When we talk about equality as it relates to women’s empowerment these days, it is often in the context of PPC committees and abstract steps. In this piece, I’m excited to share my conversations with two women who drive change with equity in the form of real dollars and decisions. April Koh is the co-founder of Spring Health, a mental health platform and a two-time unicorn, which is among the women-led startups that claimed 2.3% of all startup capital in 2020. Ita Ekpoudom is a partner at GingerBread Capital. a venture capital firm that invested in Spring Health.
Koh and Ekpoudom are movers and shakers in the health tech space, playing complementary roles that keep this ecosystem strong. I sat down separately with these two powerhouses to ask some common questions about what it’s like to be a leader in health technology. I spoke with April on Zoom at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday while eating Hi-Chew and wearing a black oversized foie gras T-shirt. Ita zoomed from her office to her home right after the jury was sent out. I am grateful to both of them for taking time out of their hectic schedules to share some ideas with me and you.
What are your greatest leadership skills?
April: I have intense curiosity, which includes knowing the ins and outs of my organizations and also the macro trends associated with the health technology industry. I am a good writer and lean towards written communication such as emails and memos to make sure everyone on my team stays on the same page.
Above all, I value integrity. I like to set a high standard of values for myself and the entire company.
Ita: One of the things I think about a lot is how to be an empathetic leader. My greatest strength is my ability to bring different parties together, find common ground and move people forward. I think this is rooted in knowing what it’s like to be the “other” in the room, both as Black and as a woman. I know what it’s like to not feel seen or heard.
How do you promote underrepresented minorities and women?
April: First and foremost – I’m one. I’ve had many young Asian women come up to me and tell me they were inspired to start their own businesses because “you look like me.”
I track diversity metrics with my leadership team. We are extremely diverse as a company overall. About a year ago, we shifted focus away from measuring company-wide consideration and started paying more attention to the leadership team. Attention to representation at the leadership level made us accountable.
Ita: We invest in women. We put real dollars into their companies. And then we open the doors. You need capital and access and that’s what we bring to the table.
Even though we are 51% of the population, women as a class are underrepresented in the enterprise. It’s an amazing feeling to know that the work you do every day is erasing these disparities. When you are aligned personally and professionally, it is a great place to be.
What is the business case for funding women?
April: Girls Rule the World. Anecdotally, I see female executives perform at a very high level, and I think it’s because they’ve had to overcome more obstacles. The very fact that they got to where they are is a sign that they are at the top.
Ultimately, the case for funding women is about equality — there is no way to overcome sexism if power is unbalanced. In a capitalist context, power is, for better or worse, about wealth, building and leading successful businesses.
Ita: No one asks “what is the business case for funding a man”. When we ask, “What’s the business case for funding the underrepresented majority of our society,” it comes from the idea that if you’re not a straight white man, then you’re less than, or less likely to succeed. And I don’t think that’s the case.
So to answer your question: First of all: why not? Second: because women build high-growth companies. They solve big, bold problems. I deal with the financing of large companies. This is not charity. I’m in the business of making money. When you look at a company like Spring Health, you see an example of a company that has not only made money, but has done so by helping people regain a sense of hope and confidence in themselves, which translates into being able to bring their best himself. their personal and professional interactions. This is good for business.
Why did you invest in April Koh?
Ita: When April introduced Spring Health, he framed mental health support as a benefit that companies can use as a selling point to attract and retain employees. What COVID has shown is that it’s okay to not be okay. The next step is to be able to say “I need help”. We need to meet people where they are. Mental health is rising from the shadows into the public discourse and business. All companies are collections of people (employees) and mental health can affect the bottom line.
It is interesting to watch the evolution of the mental health space. When we look at business, a lot of it is about external relationships and interactions with others. Few emphasized the importance of our relationship with ourselves. When it came to talking about mental health, it was something you talked about behind closed doors. It’s great to see it changing.
What is the first thing you look for in a good investment?
April: Interestingly, when I started out as an angel investor, I made a list of criteria for founders and their businesses that would count as good investments—good salesmanship, polish, experience, traction. Then I realized that when I was looking for funding, I didn’t meet any of those metrics. Now, I look for the traits I had: curiosity, willingness to learn, willingness to try new approaches, persistence and resilience, to name a few.
Ita: I look at the founding team, the product/service they are building and why? Is there a large enough addressable market? Did they match product-market? I also look for the ability to attract talent, a pool of people that is broad and diverse with the best minds. Too many of the same type of people are not going to help a company succeed. And finally, I look for companies that we at GingerBread can add value to.
How is the narrative about women in leadership changing?
April: The media is more self-aware, and perhaps people in general are too, about the scrutiny women face. There is a lot more awareness of the tone in which people describe women leaders.
Ita: We’re excited to see that there’s more conversation around female founders and the types of companies they’re starting. We start to see acquisitions, IPOs, unicorns like April. We see the narrative shift. It’s no longer a question of “can women be successful founders.”
I also hope that the “we can’t find” thinking around female entrepreneurs has been put to bed. Now, it’s about moving women through the funnel. Great to see more positive travels.