Coffee chats with Fellows — Episode 1: Rushika Fernandopulle

Hello! My name is YeSeul Kim and I am your jack/jill/Korean Samsoon of all trades on the Ashoka US Team. When I’m not the Director of Operations, I am also a Fellowship Manager who visits our Fellows to catch up on what they are up to. Once a month, I will be publishing a blog about my site visits to an Ashoka US Fellow’s organization.

Back in July of 2016, I went to visit Rushika’s office for a ‘site visit’ in between my 3 wedding parties. It turns out we have a lot in common besides being both from Boston. Rushika is married to a Korean woman and also had a Korean ceremony. We joked about the merits of kimchi and tiger moms amidst the construction noises, signaling the expansion of his company, and then jumped right into the crux of his plan for world health domination.

YeSeul: What’s going on with Iora Health?

Rushika: We recently moved from the Cambridge Innovation Center (an incubator space) to the American Twine Building and now at 101 Tremont Street overlooking the Boston Commons. We are on two floors, and expanding to another floor. We are likely going to have 800 employees by the end of the year, with most of the growth from the 12 markets outside of Boston

Y: What was the hardest moment in running your organization? From 0–15 employees or 450–800?

R: Running an organization is like raising kids. All ages are hard and fun, but different. It’s maddening because all the skills you learned when you had a toddler are no longer relevant when they become teenagers.

Y: What’s it like to be CEO of such a fast-paced, growing organization?

R: The role of the CEO is build a culture and value system that will last forever. You need to find people to trust to do things for you. Companies are not factories, but more like organisms. When you grow, you don’t duplicate exactly in the same way. But, culture is the only thing that matters and we spread culture by having a biannual retreat for every single staff member. We also have these fun culture cubes at every office. If someone isn’t behaving according to the culture principles, you can throw it at the offender.

Y: Back at the Ashoka Boston Ashoka Support Network event, you had mentioned that what separates Ashoka Fellows from other social entrepreneurs is that our Fellows not only look to grow an organization, but also to build a movement. How does that happen?

R: I’ve said from the beginning that my mission is to transform healthcare, but not to talk, study, or write about it, or even change government. I just want to do it better and train the world. Simultaneously, yes, I’m trying to build a movement and an organization. But if you don’t get to critical mass, it’s too easy to get squashed by the status quo. But if you get big enough to be resilient (e.g. building a movement in parallel), you can really make a difference.

Y: Can you give me an example of how you’re making this happen?

R: The problem with health care is that people make excuses on why you can’t do something. We prove they are wrong by just doing the impossible, like emailing patients or treating patients with dignity. We also branch out into advocacy work to help our patients. For example, in Atlantic City, there is a large maid population. We gave them a voice by helping their management understand how to change policies and work requirements could save the company millions of dollars while reducing the back injury rate of maids. I want everyone tone scared that we can come in change the game, and take their clients. Like when Southwest Airlines came in and broke up the horrible service on American Airlines — they just did things better and cheaper. And that’s what Iora is for the health care industry.

Y: Any advice to other Ashoka Fellows?

R: 1. Think big. It might take a while, but you have to have the ambition to change the world 2. Build good teams (get the values and culture right from the beginning) 3. Find partners that help you grow (Iora’s partnership with Boeing, Humana have kept us resilient) 4. Have patience (anything worth doing takes at least 10 years). Figure out how to make it in the long haul. Overall, have the conviction that what you’re doing is the right thing to do. Resist taking the easy way out. Lastly, take time for yourself.