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Female Disruptors: Jessica Bell van der Wal of Frame Fertility On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

“Pick three things” — One of my former bosses counseled me that in general, you can have three total priority buckets going at one time, and it’s likely that only one of those you are likely doing super well, but at a max, there are three (e.g., family, work, personal health). This has held true even more now that I have children and a new business as situation shifting is so taxing, so when I try to take on too many big buckets, it just all falls apart. Now I know: only three irons in the fire at once, and it’s key to know which one is the hottest. More than three and you’re just kidding yourself…and likely not doing anything well.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Bell van der Wal.

Jessica Bell van der Wal is redefining care and benefits for employers and their employees as the CEO and Founder of Frame Fertility, a venture she launched last year during the pandemic following her own fertility crisis. Prior to Frame, she led teams in marketing, customer success, operations and strategy at various early and late stage companies including Castlight Health, Nike, Deloitte Consulting and Genentech, and she currently sits on the advisory boards of two digital health companies as well as multiple educational institutions and nonprofits. Jessica holds a BA in Public Health from UNC Chapel Hill and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’ve spent my entire professional career in healthcare in some capacity and didn’t put the pieces together until recently that I was bound for healthcare entrepreneurship. I grew up in a family where my mother basically functioned as a holistic caregiver — for me, my brother, my dad, her parents and pretty much everyone around her. To this day, she is constantly troubleshooting, in particular, the healthcare system for all of us. We basically refer to her as the “switchboard.” Come to her with your issues, and she will relentlessly tackle down the cure. And then my dad was/is an entrepreneur although I doubt he would refer to himself as that. His brother started an industrial distribution company ~60 years ago and as soon as he was old enough to work there, he was hustling to get the business off the ground. He’s served as the CEO & President for a lot of my adult life, and it was amazing to watch him wade through the ups and downs during my childhood. So here I am, ~20 years into my career in healthcare starting my own business after seeing the industry from all sides — provider, payer, biotech, patient, etc.

And like many fighting the good fight in the complex world of healthcare, I was inspired to start this business based on my own patient / fertility journey. Additionally, I complemented this view with my professional experience as I struggled to find companies out there with a solution that would ultimately solve for the gap I experienced. I’ll also say that a little cabin fever from being trapped indoors, 8-months pregnant during COVID didn’t hurt either!

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We are fundamentally thinking about the problem and the solution very differently than most. Many think that infertility is random and unavoidable and thus, they focus on treatment as the solution. At Frame, we believe that infertility is a symptom that something in the body or “system” is broken but finding that underlying problem is actually the solution.

And we came to this conclusion based on our own experience as I mentioned. More specifically, with my fertility journey, what I was shocked by was that it was a situation where the desired outcome was pretty clear: I wanted 1–2 children with my husband, ideally in my mid-thirties. So being the planner that I am, I went seeking support and advice in my early thirties. What could I do to prepare? Was this a good plan? To my surprise, at every turn, I was told not to worry or even ask these questions — “just try when you’re ready and then come back if you run into any issues.” So I listened, against my good judgement, and we started trying to conceive at age 34. Unfortunately not only did we struggle to conceive, but we also uncovered a variety of underlying conditions that were plaguing our overall health. Now, we are one of the lucky ones that after spending thousands of dollars on treatment (and a lot of mental, emotional, physical angst), we were able to conceive our daughter Parker, but I was struck by why this ended up happening. And that once I was pregnant, that no one cared about the underlying issues that got me to this point. So this experience got me thinking, how was this situation not doomed to happen to many, many other people?

Well the long story short is it is, especially as women/couples wait longer to conceive, and more importantly, the system is set up to further these challenges not prevent them.

Now, enter Frame Fertility, the company I built. We have created a way to plan ahead and know your risk factors in advance so that you can avoid a fertility crisis like the one I went through. And no, this is not egg freezing, which may be the right solution for some. It is about infertility prevention.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest. That’s not one I get asked about very often. I like it!

Probably the funniest mistake I made when I was just a few months postpartum and trying to put together one of our first decks about the company with my co-founder, who is also my husband. One of the first slides in our deck had a series of up and down arrows in it, signifying that the goal of Frame was to improve (up arrow) health outcomes and decrease (down arrow) costs. Well, needless to say, after many sleepless nights with a new baby and starting our business, we were a bit delirious and had the arrows reversed on the first slide. Fortunately, one of our advisors politely pointed this out at the end of the presentation, and we had time to change it before a broader presentation, but it was one of those funny moments where my co-founder and I both realized that we needed to be careful not to overdo it, especially in these early days as a founder and as a new parent. If there is anything I have learned from being an entrepreneur, it is that it is a marathon (with a few sprints mixed in for sure), and you have to take time to rest and reboot. If you don’t, you will miss the learnings and the signals that are critical to help you figure out what direction to go…up, down, right or left :)

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ve been blessed with a lot of great mentors throughout my career, and I attribute many of my learnings and decisions to their guidance. In particular, one mentor from my days at Deloitte cautioned me not to over-churn on development areas or “weaknesses,” but rather focus on my unique strengths because these are what will set me apart and lead to differentiated impact. She actually gave me a copy of the Strengths Finder book, and I still have this book on my shelves 15+ years later with my five core strengths written on it.

And I firmly agree with her advice. It has been incredibly impactful to me, especially as I start my own business because it is very easy to get hung up on the downside case and worry about what we haven’t achieved yet (i.e., to struggle with imposter syndrome). But what keeps me going is why I am uniquely positioned to be successful, especially with this specific business where my personal and professional paths are in alignment.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I can definitely relate to this given my positioning and work in healthcare because when we are talking about people’s health and care, it’s important that we aren’t disrupting something that will actually cause harm. I think about this everyday with my business, and I think there are many instances where companies can be disruptive just to be disruptive and the outcomes can be incredibly detrimental to the individual, to the system and beyond.

That said, I do think that disruption in healthcare is key because very honestly, there are a lot of things that just aren’t working. For instance, the amount of money that we are all spending on healthcare is just not okay. Now in some instances, where the health outcomes are good, you may say, well, maybe it is worth the cost then. But on the whole, the outcomes aren’t great either. So, the system is ripe for disruption. But again, you have to be careful about just blowing things up without thinking through the consequences.

In the specific case of fertility though, this is a classic example where things just aren’t working, from a cost standpoint, from an outcomes standpoint and beyond, so there needs to be disruption. In particular, I am excited that there have been advancements to help women freeze their eggs and expand the availability of the procedure, but the costs are still incredibly high ($15k+), so the disruption in my mind has not gone far enough. At this price point and with current coverage rates, it is not accessible to everyone, and even if the cost comes down, the outcomes from using those eggs isn’t good enough either with a >33% success rate once someone is older than 30. So, basically individuals and families have two options — wait and see if there is a crisis and then go from there or spend thousands of dollars but still settle for subpar outcomes. If those are the only two options, I think the situation is prime for disruption because neither are good answers for anyone involved except maybe those who profit off of treatment.

Withstanding the test of time should only stand if we are comfortable with the outcomes it is providing. In the case of fertility, I am not.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Stay curious.” A serial entrepreneur that serves as one of my mentors continuously reminds me to be curious and most importantly, to stay curious. In the midst of launching and running a business, it can be easy to get caught up in the day to day and not have time to ask questions. I learned an immense amount early on by just talking to anyone and everyone that I could about the questions I had about the fertility experience. And following this advice, I try to keep this mentality today. I love to receive messages from our website from someone who went through this and then I reach out to hear more. When I read an article or a paper from someone with a perspective on this topic, I email them directly. I’ll talk to anyone. I love to learn, and each conversation teaches me something. So I am not only a curious person, but I try to carve out time to stay curious and ask questions and then test what I am learning with others. I am not sure if I would have had the confidence to start something in this space if I hadn’t been hungry for learning and feedback, so it is a critical piece that I actively schedule time to focus on.

“Plan for what you need 6 months from now.” Similarly, as an entrepreneur, oftentimes you are just trying to deal with what is in front of you. But one investor that I talk with regularly encouraged me to plan and in particular, hire for what I need in 6 months versus right now. This has not only helped me start processes such as recruiting early but it has also helped fuel the momentum we all have for the business because we are thinking about the success we want to achieve instead of what we are dealing with today and tomorrow. It helps us orient our mindset on the longer term goals.

“Pick three things” — One of my former bosses counseled me that in general, you can have three total priority buckets going at one time, and it’s likely that only one of those you are likely doing super well, but at a max, there are three (e.g., family, work, personal health). This has held true even more now that I have children and a new business as situation shifting is so taxing, so when I try to take on too many big buckets, it just all falls apart. Now I know: only three irons in the fire at once, and it’s key to know which one is the hottest. More than three and you’re just kidding yourself…and likely not doing anything well.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

For sure. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, so I won’t try to predict my next move as I am sure it will stem from what I am doing and experiencing now. That said, an area of passion and focus for me that has been ever present throughout my career is supporting women in leadership. I currently Co-Chair a committee within 50/50 Women on Boards and attended the Harvard Business School Women on Boards program, and I am committed to driving to gender parity in the workplace and on boards. And of course, there is more work to be done in this capacity, so you can bet that you will see my name causing continued “disruption” there for sure.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

In general, I would say that I think that the concept of female disruption just isn’t fully embraced yet. Women that disrupt and make a lot of noise doing it are still often frowned upon because it goes against gender norms. Now, I think this is changing, but I believe that the only way we can erase this perception is just to make female disruption more common and more “normal.” Women asking questions and pushing the status quo just like men do should be expected, and that’s what I expect of my daughter. And now she questions me too!

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

It’s hard (pun intended ;)) for me not to pick The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. He just cuts through the noise and says what we all know…which is that these “things” (hiring, firing, launching something new) are hard because they are the hard things. BUT it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them. Just know that they are hard, and in many ways, that they will suck. If you go into it knowing that, in some ways, it makes it a little easier to digest.

It’s a terrific book for any business and/or entrepreneurial leader.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I just want to find ways to unlock the power and the passion of women. In the early days of my career in Public Health, I focused on supporting women who were suffering from HIV in starting their own businesses. So here were these women, struggling with their own health, often parenting on their own because they had lost their spouse to HIV as well, and all they wanted to do was provide for their families and for their communities. I want to be the corner championing women like that. Women are these incredible selfless beasts. How can we unlock and unblock more of them? Those are the types of ideas that get me going. And that’s why in many ways, I want to free women (and families) from the burden of a fertility crisis because it’s just another way that women are getting bogged down. They often have to step out of the workplace and their lives to deal with fertility issues that they feel are problems that they caused and need to “fix.” It’s another area where we are failing to support women, and I just want to surface more solutions to problems like these.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“First we eat…” This was a common quote from my Sicilian grandfather, and I love it because it speaks to bringing people together, especially around a table of good Italian food (preferably pasta). These days, it can be easy to find the differences between people, but in my life, what has been incredibly compelling is uncovering shared values and similarities. And I find that these discoveries are often best found when consuming a meal or a favorite beverage with someone. It’s in these moments when you find the true version of someone, and you can really connect on something bigger than just the deal you are meeting about.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn is the best place. I love keeping track of others’ journeys there too, and I’d welcome the chance to connect with your readers. Here is my profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jbellvanderwal/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.

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