A Conversation with Aparna Rao, founder & CEO of eCare Vault
by Sally Sorte
As we close out Women’s History Month, we are pleased to introduce you to an inspiring female leader and entrepreneur: Aparna Rao.
Aparna Rao says that she stumbled upon entrepreneurship.
“Honestly, maybe that’s the best way to do it, because it’s all about: is there a need in the market, is there a passion I have, and is there a solution I can solve it with.”
Rao is the founder and CEO of eCare Vault, EduLab Capital’s inaugural investment. eCare Vault offers a coordinated care platform to bridge communication across a child or adult’s family caregivers, educators, and allied health professionals. eCare Vault’s HIPAA and FERPA compliant platform has recently been integrated into a partnership with Microsoft Teams.
“As our first portfolio company, eCare Vault has grown alongside our own platform, testing our ability to lend guidance on human resources, partnership opportunities and strategic direction,” says Liam Pisano, Managing Partner of EduLab Capital. “These efforts have helped us better understand how special Aparna is as an entrepreneur, and how her unique story has forged a path for this Company.”
“We are very appreciative [of EduLab’s support],” says Rao, highlighting three areas where EduLab offered unique value: 1) Helping to build the team; 2) Making linkages, for example to other portfolio companies; and 3) Company specific assistance, in this case with government grants and non-dilutive capital.
“EduLab went above and beyond giving some time… helping us research to get these government grants, apply, and help with outreach.”
An Entrepreneurial Journey
As Rao reflects on her entrepreneurial journey, she says it is “the story of an immigrant, which is inherently risk taking. I came to this country [Canada] at the tender age of 16 on my own.”
“On a whim” Rao applied to the United World Colleges, a United Nations-esque high school designed to build bridges across cultures. At the time of her application, UWC was led by Nelson Mandela and Queen Noor, of Jordan.
The United World Colleges’ mission is to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.
Rao puts the timing of her application into context, “As a teenager in the 80’s, the Berlin Wall was falling, Apartheid was crumbling. I was a part of that spirited youth community where we had to make a difference, we had to be a part of that change.”
Elements of the UWC experience call to mind a global Noah’s Ark version of summer camp, replacing lake swims with Socratic seminars and tether ball with exercises in cultural empathy.
As Rao describes it, “They took two kids from each country and dropped them on this island in Canada.”
“We were a band of kids… on all of these sort of Robinson Crusoe island colleges. During the day, we’d grow our own food, work hands-on towards the upkeep of the college and the nearby lighthouse. Evenings and nights, we’d learn about each other, sort out our differences, and deliberate on the role of youth in international collaboration and understanding.”
“Behind the scenes there were all of these adults supporting us, pushing us to think in a Socratic way, not so much the what but the why, the ‘So What?’ … thinking about the purpose and meaning of everything. Thinking through the most vulnerable populations that tend to not have a voice.”
“It was the best, biggest risk that I took.”
Rao reflects upon how “once you do that at the age of 16, you go to school with 200 other kids from 100 countries, it’s just a different ballgame. Because then, the naiveté of youth, the foolishness of youth, you feel you can achieve anything!”
Perhaps both foolish and brilliant, this activated belief in one’s own self-efficacy is integral to taking the leap into entrepreneurship, a leap that Rao also credits to her father’s influence.
We often see the early glimpses of an entrepreneurial streak in our children and neighborhoods in the form of lemonade stands, kids carnivals, or lawn mowing services.
For Rao, her first venture was a radio talk show.
When Rao was 10 years old, living in Calcutta, she noticed there were not many kids programs on All India Radio, the national broadcasting channel. So she wrote a letter to the editor. The editor called her up and said “Why don’t you come in, do you have any ideas?”
Rao came up with some questions to ask her guests, a template for the program, and hosted the radio show through the summer. When she brought home her first paycheck, her mother helped her to set up a bank account so she could deposit the funds.
Fast forward multiple degrees (an undergraduate at MIT, MBA at Harvard Business School, and a PhD at Fielding Graduate Institute) and careers in consulting, corporate finance, and clinical psychology, and Rao is still applying this same mentality to her present work — identifying needs and creating solutions to fill these needs.
As she puts it, “If something is missing then we need to create it.”
The Genesis of eCare Vault
eCare vault was born at the intersection of one of these gaps in education and healthcare.
As a neuropsychologist, Rao observed that care models were siloed and connecting across care settings would be “so key to enhancing social emotional health outcomes for children and youth.”
She saw the digital transformation of workflows as an opportunity to connect the dots for children and youth with multiple services across multiple settings.
“There was a huge amount of value to be had in terms of enhanced outcomes, if only there were a way for these multiple service agencies to coordinate and collaborate with each other in order to drive these outcomes forward.”
Rao also had firsthand experiences where breaking down these siloed care models were critical to patient safety.
In these cases, connected care “stops being a vitamin and starts being a painkiller.”
Rao was in a clinic, working on a case.
“It was not a light diagnosis for prodromal schizophrenia for an adolescent after two days of testing — several quantitative and qualitative assessments.”
She passed the case on to the psychiatrist to write up the prescriptions. The prescription was written out and had a black label warning for a certain type of diabetes. If the child had that certain type of diabetes, the medication would be a risk. Later that day, Rao received a snail mail letter from the endocrinologist noting that the child had this type of diabetes.
“For me, this was not only not enhancing outcomes, but it was to the point of negligence. The systems did not see the whole child, and there was no holistic integrated care.”
This was the impetus for eCare Vault and the problem Rao and her team are working to solve.
Building the Company — Pivots and GTM
Despite a clear pain point, the road to product-market fit rarely runs straight.
“As one of our more enlightened investors told us, you get to make new mistakes but you don’t get to make the same old mistakes again… so obviously you are going to have mistakes but you need to learn from them.”
This is the mentality Rao has taken with her through the founding process.
Rao and her team started with Clay Christensen’s ‘Jobs to be done’ model. Following several focus groups with different stakeholders — special educators, parents, and counselors from the community — they codified three jobs to be done:
- Build care teams
- Organize documents in one place
- Connect in real time
Amidst all of this, there was a broader movement towards the democratization of data.
“Imagine if the parent in the example of the child with prodromal schizophrenia had [her child’s] health information in her hands, she could have just shared it onwards with us. Part of the issue is that families do not have this information.”
Because of the nature of the issue, a B2C model seemed to make the most sense initially. However, eCare Vault did not have the advertising dollars to make this work. The financial model to support that kind of business simply was not there.
“We pivoted hard to make it a B2B play,” recalls Rao.
Then, the team discovered that “care team collaboration is like the tragedy of the commons. Everybody loves the public gardens, but nobody wants to pick up the trash, because it belongs to everybody and nobody at the same time.”
Rao and her team realized they needed to hit the bottomline ROI of the enterprise, not only providing a more efficient, streamlined process that gave service providers back time, but also putting medicaid dollars back on the table.
We offered “a triple bottom line so to speak and care team collaboration was a nice byproduct. But this was before Covid-19,” Rao says.
“Covid changed all of that because it turned the digital transformation of care team workflows from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘need to have.’”
“The conversation changed from whether or not to digitize to: How quickly can you do it?… With a graveyard of young companies going belly up, the question was: Can we do it through an existing productivity platform and meet users where they already are?”
“We chose to serve it up through Microsoft Teams.”
“With the launch of Safe Spaces for Microsoft Teams, eCare Vault’s reach has just been expanded to the full spectrum of M365 users — all 1.2 Billion active users across work, life, and education.”
eCare Vault is now working to build out its product via Microsoft Teams and is also engaged in thought leadership with policymakers in state governments to apply Covid-19 funds towards driving the continuity of care for the most vulnerable populations.
Purpose through the Pandemic
Throughout entrepreneurship’s zigs and zags, highs and lows, Rao underscores that “it’s all about the team… we have an amazingly unique set of team members.”
Thinking back through the challenges that Rao and her team members have faced throughout the pandemic, including the loss of loved ones, Rao believes that “if we were just margin oriented we would have fallen flat on our face.”
“Being mission oriented, too… not only helped us with our purpose with the market, but internally with our team members. You want to wake up in the morning when you have students from 130 school districts in Texas counting on your ability to ensure that a service request is evaluated, a service is assigned, a service is tracked, and the medicaid dollars are billed so that the service can be funded. You know, that is a lot riding on you.”
“You do wake up in the morning because this is super meaningful and impactful and important and time sensitive.”
Rao and her team will carry this sense of purpose and urgency with them into 2021 as coordinated care for students and adults becomes ever more critical in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is an opportunity to not only recover but reimagine — what is the world post-Covid?”
The eCare Vault team is preparing for the “shadow pandemic of mental health,” which Rao refers to as the ‘Backpack Tsunami’ — “children coming back to school with mental health needs for assessment and screening along with significant learning lags that need to be urgently supported.”
“And these school districts will not be able to do it alone. They will have to collaborate with external community agencies to build capacity for the burgeoning level of services needed to take care of the ‘whole’ child.”
Rao is committed, “We will be right there with [our partner] states to support them.”