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“Give people what they need”, With Douglas Brown and Kelly Johnston of HandsFree Health

Give people what they need. You can only do this by listening. Each person on your team doesn’t need the same things as another. Get to know each individual. Some need more space than others and vice versa. Don’t blame yourself when things don’t go well. This one has taken a lifetime to learn. It is […]

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Give people what they need. You can only do this by listening. Each person on your team doesn’t need the same things as another. Get to know each individual. Some need more space than others and vice versa.

Don’t blame yourself when things don’t go well. This one has taken a lifetime to learn. It is easy, especially for women, to feel responsible for problems.

Have fun. Work is hard enough. We need to try and bring some joy into each day. Not always easy, but worthwhile.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Johnston, Chief Operating Officer, HandsFree Health.

Kelly Johnston is an experienced entrepreneur in the health wellness and fitness industry. Her healthcare background is focused on Healthcare Operations, Health Advocacy and Navigation, and Healthcare Information Technology (HIT). Kelly is currently Chief Operating Officer at HandsFree Health where she recently launched a voice technology platform for the healthcare market.

Prior to HandsFree Health, Kelly held a variety of senior leadership roles in the healthcare industry including leading the product development at Health Advocate where she built the first large-scale and independent health advocacy call center service.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I didn’t grow up thinking about healthcare, but my first job out of school was processing claims for a medicare supplement program. I left there and joined a company called HMO-PA (later US Healthcare), which was then acquired by Aetna.Throughout my career, I saw the healthcare system become increasingly complex and users of that system become more frustrated. I have always been motivated to help people understand and optimize health benefits.

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

Every day is interesting at HandsFree Health as I lead a dynamic startup company that is bringing to market a much-needed service during the current pandemic. We have created a platform built around a voice-enabled smart speaker which gives people easier access to health information and daily management of their specific health needs. It is a new frontier in healthcare technology and there is no model from which to learn. We are moving quickly to provide this technology to consumers, health plans and businesses in a time when we are all living our daily lives in a primarily remote environment. We are creating and building something entirely new.

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?

This is my second start-up in my career and I’ve gained some valuable insight from the first time around.

One of the most important lessons I learned is that you need sleep. I took calls almost 24/7 and I would grab cat naps in my office and just keep working. Sleep deprivation greatly impacts your focus and attitude. I also learned that success does not fall on one person’s shoulders. It takes a team. We have put together a great team at HandsFree Health that I am very proud to be part of.

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

HandsFree Health enables better healthcare through health management support services at home that easily fit into people’s daily lives. We are also unique because we are a healthcare technology company created and managed by healthcare executives. It matters because our management team has spent a combined 150 years in healthcare and has a deep understanding of the system. We, better than many, know the challenges and complexities of this system. I have seen firsthand through 40,000,000 member lives at my former company, Health Advocate, how extraordinarily frustrating our healthcare system can be. Our team at HandsFree Health is applying technology to help people to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

HandsFree Health’s voice technology platform is also unique. It is HIPAA compliant and secure, allows for remote setup by a caregiver, and is specifically designed to support healthcare needs. For example, we help people live healthier lives every day with medication adherence through reminders and non-compliance alerts, appointment and preventive care reminders, tracking blood pressure/sugar and weight, and even prompts to exercise. The platform has already attracted a lot of interest from consumers, employers, and retailers.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

This summer we launched a voice-enabled smart speaker and smartwatch, which assist you or your loved ones to manage the daily tasks of health and wellness. I put our smart speaker, WellBe, in my parent’s home. Through the app I am able to set up reminders for them so they don’t miss their medications or doctor appointments. If they don’t respond to a reminder or respond that they are not going to take or attend, I get a notification. In this way, I am able to check in with them virtually and help eliminate whatever barrier is keeping them from being compliant with their care plan. In addition, our smartwatch has emergency alerts, so I feel better knowing that they can get emergency medical help both inside and outside of the home.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Engineering and computer science — two of the most lucrative STEM fields — remain heavily male-dominated. Only 21% of engineering majors and 19% of computer science majors are women. We are fortunate to have organizations like AAUW that are dedicated to promoting equity and education for women and girls. There are many reasons for this disparity, but one that rings true for me is documented in a study by the AAUW. Research has found that women are more likely than men to prioritize helping and working with other people over other career goals. There is a perception (and in some cases a reality) that engineering and computing occupations lack opportunities to work with and help others. This may in part explain the underrepresentation of women in these fields. I think there are so many ways to help people through technology. We need to really promote the ways that technology can and does help people, especially in healthcare.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

There are fewer training, development, and advancement opportunities for women in STEM and Tech coupled with oftentimes a lack of support from supervisors or coworkers. Although it is slowly changing, there has historically been a lack of support for balancing work and home life. We have to change the workplace culture- whether in-person or remote. We have to provide equal development and advancement opportunities for women. We have to have zero tolerance for inappropriate and undermining behaviors toward women. Developers sometimes work long hours through the day and night to solve problems. As leaders, we need to be sure that our colleagues have ample time to care for their families, while still performing the duties of their jobs.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

I think there are obstacles to make it difficult for women to be treated equally in the workplace but there are ways that we can improve the workplace environment. As a female leader, I can work to help colleagues overcome or avoid these obstacles. We can ensure that employee roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, they are provided with the resources they need to fulfill those responsibilities and receive training and development. We should reward employee contributions. These efforts will help to attract and retain female engineers. We all miss out by not having diversity in the workplace and we need to do a better job of building environments where everyone can succeed.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Give people what they need. You can only do this by listening. Each person on your team doesn’t need the same things as another. Get to know each individual. Some need more space than others and vice versa.
  2. Listen. Really listen. Far too often bosses do a lot of talking. My team is incredibly smart and full of great ideas. If I do all the talking, I miss out on some great insight.
  3. Don’t place blame when things don’t go well. I have worked in environments where managers were more focused on who was responsible when they should have focused on a solution. I solve first then look back to see how the problem could have been avoided.
  4. Don’t blame yourself when things don’t go well. This one has taken a lifetime to learn. It is easy, especially for women, to feel responsible for problems.
  5. Have fun. Work is hard enough. We need to try and bring some joy into each day. Not always easy, but worthwhile.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I would just say be supportive. If you hire the right people, then your job is to give them the resources and guidance they need.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Managing a large team is challenging, especially when that team was once small. As your team grows, you need to realize you can’t make every decision. Giving up control can be difficult for women. You must put managers in place that you trust. You need to step out of the details and focus on hiring strong leaders, developing a team you can rely on, and communicating your vision and ideals.

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?

HandsFree Health Founder and CEO, Mike Cardillo. Mike has been my boss for a long time and a mentor in my career. He was CEO of the last three companies I was part of, US Healthcare, then Health Advocate and now HandsFree Health. While we haven’t always agreed on everything, he has always trusted me and given me the latitude to do my job. He can be tough, but also incredibly kind. In 2010, I got a call at the office that I had breast cancer. Mike was the first person I told. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive boss on that day and during that year. For that, I will be eternally grateful.

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

I never feel like I do enough for others, but I try. Because of my experience, I get called on a lot to support others while battling cancer or other illnesses. I do whatever I can to help others get the care they need and the coverage for their treatments. Sometimes that means battling a health insurance company and other times helping to raise money when there is no coverage.

You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

COVID-19 has placed added burdens on our healthcare system and patients. This shift in our world and the healthcare industry resulted in a need for healthcare resources more than ever in the home and has highlighted the problems with healthcare access and equity. As a country we need to ensure that everyone gets testing and care as needed. You shouldn’t need greater personal resources to receive better healthcare. I don’t know how we change it yet, but I know we need to try.

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

My most important quote is “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Beating breast cancer made me a stronger person. It also taught me to not get too upset about the little things.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂

It would love to meet and speak with Michelle Obama. She is an inspiration to me and so many other women.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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