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“Ask Your Employees What Will Inspire Them To Work Their Best” With Yasmin Shah, CIO of Digital Health Forward

“Understand what will inspire your employees to work at their best. For a few years, I owned and operated hair salons. When I took that on…


“Understand what will inspire your employees to work at their best. For a few years, I owned and operated hair salons. When I took that on, my employee turnover rate was over two hundred percent and our revenue was stagnant. I decided to give benefits that employees in that industry had never seen. A year later, I was losing more money and a slim percentage of employees were interested in those benefits. So, I sat down with my 50 employees and asked them what it would take to motivate them. They all expressed that higher hourly wages would trump the benefits. I figured out a quarterly performance review process that would adjust the hourly wage based. It brought down my turnover to under twenty percent and revenue started to grow by twenty percent, month over month.”


I had the pleasure of interviewing Yasmin Shah. Yasmin, Digital Health Forward’s CIO, is a seasoned executive and an entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience. Her career history includes electrical engineer, business executive at IBM, Chief Information Officer, President of the board of non-profits, co-founder of companies, and leadership roles in Village Movement for over 12 years. She is also an author of a fictional book, “Experience: Caregiver’s Journey”, which is a collection of her experiences as a family caregiver and a volunteer with non-profits serving seniors.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I love tech and I love helping people in need. As a CIO, I have an opportunity to work with both my passions. I work with new and innovative ideas on one hand, while those innovations are all meant to help enhance people’s health and quality of life. My engineering degree molded me to believe in and enjoy tech. My desire to help others stems from my relationship with my parents. Their life revolved around helping others which were clearly passed down to me. When they grew older and could not take care of themselves, I became their primary caregiver even when they lived halfway across the world. I immigrated them to the USA, and they lived with me for a few years, until my dad got sick. He was the primary caregiver for my mom who had Parkinson’s disease. I had no choice but to move them into assisted living. Shockingly to me, my dad passed before my mom, and then my mom was in hospice care for nine months in my home. Seeing their challenges in their old age, and the impact on my life as their primary caregiver, I was convinced that I have to make it my mission in life to bring innovation into the way we age. My opportunity to work for Digital Health Forward fits perfectly with that mission.

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

I met Sean Cassidy, Digital Health Forward’s CEO, at a networking event and decided to grab lunch a week later. He invited me to attend his leadership meeting the following week. I went to the meeting not knowing what to expect. As I was driving to the meeting I was wondering “why am I going to attend this leadership meeting for a company that I have no involvement in?” and “should I just turn around and go to the beach instead?”. Good thing I didn’t go to the beach! An hour into the meeting I started looking for an opportunity to tell Sean I wanted to join his team. A couple of hours later I found myself saying to him, “if you will have me, I would love to join your team as the CIO.” He announced it to the team shortly thereafter. I guess both of us knew I had a reason to attend this meeting.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Very few startups succeed, even fewer have revenue in the first year, and rare exceptions have a positive cash flow in that first year as well. That is all that is going to be true for this startup. Plus, I have not worked with a team before that gets along as well as this one. The energy, focuses, goals were all aligned before we even knew it.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Everything that I am working on is new and exciting. We are a startup so every day is new and challenging. Our customers are other startups or companies that have new products in Digital Health Space. It is inspiring to come to work.


What advice would you give to other CIOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Understand what will inspire your employees to work at their best. For a few years, I owned and operated hair salons. When I took that on, my employee turnover rate was over two hundred percent and our revenue was stagnant. I decided to give benefits that employees in that industry had never seen. A year later, I was losing more money and a slim percentage of employees were interested in those benefits. So, I sat down with my 50 employees and asked them what it would take to motivate them. They all expressed that higher hourly wages would trump the benefits. I figured out a quarterly performance review process that would adjust the hourly wage based. It brought down my turnover to under twenty percent and revenue started to grow by twenty percent, month over month.

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 say that my dad has been my biggest inspiration. He taught me the work ethic. He inspired me to do what I believe in no matter how tough the journey.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I volunteer on the board of several non-profits for the past 12 years. I have written a book to inspire others. I have co-founded two non-profits. I have been a coach and mentor for other women who are trying to grow their technology career or start an entrepreneurial venture.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CIO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You need thick skin: Being a CIO is a thankless job. If people don’t talk about you and your department, then you are probably doing great. If they complain you have to learn to not take things personally. I had the CEO of a company come to my office to yell and scream just a couple of weeks into my new job when our major system was down. I could have said I just got here, but I had to sit there and let him get his anger out of his system and then patiently explain to him what we were doing to get the system back up.
  2. You cannot please everyone: All departments and managers feel entitled to have their projects be worked on first. There is no way an IT department will have enough resources to completely satisfy all departments. You will have to make the choices and then tell everyone why their pet project won’t be done with the speed they want. This was certainly true for one of the organizations that I worked for. I finally was able to get a seat at the CEO’s weekly roundtable to help the entire company’s leadership understand the IT department’s priorities on a weekly basis. I had to build allies on that team that would support me with the tough messages.
  3. People management is harder than managing technology: It is very easy to give a great performance review to an employee, and extremely difficult to deliver a tough one. As a CIO I have had to fire people based on their performance, lay-off people because of the downturn in the business and tell people they cannot go on vacation because the system is down. The hard decisions can be tough. In my first CIO role I gave someone a tough review, they filed a complaint against me with the HR department. After a few months of working together with my employee finally began to appreciate that I was being honest about her performance and had given her goals that she could meet and exceed to get a great performance review next year. A year later she finally got her first raise after not having one for 10 years, even though she was getting good reviews all that time, no one was telling her what she could do to deserve a raise.
  4. Understanding the business is crucial: I was responsible for building a business case for a highly visible project at a large company. I was leading the development of cost estimate for the entire program and benefits from the IT department. When I presented the total cost and benefit analysis, I was shocked to see that my management was not very happy that the program was going to save money. Seemed illogical to me, until I understood how the business operated.
  5. Networking is important: I was a CIO for a high-tech company in the early 2000s, then I took some time away from the IT track and became an entrepreneur. During that time I moved from Los Angeles to San Diego. I did not know anyone in tech in San Diego, so I co-founded a networking organization for CIOs. If I were to do it over, I would build a network before I became a CIO and keep it growing while I am a CIO.

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. 🙂

For the past 12 years, I have been volunteering on the board of several non-profits that are all helping seniors age in their homes and communities with the support of their neighbors. This started with one non-profit 15 years ago and now is moving across the country and taking off in some other parts of the world. It is called the Village Movement. I was the president of Tierrasanta Village of San Diego for seven years. I now serve as the CIO and board member of Village to Village Network a networking organization of over 300 Villages. I am also part of the leadership team of Village Movement California, an organization that is helping to build sustainable Villages across California.

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

“Life’s tough experiences are wasted unless you tell your story to help others.” I share my life’s challenges and lessons freely to help others, and to that end, I have written the first of a series of books “Experience: Caregiver’s Journey”

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

It would be Bill Gates. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is impacting the world in many positive ways. I would love the privilege of talking to them about the impact Digital Health Companies can have in not only revolutionizing the way we age, and also innovation is essential to face the challenge of “silver tsunami” that the world is just starting to experience.

Originally published at medium.com

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