Ianacare Co-founder Jessica Kim on Translating Personal Experience to a Startup

January 8, 2022

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies, or investing in them.


Jessica Kim is the co-founder/CEO of ianacare—a company on a mission to encourage, empower and equip family caregivers with practical tools and communities needed, so no one does it alone. The platform leverages a powerful combination of technology and caregiver coaches to organize and mobilize layers of support. 

Kim’s dedication stems from her experience as the primary caregiver for her mom who fought a 7-year battle with pancreatic cancer. She is a 3x startup founder, speaker and caregiving advocate. Kim was honored as Crain’s Top 40 under 40, Woman in Digital Health Award 2020, and currently serves as a venture partner at Praxis Labs, the inaugural Entrepreneur-In-Residence and Presidential Council adviser at Brown University, and board member of Be the Bridge for racial reconciliation and justice. 

In this Q&A, Kim shares her journey to entrepreneurship, experience raising a just-announced Series A, how she’s integrated her values into company culture, and more.


Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Not at all. I didn’t even know what an entrepreneur was. I didn’t come from a family of entrepreneurs. My dad was a psychiatrist and, early on, I loved studying people, cultures and human behavior. My deep curiosity in people and anthropology drew me to understand human problems. The desire to solve these problems turned me into an entrepreneur. 

My first company was started out of my college dorm room. It was a baked goods business called Jessica’s Wonders. I raised $1 million during my senior year and grew the company  to national distribution. I learned early on the power of branding, the importance of supply chain logistics, and how to turn a vision into a scalable business. 

A decade later, I started my next business after having my first child. I saw the problem parents had actively engaging their kids with activities at home, so I created a monthly subscription box of creative and educational activities. We raised venture capital funding, grew to thousands of subscribers, and got acquired by a global children’s publishing company. I’ve realized the power of business and its ability to be a catalyst for change to impact people’s lives.

 

Q: What inspired you to start ianacare?

My mom had pancreatic cancer for 7.5 years. After years of chemo and surgeries, the disease came back for the third time, and my parents moved in with me. I was thrust into the role of being their primary caregiver.

I navigated all the medical responsibilities, performed all the nursing duties like draining her stomach several times a day and handled all the finances and logistics—all while caring for my three children under the age of 10 and working full time. While I tried to manage it all, I was shocked by the lack of support available. With no resources around and what felt like no other option, I eventually quit my job to care for my mother and my family full time. This decision had a financial and emotional impact on me and my family.

After my own experiences with caregiving, I discovered that 32 percent of caregivers made the same decision I did when faced with the challenge of balancing caregiving and a career: They left their job due to the lack of support. 

Once my mom passed away, I felt deeply frustrated by my experience and knew something had to change. That is when I decided to partner with my co-founder Steven Lee to form ianacare. We’re not just creating a venture or product; we’re on a mission to culturally and systemically change the way we care for one another. Family caregivers are the invisible backbone of our entire health care system and society, and it’s time we integrate them into the equation.

 

Q: What problems were you trying to solve with ianacare?

We’re in this fundamental shift of the way we live, work and care. Clinical care is being pushed to the home. Work is now largely remote from the home. Family caregivers carry the brunt of this impact, yet are thrust into the role with no guidance, resources or support. The comprehensive structure of care that exists in the hospital does not get translated into the home environment where over 90 percent of the actual care occurs. What we’re solving at ianacare is being the front door to all the layers of support every caregiver or patient will need at some point in their journey.

We coordinate personal social circles—friends and family—to help with everyday tasks like meals, rides, respite care, childcare, pet care and household errands. We fill in the gaps by incorporating local resources nationwide into an easy-to-connect experience right from a mobile device. We work with employers and health plans to integrate their hundreds of benefits into a personalized format to easily unlock services the caregiver is already eligible for. And finally, we match each caregiver with a personal caregiver coach who navigates both immediate and long-term needs throughout the entire journey. 

Through technology and community, we’ve been able to ensure that our solution is scalable, affordable for all employees, and ultimately surround the caregiver with all the practical and emotional support.

And we know the time to act is now: The caregiving crisis is set to grow over the next decade. With 54 million today rising to 75 million by 2030–exacerbated by aging baby boomers, labor shortages, COVID, etc.

 

Q: In the first eight months of 2021, only 2.2 percent of venture capital was invested in female-only founded companies. Do you feel welcome and accepted as an underrepresented group in the VC space?

As a 3x startup founder who raised funding from angel and venture capital firms over the course of three decades, I have personally witnessed the extra challenges of securing VC funding as a female founder compared to my male counterparts. Fundraising is deeply dependent on social networks, relationships and exposure. I believe the core issue is that the sources of capital are rooted in male-dominated industries and networks. Due to the demand and time constraints, those worlds tend to operate in bubbles with thick linings that make it difficult to break into. 

Despite raising funding for a mom/parenting startup and now a family caregiving venture, I have not yet had a single female VC investor on my cap table. It was always my goal to work with female VCs, but there weren’t enough female investor partners at that time. I’m happy to report that we just signed a term sheet for our Series A round of funding with a strong female VC partner. The numbers are starting to change, but we are not even close to making the progress we need to see.

On the more personal side of fundraising experience, I not only raised millions of dollars as a female, but I raised my Series A round in my previous venture while I was six months pregnant in 2011. This was before the recent diversity push, so I had numerous male investors openly tell me that they couldn’t invest because they didn’t think it was possible to be a new mom and startup founder. I’ve also had several inappropriate situations where the power dynamic made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I would love to fundamentally change the fundraising process in ways to make it more equitable and inclusive. Until then, I’ve learned to unapologetically seek investors who share our strong values. 

 

Q: What is your advice for other female founders at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys?

Don’t compromise who you are and what you envision. The world will always try to mold you into something else, but you’re uniquely positioned to create what you believe needs to exist. “If not you, then who?” No one is better equipped to bring your vision to life than you, so stand firm in your values, convictions and desire to serve people. Be relentless in finding your match for investors, teammates and partners. 

Lean into your womanhood. I used to think my energetic personality and way I carried myself had to be contained when doing business. Instead, I learned to lean into it and channel those characteristics into being a force to rally, recruit and sell a vision that people had to believe in.

At the same time, be fully aware of the biases and preconceived perceptions that you’ll encounter. Respond proactively in ways that help you overcome those barriers. Because at the end of the day, being a founder means that we’ll push through all obstacles to create the change we want to see. Embrace your scars, insecurities and challenges to build a stronger and deeper drive to push forward.

 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own company structure?

As a founder, whether we know it or not, our values are deeply embedded in the company we create. Love and empathy are core values that I hope to integrate in everything we do. I aim to build a culture at work where everyone can bring their entire selves. I focus on hiring team members I trust and who I know are as passionate about this mission as I am. We strive for excellence because we each have a deep dedication to help ease the burden and isolation caregivers carry. We’ve each had our own experiences with this role and bring that to work every day. 

I have certainly learned that while some may see it as a soft skill, leading with love and empathy is actually my greatest strength, and necessary to build a strong and committed team.

 

Q: What are the biggest lessons you learned from raising your Series A? What are you going to use the new funds for?

We recently closed a $12.1 million Series A round led by Greycroft, with partner Ellie Wheeler joining our board. My co-founder and I ran a super tight process for this round of funding and were able to lock in our ideal VC partner at an excellent firm within a fraction of the allotted time frame. Fundraising has to be just as strategic as all the other parts of the business. We treated it like a product launch with a clear strategy, timeline and targets. We did a lot of prep work in identifying our target list, preparing all the materials, orchestrating the intros, and managing the timing of all interactions. 

So often, founders treat fundraising as a necessary task that needs to get done on the side while running the business. It then tends to drag on with little momentum and becomes a huge distraction. Our biggest lesson was to make it a priority as co-founders and go all-in for a set period of time to get the raise done. Meanwhile, empower your team to keep the business moving forward; it’s definitely a team effort.

The new funds will be used to triple our headcount across the business with an emphasis on building out our sales, client success, product and marketing teams. We’ll also be expanding our product to build more intelligence within the layers of support.

 

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

There are probably three main qualities that helped me push forward as an entrepreneur. 1) Empathy. Deeply understanding, loving and championing people (teammates, investors, customers, etc.) root me in our ultimate purpose. Whether it’s product design or selling a vision, I truly believe that innovation comes from deep knowledge and understanding.

2) Resourcefulness. It may be the influence of my immigrant parents, but I’m never afraid of not knowing the answers or having enough materials. I’ll hack my way through anything to get to the result we need. I learn quickly and build whatever we need to get to the next step.

3) Grit. Startups are hard. It’s grueling, exhausting and nonstop. My parents ingrained in me the ability to focus on the big vision and relentlessly go after it. I’m willing to go through muck and persevere through roadblocks to make it happen. 

 

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your experience as a founder so far?

Seeing my personal pain turn into a catalyst for change is the most rewarding part of being a founder. I would have never guessed that my deep isolation, burnout and struggles while caring for my mom would provide such a foundation to the solution that is now being utilized by thousands of caregivers. It also shows that one life can ignite systemic change if we go beyond ourselves and seek to serve the broader community. 

Everyone knew that caregiving support was needed, but so many doubted it could be a thriving business. Steve and I knew that if we built the right solution, we could change the way care is done in the home. Now we’re working with leading health care institutions and large employers. It’s the most rewarding feeling to see tangible impact from what we’re creating. And it’s only the beginning. 

 

Q: How has your experience as a founder impacted those around you (i.e. friends, your community, family)?

I’ve started a new venture almost every decade of my adult life from the age of 19. Throughout those three ventures, I’ve gotten married, had three children, cared for my mom, and now currently care for my 82-year-old dad who lives with us. The truth is that the founder life is crazy. It’s a roller coaster of intensity, emotions and schedules. It can be difficult at times to keep up with everything, but I’ve learned to separate my worlds so I can be fully present with those around me in different contexts. 

My kids are exposed to so much and they feel like it’s their company as well. I bring them along to meetings, I update them on milestones, and they’re able to see how a hunch of an idea can turn into a full-grown company. More than anything, they see what is possible, and I can see them applying that to whatever they want to achieve. 

My husband is my best friend and biggest supporter. He doesn’t get involved in the actual business, but he embraces my unconventional ways and encourages me to dream big. My friends are my place of rest where I can leave my CEO/co-founder title at the door and just be silly Jess. They celebrate wins and carry me throughout the losses, but mainly, our time together is spent NOT thinking about work. 

Startups can be all-consuming and I’ve fallen in the past by allowing it to take over all areas of my life. Now I’ve learned to put it in its place and focus on loving the people right in front of me. Nothing matters more than having a true authentic community, so to them I’m just mom, wife, daughter, friend and caregiver.