When we talk about equity as it relates to women’s empowerment these days, it’s often in the context of DEI committees and abstract steps. In this piece, I’m excited to share my conversations with two women driving 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 unicorn twice over, which counts itself among the female-led startups that claimed 2.3% of all startup funds 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 healthtech space, playing complementary roles that keep this ecosystem running strong. I met with these two powerhouses separately to ask some shared questions about what it’s like to be a leader in healthtech. I chatted with April over Zoom at 5:30 PM on a Friday while she was eating Hi-Chew and wearing a black oversized Foie gras t-shirt. Ita Zoomed in from her home office just after jury duty. I’m grateful to both of them for taking the time out of their hectic schedules to share some insights with me and you.
What are your greatest leadership skills?
April: I have intense curiosity, which includes knowing the details of my organizations and also macrotrends related to the healthtech industry. I’m a good writer, and I lean into written communication such as emails and memos to make sure that everyone on my team stays on the same page.
Most of all, I value integrity. I like to set a high standard of values for myself and for the entire company.
Ita: One of the things I think a lot about is how to be an empathic 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 is like to be an “other” in the room, as both a Black person and as a woman. I know what it is like not to feel seen or heard.
How do you promote underrepresented minorities and women?
April: First and foremost – I am one. I have been approached by many young Asian women, and I have been told 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 from the metric of looking at the entire company and started paying more attention to the leadership team. Paying attention to representation at the leadership level has held us accountable.
Ita: We invest in women. We put actual dollars into their companies. And then we open the doors. You need capital and access and that is what we bring to the table.
Even though we are 51% of the population, women as a class are underrepresented in venture. It is an amazing feeling to know that the work that you do every day is chipping away at those inequities. When you are personally and professionally aligned, it is a great position to be in.
What is the business case for funding women?
April: Girls run the world. Anecdotally, I see that executive women perform at a very high level, and I think it is because they have had to overcome more barriers. The very fact that they have gotten to where they are is a signal that they are top tier.
Ultimately, the case for funding women is about equity — there is no way to overcome sexism if power isn’t balanced. In a capitalist context, power is, for better or for worse, about wealth, building, and leading successful businesses.
Ita: Nobody asks “what is the business case of funding a man.” When we ask: “what is the business case of funding the underrepresented majority of our society,” it comes from the notion that if you are not part of the societal norm (“straight white man”), then you are less than, or less likely to succeed. And I don’t believe that is the case.
So to answer your question: First of all: why not? Second of all: because women are building high growth companies. They are solving big, audacious problems. I am in the business of funding great companies. This is not philanthropy. I am in the business of making money. When you look at a company like Spring Health you see an example of one that has not only made money, but has done so by helping people regain a sense of hope and confidence in themselves, which translates to being able to bring their best selves to their personal and professional interactions. That’s good for business.
Why did you invest in April Koh?
Ita: When April pitched Spring Health, she 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 is ok not to be ok. The next step is being able to say, “I need help.” We need to meet people where they are. Mental health is rising from the shadows into public discourse and into business. All companies are collections of people (employees), and mental health can impact the bottom line.
It is interesting to watch the evolution of the mental health space. When we look at business, so much of it is about external relationships and interactions with others. Few stressed the importance of our relationship with ourselves. When it came to talking about mental health, it was something that you talked about behind closed doors. It is wonderful to see that it is changing.
What’s the first thing you look for in a good investment?
April: It’s interesting, when I started 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 when I was looking for funding, I didn’t meet any of those metrics. Now, I look for the traits I did have: 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 the why? Is there a large enough addressable market? Have they hit product-market fit? I also look for the ability to attract talent, a group of people that is broad and diverse with the best minds. Too many of the same type of people is 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 maybe people in general are, too, about the scrutiny that women face. There is much more awareness around the tone by which people describe women leaders.
Ita: We are thrilled to see that there are more conversations around female founders and the types of companies they are starting. We are starting to see acquisitions, IPOs, unicorns like April. We are seeing the narrative shift. It is no longer a question of “can women be successful founders.”
Also, I hope the “we can’t find any” thought surrounding women entrepreneurs has been put to bed. Now, it is about moving women through the funnel. It is great to see more positive journeys.
Conclusion: Learn more about Spring Health here and GingerBread Capital here.