Meet a journalist-turned-VC who is challenging hustle culture and speaking up about work-life balanceView transcript
Startup Twitter can be exhausting just to look at. So many founders and investors seem to be constantly one-upping each other with advice about how to get ahead —mainly by putting in long hours and relentlessly striving for growth.
So a voice from the VC world reminding everyone that even startup employees need some time for themselves and their families is a refreshing change of tone. One of the people chiming in with that perspective is OMERS Ventures principal investor and health tech lead Christina Farr.
“Massive respect for founders/startup employees who are religious about not taking calls & meetings when it’s their kiddo’s bedtime,” she tweeted earlier this year, taking a sly swipe at hustle culture. “They pave the way for others to set an example.”
Farr, who also goes by Chrissy, has an unusual background for a venture capitalist. Before joining OMERS Ventures in December 2020, she was a health and technology reporter for CNBC. But after years of covering health innovation, she was eager to be on the other side and involved in helping to foster it. Women’s and behavioral health were two areas of particular interest for her.
This week it was revealed that she made her first funding deal, helping to orchestrate a $6 million investment in Oath Care, a women’s health startup focusing on support and medical advice surrounding pregnancy and early parenthood. Farr was enthusiastic about the app in part because she used it herself. She also indicated on Twitter that she was pleased with how the founders ran the company.
“I’ve seen far too many leaders who build themselves up by making those around them feel small,” Camilla Hermann, co-founder and CEO of Oath Care, posted recently. “If you’ve worked in startups, you’ve probably worked for one of those people.”
Retweeting Hermann, Farr added: “There’s other ways to build culture in Silicon Valley than what we’ve all read in the news. So impressed with the @OathCare team!”
We caught up with Farr to get her take on the health tech space and hear why she advocates for work-life balance at startups.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
From CNBC to VC; taking time for yourself; women in health tech and VC; healthcare innovation00:00:00
Business of Business: Chrissy, how did you decide to jump from being a journalist at CNBC to being a VC?
Christina Farr: Yeah, it's a really good question. I had been a reporter for about a decade, and for most of that time covering digital health, or health tech, or whatever term you want to use to describe it. But it was essentially the intersection between healthcare and technology. And I'd really just seen that evolution from, you know, the sort of vendors that were typical at the beginning of this journey, the electronic medical record companies all the way through to new types of virtual care models that we were seeing emerge kind of in the last couple of years, and I just really wanted to be part of it.
I felt like I was on the outside chronicling it as a journalist. And that was always very intellectually interesting to me. But there was a layer of kind of stories that I didn't hear. And it was kind of the real stuff, you know, like, the challenges in building businesses and the, the ways in which trying to change the healthcare system were much harder than I think a lot of folks were giving it credit for. So I wanted to kind of be on the inside. And that's what prompted me to think about leaving journalism, and then ultimately, I found my path into VC.
You make it sound easy. But I have no doubt that it was not. How did that transition go? And what were the challenges?
Yeah, no, it wasn't easy. And, you know, VC roles, I think, can be hard to get in many ways, because there's not many of them. And a lot of funds will hire from their own network. So it's often times easier to get a job in VC, if you have a job in VC.
I got really lucky with my now boss, Michael Yang. He had been a VC for a long time, previously at Comcast ventures and then brought into OMERS, to run things in the US. And he had this philosophy of why not build a team of people who are young, hungry, scrappy. He was open to building a whole team under him that had no VC background. So ended up structuring a team with four sectors: that's health tech and prop tech, insurtech, and SaaS. And he brought in one person to lead each group who had many cases, deep operational expertise in that area, or in my case, it was that journalism experience that I came in with.
He thought, “I can teach you VC, I've got the time. I love mentoring. You can learn the ropes. But one thing I can't teach is having a deep passion for that space, and a deep network in that space.” So that was his philosophy. And I was just really lucky to kind of be in the right place at the right time.
Just to skip ahead to something that I want to ask you: I've noticed on Twitter — like many VCs, you have a presence, you tweet a lot about your thoughts about the health tech sector, about the economy, and your work — you have kind of been more tuned toward work life balance, I think, than some of the rest of the VC conversations I've seen. Why is that important to you?
I actually joined venture capital when I was seven and a half months pregnant. So I joined at a time when I really couldn't push my body to its physical limits for all kinds of reasons. So right away I had to learn that there's got to be times where I just need a break. Or I've got to end the day and really not think about it for a couple hours. It’s an all-consuming job. There's always more to do. There's always more people to meet and companies to talk to you.
"I think of the time when I pick him up from daycare and bring him home, and there's a couple hours there where that's my son's time, and I just blocked it off my calendar."
But I've been a real advocate for creating balance, because now I'm a mom of a one year old. And I think of the time when I pick him up from daycare and bring him home, and there's a couple hours there where that's my son's time, and I just blocked it off my calendar. There’s almost no reason why I shouldn't have that, that few hours with them. So that's something that I've been kind of thinking a lot about, and you know, I have other VC friends who are also moms and for them that time is also sacred. So I think it's just really setting boundaries. And you know, I have a team that's incredibly supportive and a lot of my team members are also parents, so they get it
Hustle culture has been a topic of conversation a lot, and you see it reflected in attitudes toward the job market. I noticed there’s an awful lot of tweets from VCs, Silicon Valley, talking about, “oh, you’ve got to put in all of these hours, you have to bleed for your company, your startup. If you have a spouse, maybe you won’t get funded.” Something like that. Do you think that attitude is actually helpful or harmful to startup success, to be so driven that you don’t have a life outside of work?
It’s a really good question. So it's a really complicated question. I'll just tell you that I have a husband who's at an early-stage startup, and there’s like 10 people at his company, and he works really hard, but he also has a wife and a kid. I kind of see it from both sides now. I'm not going to pretend that there isn't some hustle associated with building a company from zero to one. If you're a really early stage kind of product person, or a really early stage founder, there isn't really someone else who can just step in and replace you. You’re oftentimes the only one doing that job. So if you're not available, then things just don't move forward.
At the same time, we really need to think about how to strike that balance, and cultures get set from the top down. So I think it's great to see more founders, especially in our portfolio, working with life coaches, working with people who can help them just recognize that we all have our physical limitations or emotional limitations. We need to have that time off, weekends are really important to recharge. So it's definitely hard work. And I'm not going to say it isn't. But you've got to be able to say when you're done, you're done. And you’ve got to take that time for yourself.
Moving on to the health tech space itself: Seems like there's an awful lot of innovation. What are some of the more interesting areas that you're paying a lot of attention to?
Yeah, so much innovation. You know, we really saw the space take off during Covid, for obvious reasons. And it feels like now that we've all had the opportunity to get exposed to digital health. For a lot of people, it's really something that I think is here to stay even in a post-Covid world. The momentum in the space has been really crazy. And it's just taken off.
So you asked about kind of specific trends. I mean, I personally have spent a lot of time thinking about behavioral health in the past year and a half. And I think a lot of people have really struggled through Covid. It’s been an incredibly lonely time. And we're starting to see studies now come out about just the toll that it's taken on people's mental health.I think there's a big opportunity for new models that can provide people with more affordable access to care, and those are desperately needed.
"I kind of see it from both sides now. I'm not going to pretend that there isn't some hustle associated with building a company from zero to one."
But at the same time, I want to draw a line in the sand around the idea of digital pill mills, just like prescribing medications to people who frankly shouldn't be on medications, or who need to be monitored more effectively. I want to balance it by just saying there's a lot of potential in this space, but I don't want any bad actors dragging us down.
The other space that I think is really important is women's health. We made a few investments in that space last year. Again, so important, very underserved. There’s only one company that's technically a unicorn [in women’s health] which is Maven, that just recently got to unicorn status this past year. So we just haven't seen a lot of funding going into the space, which makes no sense because women are, you know, obviously half of the population.
That's good. Yeah. That's an interesting, interesting thing to think about. Do you think A.I. is making or is poised to make a big impacts in health in any of the areas you're following?
Yes, and no. We've been talking about A.I. now for a long time. And it just hasn't really had the impact that I think a lot of people thought. There was a period of time where you heard VCs saying that A.I. would replace doctors, and that certainly hasn't happened. So you know, I think we've got to think about A.I. in a few different ways when it comes to the operational aspects of healthcare. We could bring A.I.-based algorithms to help figure out for instance, if a hospital needs to be stocked with supplies, depending on the changing of the seasons, depending on the likelihood of certain accidents, depending on just people's health status in general. But when it comes to A.I., from the clinical side, AI that's helping doctors make decisions. We see that more as kind of an aid, but not in any way replacing the patient and physician relationship.
Right. Do you think the cost of healthcare is going to be impacted by innovation, and in positive or negative ways?
I think we hear people talking a lot about the overall cost of healthcare and how it's just rising. And you know, why is it such a huge percentage of GDP? I am not really smart enough to say what our health care costs should represent. One could make an argument that we should have really high healthcare costs, because what as a society should we be spending money on?
But what do those costs mean, in terms of, like, are they the right costs? Are we spending money on prevention? Are we spending money on healthy food? Are we spending money on keeping people well? Or are we spending money on things that are entirely wasteful, and, you know, medicines that are just way too expensive, and claims that are not being paid out? And inflated costs around emergency rooms, and so on, and so forth. I love the kind of innovation that focuses on that kind of cost, which is just taking a lot of that waste out of the system, but I'm OK with adding costs, if it's things that potentially in the long term could have these really positive downstream effects.
Right. There are so many administrative costs. Where do you think that the fat can be cut, essentially?
So, so many places. There's just like, incredible amounts of waste, prescriptions that don't get filled, appointments that are not kept. There’s just endless examples here. And you know, it can have such a negative effect on patients as well, especially when you look at things like the cost associated with unnecessary medical errors that happen all the time, because we don't have the right systems in place, we don't have the right technologies in place that kind of speak to each other. And we don't have data that's really aggregated and available at the point of care. It's just important to remember that it's all about incentives. And if there's a powerful group that's sort of keeping a thing or a star at the status quo the way it is, then that can be very hard to change.
"[As a woman in venture capital], it's just really trying to find ways to support and push forward the things that you believe in and you feel connected to without kind of being pigeonholed."
And we have heard certainly, it is a difficult space to be a woman. Is that something you found?
Well, you're just the minority. And most of my female friends in venture are the only female partners at their fund. With that comes big challenges. Sometimes if you bring in, for instance, a women's health deal that you believe in, well, you're labeled the “women’s health investor.” And so it's just really trying to find ways to support and push forward the things that you believe in and you feel connected to without kind of being pigeonholed.
Absolutely. How do you think more women get into venture capital?
I think it's going to be something that snowballs. As more women end up in senior leadership positions, they'll hire women, and those women will invest in women and those women will build successful companies and then become VCs. So it's just about finding people who will give us a chance. And then once we're in there, I think the women that I know have done such incredible work and are having incredible success. And after a while, it's going to be undeniable.