By ANDRÉ BLACKMAN
There I was, my 10th-grade science fair. My mother made sure I had a tie that fit properly and a shirt that was perfectly pressed. I stood among my peers with our cardboard presentation displays highlighting what we did to make it to this point. I was a little nervous but also extremely proud of myself and excited to see the looks on the judge’s faces when they saw what my project was about:
“The Effects of Enzymes on DNA”
Boom. Oh, I wasn’t doing something that many people had seen already — I was working inside an NIH facility with a brilliant scientist mentor/coach, to get this done. The memories of taking multiple modes of transportation after school throughout the week for what seemed like forever wore me down enough to make sure that I knew this was going to be worth it. And then after the judges were introduced to all of our concepts and families poured throughout the gymnasium to see what we all came up with — now was the moment of truth.
Sweaty palms and teenage anxiety wouldn’t deter me. First place goes to….oh ok, yeah of course, they deserved that. They worked really hard I’m sure. Second place goes to….oh wow, I didn’t make second place? At least, I’ll get something. After a third place winner was announced and the applause faded. I looked, stunned, over at my mother in the audience whose face was covered in tears. I was ready for the night to be over. Did I not wear the right tie? Did I seem too confident? Not confident enough? The questions would consume me until later that evening when my science teacher told me that the judges thought I cheated or didn’t actually do any of the work.
He was very blunt about it. Prejudice was something that I wasn’t extremely familiar with — maybe my mother did a great job of shielding me from what she could. But that night, it was different. After my teacher told my mother to get me out of the school and into a public one (my mother quickly found out that private, faith-based schools weren’t the pillar of perfection she thought) where I could shine, my life would never be the same again.
Welcome to the real world, André. Now what?
Naiveté was lost and I decided to work harder on things that I had control over.
The curiosity around figuring out how things work took me from childhood (wondering why I couldn’t make a robot from a stuffed animal and radio parts) all the way to working at NASA in high school (yep, the public school I transferred to) with one of the country’s leading astrophysicists. This ultimately led me to enroll into the amazing aerospace engineering program at the University of Maryland College Park, feeling like my calling was solidified in helping get more people into space. Thanks again, Mae Jemison and Bill Nye.
However, during my second year at UMD, I took an elective course on epidemiology (the study of disease) and had a particular interest in a lecture where I learned about resistant tuberculosis impacting underserved communities. Ravenous learning mode engaged. Within weeks of discussions with my professor Dr. Donna Howard and learning about the world of public health, I was sold. The discipline around preventing large groups of people from getting sick and ensuring their ongoing health just made so much sense to me. And so it began — my fascination with public health would never go away and within weeks I switched my major.
Fast forward to 2016. After several years of building a name for myself, working on projects around digital health innovation, starting a consultancy and growing a massive network of innovators/change-makers — the opportunity of a lifetime came my way where my alma mater, the University of Maryland School of Public Health, chose me to be the Spring commencement address speaker. Joining the ranks of the U.S. Surgeon General and other distinguished speakers in the School’s history gave me pause — but then I knew what time it was. It was time to redefine how I showed up in the world.
Days after the commencement (my 9 minute speech) I reflected. A lot. I thought about the opportunities that were springing up in the health innovation landscape around data science, technology, venture capital, design and more. The startups that were coming into view to tackle mental health, chronic disease, healthy cities, and access to quality care. I thought about all the connections I’ve been fortunate enough to make over the years as well as the valuable career coaching I’d done with friends and colleagues. Finally, I reflected on the kinds of talented individuals that would need to come together in order to create long-lasting impact for the future of health. It was also time for me to reflect on my own beginnings in this promising landscape as a person of color who often times was “the only” in many rooms and conferences. If we really wanted to see change happen in this industry — that actually delivered value-based care to those who needed it and still propelled innovation —we would need to close the representation gaps in the workforce. And fast.
Over the course of my life and career, there have been 3 consistent themes:
- Innovation approaches to the future of health
- Meeting extraordinary people
- Connecting people to resources, opportunities & information that change their careers
I think there’s a reason why these have been constants for the past 12+ years — I feel the most energized and effective when all of these areas converge.
It didn’t take long to come to the realization that I wanted to build something that allowed scalable opportunities for those who want to build the future of health — especially those who reflected the diversity of our society. Honestly, it makes absolutely no sense to see the teams of the next promising/shiny/highly publicized new startup tackling public health or healthcare, that is devoid of diversity — especially in leadership ranks. For the world of public health and healthcare, it is critical to have diverse talent representation and inclusive workplaces to create real, valuable solutions that actually meet the needs of our population.
So I asked myself: how can I help bring more talented people of color, women and the LGBTQ community into the tremendous opportunities that are happening around chronic disease prevention, access to care, food sustainability, healthy cities, mental health, and more? How can I make it easier for these talented professionals who want to lend their skills to create solutions with some of the most forward-thinking startups and companies shaping our well-being? How can I make access and acceleration to these possibilities part of an ecosystem approach?
Diversity and inclusion is a hot topic to discuss these days, however in the health/healthcare landscape, it absolutely cannot just stop there. We’re not dealing strictly with products here — these are actual lives at stake. How we hire, retain and advance the talented individuals from underrepresented communities (women, people of color, LGBTQ, disabled) is the only way we will see widespread, effective innovation.
At Onboard Health, we’re extremely dedicated to bringing together a diverse workforce and equipping them with opportunities that not only open the door for roles at companies — we’re equipping the mission-driven with resources, coaching, and access to partnerships to build a healthier future.
For instance, we’re supporting the…
- data scientist who cares about the impact of food security can have in Detroit
- passionate storyteller/content strategist can have in building the brand of a mental health tech startup
- software engineer can have in solidifying the framework of a company building new solutions for chronic disease
- dynamic nurse providing ongoing insights and advisory services to a human-centered design company working on a population health project
And that’s just a few examples. Have a conference you want to make sure is representative of our society? Yep, we’re building a community for that. We’re making sure companies who have a lens on the future of health (bonus points for upstream solutions and community-based care) can easily share their vision of impact with a whole new generation of doers and thinkers who have the skills as well as experiences, they need.
We’re gearing up for some amazing things this summer for our talent community as well as how we work with startups, larger organizations and academic institutions to build the future together.
Sound like you want to be a part of this? Let’s talk (but more importantly, let’s do).
André Blackman is the Founder and CEO of Onboard Health where he and his team are dedicated to building a diverse ecosystem of talent and companies to build the future of health. This post originally appeared on Medium here.