Women in Business Q&A: Helena Plater-Zyberk, CEO SimpleTherapy

Women in Business Q&A: Helena Plater-Zyberk, CEO SimpleTherapy
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As CEO of SimpleTherapy, Helena Plater-Zyberk's mission is to make the benefits of therapeutic exercise accessible via online video to anyone who can't get to physical therapy. Customized exercise therapy sessions are queued from SimpleTherapy's vast video library, and programs adapt intelligently to individual needs. Participants gain the convenience of anytime, anywhere exercise therapy at a small fraction of the cost of traditional in-person physical therapy services.

Prior to joining SimpleTherapy, Helena was executive director of Scholastic Inc.'s professional learning business unit, Scholastic Achievement Partners. Before Scholastic, she served as vice president of marketing at Alacra, a data-integration software and solutions provider for the financial services industry. She was also a former director of strategy and consumer insights at Condé Nast.

Helena holds an MBA from Columbia University and a BA in International Relations and Economics from American University. She is also board member for the fast-growing, Austin, TX-based legal software-as-a-service (SaaS) firm Liquid Litigation Management.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
During the summer before my senior year of college, I spent three months as a volunteer in Ghana, building a school in a remote village with no electricity and no running water. I witnessed incredible joy and gratitude for life evident in everyone I met there.

Suddenly, I contracted cholera and felt like I was dying. I was so cared for, by strangers, that I didn't even think to alert my family once I managed to function again. I was inspired to power through the physical weakness, and keep building, because who else would, and when?

A few weeks later, I contracted malaria. The 15 hours that it took to get to a hospital by bus were wretched, but two other volunteers ensured my safety. Once back in the U.S., it took me two groggy years to gain back my strength. Friends pitched in daily to help me with even the most basic tasks like carrying around a backpack that was too heavy.

Whenever I face a leadership challenge, I think back to these specific experiences and two lessons: 1) There is something to be grateful for in every circumstance, no matter how dire it seems, and 2) We are nothing without all the hundreds and thousands of people who have played roles, big and small, in the path that has gotten us to where we are.

How did your previous employment experience aide your position at SimpleTherapy?
To the casual observer, my professional background may seem haphazard - I started working at the age of 14 in a stationary store and have jumped from industry to industry (media, hospitality, international development, social venture capital, publishing, financial services technology, education technology, and now healthcare technology) and from function to function (research, writing and editing, consumer insights, business development, marketing, sales, strategy, and now general management).

I chose each new role not because I had the experience deemed necessary to do it, but because I didn't--and yet I knew I'd be able to demonstrate that in every previous role, missing skills hadn't deterred my success.

Now I can cross-pollinate concepts, methods, and practices from a wide variety of disciplines. It's the amalgamation of all of these diverse experiences that enables me to be an effective CEO.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SimpleTherapy?
Every day is a challenge, but I like it that way.

The highlight was a very simple moment. I was in New Orleans with SimpleTherapy's co-founders, orthopaedic surgeons, for a conference. I wanted to take the streetcar but didn't have the exact change required, so I asked a woman waiting at the same stop. We struck up a conversation, and she mentioned that she was waiting to go just two stops because she was injured from a recent car accident. I asked if she was in physical therapy for pain treatment, and she replied that she was not because it was too expensive, and anyway, she couldn't get off work.

I was able to explain how SimpleTherapy could provide a completely personalized and adaptable video exercise therapy program that she could do at home on her own schedule. I offered her a free trial and explained how with our service she could receive unlimited video sessions for three months for the cost of one single insurance copay for an in-person physical therapy visit. She hugged me. And all I could think was, wow, our team has created a service that is really going to help so many people who are in pain.

What's it like being a first-time CEO?
Equal parts liberating and scary.

My role just prior to this one involved a manager so over-bearing as to make me question my own capabilities. To be free of that dynamic, and to have found a new role that so fully ignites my brain and heart and willpower has been exhilarating.

Not having anyone else to blame, however, is frightening. At a startup in particular, the CEO sets the tone, culture, processes, goals and expectations, all from the ground up. If something, anything, goes wrong, it's on me. Things will go wrong. Being able to pick up and move forward, without a safety net, becomes key.

What advice would you give to women who are looking to start their own business?
Instead of advice, I like to pose questions that guide one's own thinking, most often around customer development, since there are millions of seemingly great business ideas, but only a few gain real traction with customers.

Some of my questions would be: Have you talked to a wide cross-section of the people to whom you intend to sell? What are they not satisfied with in the existing alternatives that they're already getting? How will you deliver your unique solution in a format and at a price point that will make sense to them?

If you can gauge the customer correctly, and the opportunity to become profitable exists, go on and do it!

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I tend to work in bursts - creative bursts where I get epiphanies and want to map out competitive strategies or complex executional ideas, and scheduling bursts when every meeting with everyone gets clustered on my calendar all at once.

When I'm in a burst, there is no balance - I apologize to friends and family, crank my sleep schedule down to the bare minimum, buckle in for the grind, and don't even try to carve out down time.

Then, the burst passes, and I consciously allow myself some lavish slack time. I watch HGTV marathons, go horseback riding, or track down a friend and pop into their office for an impromptu coffee on a Tuesday afternoon, just because I deserve it. The balance that's elusive day to day can be achieved over the long run.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Sticking up for ourselves, in the moment. Sadly, sexism, mostly subtle but sometimes still overt, is still alive and evident in 2014. There's a plethora of literature on the problem, but not much on exactly what to say or do to combat it when you're in the moment, say, in the midst of a group meeting. I have a "How To" book idea I've been working on based on this issue, for addressing put-downs both in professional settings and in everyday life scenarios. It's a pet project.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I've had dozens and dozens of in-the-moment-mentors who've provided incredible support, guidance, and advice in some hard life moments. They've been family friends who've sensed I was feeling down, former professors I've run into on the subway, and complete strangers I've walked up to at events to pose incredibly specific questions based upon their expertise and the challenge I was facing at the time. I could not possibly count the number of people who've served me as moment-mentors.

In return, I try to pay it forward for as many people as I possibly can. I find that conveying a few tools and timely tricks of the trade so that someone can solve their own challenges can feel so rewarding that any time investment pays itself back with emotional fulfillment.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Since childhood, I've had one female hero: my aunt Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, an accomplished architect and urban planner. Around the dinner table one holiday, I listened to a story about how she had graduated from college as one of only a single digit number of women at a previously all-male institution. I remember being awestruck at the gumption that must have taken and decided that one of my life goals would be to bust down the door of as many boys clubs as I could. So far, so good.

What are your hopes for the future of SimpleTherapy?
There are hundreds of millions of people experiencing pain at any given moment across the world. And that pain is likely affecting their personal relationships and job performance. Physical therapy is a wonderful pain treatment option for those who have the time and resources to go, but so many people don't. Those people deserve an effective alternative that is stress-free and highly affordable.

I see SimpleTherapy as the global, one-stop-shop for completely customized therapeutic exercise programs that can be delivered online, to anyone, anywhere and anytime they want it. We all work hard, and some of us play hard, but when pain strikes, getting better should be easy.

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