest and highest-performing event we have had to date. We average growing the database by around 2% per event, which was at least doubly more impactful than normal.”

For his part, Dr. Steven Moyo, Founder & CEO of Welfie, felt that this experience brought with it a restorative element for himself and his business.

“I think the most important thing that it did was rejuvenate. Being an entrepreneur is a long and hard road. And aligning your business with customers (health insurance/providers) sometimes pulls us away from our beneficiaries (families). Our focus is on families of color and how we can impact their health and wellness. Being part of the New Voices + In Full Health Innovators Hub allowed us to focus on the families, fully and intentionally. It was an amazing reminder of our “why” and helped restock the fuel for the fire.”

Community and Validation

Nathalie Occean, COO at MedHaul, underscored Dr. Moyo’s sentiment and added a slightly different perspective as it pertained to the significance of Medhaul’s participation in the health innovation hub for herself and her team–community and validation: 

“It has been validating to be selected to participate because we know that what we are working on is seen as important by those who invited us in. It’s one thing for us at MedHaul to know and understand the severity of the problems we are trying to solve, but it drives us forward to know that we are not alone in that line of thought and have supporters who want to see us succeed.”

Dr. Joy Cooper of Culture Care echoed the palpable feeling of validation and the cultivation of community within the hub:

“Being in the Hub has given Culture Care so much validation. Seeing the many Black women whose faces read relief when they read “Black doctors for Black women“ on our banner and came in to learn more told us we were on the right track. As a co-founder, it gave me relief that my mission to digitally deliver care to the corners of this country for Black women to be seen and heard was not in vain. It told me to keep going. After this experience, the Culture Care community has grown to have subscribers on our waitlist in all but 11 states. The New Voices + In Full Health Innovators Hub was a north star for Culture Care which was invaluable for us as a small startup.” 

The New Voices + In Full Health Innovators’ Hub was an enclave of Black health innovation within the bustling retail space that was SOKO MRKT powered by ESSENCE for the duration of Essence Festival 2023, and according to Clinispan Health’s Dezbee McDaniel, its engagement rivaled that of retail booths at times. 

“The most memorable part of this was having people share their appreciation for CliniSpan Health! Booth visitors shared how they worked in healthcare or knew of someone with bad drug experiences and thanked us for doing this work on behalf of Black and Brown people everywhere. We had mobs of people at some points that were comparable to the CPG booth foot traffic, and this was something we just never expected!”

The steady engagement, validation, and cultivation of community in this space clearly illustrate the Black community’s growing interest and commitment to addressing the disparities we are facing. It speaks fervently in support of the expansion of the work that these health innovation startups are doing and the need for more spaces like the Health Innovators’ Hub.

Opportunity and Deeper Connection 

As a part of the New Voices + In Full Health Innovators’ Hub, the five grantees participated in a June 30th panel entitled “Meet Black Healthcare Innovators,” moderated by the American Medical Association’s Chief Health Equity Officer and SVP Aletha Maybank, MD, MPH, on the SOKO MRKT stage. This experience was memorable for all five health innovators and served as an opportunity to deepen their connection to the Essence Festival audience in different ways.

“Being a panelist was an amazing experience. Being given the opportunity to be on stage with such an amazing group of founders was a privilege, but also, the immediate network and community that was built “backstage” as we prepped for the panel was great to see. We are all in a similar space, solving critical issues in very much-needed but unique ways. The innovation, creativity, and commitment to the culture and community were inspiring. I think that was the best part of the experience, being inspired by fellow panelists to continue to do what I am doing with increased urgency and excellence. “-Steven Moyo, MD, Welfie.

The panelist opportunity was unexpected and was a major confidence boost. It is not often that Black health founders get opportunities to be on big stages to talk about their work and their purpose, and it felt great to have that amazing stroke of serendipity added to the Hub. The best part was talking backstage to [medical student and influencer]Joel Bervell about his specialty choice and advising him on how to choose wisely so that the specialty adds to his equity work and does not minimize it.”

– Joy Cooper, MD, Culture Care

“It was refreshing to be in front of an audience that we don’t get to engage daily given our current B2B sales structure. Despite the short time, the format of the questions allowed each of the companies represented to be properly highlighted in our responses and in our engagement with the word selection activity. We had people come to our booth as a result of the panel to speak with us further.”-Nathalie Occean, MedHaul

“Our opportunity to speak on the panel and represent Serious Health helped us share our mission and vision with all in attendance. This resulted in a 125% increase in our Hi Caregiver subscription model opt-in, as well as increased booth traffic overall. Having the opportunity to hold mini “care sessions” allowed an opportunity for our founder to have one-on-one intensives with caregivers to better understand their personal needs, the gaps in care, and how we can best serve and support them.”-Gideon Thomas, Serious Healthcare

“[..]to be able to speak on stage during it was a huge confidence boost. It made me feel like I and my company were in the right place at the right time, and it does not always feel like that on an entrepreneurial journey.”- Dezbee McDaniel, Clinispan Health 

Inspiration and Future Impact

In addition to the “Meet Black Healthcare Innovators” panel, the New Voices + In Full Health Innovators participated in various networking events. It was here that Dr. Joy Cooper of Culture Care found her personal inspiration.

“Meeting Dr. Aletha Maybank, and being flanked by another Black doctor hero of mine, Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, along with the future of Black doctors, [medical student] Joel Bervell, at the networking event on Sunday was my most memorable experience. We gave out a flier at our booth entitled “Why Black Doctors Matter,” and despite knowing our why, being in the company of greatness on Sunday, encouraged me to ensure that Black women have access to amazing Black doctors like these.”

There was no shortage of inspiration to go around as Serious Healthcare’s Gideon Thomas was inspired by an encounter with a visitor at her booth.

“The most memorable event was a lady who was walking by with her spouse trailing behind- when I told them we have support for caregivers, the husband was standing behind her, mouthing how much his wife needed to talk to us. Though apprehensive, she chose to engage. The encounter concluded with a hug and tears of appreciation on her part for the opportunity to be heard and understood.”

These encounters–planned and unplanned–are a testament to the power of creating space for people to connect and communicate openly about their common struggles, goals, and hopes for themselves and their community. The New Voices + In Full Health Innovators’ Hub cultivated one such space for these healthcare innovators at Essence Festival but what will it mean for them and their businesses going forward? 

Welfie is launching H.E.R.O. Academy, a high school-to-healthcare pipeline to bring more equity-minded, culturally competent, and diverse healthcare workers into the field. H.E.R.O. stands for Health Equity Response Organizer and focuses on community health workers, doulas, behavioral health coaches, and other community-based healthcare workers essential for the future of healthcare. Their goal in the next five years is to scale this to as many high schools as possible across the U.S. and be the destination for value-based care employers to find the skilled employees they need to deliver equitable care. 

Being part of the Health Innovator Hub allowed them to talk directly to the youth and their parents, about their desire to be part of this program. They were able to get feedback from the community they aim to serve about the desire and interest in being part of their H.E.R.O. Academy, and they hope to launch with the 30+ families and youth who signed up this fall.

Culture Care – In five years, their hope is that any Black woman in the United States of America who wants to see a Black doctor can see one. From the corners of the cornfield country roads of Iowa to the bodegas of New York City, [Dr. Joy Cooper] wants Black women to have the option to talk to a Black doctor to transform their care and eradicate the bias that permeates the current healthcare system. The Hub gave the Black women who may not have been on our radar a voice, a vote even, for us to come to their state and meet them where they are. Just having their name and email will allow Culture Care to leverage these names to turn them into fundraising opportunities to give them a chance to have access to a Black doctor through our company. 

Serious Healthcare Overall, participation allowed them to further validate the need for their Hi Caregiver subscription model and gave them a clear snapshot of their customer avatar. They will use this information to further expand their current caregiver psychographics, pair it with the data provided, and begin to expand their ability to support caregivers’ overall well-being.

MedHaul – In the next five years, MedHaul hopes to drastically improve the health and well-being, access, and independence of 5 million families, which will help reach their greater goal of over 50 million families across the county. Participating in the Health Innovators’ Hub connected them to the community, partners, and potential funders.

CliniSpan Health Their five-year impact plan is twofold: 1) educate 5 million people in underserved communities on clinical research and 2) create access for 500,000+ underserved people to find a fitting clinical trial. This program helped them educate more than 10,000 and sign up almost 200 people from underserved communities onto their platform in one weekend. 

Alongside reflections on the most memorable parts of this experience, inspirations, goals, and motivations, each health innovator in some form or fashion expressed a desire to see the New Voices + In Full Health Innovators’ Hub continue/return to Essence Festival next year. They would like to see this sort of safe space provided for Black health innovators and the communities they serve regularly.