By Ruchika Tulshyan
Star Cunningham wants you to know that women can build billion-dollar companies. She also wants you to know that health-care professionals do eat pizza. Occasionally.
The Chicago-based founder and CEO of 4D Healthware, an online health management platform, was enjoying a successful career in Corporate America as an IBM executive. But as someone living with multiple chronic health conditions, Cunningham envisioned a health-care system run much more efficiently and transparently than the one she was experiencing as a patient.
So she took a leap into entrepreneurship. Now patients with chronic medical conditions can use 4D Healthware’s platform to manage medication and connect with their doctors via video chat. Their physicians can also easily track their progress. So simple, yet unheard of before Cunningham started her company.
Entrepreneurship is a move she likens to jumping from a plane. Fortunately, the risk is paying off: her eight-year-old company has raised $2.7 million from investors and is on track to make $1 million in monthly revenues by the middle of next year. Cunningham tells Diversity Woman that she’s just getting started.
Diversity Woman: How did the idea for 4D Healthware come about?
Star Cunningham: I was a victim of my health information not being where and when it needed to be for the person most invested in my health—me! So I did what any respectable woman would do: I opened a bottle of Merlot with a friend in front of the fireplace, and we talked about a future when people would manage their health using their smartphone. This was well before the Fitbits and Nike watches of the world. That’s how the idea came to be.
DW: As an entrepreneur, how do you keep yourself going in the tough moments?
SC: There’s so much about the way health care is consumed and delivered that simply doesn’t make sense. For example, I was flabbergasted to find out that the health-care industry is keeping fax machines alive! There’s enough frustration on a daily basis that when you move the needle even a little bit, you have to take time to celebrate because it took so much arduous effort to make it happen.
DW: What motivates you to keep growing your company?
SC: We have to get to the point where health care is not the big amoeba that nobody understands. This country is not providing the best care for the best outcomes. We do a great job diagnosing and treating people, but we can do so much better with prevention and education, as well as teaching people how to better self-manage their health. Especially with the tools and technologies we have available to us now.
DW: Women get 2 percent of venture funding, and black women founders get 0.2 percent of all VC funding in the United States. Can you talk about how you managed to get funding?
SC: I’m excited for the conversation to move away from how black women raise zero percent from venture capitalists, to how we are going to build new and inclusive models that allow us to tap into solutions and deals that no one else seems to be interested in.
Of the $2.7 million I’ve raised, none of it has been from venture capital. That does not mean that I have not built a viable business that produces revenue and provides a lifesaving service to those who need it. But most black women don’t try to raise venture capital anymore. You already know that there’s a zero percent chance you’re going to get it. So how much effort are you going to put toward it when you already have all of the stresses associated with building a company?
There are individuals who are rightly given the title “angel investors.” No one who builds something that has the opportunity to impact so many lives would be able to build it on their own. My investors have been in it to win it. They’ve been here for the long haul and to make sure that we’ve had what we need to survive. Now we’re going to be able to move from a place of mere survival to growth and scale, and actually be a thriving corporation.
DW: How can we generate more female entrepreneurs and investors?
SC: I have some female investors, but the majority are men. The reason that we have a low number of female investors is historical—men built businesses, corporations, and factories. They made the money to invest. For too long, there were no women writing the checks.
But the reality is that women are just as smart as men. Women are actually better businesspeople than men. That is not from Star Cunningham; that is from research showing that women build better, more efficient companies than men do. Part of the reason for this is because men have a tendency to raise a lot of extra capital that they don’t use in a very efficient way, whereas women don’t have that luxury. We need more women writing the checks and building the big businesses.
DW: What lessons have you learned about entrepreneurship?
SC: As an entrepreneur, you’re embarking on something that, in many cases, has not been done yet. When you build a company that hasn’t been built, you’re jumping out of a moving plane and stitching your parachute together on the way down.
Entrepreneurship is about trying to fail in such a way that it doesn’t cripple your company so it is unable to move forward. And to learn from every failure, because you learn more from failure than you learn from success. For example, our early presentations were projecting us making $15 million in revenue every month, and we are nowhere near that now. So there were some pivots, some sunk costs. But you keep on moving forward. You don’t let the failures define you.
DW: What are the main differences between being a corporate leader and being CEO of your own business?
SC: It is night and day—it is so different. When you work especially for a large corporation like IBM, you operate in some type of an entrepreneurial fashion, but you sometimes struggle with [understanding] where you fit into the larger picture, say, when you’re looking at the annual report.
When you’re the CEO of the corporation, you are the annual report. You fit all over the place! There is nothing that doesn’t begin and end with you. The biggest transition that you have to make is realizing that the majority of start-ups fail. So now you have to transition everything; you have to transition your mind from a place of scarcity to a place of surplus.
You have to stop thinking, “We built this company, it’s our baby. We don’t want it to walk yet.” You have to be ready to drop that baby off on the bus! So it’s a huge transition from reporting to a CEO to being a CEO. Until you do it, you will never understand it.
DW: What advice do you have for women who want to become entrepreneurs?
SC: Just do it! There is room for all of us. And you’re going to find that the community of women entrepreneurs is a very supportive and kind community to be a part of.
When I decided to take the leap, a mentor told me, “You can always go back [to a corporate job], but you only have a certain window of opportunity to go forward.” I think that more women just need to do it. You can’t wait for the right time.
Also, a lot of being a woman in business has to do with your network. You have a tendency to feel like you need to go forward on your own. It’s okay to have a village around you to help you navigate it, to tell you which way to go. It’s okay not to think that you have to stick that one white flag up on top of the mountain by yourself. That’s no fun anyway!
Everybody wants immediate gratification. When you’re in this space of entrepreneurship, you’re not always going to get that. You can go months without hearing a positive thing. You can’t want affirmation so badly that you give up doing what you need to do to get the life you really want.
DW: What advice would you give to women of color who want to become leaders?
SC: As women of color and women from diverse backgrounds, we’re told we are not supposed to toot our own horn. We have to let that go. I have to get better at saying, “What an amazing company I’ve built with this $2.7 million, and what amazing things we do every day.” You have to be comfortable selling yourself.
Because of our culture or the way we were raised, we are taught not to do that—to let somebody else tell us that. But that’s not the way it is for the rest of the world. They toot their horn! DW
Ruchika Tulshyan is a Seattle-based inclusion strategist and frequent contributor to Diversity Woman. She was named to the Thinkers50 2019 Radar, a global list of 30 management thinkers to watch.