Dec 24, 2017, 15 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
My interview this week is with Marta Gaia Zanchi. She is an adjunct professor at Stanford University, investor and consultant for companies in the digital health space and has been listed as 'Silicon Valley's 40 under 40'. Find more about her bio at the end of this page.
In our conversation, we talked about what it means
to have a 'portfolio career', stepping into shoes that feel
too big, accessing the strength of one's voice
as well as the empowerment of men in the home.
Let’s start with the many different things that you do: teaching, consulting, investing. Tell me a bit more!
“I have what people in Silicon Valley generally call a portfolio career, which means I devote myself to a medley of roles. What gives my portfolio unity is, put simply: I am passionate about technology innovation that responds to problems in healthcare.
I am someone in service to the community of health technology innovators, best positioned to help because of my blended experience on three main fronts: in academia, in venture capital, and in industry. The value of the portfolio depends on not just the value of each activity, but in the degree to which they intersect and augment one another.
I place a high value on education. I believe innovation is a process that can be learned, and contributing to the design of educational programs to teach this process (and important parts of it) is one of my most rewarding activities. I do so mostly at Stanford University, and occasionally also for UCSF-Stanford CERSI.
I have great respect and admiration for the investment community and the value it gives to entrepreneurs, which goes well beyond the injection of capital. Within it, I have a couple of functions: I am an equity partner with Data Collective, a large institutional venture capital fund; and, I volunteer for Astia Angels, an angel cooperative based in San Francisco with a mission to invest in women-led, high-growth ventures.
In industry, for many years I’ve supported selected early-stage companies as an advisor: I assist small teams, often a founding duo or core leadership group focused on solving important needs; usually at this stage there are more hypotheses than hard facts, and the job is to help figure out which questions matter most, and how to answer them, in a very resource-constrained environment. Since last year, however, most of my industry engagements are with much larger organizations: as a member of Orbees Medical, I work with innovative teams within large corporations, as a consultant on digital health projects, by providing strategy and market insights.” (Editor’s note: Consulting may typically refer to an engagement in order to solve a specific problem. Advising typically refers to a longer-term relationship in which the advisor challenges, points to solutions or helps with contacts.)
“I dare say, it’s impossible that only one
individual knows everything there is to know
in order to innovate in this ecosystem.”
How does your typical day look like? How do you allocate your time?
“Given that I have multiple and different responsibilities, I had to become very diligent about the time I allocate to each particular function. First, I am mindful about the commitment and expectations that I set for every project and everyone who I work with. Second, I reserve time per function ahead of accepting commitments. I use different colors to organize my calendar, one color per function or specific project, weeks and sometimes months ahead. I constantly revisit these allocations based on changing needs. Time management is paramount and it takes a focused effort. I depend on these allocations to remind myself when I must switch the focus from one activity to a different one. I use this approach not only for managing time to work: time with my family is the most important, and is reserved daily. I also plan ‘red’ allocations: these are reserved for personal creative work, reading, long-term or blue-sky thinking, or just walking.”
If there is a deadline, would you tend to submit early or late?
“I have great admiration for people who produce their best work under the pressure of a deadline coming near. I am not that person! I am motivated to do the work early. For example in the case of the digital health program that I am teaching at Stanford University from September to December: each year in February, I am already busy planning it, so that activities are all decided, and speakers confirmed, when early registration opens the first week of August. In a team environment though, this is not always possible and frankly, not always advisable.”
What are some of the characteristics of the entrepreneurs who succeed?
“Aptitude to work in a diverse team. They are never afraid of new conversations; they discuss openly in a group, build on its ideas, and give each other feedback; they are honest and no-nonsense. At the same time, they are decisive: they want to and can make decisions even in absence of all the desired information. They are comfortably working with hard-earned assumptions and hypothesis, and that’s more than ok -- at the front lines of innovation, that’s the way to work! and the individuals who know how to do it have a better chance of success. Innovation in healthcare always starts with teamwork and with an attitude of continuous learning and improvement. It is very rare -- I dare say, it’s impossible that only one individual knows everything there is to know in order to innovate in this ecosystem. Individuals who know how to work in team environments under uncertainty simply deliver best.
It’s certainly important to have a health dose of impatience and determination, however one has to know how to direct them at every step of the process. At Stanford University, students who we train to become the next generation of health technology innovators know this. Every year, I see them commit their boundless energy to taking the time to understand complex health needs: when tackling projects, they dissect problems to understand their ecosystem of stakeholders; they contact the people who can help answer questions and contribute new questions; they resist the temptation to immediately start “building things,” preferring to instead recognize the value of these activities. To do this right takes high intellectual and emotional intelligence.
“Now I am the one who encourages
others to take responsibilities
that they are not ready for”.
How do you challenge your students?
“Firstly, I am a very curious person. I ask a lot, ‘Why?’. And, I encourage my students to do the same, and to be comfortable with open questions; they need to go very deep in their research, but never so that they’ll remain stuck. Some early answers remain “working hypothesis,” and moving forward in the process by creating small “experiments” that can (and probably will) fail, is the right way -- in fact, the only way to come to more steady answers. Secondly, in structured innovation within educational settings, we have a model wherein we add constraints to inspire creativity. Time is definitely a constraint, by nature of the finite duration of an academic quarter. We also create artificial boundaries. For example we tell students they can only focus on one problem, e.g. depression. This is really hard because the students are empathetic and in the research process they will come across a lot of “peripheral” compelling problems they will want to solve. But we encourage them to stay focused, to achieve depth of insights. Third, we help them with access to a rich network of experts, who give generously their expertise and time to the students. We are privileged to have the support of a large community of physicians, nurses, industry members, investors, and more who make a substantive contribution to our students’ experience. Finally, oftentimes the most promising projects come from groups where the cause resonates with a personal experience of one or more of the team members. I challenge teams to ask themselves what truly motivates them, be clear on the why.”
What has influenced you to be where you are today?
“This is probably cliché – I am in healthcare because of my own experience as a patient, going back to my childhood years. I was in the hospital for periods of months, including in intensive care. I remember many physicians and nurses caring for me throughout these experiences. I remember them for their dedication to not just finding a cure, but to me as a small person who was missing months of school and play. And, I also remember their frustrations, which comes with working under extraordinary pressure and with a reach limited by their time and physical presence. Technology has the power to increase this reach and when I discovered ‘engineering’ in high-school, I knew I could help by entering this field.”
When did you get interested in technology?
“I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in it. I was always a child inclined to understand how things work. – mechanical things, electrical things. I remember being eleven years old and taking apart my motorcycle, then trying to put it back together. Yes, we ride motorcycles pretty early in Italy (laughs). I was interested in other things as well, though -- I have always loved reading and writing. But I could easily see myself as a medical device engineer who reads and writes, whereas it was harder to imagine myself as a reader and writer who engineers medical devices...”
“There is a difference between being
polite, and simply taking too long
to get to the point.”
How did you end up in California?
“Oh, you will be disappointed; I wish I had a better story. My main motive was that I wanted to have an international experience and pursue a doctorate of philosophy in the US. I was engaged at the time and my now husband was offered a position in Fremont, California. So I started to look for universities in a 50 mile radius around Fremont and found Stanford. And I thought to myself ‘Well, that looks pretty good, does it? Maybe I should apply’. I was naive, and it worked out brilliantly. I would be a very different person today, without Stanford. In the beginning, I thought I wanted to become an academic researcher, or a strong technical individual contributor within a company; I still enjoy the technical work, but Stanford significantly changed my perspectives. The University made me bring into focus my desire to aid the process of translating technologies, to bring them into health care, and helped me realize that to fulfill that desire, I needed to add more to my knowledge and skill set. And, it gave me the opportunities to enrich my experience while in graduate school, by learning and applying myself in different areas of the health technology innovation process (including, for example, the business and regulatory ones).”
Who were your influencers and how did they impact you?
“Some people, both professors and coaches, were incredibly formative. I learned the most from those who challenged and encouraged me to view things from a different perspective, who committed to their role of mentors, and along the way also helped me become a better mentee.
One of the earliest influencers is my high school physics teacher. He managed to turn my perception of the subject completely upside-down, making science look less theoretical and more practical. For instance, he brought dismissed imaging tools developed by the Allies during the Second World War into class once, took them apart and showed them to us. And told us stories of how they were once used, how different the world could be today had we not be able to rely on such tech.”
How about University?
“At Politecnico di Milano and at Stanford University, I met mentors who invited me to have a much more complex vision of life and to consider the growth that could be had outside of the academic and professional success. They made me realize that I was unnecessarily restricting the spectrum of my experiences. Now I pursue things outside of the strict professional interest. For example, for years I resisted the idea of doing anything “artistic,” even though I was always very fascinated by the arts. Following my mentors’ advice, encouragement, and often direct example, I started taking art classes. I have a one-year degree in photography from Italy. After moving to the US, I enrolled in art classes while pursuing my doctorate at Stanford University. To this day, I continue to take graduate-level art classes on the side. I am making progress, albeit much more slowly than I’d like! These activities take time and energy, and while years ago I rejected them for this reason, I have come to realize that they make me better overall, including at work. One fantastic role model for me is Una Ryan, who is an accomplished C-level executive, industry leader, and also exquisite artist.”
What are some personalities here in Silicon Valley who inspired you?
“The people who were most formative in my career were those who recognized that I was not ready to take on a certain responsibility but who nevertheless gave me an opportunity to prove myself on the job. And they didn't stop there. They felt invested in my success as their mentee. They pointed me to the new skills and knowledge I needed to acquire in order to rise to the challenge. And they helped me by providing their guidance and access to the resources to learn.
“You have a beautiful story to tell,
but your voice is not going
to work in your favor.”
I especially want to recognize the positive role that Dr. Paul Yock, Director of the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign, has had for me during the past several years. His guidance, motivation, support, and role modeling have been life defining. He has all the qualities that I hope to have myself and to give to others as their mentor, including: great generosity of spirit; and, open-mindedness to experimenting and learning practices that are new. He places a very high value on ongoing learning and growth in the field, which he encourages and supports always, with enthusiasm.
Outside of Stanford University, I’d like to remember Carol Sands, who until recently was the management director of an angel group here in the Valley, for which I was an entrepreneur in residence (Editor's note: Read more about entrepreneurs in this article). It was called 'The Angels’ Forum', and was one of the most established and active angel groups with base in Mountain View. Carol Sands saw in me the potential to assume the job of the chief executive officer. When the opportunity came, her role model, vote of confidence, and active mentorship were key for me to feel ready for the challenge. I joined a founding duo with this role, and with them went on to build the foundation of what today is a strong company doing a lot of good for cancer patients.”
What do you need to demonstrate competence?
“Carol Sands built her career at a time when it was even harder for women to rise than it is today. She taught me that I need not only to have a strong story to communicate, but know how to communicate it in a way that makes people listen, that resonates. There is a ‘what’ and there is a ‘how’. She coached me on how to be a strong spokesperson. One easy example to share is that I have a soft voice. And it was even softer five years ago. Carol honestly and constructively said 'You have a beautiful story to tell, but your voice is not going to work in your favor'. So I spent one and a half years working with a voice coach, who showed me how to access the strength of my voice, how to make it work in a large room, for example on stage. She also made me realize that sometime I would make some gestures that were not helping me deliver, and I began learning how to improve this aspect, also. Every new CEO should have an executive coach like she and others have been for me.
I never encourage anyone to take a job that they are ready for. I strongly believe that if you are given an opportunity to take a job you are able to do today, you should not take it. You are not going to grow in it. Now I am the one who encourages others to take responsibilities that they are not ready for, with confidence that they can learn to rise to the challenge. They need to be humble enough to recognize that they have to work on some things. And that a few key mentors will be a crucial part of their success.”
How can you get such a job that you are actually not ready for? How do you convince people that you are the right fit?
“There was always an introduction, always someone who knew me and was willing to put a word on my behalf to consider me. I didn't know Carol Sands, and I didn’t know Paul Yock, until someone else decided to put their own reputation on the line for me. And of course, trust is time’s reward. But, those first introductions enable conversations to start at a higher level. I am very thankful for that, and I do it for others now.”
Is there anything in your style of writing that has changed in the effort to change perception?
“My style of writing has changed, mostly as a result of the increase of my proficiency in the English language. I was born in Italy and there I lived for over twenty years; when I came in the US, I thought I was proficient enough in the language to hit the ground running with my doctoral studies… As it turns out, a decade of watching the original Star Wars movies and reading Charles Dickens in 19th-Century English can prepare an Italian native only to a point. The first two years were hard; in the beginning, my written English was a literal translation of my written Italian; now, I know better. And, I am keenly aware that there is a difference between being polite, and simply taking too long to get to the point (laughs). Being Italian, that was difficult for me to understand in the beginning--to an American, some erudite Italians write poems, not business emails; to an Italian, Americans may come across a bit rude in writing. I had to drop my tendency to translate from the Italian and learn to be concise and direct (and still, polite). The shift in etiquette rules and social manners requested by the different cultures preceded the shift in writing. Obviously, I am still learning!”
“There is more to humanity than
what the simple ’female’ and
‘male’ differentiation creates.”
Are there situations where you are very aware of being a woman?
“Let me start with a positive statement: I love the diversity of the people that I work with. I mostly don’t think too much about myself being a woman. Yes, at times it’s hard not to notice that I am the only woman at the business table, as is not to wonder if that might be in part the reason why I am being interrupted more often than the average man. Even if that’s the case, my first thought is not that there is ill intention in the behavior, however. I choose to believe most biases are unintended, and I respond accordingly. Call me optimistic, but I prefer to focus on not the few bad apples; instead, I think about the many outstanding male mentors I’ve met in my career, and the example they are for other men in their organizations. In the long run, I believe these men are also the ones who will be most successful as bosses and leaders: they understand equality is not just about ‘fairness,’ it’s about creating strong diverse teams that deliver the best results.
Change is coming, and a lot has been achieved in the past years to help accelerate it. Not just because women are making strides, but also because the conversation around the role of men is evolving. I firmly believe that the opportunity is not just about empowering women in the workplace, but also empowering men in the home. Women can help accelerate this, also; for example, I remember some situations when female colleagues who have children used the word ‘babysit’ to describe their husbands at home taking care of the kids. That’s an unfortunate choice of words that does not help: it’s not ‘babysitting’; it’s called, ‘being a father’. I sometimes catch myself making such poor choices of words.
Personally, I am fortunate to have a husband wholeheartedly and unconditionally committed to my personal and professional success, who shares with me equally in the responsibilities at home. It’s validating and energizing to come back home and see that the change you wish to see in the world already exist within the domestic walls.
On this subject, I’d like to add: equality is neither about resolving nor about accentuating differences. Rather, it is about embracing diversity and creating equal opportunities. And, the opportunity extends well beyond achieving equality between women and men. Life is on a spectrum and there is more to humanity than what the simple ’female’ and ‘male’ differentiation creates.”
Thank you for the interview.
Marta Gaia Zanchi supports multidisciplinary teams at the intersection of high technology and health. She is adjunct professor and director of Biodesign for digital health at Stanford University with the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign, vice president for digital health at Orbees Medical, equity partner at Data Collective, and an advisor for early-stage health technology companies. She dedicates her career to helping both emerging and established health technology innovators, contributing her expertise on need and market identification, product, regulation, fundraising and growth strategies. She holds degrees in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering from Politecnico Di Milano, Italy (B.S., M.S.) and Stanford University (Ph.D), and a certificate in entrepreneurship from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In 2016 the Silicon Valley Business Journal listed her among the 'Silicon Valley 40 Under 40' and acknowledged her with the Silicon Valley Women of Influence Award.