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Female Founders: Meghan Gaffney of veda On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meghan Gaffney.

Meghan Gaffney is Founder and CEO of veda, an artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning platform that saves healthcare payers and providers up to 90 percent by automating healthcare administrative data processing and its associated administrative costs. Veda enhances data processing speeds and accuracy and is working to solve a $1 trillion problem within the healthcare industry. Meghan has over 15 years of experience working with elected officials and impact organizations, as well as consulting on technology opportunities. She is a passionate advocate for artificial intelligence and machine learning and believes it will create unprecedented economic opportunity for the United States and the world.

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 never felt constrained by what I am “supposed” to do with my life. Early on, I was on a very traditional path that involved going to law school and I decided at the last minute to take a job working for a governor instead. From there, I relocated and lived in five different states over three years and ended up founding my own consultancy.

When I was working in D.C. right around the time the Affordable Care Act was passed, I was surrounded by conversations with health plans, advocacy groups, and researchers about what a more modern healthcare system could look like. But there was an elephant in the room: the upwards of $1 trillion being spent on healthcare administrative costs that could otherwise be dedicated to improving people’s health or their care.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I don’t think I ever considered that the solution for helping people find a physician or provider was hidden inside machine learning technology that helped uncover how galaxies were formed. As I was looking into how data analysis and modeling could support my public policy work, a colleague introduced me to Dr. Bob Lindner, an expert in data science who was leading cutting-edge work to do exactly that.

We quickly realized the potential in combining our areas of expertise. I saw possibilities in Bob’s NASA-backed intelligence and how it could impact human lives. Bob realized the many ways that data could be used to solve big problems. Together, we set our sights on this massive problem of unnecessary administrative costs in healthcare, and jumped right in.

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?

Something that always makes me look back and smile is thinking about when Bob and I were looking for ways to apply our approach and we were invited to a Hackathon in Cincinnati for a major health plan. We looked around the room and quickly realized that everyone else was looking at patient experience, design thinking, apps, provider-led or office manager-led intervention… and our front end designer and app developer didn’t come with us because he was on vacation. We were lucky that while the other companies were focused on the experience (which we couldn’t tackle), they weren’t focused on the data. And that’s when we realized we were on to something. We could see that no matter what new bells and whistles a health plan put in place, whether it was a state of the art, highly consumer friendly app that returned provider directory results in less than 10 seconds — very often the bulk of the data would be completely inaccurate — wrong locations, specialties, phone numbers, etc. Could you imagine if the same thing were true of Door Dash’s data for finding a restaurant that delivers tacos? They would be out of business in months!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would not be where I am now without my co-founder, Dr. Lindner. Luckily, he’s interested in all kinds of data problems — not only those that have to do with space — and we’ve been able to transfer his extraordinary expertise in AI from the galaxy to healthcare. He is also extremely supportive as a co-founder. From decisions to only work with investors who align with our values, to backing my vision for what our company’s benefits and culture should look like and so much more, he has been critical to building the business from an idea to record growth over the last two years.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Female founders might be expected in a few sectors, but bias is particularly prominent when smart women step into fields that are still considered “off limits.” Technologies like AI and machine learning, automation and healthcare innovation are exactly where women should be leading and where perspective, fresh ideas, and innovation are needed.

Empowering women starts with recognizing the endurance and courage it takes to start a company from scratch and understanding that women are experts at navigating those challenges. We are expected to perpetually juggle personal responsibilities and career ambitions. There is a narrative in popular culture that those dual expectations mean women are always dropping the ball in some part of our lives. I see it a different way. We are experienced in managing high stress, succeeding at a multitude of tasks under extreme constraints and still manage to be creative and successful. That’s what a great founder is made of.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

As a society, we need to more frequently shine a spotlight on successful female entrepreneurs as role models and continue to expose and push back against behavior of all kinds that marginalize women. We can also work as individuals and citizens to do a better job of understanding the expectations women face when it comes to succeeding as professionals while also doing immense amounts of unpaid work that support our families and communities. Affordable, universal childcare would also make it easier for women to start and grow a business as well as providing businesses with incentives for offering flexible schedules to allow more women to thrive, generating wealth and creating jobs for others.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

We live in the society that we are willing to create. Women are visionaries when it comes to creating communities that work better for people. We can shape what work looks like in our economy when we step out of what is expected of us and define companies that meet the needs of women and families.

Investing in women is also smart business and good for economic growth. Women make up half of the world’s population, command a third of global wealth controlled by families or individuals, and are often in the driver’s seat when it comes to household decision-making. The world needs our ideas and our leadership. In fact, from a purely economic perspective, data show that female-founded businesses deliver more than twice the revenue per dollar invested than startups founded by men.

On the most personal level, being an entrepreneur has given me a chance to shape an environment that is supportive, surround myself with people who share my values, and create opportunity in my community for other women to lead. Being a woman drove me to build my own company more than once and I strongly believe it can be one of the most rewarding career paths.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

I think there’s a misperception that to be successful, you need to build and run your business like a “typical” startup. The Silicon Valley startup model isn’t the only way — in fact those companies fail more often than they succeed. You can build a company with our own vision and write your own rules.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

There is no mold when it comes to a successful entrepreneur. That said, I’ve found that successful founders often have entrepreneurial personalities, meaning they aren’t constrained by the expectations of others or by a narrow view of where and how they can make a difference. Having the drive and the courage to chart your own path in life, regardless of what the proverbial “rule book” may say, makes it possible to build something new and see potential where others may not.

Successful founders are also adaptable. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that entrepreneurs need to pivot and adapt to the market forces — and opportunities — that surround their business. Being an entrepreneur is likely not the best path for people who thrive on stability and structure.

I also think having a strong belief in yourself and in your ideas is critical. Self-doubt can be apparent to potential partners, employees and customers, and can chip away at the energy and mental strength needed to grow a business.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. A strong sense of business and personal values. When we founded veda, we quickly realized that many of the “rules” around how to build and run a startup ran counter to the type of business we wanted to build. Because we were clear-eyed about the culture, team and work environment we wanted to put in place, we did not cave to external pressures. In fact, we turned down several seed investors who did not align with our values. Now, we’re creating new ways of doing things, building a diverse team, offering very competitive benefits and a flexible work environment, and more — just as we envisioned.

2. Adaptability. Your original idea may not work out. A new opportunity or path may present itself, or a market that seemed like a sure thing can crumble before your eyes. The ability of a founder to adapt to changing circumstances can make or break a venture.

3. A sense of humor. Startup life is hard and completely unpredictable. I’ve found that laughter, and being able to laugh at my own missteps, allows me to be positive for my employees and my customers. I cannot even count the amount of times one of my kids photo bombed a conference call in the past 18 months. They are entertaining and I’ve learned to meet those moments with joy rather than frustration.

4. An ability to meet people where they are. There isn’t a lot of value in being right and then losing the deal. I learned early on that it’s critical to speak your customers’ language and show your value in a way that meets them where they are, in their story.

5. Prioritize self-care. The marathon of starting a growing business is grueling. I’ve learned that giving yourself the space to rest — I discovered the value of a power nap — and find value outside of work makes it possible to truly commit to your company for the long haul.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Veda is fundamentally changing how the healthcare system operates. By automating processes and increasing data accuracy, our technology reduces costs that have existed for decades, saving healthcare payers and providers 70 to 90 percent in administrative costs. When you think of that in terms of the investment they can instead make in things that help people get healthy and stay well, it’s a tremendous impact.

We did a research project in the early days of the company where we looked at how our technology translates to real health benefits for the people our customers serve. We looked at behavioral health, and specifically addiction services, as a space where it’s important to find care fast once someone has made the decision to enter treatment. We searched the patient-facing provider directory of a large health plan in the Washington, D.C. region for addiction services. It wasn’t until the 40th entry that a user could find a provider who was actually in the geographic region, practicing addiction medicine and accepting new patients. Fixing that data problem without veda would mean many hours of manual work and likely still result in inaccuracies due to human error. This is just one example of the kinds of data problems that veda solves, and it has a real impact on lives.

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

I’m doing it right now! We’re taking on a $1 trillion dollar challenge in healthcare that can change lives, improve health for millions of people, and improve the health of businesses in the industry. We think that our efforts in healthcare will require about 5 years, but very much look forward to taking our automation technology to other industries that need it just as much.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

When I think about other industries beyond healthcare that would benefit from automation, it would have to be the transportation industry, specifically aviation. Perhaps my invitation would be extended to the head of a commercial airline or a consumer platform like Kayak.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Candice Georgiadis

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