Health Tech: Erik Cardenas On How Zócalo Health’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our…

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Health Tech: Erik Cardenas On How Zócalo Health’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness

Start with your passion. As I thought about building a business, I couldn’t stop thinking about my childhood experiences helping my family navigate the healthcare system. I remembered how distraught and frustrated they would feel that their voices and beliefs were never heard in the exam room. I remembered the countless stories my families and friends would tell me about their healthcare experiences and how lost they felt trying to navigate where to get care and how to afford it; it was too complicated. As I reflected on our collective experiences and what I was building, I felt like I had finally had the opportunity to do something, at scale, for my family and my community.

In recent years, Big Tech has gotten a bad rep. But of course many tech companies are doing important work making monumental positive changes to society, health, and the environment. To highlight these, we started a new interview series about “Technology Making An Important Positive Social Impact”. We are interviewing leaders of tech companies who are creating or have created a tech product that is helping to make a positive change in people’s lives or the environment. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erik Cardenas.

A seasoned entrepreneur and health tech strategist with more than 20 years of leadership experience, Erik founded Zócalo Health to deliver a healthcare experience for the Latino community. Before serving as the CEO of Zócalo Health, he served as a founding team member and senior leader at Amazon Care, directed a health IT portfolio at Tenet Health and was the founding Head of Operations and Technology at EverlyWell. Named one of Business Insider’s 30 under 40 who are working to transform U.S. healthcare, Erik is passionate about delivering customer-obsessed healthcare solutions to fulfill his vision of a more personal and equitable healthcare system.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory and how you grew up?

I was born and raised in Houston, Texas, a city that reminds many of oil and gas, NASA, or even the Texas Medical Center. But I was born in Houston’s east end, and when I was growing up, those places all seemed far away. My neighborhood was 80% Hispanic and while it’s gentrified now, it wasn’t a very desirable place to live in the 90’s due to the high rates of crime. More than 20% of families live in poverty.

Despite what was going on around me, my home was enormously happy and loving. For my parents, immigrants from Mexico, Houston’s east side was a place where they could afford to buy their first home and raise a family. As the youngest of three, I had the privilege of having loving parents and older siblings to look out for me.

Early on, I learned the value of supporting your family in every possible way. My parents have never been strong English speakers. As far as I can remember, I’ve always had to help my parents navigate everyday tasks, including translating for them at the bank, at the doctor’s office, and at the DMV. Now, when I think about the countless families out there in my community and in communities across the country, I realize that people would probably get a lot further in life if they just had a little help. I carry this with me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Early on in my career, while I was working with the city of Austin to help people enroll in Medicaid, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I volunteered to work in healthcare triage at the Austin Convention Center, helping to facilitate makeshift clinics for the hurricane evacuees. While there, I noticed enormous gaps in the processes being used by the clinics. The team used Excel spreadsheets to track patients; the analog nature of this process meant lots of issues went unnoticed, such as patients obtaining multiple medication doses by standing in multiple lines.

I wasn’t thinking about my career at this time — I just asked myself “What was the right thing to do?” I suggested that they implement the electronic health records system they’d been developing in the background. We ended up applying it across the board, and it became the benchmark for how to handle these types of emergency situations. Ultimately, the governor recognized our team for outstanding work and invited us to an event to thank all of those involved in the effort. I even got to meet Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock. I’ve continued to build my career on the principle of doing the right thing, rather than seeking my own career progression. It’s always landed me where I needed to be eventually.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents, Maria Guadalupe and Benigno Cardenas, are my biggest inspirations. They instilled values early and often about perseverance and grit. I learned how to take what I’ve been given and use it to move myself toward a better future.

I have many memories of my parents finding ways to just make ends meet. As a kid, I remember going to work with my parents because they didn’t have a place to leave me during summer vacation. From babysitting to cleaning houses to delivering luggage that was left at the airport, my parents did it all to make sure we didn’t suffer. I saw how my parents eventually found more stable work as I got older. It’s these experiences that had a lasting impact on me. They were all about the hustle and integrity — and it paid off.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“From the sadness, learn something; from the happiness, learn something. From the setback, learn something and even from the success learn something. Never stop learning from any situation in life, for that is where the wisdom lies.”

This quote really speaks to my life experience. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in my life, both personally and professionally. Many of the people I grew up with let adversity get the best of them. It’s hard to fend it off when you have so much stacked against you. But at the end of the day, you have two choices: ignore the lessons life throws at you and find yourself in stasis or learn from them and find yourself in a better position tomorrow to do something better with the wisdom you picked up along the way.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Persistence is essential. My path isn’t like that of other entrepreneurs; in fact, I didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree until 2020. I had stints at five different schools throughout my adult life, but eventually put my education on hold due to expanding career opportunities in the startup world. Once I landed a role at Amazon, I honestly didn’t need a degree anymore. But I eventually decided to return to school full-time — while working on Amazon’s COVID-19 response, and being a husband, and parenting three kids. I did this by staying up until 2am and reading on the bus to and from work. I learned that you have to just put in the work, no matter how long it takes. It’s crucial to never stop learning.

Integrity makes a difference. While working at Amazon Care, I was featured in Business Insider as a self-taught health tech entrepreneur. Previously, I’d always kept my lack of formal education closer to the vest out of embarrassment. But I realized that I needed to be honest and share my experience — and this changed everything. Once the article ran, people in my community, and communities that looked like mine, started to reach out, asking for mentorship and advice. Being honest was freeing for me and a learning opportunity for others.

Optimism is a gift. In both life and business, I have always struggled with analysis paralysis. But I have come to embrace the concept that it is important to internalize how irreversible a decision may be — very few can be undone. As an entrepreneur, I’ve had to embrace a positive outlook since I started the journey later in life. With a family to support, I couldn’t adopt the ‘sleeping-on-the-couch-at-the-office’ lifestyle common to younger entrepreneurs. I had to have confidence in my own ability to see this company through with success. I learned to apply the lessons I’d gained through years of working at start-ups, but this wasn’t enough — I’ve had to remain stubbornly optimistic in the face of obstacles, despite setbacks. Choosing to move forward against the odds is the heart of the entrepreneurial journey.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the tech tools that you are helping to create that can make a positive impact on our wellness. To begin, which particular problems are you aiming to solve?

Over 60 million Latinos live in the United States today, the nation’s largest minority group. Despite this growth, our healthcare system has failed to adapt its services to meet the cultural needs of this diverse population.

At a macro level, problems with the U.S. healthcare system are well documented — unsustainable costs, poor outcomes, dissatisfied patients. However, these factors are disproportionately worse for underserved populations like Latinos.

Latinos often experience disproportionately limited access to primary care, with a ratio of one primary care physician for every five to six thousand residents in predominantly Latino zip codes. Many Latinos live in urban areas, where they wait an average of 24 days to see a doctor. Over time, this contributes to a lack of established primary care relationships, especially as COVID-19 restrictions on in-person care intensified healthcare disparities for Latinos and further complicated the patient journey for accessing care.

And when Latinos reach the doctor’s office, the challenges continue. Though physicians may translate materials from English to Spanish, treatment stops short of true cultural awareness, resulting in Latino patients avoiding care or using informal networks for advice and treatment. Pricing also complicates the situation. Transparency in pricing is a big issue across healthcare and especially primary care, which is often a person’s first point of contact within the healthcare system. High-deductible plans and steep out-of-pocket fees cause many Latino patients to wait for hours in expensive emergency rooms to seek care — or avoid care altogether. Ultimately, this population associates primary care and urgent care utilization with high costs and confusing billing, which can lead to putting off healthcare needs out of the frustration of navigating the system on their own.

How do you think your technology can address this?

The concept of introducing health tech tools for underserved communities has critics. They argue that virtual options could actually worsen health disparities; those of higher socioeconomic status — with Internet access and greater digital literacy — will get healthier, while the poor will get sicker.

But the reality is that underserved populations now have widespread access to the Internet; in fact, 76% of adults earning less than $30K own smartphones, and 83% of those making $30–50K own one. Virtual care options, run through the Internet many groups already access to, have the power to urgently bridge the gaps in primary care.

To address this unmet need, I founded Zócalo Health, a healthcare service designed for Latino patients. We deliver primary care that blends tradition with innovation and prioritizes trusting relationships between providers and patients. We offer same-day virtual appointments, eliminating the lengthy wait times common for patients everywhere. Especially for Latinos living in urban areas, this convenience can mean the difference between receiving and not receiving care.

We also offer transparent pricing, removing headaches around high deductibles and intricate medical bills. Members will pay one monthly member fee for navigation services, virtual visits, and access to a care team who can help them understand costs for any associated labs and prescriptions.

The most defining feature of our technology, however, is that it is not an end to itself — instead, its goal is to foster relationships. Zócalo Health aims to be the “Family Doctor” for each of our members, staffing care teams with members from the community. Each member of Zócalo Health is paired with a community health worker (promotor de salud) to establish a relationship-based partnership with a focus on understanding the member’s goals and values. We aim to create an experience for our members that mimics a larger family focused on building up the strength and wellness of our community. The relentless grit, industry know-how, and deep cultural connection behind our technology can change the health experience and daily lives of our families.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

From a very young age, I witnessed firsthand the inequalities in the U.S. healthcare system. My family didn’t have health insurance until I was 11, so we had extremely limited access to care, seeking it only in the case of emergencies.

And there were other obstacles. As a child, I constantly had ear infections. But my family often couldn’t get time off from work to take me there. Once we were insured, I would attend doctor’s appointments with my mom to translate appointments and navigate care plans. The first time I visited a pediatrician, I was surprised to see a waiting room that wasn’t crammed with patients; there was coffee in the waiting room, but I thought we had to pay for it. It was years before I saw a doctor that was Latino like me. I slowly realized that my family had an entirely different healthcare experience than many people in America.

How do you think this might change the world?

By 2050, Latinos will make up more than 30% of the population — 132.8 million people. Latinos influence our economy enormously, with more than $910 billion in spending power. Latinos make up a significant percentage of the workforce in some of the most important industries in the U.S. economy. More than 3 in 10 workers in agriculture and construction, and 1 in 4 workers in hospitality and food service, are Latino. We are becoming a larger and powerful voting block across the country, especially in states like Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.

Improving health for our community will have a significant impact on the U.S. economy. Empowered by culturally relevant care that listens to and meets the needs of the community — and by a transparent pricing system that makes choices easier — Latino consumers can make more intentional decisions about where and how to spend their healthcare dollars. Nearly a third of the population changing how it invests in healthcare, which makes up a fifth of America’s gross domestic product, would have massive implications for the economy.

Additionally, Latino workers would no longer have to take time off work for lengthy appointment travel, allowing them to invest more fully in their jobs across multiple U.S. industries. And Latino voters, newly empowered through personalized healthcare, could also make conscious voting decisions for public leaders who align with their vision of what their healthcare experience can and should be.

Digital tools can improve equity by increasing healthcare access, addressing unmet needs and personalizing care for patients, all while considering the historical and cultural context within the communities we aim to serve. We know the current system does not work. Our ability to reimagine a better system means that we can have a real, lasting impact where we can truly better the overall experience for patients and providers alike, reducing costs and improving outcomes along the way.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

There is a common belief among technology entrepreneurs that any new tech product will single handedly be the solution. Seeing technology as a silver bullet could have dangerous consequences for healthcare leaders, causing them to ignore what’s really at the heart of impactful care delivery — relationships.

Yes, a digital platform to conveniently make appointments and to simplify pricing holds big promise. But primary care technology will only make a significant impact when it contributes to relationship-building. In fact, research has proven that relationship-based partnerships influence health outcomes over time.

Latinos approach healthcare through relationships. Family members, friends, and the wider Latino community work together to understand insurance claims, go to appointments together, and share home remedies. Any technology that doesn’t address this critical aspect will miss the mark for Latinos. Instead, technology should be used to help patients and providers form meaningful relationships.

Here is the main question for our discussion. Based on your experience and success, can you please share “Five things you need to know to successfully create technology that can make a positive social impact”? (Please share a story or an example, for each.)

Start with your passion. As I thought about building a business, I couldn’t stop thinking about my childhood experiences helping my family navigate the healthcare system. I remembered how distraught and frustrated they would feel that their voices and beliefs were never heard in the exam room. I remembered the countless stories my families and friends would tell me about their healthcare experiences and how lost they felt trying to navigate where to get care and how to afford it; it was too complicated. As I reflected on our collective experiences and what I was building, I felt like I had finally had the opportunity to do something, at scale, for my family and my community.

You will leave the familiar behind. My family is extremely close-knit; my two siblings live right by my parents. Yet I have moved from one place to another for my whole career, from Austin to Seattle with multiple places in between. My career kept bringing me new opportunities, and I knew I had to pursue them. But this took me further and further from my family; they didn’t understand this at first. Over time, I’ve realized that I needed to expand my skill set beyond my community in order to return and help my community.

It’s okay to do it later. I founded Zócalo Health in 2021, after a 20-year career spent working at various medical technology companies, start-ups, and medical programs. I’m not your typical young entrepreneur; I have a family to support. But this non-traditional path has been valuable in many ways. I’ve learned from the mistakes I made earlier in my career while working for others and have already been able to leapfrog a lot of the barriers and hurdles faced by younger entrepreneurs. There’s always risk when starting a business but years of experience can help reduce that risk.

If there’s no one who looks like you, be the first and make room for others. My co-founder and I are up against tough odds. Fewer than 1% of funds from the 25 primary risk and venture capital firms end up in the hands of Latino founders, and Latino startup funding makes up approximately 2% of the overall startup investment. But I didn’t let those numbers stop me. I was one of the first Latino employees at Amazon Care, and I’ve learned to embrace the role of being one of the few Latino founders. In fact, I’ve had many others reach out to me for advice. I didn’t realize there was an entire group of leaders from underserved populations who have never had anyone tell them that they’re good enough. It’s been a privilege to be a voice of support for others.

Innovation and tradition can co-exist. Innovative technology plays a key role; smartly designed software can help patients clear many obstacles, from confusing medical pricing information to appointment wait times. But to reach underserved populations with the listening ear and cultural competence they deserve, leaders need to tap into the heartbeat of their communities, whatever that may be. For Latinos, familial ties and friendships are the bedrock of their communities. Digital tools, intentionally used to foster relationships, can exist. I know, because we’re building those very tools. I hope this sets a model for many.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Don’t be held back by what you don’t know. People in my neighborhood didn’t grow up to be entrepreneurs. The odds of someone like me receiving funding to start a business are slim. I’ve taught myself many lessons, big and small. The first time I got taken to a steakhouse for a job interview, I didn’t know the appropriate way to order or drink scotch. No one in my family had experienced anything like this. I’ve consciously chosen to not let challenges like this hold me back. For young people seeking to make a difference, let that passion speak to you more loudly than the things you haven’t yet learned. With enough passion, it’s only a matter of time before you learn what you don’t know and can carry those lessons back to your community.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 😊

I have to go with Lin Manual Miranda. Everyone knows his work, but I’m inspired by how he took his passion and challenged the status quo by bringing his own flavor into his work. Twenty years ago, rap music, American history, and a racially diverse cast was an unthinkable combination. Now, Miranda’s unprecedented work has revolutionized theater and history.

In my own way, I hope to bring even a fraction of change to an antiquated healthcare system by offering innovative solutions for communities of color that combine innovation and tradition, just like Miranda’s work.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter. To learn more about Zócalo Health, visit

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Health Tech: Erik Cardenas On How Zócalo Health’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.