The middle of a global pandemic many not seem like the ideal time to start a business. But for some, like Shanel Fields, the opportunity couldn’t be better.
Fields founded MD Ally, a company that allows emergency responders and 911 dispatchers reroute non-emergency calls to virtual doctors. As a child of a volunteer EMT, Fields told Know Your Value that she has always had a deep appreciation for first responders.
She started the company while at Wharton Business School after learning that low-income communities experienced higher rates of “dead on arrivals” because of their longer ambulance wait times. She also found out there are over 96 million non-emergency requests for emergency medical services each year.
“These calls are for things like sore throats, headaches, and toe pain, which unnecessarily decrease ambulance availability, overcrowd ERs and drive billions in excess costs. I felt I had the right solution for it,” explained Fields.
Know Your Value recently chatted with Fields about starting a company during a difficult economic climate, the best and worst entrepreneurial advice she has ever received, how the renewed calls for racial justice has impacted her company and more:
Know Your Value: Can you talk about starting a company in a tough economic climate and what the upsides have been? This may surprise people to know, but you’re in really good company with AirBNB, Disney, Microsoft, Slack, and Venmo all having started in a down market landscape.
Fields: Admittedly, this question is a tough one for me because I have a very high tolerance for risk. Likely too high for my own good, but it's not on my list of things to work on right now.
Starting a business at any point in time is inherently risky. There is no right economic climate, per se, just the right value prop for whichever climate you're starting the company in. During a tough economic climate; "needs" trumps "wants" and your new venture should focus its value proposition around what people need to weather hard times.
Know Your Value: How has this pandemic influenced your company’s business since you’re in healthcare?
Fields: MD Ally is in the telehealth space and given the nature of COVID-19 forcing the world to operate virtually while being quarantined, telehealth companies have done well. COVID-19 ushered us into a new era of virtual communications, workplaces, education, etc., and it increased patients' knowledge and adoption of virtual patient care. In public safety, there's been an increased interest in operating more efficiently and creating more resilient 911 systems that are prepared for future emergencies, including another pandemic.
Ultimately, I suspect that entrepreneurs focusing on virtual engagement and technology will experience greater success now than they would have in a pre-COVID-19 era.
Know Your Value: Can you talk about MD Ally vis-a-vis communities of color, particularly in this Black Lives Matter inflection moment we’re in as a country?
Fields: There are two incredibly important ways that MD Ally will have an impact here. As a healthcare professional, BLM is not just something we need to demand in relation to police brutality, but also in healthcare. It's a well-known fact that racism in healthcare is a problem. For example, it's a deadly problem that results in a 5 times higher mortality rate for pregnant women who are African American. I mentioned earlier the power of democratizing healthcare and enabling greater access to routine care providers, like Primary Care Physicians, through telehealth. By broadening access to a more diverse slate of healthcare providers, we hope to have an impact on issues like these.
The other primary focus is on expanding the resources available to law enforcement. When we think about the tools that law enforcement has available to them when engaging a citizen (ex. tasers, handcuffs, guns, etc.), many of them immediately escalate the situation. By providing both the officer and the citizen with access to virtual medical and/or mental health support, we can help de-escalate the situation and navigate everyone involved to a better outcome.
Know Your Value: What is the worst/best advice you’ve gotten as an entrepreneur? What is your go-to advice you give to others?
Fields: The best advice that I've ever gotten is to… sleep. It sounds obvious but, learning how to get enough sleep as a founder is not very easy. The guilt of not working is enough to keep you awake all hours of the night. There was a long stretch of time where I just took naps and never actually went to bed. In hindsight, it sounds bad, but it's the truth. I've since learned how to "hack my brain" and think about sleeping as part of my job, which has been LIFE CHANGING. I still wake up at 5 a.m., but I shut things off sooner so I have time to reset before tackling a new day. I think Arianna Huffington would be proud…
My advice for others is to remember; you're not uneducated, you're unfunded and don't be persuaded to believe otherwise. I find it peculiar that it's investors' job to invest money in startups, however, when they're asked to invest in minority-led companies, they suddenly become event planners. Instead of investing, they host fire-side chats, seminars, or 1:1s to "graciously advise" women and minorities on how to raise money that they don't intend to give them anyway. Enough is enough. You're not uneducated, you're unfunded and don't be persuaded to believe otherwise.
I often see founders politely accepting advice, for things they already know or do well, just to develop relationships with investors. This is not the right approach for underestimated founders already battling unconscious biases when trying to establish credibility with investors. Change the dynamic and build relationships with investors by educating them on what you know; versus feeding into the faulty notion that you don't know much. Instead of seeking advice, start giving it. Advise investors you meet with on your industry, your client base, market trends you're seeing, how to invest in your space, etc.
Then decline the event invite, and get some sleep...