Q&A with Dr. Maria Artunduaga, 2019 Big Ideas Winner

Sep 24, 2019

Empowering Women of Color in the Medical & Technology Field

By Emily Denny

Although Maria Artunduaga, a Colombian-born translational physician and entrepreneur, says that racial and gender bias has played a major role in shaping her career, she doesn’t view it as an obstacle. Instead, she views such experiences as motivation to close the gender and racial gap, particularly in Silicon Valley.

In spring, Artunduaga won Big Ideas’ first place prize in the Hardware for Good category for Respira Labs, a medical device startup for a product that tracks and monitors lung health, providing an early warning for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) attacks. Artunduaga’s mission is to empower people with COPD by using home-based intervention technology that flags lung deterioration before it occurs, cuts hospital readmission costs, and reduces provider and payer healthcare bills.

Big Ideas sat down with Artunduaga to discuss how her personal and professional experiences have led to Respira Labs and how she navigates male-dominated spaces as a woman of color and an immigrant.

Q: How did your personal experiences lead to the launch of Respira Labs?

A: Respira Labs is definitely a product of my personal journey. I am focusing on COPD because my grandmother suffered from it for as long as I could remember. She died from an exacerbation. This was difficult because, even coming from a family of physicians, we couldn’t do much to help her. When I started practicing medicine after medical school, I realized how large of a gap in communication there was between doctors and COPD patients when they are sent home. I wondered: Is this all we have?

That’s why I am obsessed with finding a solution for COPD patients. Respira Labs is building a digital platform that detects changes prior to symptom onset, facilitates early intervention and helps prevent hospitalizations. COPD hospitalizations result from exacerbations, a worsening or “flare up” of symptoms. Survival after admission is poor and related to the number of previous severe exacerbations.

Q: How is Respira Labs a product of your multiple degrees and professional experiences in the medical world?

A: Through my family members, I have observed firsthand the lack of technology for people with COPD. I also have a Masters in Public Health from the University of Washington, where I studied how healthcare technologies are overlooked and underfunded, specifically in low- and middle-income countries. My personal mission is to help the poor worldwide who have no access to healthcare. I want to help improve healthcare delivery with digital technologies and tools that are cheap and work well. Democratize access.

Q: Could you speak about a time when you encountered bias in a professional setting?

A: My experience at the University of Chicago, as a plastic surgery resident, was probably the strongest example. Most of the chief residents and faculty in the department were white and male. I soon realized that the way I looked, the way I behaved, the way I talked, everything I am and represent made them uncomfortable.

As a result, they started targeting me, bullying me, making comments about my accent, my personality, my height, I could go on. They would tell me, “You’re too too friendly, you talk too much.” A white, male surgeon told me that there was something “wrong” with me, that I didn’t look like a “surgeon.” Another one kept asking me questions about how I managed to get there. As an immigrant, woman of color, I didn’t understand that I was experiencing racial bias until it became very clear to me that they didn’t want to train me. While my classmates were doing eight to ten surgical cases per week, I was doing a couple, sometimes none at all. That obvious difference prompted me to complain to my program director, but he told me that this treatment was the status quo and the only thing he could offer me was a “quiet transfer” to a more “immigrant-friendly” residency in a community hospital. I refused.

Q: How did you respond to this bias?

A: In medicine, if you don’t follow the rules of hierarchy, especially as a woman and as an underrepresented minority, you are going to be oppressed. That’s the sad reality. So I saw that I could respond in two ways: I could keep fighting the system and continuously get frustrated with it; or I could lean in a little, while also speaking out. I soon realized that I couldn’t reach my full potential as a surgeon; I was cast out because I fought back. But I learned from it, which is precisely why I changed my approach.

I started by searching for people who looked like me, who were dedicated to closing the gender gap, whose interests aligned with mine, because the more things that I found in common with people, the easier it was to have allies. I also saw that I needed to validate myself with degrees and awards, so people would start believing that I was at their level. Last year, I started to apply to everything and anything that I came across, so far I have been quite successful. I work hard.

Q: As a woman of color, how have you navigated a male-dominated atmosphere, specifically in Silicon Valley?

A: The reality is that people like me, women of color, are always going to have a hard time convincing people that we are capable. There are negative stereotypes. My experience in Chicago was the hardest situation in my life, a nightmare, but it made me who I am today. I am actually thankful for that experience because, even after losing everything, not having a job, a reputation, or money to go grocery shopping, I realized that it wasn’t the end. So now, in Silicon Valley, I am not scared of anything and I don’t mind failing. I know I’ll build myself up again.

Q: What advice do you have for early-stage women entrepreneurs?

A: The problem of bias is there and it’s not going to be fixed for a while. But you need to find sponsors, you need to find people who are committed to closing the gender gap, and you need validation. There are many people at UC Berkeley who are supportive of women, who are honest about recruiting female founders — like Phillip Denny from Big Ideas, Jill Finlayson from the Women In Technology Initiative, Kira Gardner from CITRIS Foundry, Caroline Winnett from Skydeck, and Rhonda Shrader who directs the Berkeley-Haas Center for Entrepreneurship. I would tell you to push yourself out of your comfort zone and talk to these people. Email them and tell them I sent you. They can help you realize that your potential is endless.

Q: What are some structural or systemic changes that need to occur across the entrepreneurship/startup landscape to diversify the space and make it more equitable for women and people of color?

A: People don’t like to talk about politics or social issues, but the reality is that we live in a world that is touched by social issues every single second. We cannot compartmentalize business, startups, technology, and money from politics. Yes, we live in this bubble of Silicon Valley, but the reality is that there is a world out there with intolerant people.

We in Silicon Valley, the technological leaders of the world, need to be more responsible. We need to educate ourselves about these issues of prejudice and stereotypes. We need to realize that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. We need to open the doors to diverse founders. This can be an uncomfortable topic, but the more people become empowered and have access to money and education, the less inequality there will be. Intentionality should direct our daily decisions, it’s the right thing to do.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I am tired of hearing: Latinos can’t become CEOs, Latinos can’t do post-graduate degrees, and they cannot succeed in Silicon Valley. If you have one single person who can demonstrate that those things are possible, that can open doors for so many more. All I can say is: Watch me.

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