Episode 1: Coffee Chat with Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle

He’s smart; he’s compassionate; and he’s building a new primary care model that transforms how patients receive and pay for healthcare.

Hello! My name is YeSeul Kim, and I am your Jack/Jill/Korean Kim Sam Soon of all trades on the Ashoka US team. When I’m not the Director of Operations, I am also a Fellowship Manager who often visits Ashoka Fellows to catch up on their progress and news.

Once a month, I will publish a blog about my visits.

Back in July of 2016, I went to visit Dr. Rushika Fernandopulle in between my three wedding parties (that’s a story for another episode!) It turns out he and I have a lot in common like both being from Boston. Rushika is also married to a Korean woman and had a Korean wedding ceremony.

We joked about the merits of kimchi and tiger moms amidst the construction noises in the background, which signal the expansion of his company, and then we jumped right into the crux of his plan for world health domination.

YeSeul: What’s going on with the organization you founded — Iora Health?

Rushika: We recently moved from the Cambridge Innovation Center (an incubator space) to the American Twine Building and now, we’re at 101 Tremont Street overlooking the Boston Commons. Over the past two years, we have grown from 13 practices serving 8,000 patients to 34 practices in 11 different cities serving close to 50,000 patients.

Y: What has been the hardest moment in growing your organization at such a pace?

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 to build a culture and value system that will last forever. You need to find people you trust to do things for you. Companies are not factories; they are more like organisms. When you grow, you don’t grow exactly in the same way. One thing we do to spread culture is to have a bi-annual 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: You once said 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 our mission is to transform healthcare, but not to talk, study or write about it — or lobby the government for change. I just want to do it better, let people vote with their feet, and that will pressure the rest of the industry to change. 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. When you get big enough to be resilient, you can really make a difference.

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

R: The problem with the healthcare industry is that lots of people make excuses about why you can’t do something. We prove they are wrong by just doing the impossible, like 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 maids a voice by helping their management understand how to change policies while reducing the back injury rate of maids. I want everyone scared that we can come in, change the game and take their customers. Like when Southwest Airlines came in and broke up the horrible service on larger airlines — they just did things better and cheaper. And that’s what Iora is for the healthcare 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 progressive partners that help you grow. Iora’s partnership with unions like the New England Carpenters Union and health plans like Humana have been key to our growth.

4. Have patience — anything worth doing takes at least 10 years. Figure out how to make it in the long haul.

5. Overall, have the conviction that what you’re doing is the right thing to do. Resist taking the easy way out.

6. Lastly, take time for yourself.


Originally published at medium.com on October 9, 2016.

The piece was written by YeSeul Kim, Ashoka US Director of Operations. She feels validated in her work at Ashoka when she reads articles about cool people making awesome change and then realizes the social entrepreneur is, in fact, already an Ashoka Fellow.

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