Women of the Year: Felix Health Founder Emma Stern is Changing the Way Canadians Access Healthcare
From Olympic athletes and tech startup founders to social impact champions and business changemakers, our inaugural 2021 Women of the Year guide features 37 impressive leaders who are making a difference, both individually and as a collective. They’ve all navigated incredible obstacles to get to where they are (often on an uneven playing field) and yet, despite this, have still managed to summit their industries and change Canada—and the world around them—for the better. In our series of one-on-one interviews, get to know each honouree a little better: their values, mission, lessons learned, and the other women that inspire them in their own lives.
Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, Felix Health
What is your elevator pitch to the world?
Emma Stern: I’m the co-founder and chief operating officer of Felix Health, Canada’s first end-to-end digital healthcare platform—from diagnosis to delivery, we make it easy to get prescription treatments.
What excites you most about the work that you are doing?
Emma Stern: What excites me most is how excited our users are about Felix and the impact that they report it has on their lives. The Felix platform allows our patients to get the care they need on their own time. There are a number of different reasons that users get value—from young men struggling with erectile dysfunction and thinking they were the only ones, to busy mothers who simply did not have the time to prioritize their health through the traditional system. One user group that we have gotten multiple messages from is young women who are unable to get birth control from their family doctors due to their religious communities. Felix provides them with the secure and private medical care that they need to take control of their own health and well-being without the opinions or judgment of others. It feels great to be part of a business that can impact people at such a personal level.
Where do you think you have made the most impact in your company and community?
Emma Stern: As a founder of Felix, the way that we managed to step in and help people access the treatments they needed from the safety of their homes during the pandemic is one of the achievements we at Felix are most proud of. My business partner Kyle and I have worked hand in hand every step of the way. However, I feel that I have always added particular value in illuminating the female-focused offerings on our platform. As a woman who has faced challenges in her life accessing birth control, as well as having always struggled with adult acne, I think that my personal experience as a patient brings a unique passion and thoughtfulness to our user experience.
What kind of problems are you trying to solve?
Emma Stern: Canada has an incredible free healthcare system but there are significant access issues. Many Canadians do not have access to a family doctor and have to travel far or wait hours to get treatment. Felix prioritizes safety and convenience above all else in order to make prescription treatments more accessible to Canadians. Felix takes a totally unique approach to tackle telemedicine in Canada through our quiz-based system which allows people to answer on their own time and healthcare practitioners to review medical information on their schedule. This creates efficiencies, and having a specialized experience for each of the categories we offer also allows us to be even more effective.
Our unique model means we can enable our patients to speak to their doctor on an ongoing basis through our secure messaging portal whenever they have questions or concerns while still having it be very affordable—all leading back to the core goal of improved accessibility.
What does progress look like to you?
Emma Stern: Progress is leveraging technology to make healthcare more readily available to all Canadians.
What are you doing that no one else is doing?
Emma Stern: We are Canada’s only end-to-end digital healthcare platform. Our asynchronous (on your time) medical visits, paired with our completely integrated mail-order pharmacy, deliver a user experience unlike any other in Canada.
Why is your work important?
Emma Stern: I believe healthcare is one of the most important things, both personally and at the community level. I think that Felix has challenged our industry to continue to innovate past the “virtual walk-in clinic” model that dominated the telehealth space before we entered it. Felix brings the circle of care closer together to deliver a patient-centric healthcare experience. Having unlimited access to your prescribing doctor and your pharmacy whenever you need them is something Felix is uniquely capable of offering—and affordably.
Was there ever a turning point in your career that fundamentally changed your business for the better?
Emma Stern: When the pandemic hit, everyone at Felix worked exceptionally hard to scale up faster than we planned to meet demand and to make sure our users received their medication on time despite the constantly shifting pandemic-related challenges. Felix went from growing steadily to growing rapidly. The whole team went remote right away and, like so many other businesses, we had to learn how to work effectively remotely while growing every aspect of our business to meet demand. From substantial shipping delays to drug shortages, we faced a number of challenges all at once, all while figuring out how to scale our team. However, above all else, our prescribers were the ones who faced the most significant challenges when the pandemic hit. Felix has the most wonderful, brilliant group of physicians, nurse practitioners, and pharmacists, all of whom were on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. They were all stretched to a breaking point and each one was a true hero throughout, both with their work in-person and in keeping up with demand on the Felix platform. We would never have been able to rise to the challenge of providing safe and reliable care to all of our users throughout the pandemic without their grit and bravery.
What have you learned about yourself as you’ve built your company?
Emma Stern: Building Felix has only magnified my long-standing admiration for doctors and everyone in the medical community. They bring a tremendous amount of care and intelligence to everything they do. I have had the privilege of working with many doctors since founding Felix and have learned an incredible amount about the human body, but also about how to be an effective leader. They prioritize ruthlessly, challenge everything, ask hard questions, and always lead with patient care in mind. From my previous work in tech I thought I understood what it means to truly prioritize and obsess over your users, but working with our medical director Dr. Kelly Anderson has taught me to take it a step further. People are at their most vulnerable when they are trying to address something as personal as a health issue, and always listening and showing them empathy is crucial.
What has been the most challenging part of building the business?
Emma Stern: Navigating the various regulatory environments from province to province. Each province is governed by its own College on both the medical and pharmaceutical sides. As such, we have had to be very diligent in understanding and abiding by the specific regulations in each geography. All of the regulations exist for a reason, and it has always been a priority for our team to really understand the motivations behind each aspect of the regulations and to find a way to work within them without compromising our patient experience.
What has been the most rewarding part of building the business?
Emma Stern: Introducing a new approach to Canadian healthcare and seeing it welcomed by doctors, pharmacists, and patients. Although each group has its own priorities and challenges, at the end of the day they all want the same thing: to improve communication and efficiency within the circle of care that they make up. Felix’s unique platform was crafted through endless conversations with members of all three groups in order to deliver the right experience to each stakeholder. On the patient side, this really boils down to removing a lot of the opacity that exists in the traditional model, giving them control over the when and where of their medical care, and opening lines of communication within the circle of care, and keeping them open for as long as they need them.
What questions do you think all leaders should ask themselves before building a company?
Emma Stern: How much sleep do you really need? (Just kidding.) How good are you at delegating? For both my co-founder Kyle [Zien] and myself, building Felix has been an exercise in constantly replacing ourselves with people who are better at the job. When we first started Felix we had to do every little and big job ourselves. I am so grateful that we started that way because in doing each job we were able to understand what needed to be done and identify the areas where we are strong and the areas where we needed to hire ASAP. As a founder, your business is your baby, and it can become very difficult to let go of components of the business and delegate them to someone who has the right experience, skillset, and time to dedicate to that role. Kyle and I have been so lucky to build an exceptional team around us and it is all of these incredible people who make Felix better and better each day. Had we not learned to continuously give away pieces of our jobs, we would never have been able to grow as quickly as we have. We would have always been the bottleneck.
In your experience, what do you think is the quickest way to get people on board with your mission?
Emma Stern: Passion, clarity, and specificity. I think if you have a great mission in mind that you believe in fully, you are still only halfway there when trying to build something new. One needs to be able to communicate their vision and passion for their mission in a way that others can understand and feel. If your excitement is contagious, people cannot help but get on board.
What is your mission? The bigger picture?
Emma Stern: Personally, I want to be useful, to follow my interests, and continue contributing as much as possible. In the context of Felix, I want to keep tackling challenging problems and empower people to take care of their health and wellbeing.
How do you define success? What does it mean to you?
Emma Stern: Success is setting goals and then achieving them.
What is one lesson that you hope people will learn or walk away with from your work?
Emma Stern: Just because something has always been done a certain way, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best way to do it.
If you could go back and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Emma Stern: Listen more, talk less, and talk slower.
Who is a woman in the community that you admire?
Emma Stern: Our medical director at Felix, Dr. Kelly Anderson. She is a gifted physician, a true innovator, and one of the kindest people I know. She has guided the Felix team since we started, helping to craft how we have grown and shaped our service offering. She is a natural business leader who always puts the well-being of patients first. She is also always there to help when I have a perceived medical emergency.