Interviews

Anne Reijns – Business Head of Social FemTech Together For Her, Digital & Maternal Healthcare Expert

Anne is the Head of Mumbai-based Social FemTech Together for Her, an Avegen enterprise. She is leading a team developing digital solutions for expecting mothers in India – the country with the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Anne has a background in eCommerce and Digital Healthcare and she has a passion for healthcare, seeing this industry having the greatest potential using technology.

Three adjectives that come to mind when you hear the word technology?

Fast, exciting, necessity.

What role does technology play in your everyday life?

I am actually quite a techie – love gadgets and get truly excited if there is something new out there that either optimizes my health, my day-to-day work or life. Especially everything that helps me optimize and track myself, such as blood values, my DNA or general fitness activities. I have lots of smart-home gadgets as well, and I am also always looking at how I can optimize my devices for work.

At work, technology is very integral to everything that I am doing. We try to base decisions only on data as much as possible. We are constantly looking at how technology can optimize our business processes, but mainly how it can optimize the health behavior of our customers.

Tell us a bit about your journey? How did you get to where you are now?

I studied international business and have a master’s in marketing and entrepreneurship. Although marketing is highly tech-focused (data is everything), I was never that much involved with lots of technology. In my first job at arvato Bertelsmann, a large multinational in e-commerce and media, I was responsible for the marketing and communications strategy for the four largest tech companies in the portfolio. Our team was working directly for the CEO, and we had to manage c-level conversations daily.

This was a great learning school (I was 23 at the time) on how to handle politics, strategic conversations and decision-making processes (and the data that was needed). After switching my job internally to become Business Manager of one of the CEOs of arvato Bertelsmann, my role required me to manage all projects, implement the strategic direction that the CEO set and be the representative in meetings in case he could not attend. This role really pushed me to learn fast, never base anything on assumptions and gave me an amazing insight what it means to lead a multi-thousand employee company.

However, it was a rather slow journey. At such a high level, in such a large organization, decision making can take months.  After 4 years with the company I was up for something else and I was looking for a position either in Fintech or Digital Healthcare. When the opportunity came up to work for a start-up in Berlin in digital healthcare, I took the job. They were very early in their journey but truly had a revolutionary idea. I was always intrigued with self-tracking and the Fitbits of this world, and they took it a step further and were doing blood testing at home which they turned into personalized recommendations to improve your wellbeing. So fascinating! They hired me as their head of internationalization, and within a month I was working from LA to build up their US headquarters.

Somewhere along the way, I met my (Indian) husband and moved to India. Besides joining him in his startup and supporting in acquiring international suppliers and setting-up the operational processes, I started looking for cool ideas that could really help improving the Indian healthcare system. At that moment I got in contact with Avegen, who had a project in maternal healthcare, for which they were looking for a director to take it to the next stage and get a business model up and running. I was hooked! The task combined digital healthcare, with female healthcare, it was focusing on the lower-income groups and it would allow to really put everything that I had learned so far to use.

Technically it was not my own idea or company, but within weeks it felt like my baby and the team is just amazing!

Please finish this sentence: I have failed in …. and these were my learnings…

I have failed many times to not take it personally when people did not take me seriously. When I started working, I was just 23 years old, in a position where I often had to manage projects with team members that were more than twice my age. And often men. I was responsible for CEO communications and large stakeholder meetings, and that did not always go well with colleagues that were senior to me. Many times, I have failed to hold my ground when I knew I was right and was doing the right thing but was walked over by those more experienced to me. At the same time, I also sometimes took it too far. Holding my ground, afraid to lose face, stepping on people’s toes, even though it was not getting me anywhere. To make matters worse it affected me on a personal level.

Nowadays, I am still young, but this seniority is less of an issue. If people do not take me seriously just because of age, it is their loss. I have found ways to work around it. For example, by finding someone to handle the conversation who they respect. Or if I do not absolutely need this person, I just work around them.  Now the challenge is different. I am a generalist. I only have a business background, and not a healthcare or tech background. Consequently, you are always surrounded by specialists that are much more knowledgeable about the core product, whereas you make the business decisions. Again, you need to be careful not to step on anyone’s toes, know when you are right and when not, and know when you should hold back.

It takes time, and I am still learning, on when you need to step-up and when you need to step- back (even in the case that you are right). However, the way I am learning to deal with it is discussing these communication challenges head-on with your experienced colleagues. Open the dialogue, make clear what your specialty is and let them show what their specialty is, ask many questions before you give your own opinion and always explain the bigger picture or why you took a certain decision.

Do not get personal, and do not feel attacked if a decision is made different than what you wanted it to be. All of you want to get to the same goal: A successful business and a fun work environment (if not, then maybe it is not the right team), so there is no need for politics.

What are three tech trends you see happening in the next 5 years?

Not very surprisingly, I am sure that AI will have an immense impact in the healthcare industry. And although it is still slow in having user-friendly use cases, this will speed up rapidly. It will allow automation, creating hyper-local and customized information for every pregnant woman and will allow for early detection and prevention of complications & diseases. I also believe that self-tracking devices (and then I am not talking about the Fitbits of this world, but rather those that are implanted under your skin or are used for disease management) will become more affordable, more user-friendly and will track even more data.

There are already many organizations and start-ups that have started developing low-income applications and together with the development in AI we will find new use cases and possibilities rapidly. Another very interesting trend is how Virtual Reality is used in healthcare. For surgeries, for recovery treatments (e.g. helping people gain full movement faster), there are so many applications for mental health being tested that could truly turn disease management upside down!

What has been a moment of fame this week?

We were named one of the Top 10 Social Innovations in India by the Bombay Stock Exchange! This was such a unique honor. And such a great recognition of our hard work over the last years. We met many people from the social impact investor space, the government and large conglomerates and they all gave us feedback, opened their networks and will support us in the next months to make the next step.

Who’s your superhero aka ‘Shero‘?

I do not have one specific superhero. I rather find it inspiring when I see young people achieving great heights. Very close to me, I have a friend that came from a less fortunate background, worked her way through all levels of education and without a solid support system. She is the one who now has an Msc. Degree, has bought her own house and has an amazing job. Besides being my best friend, she is my inspiration of positivism, hard work and making your own future.

If I look a bit further from home, I have a lot of respect for young politicians, both male and female, that can work their way through the grey, stubborn, white elite and are leading a party or even a country at a young age. 

And in general, if you really look at famous people, I have a lot of respect for young women that boxed their way through all the hardships that had happened to them and came out more powerful and are using that for the greater good, such as Malala Yousafzai. Or women that use their power, no matter their background, for the greater good such as Emma Watson or Amal Clooney.

And in general, if you really look at famous people, I have a lot of respect for young women that boxed their way through all the hardships that had happened to them and came out more powerful and are using that for the greater good, such as Malala Yousafzai.

If you travel back in time and then into the future, what advice would you give your 23-year-old self and your 75-year-old self?

I am not that far away from my 23-year-old self, but perhaps I would say that you cannot plan your career or life for that matter, far ahead. Your interests change, your perception on what is truly important in life changes, and opportunities that come on your path just make you go a different route than you might have anticipated. And that is amazing, and the whole point of life! So, I would say CHILL!

To my 75 year-old-self, I would really give the advice to never stop trying new things, being interested in new technologies, new business areas and always keep that energy high to venture into new paths.

Anne is Business Unit Director of Together for Her, a social business created by healthcare company Avegen and digital maternity healthcare platform, that empowers women in India to make the best choices in their maternity healthcare journey, while improving the state of healthcare at providers, e.g. hospitals and clinics: www.togetherforher.com. The program takes away the barriers for women to access affordable quality healthcare by offering information, mother communities, an objective review mechanism and bundled services. They educate women on what quality maternity care should look like and offers them the opportunity to anonymously rate the quality of care they receive. The online review is based on 9 Quality of Care Indicators defined by the World Health Organization. They have reached 100K women and work together with 1.000 hospitals. Their data has shown that hospitals improve significantly, after becoming part of Together for Her.

Anne has been working in digital projects for the past six years starting her career at leading international service provider arvato Bertelsmann, where she was responsible for Marketing, Communications and Knowledge-Sharing of the Global Key Account Management Team and its major clients Google, Microsoft, Vodafone and Telefónica. Anne then joined the Berlin-based healthcare start-up Lykon. As a member of the Management Team, she established the companies‘ US-Office, then headed Operations in Berlin.

Together with her husband, Abhishek, Anne is co-founder of Indian eCommerce platform inroadz that focusses on baby and children’s products.


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