Women in Business Q&A: Devika Wood, Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer, Vida

Devika Wood worked in the digital health industry for four years, before becoming Chief Medical Officer at Vida, the healthcare company she co-founded in May 2016.

During that time, the 26-year-old, who started her career as a cancer research scientist and has a Master’s in Public Health, worked to develop two award-winning health tech start-ups in the UK, Babylon and Medefer. She then moved to Sydney and worked with Healthcare Australia, where she came up with a solution to the problem of bank nurses on the leading recruiter's books having a lull in work: offering companies on-site flu jabs for their staff. Devika moved back to London to co-found Vida with Naushard Jabir, with whom she shared a passion to create a healthcare company which harnesses technology and invests in high quality carers to deliver personalised in-home care to the elderly. 

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

Being a leader in the healthcare industry is about changing a system that isn’t working, facing adversity, having resilience and strong emotional intelligence. Further, leaders must make hard choices and show empathy, respect and care to those around them. The experience that has shaped me the most was becoming a carer for my grandmother from the age of 10. My mum returned to work when I was eight months old and was resistant to getting a babysitter, so my grandmother took on the full-time role of looking after me.

The precise day my grandmother became sick, and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, seems like a life time away. To say our connection grew stronger, even when I thought she could no longer recognise me, is an understatement. When I was 10 she moved in with us. The next 11 years were a painful acknowledgment that someone who held our family together, like a central pillar, would soon disappear. We relied on social service carers for my grandmother, but they would often turn up for only 15 minute visits, were disorganised, did not speak her language (Hindi) and did not even try to build a relationship with her. The sad reality was that my grandmother was disappearing before our eyes, she stopped recognising my parents and me, and the irregularity of care, combined with the lack of continuity in care added to her rapid demise. 

There was no communication between GPs, social services and our family. My grandmother’s care relied heavily on our involvement as a family, which put my parents under serious financial, and emotional stress. Experiencing this first hand, and developing an empathy, not just for my grandmother but other families who had similar experiences, left burning question marks in my head. Why was it not working? What could be done to change it? Where was the system failing? I always wanted to be a GP growing up, and I thought that by doing so, I could impact the lives of other families and help them with social and community care. 

The next life experience that led me to where I am today has taught me a lot about courage and confidence. I became involved in an abusive relationship, and failed my first year of university. During this time, my self-esteem and self-worth was at an all-time low and my vulnerability at an all-time high. I didn’t see a way out, or see a future for myself. I thought my dreams had been shattered, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I had always set out to do. 

However, the lesson I learnt and the way this shaped me has changed my life. I never spoke about it, and only opened up about it in the last year or so. I was embarrassed about it, and felt people would perceive me as weak. Which is often what I was told. But facing adversity is what has made me the strong woman I am today. I was determined to not let this be the demise of me. I retook my first year of university and became a cancer biologist at Imperial College London. People believed in me, and I began believing in myself. I now see the struggles as incredible life achievements. I see my obstacles as battles to be won. If I hadn’t faced head on, both being a young carer for my grandma and being a victim of abuse, I wouldn’t have been led to the path that I am on today- truly making a change in social care.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at VIDA?

I graduated as a cancer biologist and started my research associate position at Imperial College London when I was given an opportunity to join Babylon in 2013. At the same time, I began my Master’s in public health at Imperial and worked tirelessly day and night to finish school and work. I loved being part of the journey of Babylon - developing digital health services to impact large scale change in the UK. 

This is when I developed the start-up "bug". Being hands-on as member of a small team to develop something so unique, was inspiring. I then started work at another start up, Medefer, a referral management platform for the NHS. My time there taught me the very important lesson of how to sell to the NHS. 

I don’t think any one particular experience can prepare you for the skills needed to launch and co-found your own business. Every day I am learning and growing. I am incredibly lucky with the wonderful, passionate team behind Vida and my co-founder’s knowledge is unsurpassable. 

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Vida?

Highlights are, seeing my parents react when I told them I was launching Vida. They were really proud of where I am today, and what I am doing to change social care, after what we went through as a family. Also, getting our first client was an incredible feeling - and they are still with us today! Doing our branding for Vida and then seeing our website go live, I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach! 

Going to do my first care assessment was one of the best moments in my life. I had always been on the other side, as the family, that could do little to change the care my grandmother was receiving. Going to see the family of a potential client presented me with an opportunity to give them a bespoke care package, get them excited about the technology we would be giving them, and truly listen to their needs and wants. I believe that by providing this hands on service, we can really improve patient outcomes.

The challenges are the same for any start-up I believe, finding the best team, and investors who really see what it is we want to achieve.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

My advice to women who want to start their own business is follow these five rules: 1) Decipher your USP and differentiating factor from the start. 2) Take the emotion out of making decisions, and don’t be gullible. 3) Don’t change who you are. People will try to bring you down, criticize you, criticize your baby (the company)- but keep your head up, work hard and have courage. 4) Learn from peers and the industry. Keep abreast with what is going on and constantly evolve. 5) Always instill the ethos of your company in your employees, clients and every one you meet. And lastly, never let anyone tell you you can’t do it! Even the voices inside your head can be shut down with enough resilience!

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

It is imperative to be adaptable and willing to learn. I went into this, having been a scientist, and not having much business knowledge. However, dedication, perseverance and an open mind to learning, means nothing is insurmountable. I now understand the ins and outs of investment and financial models, something I never thought I would be able to do!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

It is easy for me as I don’t consider what I am doing as work. I absolutely love what I am doing. I'm living my dream every day, despite how hard it feels sometimes, I ground myself and remember why I am here. I surround myself with supportive and wonderful people, who are my cheerleaders the whole way. When I do get  time to myself, I have incredible parents, and my partner, Joseph, who makes me laugh and forget the troubles of work life. If he sees me working past 9pm, he takes my phone away and makes me relax! He supports me in every way, and I probably couldn’t do this without him. 

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Women have a stronger presence and voice than ever before, but, we are still challenging stereotypes every day. Quite a lot of women lack the courage of their convictions or self-worth to voice their opinions in the work place. I have faced this since I can remember. However, I have stopped apologising and being meek, I challenge when I am challenged and I am constantly evolving and becoming more confident. 

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Mentorship is exactly what has got me to where I am today. My mentors believe in me, and keep pushing me, to give me the self-confidence to achieve. 

I would say my co-founder, Naushard Jabir, has been my biggest mentor to date. He is grounded, passionate and an incredible CEO - he inspires me to work hard and face challenges head on. 

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

One woman who really inspired me to speak out and change my perception of myself is Leslie Morgan Steiner. I watched her TedTalk about why domestic violence victims don’t leave. Her words resonated with me, and her resilience to come through and talk about it really made me think. It is easy to be a victim, but it takes real guts to fight against adversity. 

What do you want Vida to accomplish in the next year?

At Vida, we want to expand our care technology platform across the South Coast of England and London. We want to capture real-time data to identify how our platform is transforming patient outcomes for the better, through the use of technology and a personalised care service.

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