Sehreen Noor Ali: Visible Health Founder is Managing Bias Against Parents and Tapping into a Market Ripe for Innovation

Following the release of our recent report “A Decade in Review: Funding to the Female Founders” Crunchbase is highlighting female founders who are paving the way for the next generation of glass-ceiling-smashers. The “Female Founder Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from female founders who overcame the odds, raised funding and are now leading successful companies.

I was about to jump on the subway when a call from our doctor interrupted my commute home. “I have some news,” she said flatly, “we found out why [your child] is struggling — it appears we missed an underlying condition.” The imprint of that vignette still lives. So does the moment I created a startup based on that experience. 

Almost exactly a year later, in September 2019, I joined a startup generator called Antler and told a room of 100 aspiring entrepreneurs that I was a special needs mom with a vision to prove there’s a market ripe for tech-enabled solutions.


A Market Ripe for Innovation

I know how to spot new markets. It’s what I did as the head of business development for several education companies, like Kaplan, before I left my career to set up my daughter’s care. After dealing with the head-spinning labyrinth of care systems, I saw I was part of a large group of underserved parents who couldn’t find high-quality information on early childhood health. 

Forty-five percent of us had small children whose conditions were missed by pediatricians, and 50 percent of those children would not be diagnosed by the time they reached kindergarten. This problem–and opportunity–is at the root of what my co-founder, Alex Leeds, and I are building. 


Family Tech on the Rise

Visible Health is a platform that crowdsources expertise from parents, culls relevant insights and matches that high-quality information to other parents who need advice on what to do next. Internally, we call ourselves the Waze for Early Childhood Health.

Within my cohort, I was one of just a handful of parents and certainly the most forthcoming about motherhood. I watched the time vigilantly at the end of the day, leaving the building at exactly 5 p.m. to make it home in time for my kids. While that meant I missed out on connections and networking time, ironically, being a parent was one of the factors that helped us raise pre-seed funding from Antler and NewLab; being “out” as a mother reinforced to investors that I was a part of our consumer market. It helps that family tech is emerging as a segment and that we were able to situate ourselves within the growing trend of startups like Mahmee, the maternal health startup backed by Serena Williams and Mark Cuban, and targeted efforts like the Springbank Collective


Managing Bias Against Parents

Standing out as a mother is an advantage since our startup is parent-focused. But, it’s otherwise hard to argue that it’s an asset in a tech ecosystem that generally assumes founders are white, male, single and able-bodied. Being a mother hits many of the factors of bias that First Round Capital found in its 2018 State of Startups Report: age, gender and parenting. For people who don’t fit the ecosystem, you can try to adapt–such as my female peer who hid the existence of her children for fear of not finding collaborators–or you find other ways to move forward. 

I don’t have a comprehensive answer for how to redesign things, but I have found things that worked for me, particularly in fundraising. I am forthcoming with the folks who want to be accessible, but may not know how. Last week, the Amazon Web Services Startup team changed the time of a fundraising session after I told them it excluded working parents; they thanked me profusely for pointing out something they didn’t know to consider. 

I also give myself permission to point out bias even when the outcome doesn’t serve me. I politely called out an investor for only speaking to the men in the room. Instead of correcting his unconscious behavior, he reinforced it by asking me an irrelevant question about my ethnicity. We walked out knowing he would not be the right investor for our business. (The upside of having a child who needs medical care is that your resilience–and capacity for moving on from things that don’t work for you–is off the charts!)

To buffer some of these biases, I’ve relied heavily on my social capital. Networks like the List, Dreamers//Doers, EdTechWomxn and the entrepreneurial Ismaili community in which I was raised, have yielded value tenfold. These networks have expedited the customer discovery process; built up a stellar set of on-call advisers; and have short-cut opportunities for financing from investors who are good fits. I’m a minority upon a minority: I’ve shored up capital in a culture that otherwise doesn’t willingly dole it out to folks who look like me. And I’m thrilled about that because it has made me a much stronger entrepreneur. I will say, though: It requires so much more effort. 


Fundraising as a Female Founder

It is not lost on me that as a woman, whatever implicit bias I may otherwise confront–and I’ve dealt with a lot in past tech roles–is mitigated by a male co-founder who may more squarely fit into the prevailing perception of a tech entrepreneur. Rightly or wrongly, the effect of this, I believe, is that stakeholders are more ready to see reality, i.e. that our superpower is in the complementarity of our skill sets. Our investors say they bet on us because of it.

When I speak to investors alone, my game face is a bit more tightly glued. I own my expertise of the user more vocally in a manner that is not required when we’re both in a meeting. While the bias is rarely overt, I accept as fact (again, rightly or wrongly) that I may encounter more skepticism, as research strongly confirms. But as long as the discussion is focused on the business, and not my identity, I welcome the chance to be grilled. 

This was the case when I was the sole female entrepreneur to pitch a boardroom full of investors at an event hosted by a major global bank. I was the only one to field questions from the audience, which I took as a small sign that our vision can win. Like most entrepreneurs, bringing that vision alive is my goal–sometime soon. I hope female founders can arrive at it more easily.

Sehreen Noor Ali is the co-founder/co-CEO of Visible Health, a venture-backed company which crowdsources expertise from parents and shares back data-driven insights and best practices to parents of children with similar conditions. A graduate of Brown (B.A) and Harvard (Ed.M), she started her career at the U.S. Department of State as a public servant and diplomat, helping execute President Obama’s initiatives in entrepreneurship, education and innovation in the Middle East and South Asia. 

Later, she led business development for Noodle and built out the sales functions for three start-up teams at Kaplan. She is a startup adviser, founder of EdTechWomxn, on the Advisory Board for SXSWedu, and not least, a mom to two little girls. Her personal story about special needs families can be found here, and she posts about her life as an entrepreneur and mom at @sehreennoorali on Instagram.

  • Originally published April 16, 2020