Health Tech: Jill Michal On How Kith + Kin’s Technology Can Make An Important Impact On Our Overall Wellness
Do your user research before you write a single line of code — It’s very easy to design “tech first,” but understanding human behavior is far more important in the earliest stages of a company. There were many “easier” ways to develop our product that if we had glossed over, we would look exactly like the sea of products available in the market today.
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 Jill Michal.
Jill Michal is a healthtech entrepreneur whose background is the rare combination of both health finance (Arthur Andersen) and insurance companies (Independence Blue Cross) as well as nearly two decades spent with the people at the center of challenging health journeys (United Way). It is through that lens that she views the world of health as extending well beyond the traditional definition of healthcare and is fueled by the belief that empowering people AND their support circles is key to changing health outcomes for the better. Her company is founded on the premise that healthcare needs to stop being done TO people and start being done WITH people if we ever want to break the cycle in which people feel like second class citizens in their health and the health of those they care for and about.
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 grew up in a rural area outside Allentown, PA. I had a very nuclear family growing up and a great childhood and college experience at Penn State. My experience with healthcare was pretty limited (thankfully) and my family protected me from some of the tougher stuff. My mom had breast cancer in her early thirties. All I really remember was waving goodbye to her on the doorsteps of my grandparents’ house as they headed off the hospital for what was, at the time, a truly archaic mastectomy procedure that left her scarred in a way that would be unheard of in 2022. And that was my only memory of dealing with health issues until my mom was diagnosed with T-Cell lymphoma nearly 20 years later. Unfortunately, we weren’t as lucky the second time around and she was diagnosed and gone in 90 days, despite all the heroics of many highly skilled surgeons. That left a mark on me — not the one you might think — but one that made me eternally grateful for the little things — stability, security, happiness. None of the things you think about when you launch a Health Tech startup . . . but that’s further along in my story.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Probably the most interesting and random story of my career was being a central cog in bringing the Made in America Music Festival to Philadelphia when I was at United Way during which I had to negotiated with JayZ’s right hand people to get the charitable construct for that concert, along with all the other community partners, aligned around a common strategy.
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?
The one person who has always been there to guide and help me has been my husband. My ability to take risk, pursue my passions and learn from my failures has all been because he’s been that one consistent person in my life who always accepts the way that I’m wired — to constantly do more, to instinctively believe the best in people, to care so deeply about people and care so little about so much else (don’t ever ask me a trivia question 😊)
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is “You can’t talk yourself out of something you’ve behaved yourself into.” I’ve used this a thousand times, but it was most relevant when I had to lead a merger of 7 United Ways. Mergers in the non-profit space aren’t financially motivated, so they have to be entirely built upon trust. Those leaders had to believe I had their communities best interests at heart and the only way to demonstrate that was with actions over years of history and not words during a negotiation.
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?
- Building relationships based upon trust and accountability — I spent decades doing what I promised I would do and communicating if I couldn’t keep that promise for some reason. That has come back to me in this role in a huge way, with nearly every person I’ve known returning my call even when they know that returning that call means that I need something from them.
- Caring more about getting it right than about being right — I believe deeply in the power of humility, which is a double-edged sword when you’re leading a company, but where it’s served me well is in developing teams. A former CEO of Vanguard once told me his primary job was hiring smart people and getting the hell out of their way and I never forgot that.
- The art of knowing when things are “good enough” — throughout my life, but particularly as the leader of a startup, I’ve realized you can’t do everything perfectly. As importantly, I recognize that most things don’t even warrant being done perfectly. My team is tired of hearing me say it at this point, but it doesn’t stop me — perfect is the enemy of good — and it’s also the enemy of GO.
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?
Kith + Kin is an old-fashioned term for friends and family. And we exist because tools for managing your health suck. They’re built to help those in the healthcare system, but so much of health happens outside of any clinical or health setting. People are tracking symptoms, notes, questions, reactions, reminders . . . and they’re doing it in texts, emails, pictures, notes on their phone and so many other fragmented and insecure ways that it’s nearly impossible for them to be able to self-advocate or advocate for those they care for or about.
How do you think your technology can address this?
We build this as a truly flexible solution — not focused on one condition or demographic — because we know people care about people and not just conditions. We also built it using features that mirror the way people manage information in real life (not in healthcare solutions) — things like making notes, taking pictures, storing documents, contacts and other information that helps them tell their side of the story. We also built the solution consumer first, so it’s not tied to any one insurer, employer or provider — our solution goes with you and grows with you. And last but not least, we built this to enable you to share some information with some people and other information with other people, the way you do in real life. These features and structures are all intended to change the consumers power in healthcare. Because while others are building a better patient portal, we’re building slack meets dropbox for health.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I was at a healthcare conference in 2019 and spent days listening to presentations on dozens of new solutions to help people better manage their health, each of which was lamenting the inability to get people to do what they need to do to manage their conditions or even their overall wellness. One morning, there was a keynote where the speaker put up a slide saying that “women control roughly 80% of all healthcare spend and utilization in the US” and I thought — in my house, we have doctors, pharmacists and even therapists, but the person who makes sure everyone does what they need to do is me. And I have better tools for travel volleyball than I do to manage health for myself and my family.
How do you think this might change the world?
I envision a day when I go to any doctor and, when I’m done, I give them my “KinCode” and they send the visit records to me. I store them where I want them and share whatever notes and records I want to share with whomever I want to share them. In this world, the healthcare system has a structure that works for them and I have one that works for me — and I’m finally an active part of the “healthcare team” for me and my loved ones.
A potential unintended consequence of any patient owned health solution would be someone mistaking that for a replacement for your electronic medical records. While there is clear and significant overlap, the information a patient needs to manage their health is different than what a doctor needs to manage care. The two need to integrate and effectively co-exist, but one will never be a replacement for the other.
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.)
- Do your user research before you write a single line of code — It’s very easy to design “tech first,” but understanding human behavior is far more important in the earliest stages of a company. There were many “easier” ways to develop our product that if we had glossed over, we would look exactly like the sea of products available in the market today.
- Hire people who care about the mission — Startup life is hard and some days will be better than others. Being surrounded by people who will persevere through setbacks, “no’s” and all of the strategic pivots allows you to endure the short-term stress for the long-term impact.
- Seek investors who invest in work that matters — When you’re trying to build a company to “do good and do well,” you need to find investors who are in it for the long haul with you from the start. What’s right isn’t always what’s easy. You owe your investors a return on their investment, but finding those investors who aren’t pushing you to sacrifice work that matters the minute there is resistance is critical to being able to keep a larger social impact at your core.
- Embrace your role as a leader — Leaders are those who can lead when others have the choice not to follow. For a company trying to build technology that changes a social paradigm, you need to be able to lead through influence and not authority, as the human motives for change require a deep understanding of that motivation and someone using that technology needs to buy into the “why” before they’re even willing to consider the “what.”
- Understand that technology alone doesn’t change social outcomes — If technology could change social outcomes, we would already have solved most of the world’s issues. No amount of human-centered design replaces the actual human in a solution that addresses a social issue like health. You need to understand that technology needs to be flanked by education, intervention and social supports that enable the paradigm shift to start a series of small revolutions before reaching a true tipping point.
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?
I would tell them that moments matter. You don’t have to cure cancer or establish world peace to have an impact — you just need to make choices every day to do something you believe is important, even when it’s hard. You may not always remember exactly what you did, but you’ll remember how it felt, and you’ll know you want more of it. That’s how a movement starts. And it can start within any one of us.
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. 🙂
Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle — because I believe the future of health data is going to be centered around the consumer’s rights and the company that owns the consumer will own the data. If he wants to beat Epic, we’re the partner to make that happen.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success in your important work.
Health Tech: Jill Michal On How Kith + Kin’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.