Why A Diverse and Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Workforce Matters

Health Tech

By ANDRÉ BLACKMAN

There I was, my 10th-grade science fair. My mother made
sure I had a tie that fit properly and a shirt that was perfectly pressed. I stood among my peers
with our cardboard presentation displays highlighting what we did to make it to
this point. I was a little nervous but also extremely proud of myself and
excited to see the looks on the judge’s faces when they saw what my project was
about:

“The Effects
of Enzymes on DNA”

Boom. Oh, I wasn’t doing something that many people had seen
already — I was working inside an NIH facility with a brilliant scientist
mentor/coach, to get this done. The memories of taking multiple modes of
transportation after school throughout the week for what seemed like forever
wore me down enough to make sure that I knew this was going to be worth it. And
then after the judges were introduced to all of our concepts and families
poured throughout the gymnasium to see what we all came up with — now was the
moment of truth.

Sweaty palms and teenage anxiety wouldn’t deter me. First place goes to….oh ok, yeah of
course, they deserved that. They worked really hard I’m sure. Second place goes to….oh wow, I didn’t make
second place? At least, I’ll get something.
After a third place winner was
announced and the applause faded. I looked, stunned, over at my mother in the
audience whose face was covered in tears. I was ready for the night to be over.
Did I not wear the right tie? Did I seem
too confident? Not confident enough?
The questions would consume me until
later that evening when my science teacher told me that the judges thought I cheated or didn’t actually do any
of the work
.

He was very blunt about it. Prejudice was something that I
wasn’t extremely familiar with — maybe my mother did a great job of shielding
me from what she could. But that night, it was different. After my teacher told
my mother to get me out of the school and into a public one (my mother quickly
found out that private, faith-based schools weren’t the pillar of perfection
she thought) where I could shine, my life would never be the same again.

Welcome to
the real world, André. Now what?

Naiveté was lost and I decided to work harder on things
that I had control over.


The curiosity
around figuring out how things work took me from childhood (wondering why I couldn’t make a robot from
a stuffed animal and radio parts) all the way to working at NASA in high school
(yep, the public school I transferred to) with one of the country’s leading
astrophysicists. This ultimately led me to enroll into the amazing aerospace
engineering program at the University of Maryland College Park, feeling like my
calling was solidified in helping get more people into space. Thanks again, Mae Jemison and Bill
Nye.

However, during my second year at UMD, I took an elective
course on epidemiology (the study of disease) and had a particular interest in
a lecture where I learned about resistant tuberculosis impacting underserved
communities. Ravenous learning mode
engaged.
Within weeks of discussions with my professor Dr. Donna Howard and
learning about the world of public health, I was sold. The discipline around
preventing large groups of people from getting sick and ensuring their ongoing
health just made so much sense to me. And so it began — my fascination with
public health would never go away and within weeks I switched my major.

Fast forward
to 2016
. After several years of building
a name for myself, working on projects around digital health innovation,
starting a consultancy and growing a massive network of
innovators/change-makers — the opportunity of a lifetime came my way where my
alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Public Health, chose me to be
the Spring commencement address speaker. Joining the ranks of the U.S. Surgeon
General and other distinguished speakers in the School’s history gave me
pause — but then I knew what time it was. It
was time to redefine how I showed up in the world.

Me: 2016 Spring Commencement, University of MD School of Public Health

Days after the commencement (my 9 minute speech) I reflected. A lot. I thought about the opportunities
that were springing up in the health innovation landscape around data science,
technology, venture capital, design and more. The startups that were coming
into view to tackle mental health, chronic disease, healthy cities, and access
to quality care. I thought about all the connections I’ve been fortunate enough
to make over the years as well as the valuable career coaching I’d done with
friends and colleagues. Finally, I reflected on the kinds of talented
individuals that would need to come together in order to create long-lasting
impact for the future of health. It was also time for me to reflect on my own
beginnings in this promising landscape as a person of color who often times was
“the only” in many rooms and conferences. If we really wanted to see change
happen in this industry — that actually delivered value-based care to those who needed it and still propelled
innovation —we would need to close the representation gaps in the workforce.
And fast.


Over the course of my life and career, there have been 3 consistent
themes:

  1. Innovation
    approaches to the future of health
  2. Meeting
    extraordinary people
  3. Connecting
    people to resources, opportunities & information that change their careers

I think there’s a reason why these have been constants for
the past 12 years — I feel the most
energized and effective when all of these areas converge
.

It didn’t take long to come to the realization that I
wanted to build something that allowed scalable opportunities for those who
want to build the future of health — especially those who reflected the
diversity of our society. Honestly, it makes absolutely no sense to see the
teams of the next promising/shiny/highly publicized new startup tackling public
health or healthcare, that is devoid of diversity — especially in leadership
ranks. For the world of public health and healthcare, it is critical to have
diverse talent representation and inclusive workplaces to create real, valuable solutions that actually
meet the needs of our population.

So I asked myself: how can I help bring more talented
people of color, women and the LGBTQ community into the tremendous
opportunities that are happening around chronic disease prevention, access to
care, food sustainability, healthy cities, mental health, and more? How can I
make it easier for these talented professionals who want to lend their skills
to create solutions with some of the most forward-thinking startups and
companies shaping our well-being? How can I make access and acceleration
to these possibilities part of an ecosystem approach?

Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic to discuss these
days, however in the health/healthcare landscape, it absolutely cannot just stop there. We’re not dealing strictly
with products here — these are actual lives at stake. How we hire, retain and
advance the talented individuals from underrepresented communities (women,
people of color, LGBTQ, disabled) is the only way we will see widespread,
effective innovation.

At Onboard Health, we’re extremely dedicated to bringing together a diverse
workforce and equipping them with opportunities that not only open the door for
roles at companies — we’re equipping the mission-driven with resources,
coaching, and access to partnerships to build a healthier future.

For instance, we’re supporting the…

  1. data
    scientist who cares about the impact of food security can have in Detroit
  2. passionate
    storyteller/content strategist can have in building the brand of a mental
    health tech startup
  3. software
    engineer can have in solidifying the framework of a company building new
    solutions for chronic disease
  4. dynamic
    nurse providing ongoing insights and advisory services to a human-centered
    design company working on a population health project

And that’s just a few examples. Have a conference you want
to make sure is representative of our society? Yep, we’re building a community
for that. We’re making sure companies who have a lens on the future of health
(bonus points for upstream solutions and community-based care) can easily share their vision
of impact with a whole new generation of doers and thinkers who have the skills
as well as experiences, they need.

We’re gearing up for some amazing things this summer for
our talent community as well as how we work with startups, larger organizations
and academic institutions to build the future together.

Sound like you want to be a part of this? Let’s talk (but more
importantly, let’s do).

André Blackman is the Founder and CEO of Onboard Health where he and his team are dedicated to building a diverse ecosystem of talent and companies to build the future of health. This post originally appeared on Medium here.

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