“Take the time to listen and understand the personal and career goals of each of your team members” With Penny Bauder & Andrea Ippolito

One piece advice is to take the time to listen and understand the personal and career goals of each of your team members. If you take the time to learn about their goals and then tailor their work to their goals, you will get oh so much more out of them. They also trust you […]

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One piece advice is to take the time to listen and understand the personal and career goals of each of your team members. If you take the time to learn about their goals and then tailor their work to their goals, you will get oh so much more out of them. They also trust you more because they know you have their back and care about them as a human. Also, you should co-design your team’s goal with your team and be open to feedback about your team’s goals.

Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Ippolito.

Andrea currently serves as a Lecturer in the College of Engineering and SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University. Prior to joining Cornell, Andrea served as the Director of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Innovators Network within the VA Center for Innovation. In this capacity, she designed and oversaw the creation of a $10.5M program that provides the tools and resources to VA employees to develop innovations that improve the experience of our Veterans. Prior to that role, Andrea served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow based out of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and General Services Administration. She pursued doctoral studies in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT and was the Co-Founder of an innovative application that improves access to care called Smart Scheduling (acquired by athenahealth in 2016). She also previously served as the Co-Director of MIT Hacking Medicine, as an Innovation Specialist at the Brigham Innovation Hub and Product Innovation Manager at athenahealth. Ms. Ippolito completed her MS in Engineering & Management at MIT. Prior to MIT, Ms. Ippolito worked as a Research Scientist within the Corporate Technology Development group at Boston Scientific. She obtained both her BS in Biological Engineering in 2006 and Master of Engineering degree in Biomedical Engineering in 2007 from Cornell University.

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

Two years ago, my daughter Mae was born early and underweight, and she continued to lose weight because I was not producing enough breast milk. I leaned heavily on lactation consultants to help support me through this experience. I was lucky: they were incredible coaches, not judgemental, and helped me continue to breastfeed while also supplementing with formula. As a new mom, this meant the world to me because I originally felt like I was failing my first, basic duty as a parent: to feed my child.

During COVID-19, I learned that more new parents were struggling to access that same support and resources that I depended upon when I had my daughter. Because of the pandemic and social distancing measures, new parents weren’t able to access that same level of in-person care that I received. I knew something had to be done to help them.

When I was a graduate student at MIT in 2010–2012, I studied telehealth in the military. With that experience in my pocket, it clicked: We could extend breastfeeding and infant nutrition support via telehealth to new parents. This was how SimpliFed’s online breastfeeding and nutrition support was born (no pun!). We launched to provide pregnant women and new parents better access to board-certified lactation consultants from the safety of their own homes.

While it may seem like this all magically came together, the reality is that I have been preparing and working toward this moment for years. As the daughter of two engineers, I had incredible role models. I studied biomedical engineering at Cornell University because I have always been fascinated by the human body and improving healthcare systems. As a scientist at Boston Scientific, I looked at the impact of implanted medical devices on the surrounding cells inside the body. While I loved working there, I realized that healthcare was so much more than just a device — it was the clinicians, policies, incentives, and enabling technological infrastructure. To help broaden my system’s knowledge of healthcare, I pursued my Master of Science degree at MIT where I studied telehealth in the military while also engaging with the entrepreneurship ecosystem. I Co-Directed the MIT Hacking Medicine team, which organized hackathons, which cultivated diverse stakeholders including clinicians, designers, engineers, patients, and entrepreneurs to build innovative healthcare solutions. Companies like Pillpack and Smart Scheduling (a start-up that I co-founded that was later sold to athenahealth) were one of the products of our hackathons. After pursuing MIT and our start-up, I was deeply honored to serve as a Presidential Innovation Fellow based out of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and General Services Administration. My appointment there was at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the largest healthcare system in the country, which is also one of the earlier and largest adopters of telehealth. While I was there, I managed the VA Innovators Network to help stimulate new innovations to better support Veterans and their families. By the time I left, we had launched 150 innovation projects in 32 VA Medical Centers across the US.

While I loved working at the VA, I was traveling almost every week and my husband and I were pregnant with our daughter and we decided to move to Ithaca, New York, to start our family.

And things came full circle. I was teaching at Cornell in the College of Engineering and SC Johnson College of Business when I had my daughter and realized that better supporting moms and babies is a public health crisis in this country. I wanted to take some of the skills that I learned along the way to serve this drastically underserved population.

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

Learning that I was never alone in my struggles, that has been the most interesting and rewarding part of founding my company. While I secretly knew I couldn’t have been alone with having trouble producing breast milk, I have been humbled by how many other parents have confessed to me that they too had the same problems. The reality is that each mom and baby have their own unique, challenging experience.

To date, newborn and infant nutrition is framed as “breastfeeding versus infant formula.” Basically: an either/or, with a bunch of stigmas attached to each option. But, according to the CDC, about 75 percent of babies use infant formula in some capacity by the time they are 6 months old. Indeed, breastfeeding has great benefits for babies and moms. For babies, access to breastmilk has been shown to protect against respiratory illnesses, ear infections, gastrointestinal diseases, eczema, and sudden infant death syndrome. For mothers, breastfeeding may help reduce postpartum blood loss and may lower risk of postpartum depression, Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. But, the reality is that exclusive breastfeeding is not an option for many moms. And so, with SimpliFed, we sought to redesign the experience for new parents to arm them with information to help make the best decision for them whether that is breastfeeding, supplementing, donor milk, or formula feeding. While we would love for every mom to breastfeed, we know that is not a reality for all and we need to do a better job of meeting parents where they are.

For those lucky enough to have it, paid parental leave is a huge reason for higher levels of breastfeeding, which has given many new parents the financial flexibility and the gift of time to focus on breastfeeding. Also of note, the children of educated, well-off mothers are more likely to breastfeed because they have access to paid parental leave, careers with access to breaks for breast pumping, and disposable income to hire support such as night nurses. However, according to a national survey of employers conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), only 17% of private industry U.S. employees had access to paid family leave through their employers. Paid parental leave in the private sector is voluntary and more prevalent among managerial and professional occupations.To continue to improve these levels, the true way to make systemic change is by implementing paid parental leave universally across the country (so make sure to call your Congresswomen and Congressmen!). In the meantime and even if it does get implemented (fingers crossed!), we need to think about the parent experience and how we can support them in the most convenient and effective way possible with online breastfeeding and infant nutrition support.

We created SimpliFed to help support parents in their baby’s breastfeeding and nutrition journey. SimpliFed offers three types of appointments with our board-certified lactation consultants: a free appointment for pregnant parents to learn more about their options, a 20-minute $30 appointment for new parents, and a longer 1-hour appointment for $150 with follow-up communications.

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?

Let’s swap “funny” for embarrassing, shall we? In the beginning, I referred only to the mom in our services, which is not cool. We realized that the conversation needs to include and support the non-breastfeeding partner too. While we also need to focus on mom’s mental and physical health, we also need to acknowledge that there are other parents involved and make them feel welcome. This could be two dads, two moms, and a dad that wants to support his partner on her breastfeeding journey. I have learned that we need to be very intentional with our communications to make sure we are not pushing people away inadvertently. As an entrepreneur, it is so important to listen to your customers and learn and evolve from them as you go.

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

We are evidenced-based and led by moms. That’s our differentiator. Our approach is to provide data with no b.s. to new parents because honestly: they don’t have time for anything else! We arm them with evidence to help parents with information to make the best decision for their baby.

In medicine and science, we need to do better to communicate evidence in a thoughtful, approachable, and fun way so more parents can see the data that already exists and use it to help make their parenting decisions. We also make it clear when something is anecdotal evidence vs. data-driven information.

In the mom and baby space, there are too many marketing gimmicks, which I think is disrespectful to new parents who are incredibly vulnerable. Too many companies prey on new parents, increasing their anxieties. My personal favorite is the “Neuropro” messaging on infant formula, including their “brain building” language on the canister. I mean every parent wants what is best for their baby, so this marketing language is pure evil, superficial and allows them to hike the price up without warrant. New parents are already in a pinch with hospital bills, diapers, clothes, wipes, diaper creams, and the list goes on and on.

Parents deserve honesty and facts. That’s what we aim to give them, so that they can make their own best decision that best fits their needs.

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

We have two projects to help support parents. Based on my personal experience, I was both in denial that my daughter was coming and also naive about all the decisions that come along with that big life change. To help parents break through the noise, we are working on two projects:

  1. Free, third trimester 1:1 support delivered via telehealth: Because every decision is so personal, we are offering a free consultation for new parents during their third trimester. They can discuss anything they want. Anything from breastfeeding positions, to breast pump and formula questions.
  2. Infant nutrition educational materials: We are currently working with parents and clinicians to develop a better, more digestible (if you will!) approach to infant nutrition. We want to be as approachable as texting with an OB/GYN friend. These worksheets present parents with data and information, then give themu some “free space” to help you think through what works best for them. That being said, we know decisions about infant nutrition are ever-evolving, so we hope parents use these to drive conversations, but then feel free to change as needed!

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?

While there is progress, we still have a long way to go. I recently testified in Congress in January in the Small Business Committee on this very topic. First, let’s start with the good news: according to the National Center for Education Statistics in 2019, women earn more than half of bachelor’s degrees (57.3%), master’s degrees (59.4%), and doctoral degrees (53.3%), and women are close to half (46.9%) of the total US labor force according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019. Sadly, women make up only 28 percent of the STEM workforce and men are majoring in STEM-related fields at much higher levels than women at the undergraduate level. However there’s another silver lining: research from McKinsey has shown that organizations with women in management outperform industry averages on several fronts, including profitability. Fortune 500 companies with at least 3 women in leading positions saw a 66 percent increase in ROI. Diversity within an organization or team, including gender diversity, is associated with improved productivity, creativity, and organizational sales and profits.

On areas of improvement, I would like to focus specifically on improving the rates of STEM women inventors and entrepreneurs, because I believe it can be applied to other areas of STEM as well. Studies have found that even though women patent less than men (women make up 12 percent of patent holders), the quality and impact of their patents are equal to or exceed those of men. While we have made some progress with women more than quintupling their representation among patent holders since 1977 along with astounding gains in women’s representation within the education system, a significant patent gap still exists where experts from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimate that it will take until 2092 for women to reach parity in patenting. Patents are so important in STEM fields because acquiring patents are tied to promotions and salary increases, so gender differences in patent application filings and issuances can correlate with women advancing and rising to leadership levels. Obtaining a patent is also a key milestone for receiving investor funding for new entrepreneurial ventures as well.

To tackle the tremendous complexities that face our society, we need to harness the brainpower of all of our talent, not just half of our population. STEM fields fueled by patents are widely regarded as critical to the national economy. Patents are the foundation to help drive innovation in the United States, which is an economic imperative for us to compete. Scientists and engineers are working to solve some of the most vexing challenges of our time — finding cures for diseases like cancer and malaria, tackling climate change and infrastructure challenges in our nation, providing people with clean drinking water, developing renewable energy sources, and understanding how to develop the tough tech surrounding self driving cars. In addition, STEM fields are widely known to generate new innovations that lead to high-growth companies that result in immense job creation and economic growth for our nation. Research shows that start-up ventures create almost 20 percent of new jobs annually in the US. Patents are at the core of these innovation-driven ventures driving our nation’s growth and job creation.

However, STEM women and minorities are receiving disturbingly low levels of funding to fuel their innovations. According to the Brookings Institute, the percentage of SBIR/STTR grants awarded to female business owners is 10.5% and minority business owners was only 7.5% despite women representing over half of the population and minorities representing 39.4% of the general population. According to the Small Business Administration, the SBIR/STTR funding program represents the largest single source of non-dilutive, early-stage funding in the United States. Therefore, we need to shine a spotlight on these abysmal numbers to identify the specific barriers to STEM women and minorities both applying and receiving patents and funding. So what is going on here and how can we tackle this?

One recommendation is to create university-based patenting and commercialization programs for STEM women similar to a program that I lead at Cornell called WE Cornell to form a community of STEM-based women who are looking to learn the process for patenting and commercializing their innovations. This exposes them to the patent and commercialization process to help them learn the different steps and components to apply in the short term or for their long-term awareness. In particular, universities can play an important role because they are training more and more STEM women, so they can expose and influence them to the patent and commercialization process and most efficiently engage our growing STEM talent pool. Also according to the statistics found in this 2019 USPTO report, universities are already doing a better job at engaging women in patenting compared to the private sector.

These cohort programs should recruit role models for cohort members who have recently obtained a patent or launched a company to help guide them through the system and process. My mother, an electrical engineer, was constantly exposing me to STEM fields. Whether it was working with me closely on my science fair projects, going to science-related camps and museums, and frankly being a role model to me my whole life, it helped create a pathway for me. Active and engaged role models are critical to help illuminate the path for women in applying for a patent and commercializing their innovations. Ideally, they also are peers so they understand where the cohort members are coming from and they will have more credibility with cohort members too. For instance, if an electrical engineer is a cohort participant, you would recruit an electrical engineering peer role model.

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?

First, we need to do more to expose STEM women to role models. As stated by Marian Wright Edelman, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Further, research from Dr. Mercedes Delgado and Dr. Fiona Murray highlights that patents from top inventors have higher percentages of including first-time female inventors on their patents. It is important to note that these are both men and female top inventors with female top inventors are particularly inclusive. If we want to promote more women in innovation and STEM, then we need to engage STEM innovators in university settings as role models and mentors. Also, it’s more than just role models — it’s mentorship. We want to engage these top STEM innovators, particularly female, but we also need to engage male top innovators because after all they are in the majority.

Second, efforts should also be designed intentionally for women and other underrepresented groups. As an example, the current pathway for starting companies and getting investment dollars has been optimized for males. Another study by Dr. Fiona Murray shows that when an investor panel heard the exact same pitch both orally and visually, the investor panel was more likely to see the male pitch presenters as an attractive investment opportunity. There is unconscious and conscious bias around. So how can we design programs to remove these biases?

Third, paid parental leave needs to be addressed. While we are seeing an increase in women joining the workforce, in particular STEM women, the levels tend to drop when women have children. Many entrepreneurs, but parents in particular, have to make tradeoffs with both their time and their savings, producing seemingly insurmountable barriers to the patenting and commercialization process. The high cost of patenting can act as a serious deterrent without the right connections to patent attorneys and resource support. This is further validated by a 2011 study which found that patenting rates for women academics with children are lower than men and women faculty without children, while male academics increase patenting activity with parenthood. We need to create flexible options like paid parental leave and universal childcare, to give women that flexibility to stay in the workforce in whatever capacity that works for them.

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

The biggest myth is that there aren’t women in tech and STEM or that women in STEM and Tech perform lesser than their male peers. Along with serving as the CEO of SimpliFed, I also teach in the College of Engineering at Cornell. At the undergraduate level, Cornell is at gender parity in the College of Engineering with fields like Biomedical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and Chemical Engineering having a majority of women! Now, we have a ways to go in fields like Computer Science, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Electrical Engineering, but the number is growing. Also not only is Cornell Engineering at gender parity, women and men are performing at equal levels with their grades and they have the same graduation rates. While I recognize that I am biased, a career in STEM allows you to tackle the hard, complex problems facing society today and there is no better career!

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. Ask that question: I spent most of my college career and early 20s terrified to ask the question in class or at work. I was afraid of exposing myself that I didn’t know something. The reality is that other people probably have the same question. Also, the more you ask thoughtful questions, the more you learn. The faster you learn and evolve, the faster you will move ahead. And, don’t push away the topics you don’t know. For years, I avoided topics in business, such as finance and accounting, because I didn’t understand them as an engineer. It got to the point where I couldn’t hide from it anymore, so I finally decided to dig in. I volunteered for projects that gave more exposure to the business side, and little by little, I gained knowledge and my confidence grew and I felt more comfortable asking questions. So: Don’t be afraid to dive in!
  2. Be known both as the go-to-person and a team player: Whether you are at work or school, definitely share ideas and also be the person that follows up on them. Don’t be known as just the “ideas” person. Be known as the person who thinks of creative ideas to gnarly problems and then implements them for real impact. This builds tremendous credibility and others will want to work with you. Also be supportive of your teammate’s ideas and help them reach their goals. At times, you will also see people getting ahead of you that are not team players. Don’t let it shake you. It is not a zero-sum game. You should focus on yourself, support others around you, and you will soar!
  3. Pursue extracurriculars outside of work and school to build your network: Whenever I wanted to learn a new skill, I would join a club and contribute. I treated “extracurriculars” as sandboxes. As an example, when I was at Boston Scientific and a junior Scientist, I co-founded and led the Women’s Network at Boston Scientific’s Corporate Headquarters. I wanted the experience of leading a team even as one of the youngest employees in the building. It was a great opportunity for me to try on new skills for size and experiment outside of my formal role. Also, make sure to constantly build your network in an authentic way. The way to do that is by volunteering and taking on roles in extracurriculars which also exposes you to new people in the process. For instance, I helped organize a bunch of events in the entrepreneurship community at MIT. I would invite speakers that I was interested in learning from. As the event organizer, I came early to the event to set up the room and stayed late and picked up the trash at the events. While definitely not glamorous, this also allowed me to network with the speaker 1:1 and build a relationship with them. Hard work pays off and people notice you going the extra mile behind the scenes. I promise it doesn’t go unnoticed and people respect it.
  4. Support your community: Similarly, contribute to your community at work, school, or home. The more you give, the more you get back. When I was in grad school, I was the Co-Director of MIT Hacking Medicine. As I pursued other projects in my career, people knew they could trust me because they knew that I was a contributor to the ecosystem and opportunities came to me. The more you give to others, the more comes back to you — promise!
  5. Identify your advocate and engage them. Whether they are male or female, identify people in your life that you can learn from and have your back. Build your allies and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with them. This is how you will learn and grow! Then they know how they can help support you too!

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

One piece advice is to take the time to listen and understand the personal and career goals of each of your team members. If you take the time to learn about their goals and then tailor their work to their goals, you will get oh so much more out of them. They also trust you more because they know you have their back and care about them as a human. Also, you should co-design your team’s goal with your team and be open to feedback about your team’s goals.

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

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. You will indeed make them. However, you need to learn from them. At the end of each project or larger task, take the time to solicit feedback from the team through activities like “start, stop, continue”. Each team member independently writes on post-its items the team should start doing, stop doing, and continue doing. Then each person reviews their post-its. You can then identify themes and an action plan for addressing these themes. Most importantly, be open to the feedback. Don’t get defensive. The more open you are to feedback, the more feedback you will get, and the faster you will learn, grow, and excel!

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