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Manmeet Kaur ’12 was inspired by community health worker innovations from developing countries as diverse as Haiti, Uganda, and India, as well as the pioneering effort by Dr. Harold Freeman to link cancer patients to Patient Navigators. She founded City Health Works to help bring the best aspects of low-cost community health systems to the US: an emphasis on peer networks, primary care integration and evidence based techniques aided by agile mobile technology. She has already received recognition for her efforts by being selected for the 2014 Alumni Innovator award from the School’s Social Enterprise Program at their annual reception earlier this year. Read on to learn more about City Health Works and its founder.
Tell us about City Health Works and what is unique about it?
City Health Works is a non-profit, social enterprise that aims to close the gap between hospitals and communities. Founded to support the increasingly expensive and overburdened health care system, City Health Works hires and trains clinician supervised Community Health Workers from the neighborhoods we serve to act as Health Coaches.
What I’m most proud about is our culture. We have an incredible range of backgrounds on our team, ranging from people who intimately know the homeless shelter system in upper Manhattan to healthcare insurance experts. But what binds us together is a strong belief in the ability of peer networks to steadily build a culture of health.
What has been your biggest “A-Ha!” moment to date? How did it change your business?
I started developing City Health Works with the intention of validating the following hypothesis: community members who are well trained to serve as Health Coaches can more effectively improve health outcomes and reduce costs for chronic disease prevention and management. The biggest “a-ha!” moment to date was a talk I attended at Columbia Business School by Tom Bueargard of United Health Group, who came to speak about his career and UHG’s strategy to reduce childhood obesity. Until that point, I believed that when the Affordable Care Act would be passed, the health system would be moving in the direction of disease prevention and better management in order to save avoidable medical spending. Tom’s talk was the first time I listened to an insurer describe their effort to test and pay for new approaches to the chronic disease crisis that involved training new types of health workers and engaging communities more directly. After the talk, I immediately went to talk to Professor Clifford Schorer, who pushed me to recognize the degree to which this information helped validate my mission. This was one of the many moments in which Cliff helped convince me that I was “on to something big.”
How did the Columbia Business School classes you took shape your business/management approach?
The classes I took at helped provide me with structured frameworks and tools for how to approach complex problems. I entered school as a “non-traditional” student since I had never worked in the private sector. Each class provided me the opportunity to think through aspects of my business plan and vision with rigor. In particular, I benefited from working with peers on group projects related to my venture and from mentorship of faculty. Professor Ron Gonen was instrumental in helping me learn how to pitch an idea and convince others to believe in me. Professor Linda Green’s course and advising helped validate that my venture touched upon an important new trend in the evolving healthcare industry. Professor Ray Fisman and the Social Enterprise Program gave me countless opportunities to broaden my network and gain audiences for my ideas. Professors Clifford Schorer and Brendan Burns from the Greenhouse program helped me build the confidence in taking the leap of faith of becoming an entrepreneur.
The Columbia Alumni Connection: How have you used it?
Yes! Each time I tried to learn about a new area within healthcare, I first researched the alumni as a starting point to my research. I learned about industry trends and got numerous important introductions to industry leaders via alumni. I secured a summer internship at New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Community Health Division, which I learned about through alumni who currently work at NYP. The City Health Works Governance Board reflects relationships I built with Columbia Business School alumni; three of our Board members are alumni. The first donation I received was from Russ Carson ’67, who first learned about my venture through Cliff Schorer.
What advice would you give to a Columbia student with entrepreneurial aspirations?
The three pieces of advice to students with entrepreneurial aspirations are the following: First, start working on your venture as soon as you start school. Even if you are considering other career paths, begin immediately so that you can apply your business idea to every class and take advantage of the time you have in business school to stress test your ideas. Second, take a long-term perspective on your venture. In a world obsessed with quick wins, be thorough and persistent with your exploration to help determine whether your business idea is sound and to build a strong foundation for its growth. Lastly, surround yourself with good people. Great organizations are usually the result of collective creativity, wisdom and sweat of many people. Nurture meaningful relationships with supporters, colleagues and advisors who will help you succeed.