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Female Founders: Sylvia Hastanan of Greater Good Health On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Resting is as essential as working: Going a mile-a-minute is fun and exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. It’s only going to be worth it if we all arrive at the finish line with our health and families to hug. For that reason, we must remember to take care of ourselves mentally and physically. I recently asked (actually, forced) my senior leadership team to take a day off — no emails, slacks, or text messages. We all need time to reset and focus on family, relaxation, nature, and life.

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

Sylvia has spent her career trying to “fix healthcare,” aiming to solve struggling rising costs and uneven quality. With almost two decades of healthcare experience, Sylvia brings her talent to Greater Good Health for marrying clinical and business operations and translating that union into value.

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?

Fairness and equity are pillars of my belief system. I have always believed that healthcare is a right. No matter your upbringing, ethnicity, belief system, or skin color — everyone should have access to healthcare when they need it. Simple as that. It is shameful and deeply sad that this is not a reality in today’s world. I aim to change that for my daughters’ futures.

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

I stumbled upon the opportunity to start Greater Good Health by accident. In the middle of a friendly catch-up call with a colleague (who happens to be the chief medical officer of a major healthcare organization), I tossed out the idea for a primary care model centered around nurse practitioners. He stopped me and said, “If you build it now, I can give you work.” I didn’t have a business plan, funding, bank account, or team. But he was serious and soon enough, I had a contract in my hand. It really proves that Greater Good Health is a solution to a real problem in the industry. That is the best advice I can give founders — make sure you really are solving an unmet need.

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?

I opened our company’s first bank account using a new client coupon code — it was a $300 credit and the first deposit made into the account! When it was time to open our second bank account a few weeks later, I used an employee’s email address to retrieve the same coupon code. A few months later, I opened our third bank account — this time the account was to receive several millions of dollars in funding from a venture capital firm. Again, I asked about the coupon. That time, the bank credited it to me without the code. The lesson learned is that no matter how big you get, don’t ever be ashamed to use a coupon!

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 am a first-time founder and have heavily relied on my friends in the investing community for advice. There is such a steep learning curve — fundraising, cap tables, board seats, term sheets. Creating a network of smart, experienced, and real advisors has been invaluable to me in this early stage of Greater Good Health.

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?

A lifetime of being told we’re not good enough — not as fast, not paid as much, not promoted as quickly, not rewarded the same, not given equal opportunities, not taken to the ball game, not golfing with the right people, not seen.

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 individuals — women should support other women, embrace who they are as women, nurture each other, and educate those who are less informed.

We should normalize pregnancies, maternity leave, breast pumping breaks, picking up kids from school, being on the phone with a pediatrician, or taking a conference call with a child in your arms. These things came into light during the pandemic and can now be understood as part of the equation, rather than a weakness.

Instead of educating on DE&I, larger corporations should establish rules that leaders must abide by to eliminate unconscious bias and hold people accountable. For example, rules surrounding hiring female leaders, offering maternity leave policies, and evaluating salaries and promotions by gender.

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?

Most women I know are empathetic, communicative, modest, and focused on building a community. Female founders can be powerful and unstoppable, but also compassionate and considerate.

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

That women are weak and undecisive. I seek others’ opinions and feedback before making a decision. I welcome varied perspectives and people who challenge my thought processes. Some people may see this as a weakness but to me, it feels thorough and good for consensus building.

That women cannot lead. Many female leaders have good followership and are humble enough to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. Perhaps the disconnect is that many women don’t brag about what they have accomplished and prefer to share the spotlight with their teams.

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?

  1. Bravery — it will take guts to throw everything on the line for your start-up and to invite your friends, colleagues, and recruits to join you in your cause, without knowing whether it will succeed or fail.
  2. Conviction — not only do you have to truly buy-in and believe in the problem you’re solving, but you must convince others of your idea. People can see right through a fraud.
  3. Authenticity — it’s important that people trust you almost immediately. This requires kindness, empathy, compassion, friendliness, and approachability.
  4. Humility — no one is good at everything. Pass control to others who are experts in their areas and learn how to extract what you need to know to be a good leader. Empower others to take accountability for areas you know less about.
  5. Eagerness — be hungry for knowledge. You will learn something new every day. It will be exciting, frustrating, and tiring. You must learn to thrive in that type of environment to survive as a founder.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Trust your gut: You won’t always know what to do — you’re learning fast and making decisions you’ve never made before. People will give you advice and opinions, but it can be challenging in the driver’s seat. However, all of us have memories and past experiences of uncomfortable situations or toxic work environments. Draw from those experiences as a reminder of what not to build. Oftentimes, I am reminded how I felt in the past when I saw leaders not making fair decisions, letting their egos get the best of them, putting their own wellbeing before others, or just being inconsiderate. This stops me in my tracks and empowers me to think through what my decisions will mean for the future of Greater Good Health and its employees.
  2. Take a pause: Your days will be long, your mind will be full of ideas and concern, and you will be pulled in many different directions. Take a moment, take a breath. Either block time in your schedule or build this “pause” into your team’s routine. At Greater Good Health, we dedicate time to show gratitude, share learnings, brag about each other, laugh about a story, build community, and reflect on our successes.
  3. Have conviction: It’s easy to get distracted by things like client requests, competitors, and fundraising. Constantly remind yourself why you started the company, and how you plan to change the world with your ideas. Do whatever it takes to remind yourself of your mission — put post-it notes on your wall, ask your colleagues to check you, or change your computer desktop picture. I refocus by looking at a picture frame that holds a photo of my three children.
  4. Anything is possible: It’s going to be a wild ride and it will feel surreal at times. I have learned that anything is possible — and things can happen very quickly. Some of it is luck, but most of it is timing. I raised my seed round and had almost 50 employees in less than six months. We moved from a small, 200-square-foot office to a 2,000-square-foot office suite in just two months. Don’t cut yourself short or limit your thinking, and always surround yourself with people who push you. It may sound outrageous, but anything is possible.
  5. Resting is as essential as working: Going a mile-a-minute is fun and exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. It’s only going to be worth it if we all arrive at the finish line with our health and families to hug. For that reason, we must remember to take care of ourselves mentally and physically. I recently asked (actually, forced) my senior leadership team to take a day off — no emails, slacks, or text messages. We all need time to reset and focus on family, relaxation, nature, and life. I also recently instituted Wellness Wednesday at the Greater Good Health office. I posted a sign on the front door that said, “I am going to a Pilates class today at 4 p.m. If you want to join me, I’ll pay for it.” This Wednesday, we have six teammates attending the same class — it’s so fun!

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

I am creating more opportunities for an overlooked, underutilized group of people — nurse practitioners. I am expanding access to healthcare for people who need it. Finally, I am creating a great workplace that aims to achieve work and life alignment.

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.

This is it — I would inspire a movement in empowering nurse practitioners to improve access and equity of healthcare to people in need.

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.

Hillary Clinton — I am in awe of her. Her rise in the political world, and then how she picked up the pieces and kept going after the 2016 presidential election. She has done so much for this country, and it’s not always been rewarded or celebrated. I feel sad about it, but I also know she broke many glass ceilings and paved the way for me and others.

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

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