Chief Product Officer
Mentor-in-Residence, Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale
Co-Founder, CEO, Wellinks
Design Fellow at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, Yale
B.A., Fine and Studio Arts, Yale University
Ellen Su is an innovator, leader, entrepreneur, and builder. When she enrolled at Yale University, she had no intention of working to change healthcare by founding Wellinks. She ultimately graduated with a degree in fine arts thinking she’d become a painter. However, at Yale, her perspective on what it meant to be an artist was expanded and as she continued her education, she was introduced and found a passion for human-centered design. In 2013, Ellen cofounded a company focused on developing tools that provide digital care for patient’s musculoskeletal conditions. Since her company was acquired in 2019, she has leveraged her background in art and human-centered design to lead the development of connected respiratory devices and digital health platforms as Chief Product Officer of Wellinks. Not only is she a design and product executive, but she is also an exemplar team leader and creative mind. She chats with our Program Manager, Sharon Mwale, on finding a path that best represented both her passions in arts and sciences.
Looking back at your early career choices and academic pursuits – was becoming an entrepreneur part of your plan?
Growing up, I was interested in both arts and science. When it came time for college, I aspired to be a fine artist & painter but didn’t want to give up taking science and engineering classes. My freshman year art classes made me realize that being good at drawing didn’t make you an artist. My classes focused on the exploration of understanding what you wanted to communicate to people and how to express that in art form to share with the world. Although this was fascinating, I was more interested in problem-solving.
What changed everything for me was a documentary I watched Sophomore year, Objectified. The documentary was about product design and it resonated with me because it bridged the gap I was feeling between being artistic and a problem solver. Eventually I founded the Yale chapter of Design for America and connected with more students that were interested in the same subject. I met my co-Founder, Levi, through this program. I didn’t know it at the time but my academic training in fine arts shaped how I solve problems as an entrepreneur and the process of leading my team in developing Wellinks products.
Today, and with each passing day, we strive to do more—with less. How do you in your organizations or personally leverage technology or improve processes to make healthcare work better, faster, smarter, more efficient, and/or less expensive?
With Wellinks, we focus on how human-centered and patient-first design can impact healthcare outcomes. When we did a clinical study for our connected portable nebulizers, people were happy with the product but what they loved was the human interaction they had with the clinical coordinator, Jenna. Jenna’s role was to talk to patients and check in with them every week through the entire clinical trial. We recognized that healthcare isn’t typically centered on patients, so a critical question that arose from the study was, “how can we scale Jenna, our clinical coordinator, to make our product more valuable to customers?” That was the insight that helped us lean into this health coaching concept and cognitive behavioral therapy model. Human-to-human interactions were important for these patients to make long-lasting behavioral changes necessary to improve their health. We leverage technology to scale the experience. A lot of our development effort is spent on building better tools that can scale the human, Jenna, so our health coaches can spend their time where they are most effective – talking to patients.
Talk about a challenging time through which you had to lead –was there a defining moment? Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
This last year is probably one of the most challenging times I’ve experienced as a leader. I had to transition from being the CEO & Founder of a startup to being an executive member of a new startup leading a small team, after being acquired. When I founded our original startup, we managed ourselves and addressed issues as they arose along the way. We largely worked independently and came together with pieces to create a sum of the best parts. I quickly came to learn that that was not sustainable. When we were acquired, the company was rebranded as Wellinks and so we had to adjust to a new culture and we went from a 5 person team to 30 people, of which 6 were on my team. As Chief Product Officer, I now had direct reports and I had to learn when to ask for help, rely on people, and trust my team. The greatest thing I’ve learned is how to read people and understand who to trust. I have applied the concept of service leadership and emphasize serving my employees to make sure they are set up for success and that they can do the best job that they can.
What is your advice to women and what actionable steps can they take as leaders or aspiring entrepreneurs in the health & tech industries?
First, find, create, or join a group of women whether they’re friends, colleagues, or a mixture of both, that you trust. It is so important to have support from people who share experiences and can validate what you’re feeling. The group is a space where you can get high-quality feedback or advice and more importantly, a place where you can vent. Second, support and build a network with other startups in your space, whether women-founded or not. This can be helpful as a sounding board for what you’re building, resource sharing, and maybe potential professional partnerships in the future.
IMAGINE!! How we create is intentional through imagination. Our featured #WCE combined what I consider, true sciences of both left and right brain. A recognition of your desire to imagine and then create is fulfillment of purpose.
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