Supporting Women Digital Health Professionals: A Conversation with Dr. Clare Purvis
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we want to acknowledge some of the amazing women doing work in digital mental health. One such woman is Dr. Clare Purvis, a Stanford-trained psychologist and co-founder of the Women Entrepreneurs & Leaders Lab (WELL) and the WELL Career Accelerator Program.
Can you tell us about your work and background?
I’m a clinical psychologist by training and throughout my career, my work has been at the intersection of health and technology. I’ve spent the last ten years building digital health tools and specifically building and scaling digital mental health startups that focus on helping people live healthier lives.
In my doctoral training, at the psychiatry department at Stanford, our lab focused on using technology to expand access to mental health interventions. I continued that work after graduating by joining a start-up. This was my introduction to industry. From there my work has continued in a similar trajectory.
After that start-up I went to Headspace, which was focused on consumer wellness, understanding how we build successful brands in the wellness and health space, and incorporating behavioral science into the space. Since Headspace I’ve been consulting mostly early-stage startups and tech but still mostly focused on, “How can we develop products that are changing behavior and helping people live healthier lives?”
What drew you to the field of digital health technology?
I kind of stumbled into it. I didn’t get here from any specific interest in technology itself. My earliest work in technology was when I was a graduate student working in a virtual reality lab. This was when I first recognized how much new technologies could allow us to explore questions in deeper and more nuanced ways than we could prior. It was also my first taste of working with a truly cross-functional and creative scientific-technological team. It was a really great fit and I enjoyed working in that way. So, it really got me thinking in this direction.
On the other side, philosophically my work is driven by wanting to help create more equity and sustainability in health care. As I’ve spent more time in the industry, I’ve become more and more interested in really helping shape the direction of healthcare technology toward these goals. It is the most powerful set of tools we have, and there’s no guarantee we’ll use technology in a positive way.
Did you have any mentors who made an impact on your life or career trajectory?
The biggest impact on my career has been Megan Jones Bell. She was a postdoc when I was a student at Stanford. Megan is the pioneer and visionary here.
Her IP (intellectual property) is what we spun up to be Lantern, our first start-up company. She saw an aptitude and a capability in me, coming out of my doctoral training and she recruited me to that first start-up. She really nurtured, mentored, and helped me make that transition to working on this industry team. When I first started the role, for a month, she just intensely mentored me and showed me the ropes of a start-up. I’ve worked with her twice since then and she’s directly influenced the course of my career.
Can you tell us about WELL and the WELL Career Accelerator?
WELL is a women’s leadership community for digital health. We focus on supporting women clinicians and scientists transitioning their careers or who are interested in getting experience in the tech sector. The community is free and allows women the opportunity for creating connections and professional belonging. As women, we’re leaving one male-dominated environment for another. WELL helps to fill that gap in this niche career experience that now exists.
The WELL Career Accelerator is a relatively new program that I offer through our organization. The purpose of the WELL Career Accelerator is to help women who have already made this transition. The program helps women level up their business leadership capabilities and we do that through hands-on applied skills training. We focus on putting those skills into practice right away in a business leadership context.
What types of tools and/or practices do you teach in the WELL Career Accelerator Program?
It is very much grounded in themes from my own training at my fellowship. We start at a 10,000-foot view and then we gradually dial in to apply specific tools and concepts to help each woman expand her leadership influence within her current role. We start with some healthcare business fundamentals and move from there into a more specific focus on digital health, for example learning how to analyze a digital health business model. This builds confidence in our women trainees, by showing them that business strategy is a learnable skill. The program is very individualized and is about applying skills to their unique role and creating deliverables that they can take into their company.
The core program is 8 weeks long. We have monthly check-ins for 12 months and personal check-ins with me. This year’s cohort will be capped at 15 women.
As of today, it is the only program of its kind. I know that we are a small audience, but I think that means I’ve made a program that is absolutely dialed into what this program is all about. If we’re doing this work to make the healthcare industry succeed in getting people to make healthy changes, we need this work. We need more inclusive leaders. It would be an honor to be able to help do that.
We know that tech fields have been predominantly representative of men. Have you seen the field change or evolve in terms of gender representation?
The numbers don’t lie. Less than 2% of venture capital funding across the board goes to female founders. That is shocking; I hope that that number will change very soon. We also know from some recent reports that fewer than 10% of privately held digital health companies have women CEOs. About 50% of privately held companies have absolutely no women on the board at all. A tiny portion of funding goes to women of color. So, the numbers aren’t great and there’s a lot of room for improvement.
What I’ve seen throughout my career is a subtle attitude shift across the board. When we were first getting started at Lantern, we saw a lot of “tech-bro” culture, even in digital health. I don’t see that as much anymore and there is a lot less patience about that attitude. So I’m hopeful there’s a shift to more inclusive spaces.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for women trying to step into leadership positions?
I won’t pretend that I’m an expert in women’s leadership even though it’s really important to me. But some of the research I really like about women’s leadership talks about a challenging intersection of what’s going on inside and the environment. Stepping into leadership requires that we step out of our comfort zone and try new leadership behaviors. People are going to respond to that, and either reinforce or not reinforce those behaviors. When women specifically try these behaviors, some people aren’t going to like it and not reinforce those leadership behaviors. This causes women to step back. This has been backed up by lots of research.
So when you hear “Women aren’t taking initiative to become leaders”, it’s that we need environments that create space for women to step into leadership. We need sponsorship and mentorship in trying and reinforcing these new behaviors. That has to come from the environment.
There are things that we can do to strengthen our leadership that’s true. The WELL Career Accelerator, for instance, can help women build tolerance into stepping out of their comfort zone and practicing these skills in a safe space. But I don’t believe that it’s all on us women to go out and get these skills. Systematic change has to be a part of it as well.
Can you talk about the importance of community and solidarity for women, especially for women who may come from historically underserved communities?
Knowing that you have people you can reach out to and connect with in a shared experience is essential to our sense of belonging. We often get confusing and conflicting feedback when we step into leadership roles, which can be the result of subtle bias. So, I think having a community of other women and particularly women with an intersecting shared experience is almost like a reality check. This community is a more objective sounding board to bounce experiences off. Having a space that is safe and understandable is critical because otherwise how do you shine a light on systematic bias in workspaces? If all of us are experiencing this, then there’s something wrong with how we are being perceived versus how we are presenting ourselves.
Do you have any advice for women who aspire to reach leadership positions?
Specifically, when thinking about women aspiring to leadership in healthcare and digital health, a big piece of advice I have is to immerse yourself in how business works. People with a healthcare background, such as clinicians, aren’t typically exposed to that. The more we avoid thinking about the business of healthcare, the more limited we are in being impactful. This is a commercial endeavor, and we need to lean in and learn how the business operates.
Other more practical advice is [that] the road to leadership starts with getting into the pool. Starting to build relationships with folks who are in the industry or having convos with people at companies you are interested in is really important. You need to look for opportunities to build relationships in that community.
To learn more about Dr. Purvis and her work you can visit her website, www.clarepurvis.com. If you’re interested in joining the WELL community, please visit, www.well-women.org/home. Becoming part of the WELL community will give you the opportunity to, “network and collaborate with hundreds of inspiring women who’ll be rooting for your success.”
Ready to level up your impact? The WELL Career Accelerator will be accepting applications for the Spring cohort (April 10 – June 2, 2023) until April 1, 2023. Visit bit.ly/wellcareeraccelerator to learn more.