“I like finding things that make life better, and then scaling them so more people have access.”
After chatting with @andreacoravos we could not have come up with a better synopsis of her work than her motto above. Andy has successfully broken the mold having transitioned from McKinsey and KKR to engineering and entrepreneurship. After learning to code she used those skills to become a software engineer, started the HBS CODE club and launched a digital health platform, Elektra Labs. We chatted with Andy about making the leap from professional services to operations, identifying an opportunity in the white space, and starting a company in an industry still in its infancy - digital medicine.
Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What did you study in school? Career? Did anything along the way encourage or inspire you to become an entrepreneur?
Have you seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding? That's my family. I went to see it with my grandparents, and they didn't even realize it was a comedy. Everyone in my family owned their own small business. My dad had his own dental office and other family members had small restaurants. Everyone kind of ran their own companies, so it was the only career path I knew. I went to Duke and got involved in a bunch of different areas of entrepreneurship. For my family, the end goal was never about “ownership” but rather solving an important problem for the community.
A lot of people want to switch from finance and move into entrepreneurship or a more technical role. However, there are high barriers (technical skills, time). How did you confront these hurdles?
There were two pivotal moments for me:
The first was when my roommate suggested: Pick five to ten people that you admire and would like to have their job. Write down everything they did in their twenties—what skills they had, where they vacationed, what they read. While it seemed kind of weird, I sat down and really thought about people. It allowed me to think about things, not in the abstract but in a very tangible way. It forced me to have an opinion on what kind of life I wanted to have. I also realized that they were all strong engineers.
The second pivotal moment occurred a few months later. I went to dinner with a friend who decided to go to Hack Reactor, foregoing an MBA at Wharton. At the time, I didn't know what a “coding bootcamp” was. We spent the entire dinner talking about his time at Hack Reactor, and I realized—I needed to do this. I applied that week and left my job at KKR a few months later.
Switching gears to your new venture, how did you come to start Elektra Labs?
I wish I could say it was one clear moment. There were a couple of themes that I was seeing. The first was that I wanted to solve a problem that I cared about. I come from a medical family; I’ve always been around healthcare, but I was squeamish around blood so I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor.
At KKR, I was flying cross country three or four times a week and it completely wrecked my sleep cycle. After I left the company, I thought it would go back to normal but it never did. I had researched and downloaded many different apps and even bought sleep-tracking sensors, but none of it worked. Then, I spoke with a doctor at Harvard Med who told me about an at-home digital health clinical trial for Sleepio happening at University of Cambridge. I had a FitBit and tracked my sleep for six weeks as I went through the program. It completely changed my sleep cycle. From that experience, I realized there's a whole class of digital health therapies that can be delivered effectively at home.
The second theme I was seeing is that people are increasingly more honest with their phones than with their doctors. I wanted to figure out a way to take digital medicines and make them more accessible for people. That is when we shifted into doing clinical trials for digital therapeutics at home.
What are some of the key decisions you’ve had to make in building your business?
One of the biggest challenges, particularly in healthcare, is: who pays? Consumers hate paying for things, particularly in healthcare, because we’re told things are covered through insurance. This causes weird gaps in health care.
However, it’s important to deliver value for customers, and I believe the best way to test if we’re delivering value is seeing if people will pay for the product or service. I'm on the Board of Directors at Visionspring, a non-profit that is building a sustainable market for optical care in the developing world. Although we supply the glasses at lower cost, the glasses are not free. When consumers pay, we get product feedback -- we learn how our customers feel about the quality and aesthetics of the product. That feedback mechanism is critical.
I've always liked companies that are strongly mission-oriented and the incentives are aligned in a way that gets feedback from the people who are using the product. Building Elektra, we want to make sure we're providing value to the companies that are developing digital health solutions. But all very much with the consumer in mind.
The second challenge is building companies and figuring out how to create a structure so a team can make decisions. Building a company at business school is difficult because many of us have overlapping skillsets. If everyone's in the same category and we lack a decision maker, the team can spin for too long. It can be difficult on teams to put one person in charge and have other people executing on parts of the business. Balancing that is something we have learned over time.
What was the toughest thing to deal with early on?
I’ve always liked the proverb: “The road to success is paved with many tempting parking spaces.” One challenge early on was committing to run with the venture full-time. I had the opportunity to go back to McKinsey, and it was a great offer because I was more senior, I’d work with talented people, and McKinsey would pay off my business school debt. Turning down that offer was probably the most expensive email I've written in my life -- but I knew I'd regret not doing it.
What advantages do you see as being a first-time founder, especially in a new industry?
I hope that there are advantages to being a first-time founder. It’s both a benefit and a curse; sometimes I see things and say “oh, this should totally be different” but then I test that idea and realize first-hand why it’s hard to make the change. Then sometimes being “naive” provides an opportunity to create new solutions.
When everybody assumes something is not possible, often there is an opportunity for something great.
What skills do you think are important for first-time founders to develop?
I am glad that I transitioned into engineering. It has fundamentally changed the way that I see the world. It's very do-oriented and it takes a different mindset to figure out how to prioritize and get through things. I believe people are nervous to go into coding because there are a lot of false assertions that claim people lack a competitive advantage if they don’t start in their early teens. But I believe older developers have a competitive advantage in that they see both sides of the puzzle. It might be scary to learn to do something different but it doesn't take that much time.
Software development is hard to learn if you have to do it in small chunks, two hours a week. If there's a way to clear out a couple months of your life to do it over a summer or right after school, you can learn a huge amount and make leaps and bounds rather than dabbling over a long period.
Thinking about your journey have you had mentors that have helped guide you?
There are certain things that we're testing to see if the business is viable. I believe that there are times in life when you're never going to have all the milestones hit and you just have to decide: I'm just going to turn down the offer. I'm not going to spend my mindshare building a Plan B -- I’m going to focus on making this venture successful. It is helpful to create these anti-milestones.
As you go about building those relationships how did you navigate finding mentors?
It's helpful to have somebody who irrationally believes in you. There are certain times in my career where friends and mentors supported me even when I thought [the course] was a bit crazy. When I experience those moments I think: How do I keep you in my corner for the rest of my life?
I read a lot so I will randomly e-mail people that have been important to me with relevant articles. I also tell them that they're important to me -- it seems simple, but it’s important to say these things aloud or write them down.
What are your top 3 priorities today?
First, I've been actively working on practicing meditation, and my current focus is the Soto Zen tradition. I want to make sure that I don't lose perspective on the fact that my worth comes from an internal sense of worthiness rather than an external one. It’s easy to be defined by the external bounds of worthiness (e.g., my job, my education, my relationships). Those things can all be useful, but I don't want to own them as my core identity. So, I’ve been working on cultivating a sense of worthiness “by being” rather than “by doing”.
Second, and aligned, is making sure that I'm being intentional about how I'm spending my time. I try to be conscientious and avoid getting caught up in a lot of different things. I do run hard on certain things, but I will structure my week or over periods of my life where I do a check-in. I look back and say: how was last week? Or how were the last couple of months? Was it how I wanted to spend my time or am I going off track?
Third, I want to make sure that when I'm with people I am as present as possible.
Where is Elektra today and what is next for the company?
One thing we'll do in the next month or two is lockdown a significant partner and launch the platform. Long term, we are looking to support launching the next wave of digital medicine.
Trend most excited about
Favorite / most interesting article from the past 2 weeks
Solitude and Leadership. From 2010, but I re-read it every few years.
Female entrepreneur / investor would most like to meet and chat with?
Best piece of advice ever received
I love this reflection from Cheryl Strayed: “Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.”
To learn more about Andy (including her thoughts on tech and healthcare) check out her blog.