How My Grandmother Inspired Me to Connect Health Tech and Health Equity

An innovator wants the formula for return-on-investment calculations to factor in health equity

Connecting Health Tech to Health Equity
Illustration: Jim Frazier

As we were getting off the plane in Ghana, my mom looked at me, her six-year-old daughter from Southern California, and flashed her signature bright and exaggerated smile. “Are you excited?” she asked. I looked at her and made a face, and I thought to myself, “Mom, after 16 hours, two planes, and now feeling the suffocating humidity, would I really be excited?” To be honest, I was exhausted.

But then I saw a blue sign with the word “Akwaaba” on it — the Ghanaian greeting — and that’s when it hit me: I was in Ghana for the first time to visit my dear grandma Georgina. At that point, I told my mom, “Actually, I’m excited!”

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In the podcast, co-hosts Boachie and Hilda Martinez speak with diverse health tech founders to learn how they draw on lived experiences to solve some of the most pervasive problems in health care.

After retrieving our luggage, I heard someone calling my name, and before I knew what was happening, I was in Grandma’s arms. I was so happy to see her! After we greeted each other, we made our way 175 miles through the cities of Accra and Kumasi, and finally, to Wiamoase, the village where my family is from.

The road to Wiamoase was nothing like the freeways I was used to in the San Fernando Valley. It was rugged and full of traffic roundabouts, and despite my experiences in Los Angeles, I could scarcely believe the traffic. There were so many trucks, cars, and tro tros — crowded minibuses packed with people — all merged into and emerged out of these somewhat complicated hubs safely. I was fascinated by what looked like controlled chaos. All the different roads met at a central point, and then each vehicle exited the roundabout toward its destination.

In the village, Grandma couldn’t wait to introduce us to her friends. She was very popular. We were saying hello to what felt like every single person. But it took me years to realize that while she was Grandma to me, to her fellow villagers she was much more than that. She was an advocate, a community leader, and a hub of connection and care. She made sure that resources went to places that mattered most in the community. As an example of her leadership, she helped open Wiamoase’s first community bank.

A Grandmother’s Struggle for Help With Chronic Illness

I was inspired by her entrepreneurial spirit, her fierce leadership qualities, and the respect she had earned. She reminded me of those roundabouts — she was a central point of connection, ideas, and opportunities for the people of Wiamoase to come together and flourish.

After our family returned to the US, it was hard for my mom to hear about my grandma’s lack of access to health care in Ghana. That’s why my mom and her siblings brought my grandma to the US. But the harsh reality was that here in the US, Grandma struggled to find help for her chronic conditions in our fragmented health care system that reflects racist, oppressive systems and ideologies and hinders vulnerable populations from getting the care that they need. Every time my mom would take Grandma to the hospital or doctor’s office, they saw firsthand the inequities facing people of color and immigrants.

In her frustration, my mom decided to go back to school to become a nurse … It was her way of contributing to a solution, and she has been a practicing nurse for more than two decades. I started my own journey into health care not long after that first trip to Ghana, when I saw a pediatrician in my community who looked like me. She was the first Black woman doctor who cared for me, and she made me feel seen, comfortable, and calm. The experience was different from the doctor’s visits I’d had as a kid. Meeting her unlocked the possibility for me to dream about how I could someday be a point of safety and connection for others.

As a premed student, I interned at a Los Angeles hospital. During one shift, I took the vital signs of a Black woman. She told me she was in pain and asked me to tell her nurse, which I did. When I went back four hours later to take the same patient’s vitals before leaving my shift, she said the nurse never came to see her. She never got pain medication, and it made me uncomfortable to see her ignored while nurses seemed to be more attentive to White patients.

My next rotation was in a busy emergency room, and the most common statement I heard from patients was, “I’ve been waiting for several hours.” I could sense a collective feeling of worry, frustration, and uncertainty from patients.

On top of that, I saw harried nurses and burnt-out doctors who truly wanted to see as many patients as possible. But too many patients simply couldn’t wait for hours to be seen. And for the patients who were seen, many ended up returning because their medical needs hadn’t been fully resolved the first time.

A Health Equity Experiment in Social Media

These experiences stuck with me, so I started brainstorming. I wondered how I might help streamline communication and operations within the health care system, especially for those who are not seen and heard.

During my internship’s administrative rotation, I asked my adviser, “Have you ever thought of using social media to bring the community closer to doctors?” She hesitated, but I could tell the idea resonated with her. We had the opportunity to be innovative and think outside the box, and we discovered most patients had a cell phone. So we experimented using social media to offer general health-related information to patients. The trial was a success, and I realized that with the right resources, I could make a big impact with tech-based solutions.

I had reached another roundabout in my path, and I turned off into health tech entrepreneurship. It was definitely not what my mom had wanted as a career for me, but the social media project I worked on during my internship showed me that we were onto something.

I was interested in merging health care and technology to benefit marginalized populations. I kept asking how I could use health tech to enhance the patient experience and build sustainable trust between underserved patients and the health care system.

Most health care technology solutions from a decade ago did not focus on underserved communities, and I wanted to find a way to meet patients where they are. I founded a start-up using voice-enabled technology to alert patients with critical, timely information. Patients could communicate in real time and get insights on estimated wait times of emergency rooms or urgent care centers, rather than spending hours in waiting rooms.

Disconnection: Health Tech Investors and Health Equity

But it was difficult to find investors. They said things like, “Why underserved populations? There’s no money in this market.”

At the same time, friends of mine who were entrepreneurs of color were building companies that were designed specifically for their communities and informed by the wisdom of lived experience. I watched as they pitched their ideas to funders in important pitch competitions but saw their brilliant solutions place last, time and again.

And then at those same competitions, someone who was not a person of color would come along with a similar solution — and they would get funding. That’s because investors’ focus was maximizing financial returns, and that did nothing to meet the needs of diverse populations.

I understand that a business needs to make money. But investors should be asking, “What are the outcomes we’re really trying to achieve?” Better yet, the question should be “What outcomes might we miss?”

I entered yet another career roundabout, and that led me to the California Health Care Foundation Innovation Fund. I saw an opportunity to merge what I had learned as an entrepreneur to highlight the barriers to developing community-centered, tech-enabled services. I knew I could influence how investors think, and how they interact with entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color. I’d be joining a group of very few Black women investors who are working to change the conversation in the investment world.

That was a huge pivot — going from being the entrepreneur struggling to make the pitch to now being the investor and an insider who understands what entrepreneurs experience; and who can support diverse entrepreneurs by providing capital, making connections to potential partners, advisers, and mentors, and sharing my insights.

We’re seeing a shift where more entrepreneurs are leveraging their lived experiences to do two things: (1) design tech solutions that challenge current health care barriers and improve quality of care, and (2) achieve both profitability and health equity. These are the people we want to support, because they have ideas that serve our communities. We should be supporting and elevating these entrepreneurs and their solutions.

Connecting Health Tech and Health Equity

In health care especially, in addition to evaluating economic risk, we need to consider the risk of missed opportunity. We can and should take risks on people with ideas to solve big problems in health care. This demands support from both investors and delivery system leaders. We need to connect entrepreneurs with the right partners, and fuel them with opportunities to bring their solutions to the people who need them the most.

Grandma died in 2022 at 87, and I think about her often. Not only do I miss my biggest advocate; I also aspire to have the kind of impact she did. The foundation brings together entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, payers, and providers, and aligns them in developing innovative ways to expand access and achieve positive health outcomes. Think of it as its own unique digital health roundabout for providing care.

My career path has not been linear, but each waypoint brought me a stronger, more diverse, more capable network — and new opportunities that brought me to where I am now.

And in this way, I’m more like Grandma than I ever thought possible.