Black Tech founders want to change healthcare culture, one click at a time

Kevin Dedner founded a mental health startup called Hurdle that pairs patients with therapists who “honor culture instead of ignoring it.” Ashlee Wisdom’s business, Health in Her Hue, connects women of color with culturally sensitive doctors, doulas, nurses and therapists. Nathan Pelzer created Clinify Health, which works with healthcare providers in underserved communities to analyze medical and social data to help doctors identify their most-at-risk patients. Erica Plybeah’s startup, MedHaul, works with providers and patients to secure routes to medical appointments. (Kevin Dedner; Kolin Mendez Photography; Aaron Gang Photography; Starboard and Portboard Creative)

By Cara Anthony

When Ashlee Wisdom launched a first version of her health and wellness website, more than 34,000 users, mostly black, visited the platform in the first two weeks.

“It wasn’t the most functional platform,” recalls Wisdom, 31. “It wasn’t sexy.”

But the launch was successful. Now, over a year later, Wisdom’s company, Health in Her Hue, connects black women and other women of color with culturally sensitive doctors, doulas, nurses and therapists in nationwide.

As more patients seek culturally competent care – recognition of a patient’s heritage, beliefs and values ​​during treatment – a new wave of black tech founders like Wisdom want to help. In the same way that Uber Eats and Grubhub revolutionized food delivery, Black Tech Health startups across the United States want to change the way people exercise, how they eat and how they communicate with people. doctors.

Inspired by their own experiences, as well as those of their parents and grandparents, black entrepreneurs are launching startups that aim to bridge the cultural divide in healthcare with technology – and build profitable businesses at the same time.

“One of the most exciting growth opportunities in healthcare innovation is to support underrepresented founders who are building healthcare companies focused on underserved markets,” said Unity Stoakes, president and co- founder of StartUp Health, a San Francisco-based company that has invested in a number of health companies run by people of color. He said these leaders have “a vital and powerful understanding of how to solve some of healthcare’s biggest challenges.”

The platforms created by black founders for blacks and communities of color continue to flourish as these entrepreneurs often see problems and solutions that others might miss. Without diverse voices, entire categories and products would simply not exist in critical areas like healthcare, according to business experts.

“We are really talking about a need,” said Kevin Dedner, 45, founder of mental health startup Hurdle. “The mission alone is not enough. You have to solve a problem.

Dedner’s company, headquartered in Washington, DC, pairs patients with therapists who “honor the culture rather than ignore it,” he said. He started the business three years ago, but more and more people have turned to Hurdle after George Floyd’s murder.

In Memphis, Tennessee, Erica Plybeah, 33, focuses on transportation. His company, MedHaul, works with providers and patients to ensure low-cost trips to get people to their medical appointments. Caregivers, patients, or providers fill out a form on the MedHaul website, and then the Plybeah team helps them plan a trip.

While MedHaul is for everyone, Plybeah knows people of color, anyone with low income and residents of rural areas are more likely to face transportation barriers. She founded the company in 2017 after years of watching her mother care for her grandmother, who had lost two limbs to type 2 diabetes. They lived in the Mississippi Delta, where transportation options were rare.

“For years my family struggled with our transportation because my mom was their main carrier,” Plybeah said. “Trying to schedule all doctor’s appointments around her work schedule was just a nightmare.”

Plybeah’s company recently received funding from Citi, the banking giant.

“I am more than proud of her,” said Plybeah’s mother, Annie Steele. “Every step amazes me. What she does will help people for many years to come.

Health in Her Hue launched in 2018 with just six doctors on the list. Two years later, users can download the app for free, then cycle through around 1,000 vendors.

“People constantly talk about the poor health outcomes of black women, and that’s where the conversation ends,” said Wisdom, who lives in New York City. “I haven’t seen anyone build anything to hold us accountable.”

As his business continues to grow, Wisdom draws inspiration from friends such as Nathan Pelzer, 37, another founder of Black Tech, who started a business in Chicago. Clinify Health works with community health centers and independent clinics in underserved communities. The company analyzes medical and social data to help doctors identify their most-at-risk patients and those they haven’t seen for some time. By focusing on getting preventive care for these patients, medical providers can help them improve their health and avoid trips to the emergency room.

“You can think of Clinify Health as a business that supports triage outside of the emergency room,” Pelzer said.

Pelzer said he started the business by printing online slideshows he made and throwing them in the trunk of his car. “I was driving on the South Side of Chicago, knocking on doors and saying, ‘Hey, that’s my idea,'” he said.

Wisdom got her app idea because she was so stressed out while working while in graduate school that she broke out in hives.

“It was really bad,” Wisdom recalls. “My hand was swelling and I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

The flare-ups also baffled her allergist, a white woman, who told Wisdom to take two Allegras a day to manage the discomfort. “I remember thinking that if she was a black woman, maybe I would have shared a bit more about what was going on in my life,” Wisdom said.

The moment inspired her to create an online community. His idea started small. She found health content in academic journals, searched for eye-catching photos that would complement the text, and then posted the information on Instagram.

Things took off from there. This fall, Health in Her Hue launched “Care Squads” for users who want to discuss their health with doctors or other women interested in the same topics.

“The last thing you want to do when you go to the doctor is feel like you have to put on armor and feel like you have to fight the person or, like, you know, disagree with who’s supposed to.” do it. help you on your health journey, ”Wisdom said. “And this is often the position that blacks, and largely black women as well, must face when navigating health care. And that just shouldn’t be the case.

As the founders of Black Tech, Wisdom, Dedner, Pelzer, and Plybeah are looking for ways to support each other by exchanging advice, discussing fundraising, and looking for ways to come together. Pelzer and Wisdom met a few years ago as participants in a competition sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. They reconnected at another event for black tech company founders and decided to help each other out.

“We are each other’s therapists,” Pelzer said. “It can get lonely here as a black founder. “

In the future, Plybeah wants to offer transport services and additional assistance to people caring for aging family members. She also hopes to expand the service to include customer drop-off for grocery and drugstore runs, gym workouts, and other base runs.

Pelzer wants Clinify Health to make healthcare tracking more fun, possibly with incentives to keep users engaged. He plans and wants to tap into the same competitive energy as fitness companies.

Wisdom wants to support physicians who seek to improve their relationships with patients of color. The company plans to create a library of resources that professionals can use as a guide.

“We are not the first to try to solve these problems,” said Dedner. Yet he and the other three feel the pressure to succeed for more than themselves and those who came before them.

“I feel like if I fail it will potentially close the door to other black women trying to build in this space,” Wisdom said. “But I try not to think about it too much.”

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