Naji Gehchan: Hello, leaders of the world. Welcome to spread love in organizations, the podcast for purpose-driven healthcare leaders, striving to make life better around the world by leading their teams with genuine care, servant leadership, and love.
I am Naji, your host, joined today by Sema Sgaier CEO and Co-Founder of Surgo Health, a healthcare technology company developing a revolutionary socio-behavioral analytics platform and generating novel, real-world data designed to inform and improve health equity and outcomes by enabling a greater understanding of the complex factors that influence how individuals engage in their healthcare. Sema is a serial entrepreneur with close to 20 years of experience in healthcare. She co-founded and led Surgo Foundation and Surgo Ventures, where she led the development of analytic products that solve health problems with greater precision. She was Initiative Lead at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she brought innovations in data, consumer insights, and product introduction into large-scale health programs globally. She has over 60 publications and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and prestigious media outlets. She is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Washington. She completed her fellowship in Genomics at Harvard University, Ph.D. in Neuroscience from New York University, and M.A. in Neuroscience from Brown University. Sema is a member of the Board of Directors of the United States of Care. She was selected as a rising talent by the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society.
Sema – It is such an honor and pleasure to have you with me today!
Sema Sgaier: Such a pleasure to be here, Naji. Thank you for inviting me.
Naji Gehchan: Can you share first with us your personal story from genomics to development and now being the CEO and Co-founder of Sergo Health?
What’s in between the lines of your inspiring journey?
Sema Sgaier: Sure. Um, my personal story actually starts, uh, during my childhood. So I was born in Libya to a Libyan father and a Turkish mom. And I was born in a, in a, in a country where healthcare was actually really challenging to get, and I, I had a, a condition that required, um, advanced care.
And so my family, um, had to take me abroad. Uh, and I spent a good chunk of my childhood in hospitals and a good chunk of my adult life having to get. Um, but that really got me inspired in, in health and it got me really inspired and really, um, bringing health to a lot of, uh, people. I was also, um, you know, uh, very interested in science and so that led me to a career, or I started my career, I should say, in genomics and, and neuroscience.
But very quickly, um, missed the, um, the needs or, or really missed working with people and communities. I’d grown traveling all over the world and, and, and really missed that. So the journey started with moving to India. Uh, and starting on the ground, uh, developing surveys in communities, in villages to really understand their needs when it came to help, uh, you know, going door to door, asking families, asking mothers, asking husbands, asking children.
Uh, and that was really the beginning of understanding the power of data, uh, and the power of the human voice in being able to. Not just governments in terms of what the gaps are, but really inform all sorts of activities in communities, um, by companies, et cetera. Um, so, you know, long story short, I won’t, I won’t, uh, describe every step, but I ended up, uh, then eventually joining the Bill and Mill and the Gates Foundation.
Um, in India and lived there, um, for seven years working on, uh, an H I V prevention program. Again, working with communities. Um, and then from there, moved on to work on h I V prevention in Southern and Eastern Africa. The key part and the crux of, of really what I do, um, and I’ll, I can dive deeper into this.
The key part of my, what I learned and all of that work is that we really need to understand what people need on the ground and what. What is behind, um, their actions, their decisions when it comes to how they interact with healthcare, uh, and you know, how they consume healthcare. And, and for me, the really big question that we need to answer is the why question behind people’s behavior.
Um, because we often don’t approach healthcare, uh, you know, by un trying to understand the why. We start with what’s happening in the ecosystem. Um, and so. The three organizations that I co-founded and, and I’ll, you know, I’ll go of course into more details. Sergo Foundation, Sergo Ventures, Sergo Health.
Really the core mission of all three is bringing a big data approach to answer that question for every single individual so that we can inform, um, healthcare in a way that’s personalized to everyone.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you so much for, uh, for sharing part of your journey, and this is really a great segue. My question, actually, the first one was the mission of Sergo, uh, the different entities and, and really if you can tell us a little bit more your vision about data and how you’re gonna be able to answer those, uh, health issues.
Sema Sgaier: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, let’s start with just thinking about each of ourselves, right? You know, uh, and, and the people that we know. So we know that what people believe in, uh, what they, who they trust and, and, and how they trust, um, you know, the various barriers they face in the ecosystem, whether it’s the time, uh, whether it’s the transport, um, really.
Um, you know, how, how they interact with the healthcare system. And so, but when we look at the health ecosystem today, there’s a lot of data. There’s no lack of data. We’re actually swimming in billions of data. But a lot of it is really telling us, uh, as I mentioned, what is happening so we can map, for example, in the US the complete journey.
You know, which providers that they would, did people see, what were their diagnoses? What medications did they TA take? So that really tells. You know, that pathway, but if you were to ask me, okay, so, so why did this person living in this community not see a provider in the first place? I would be hard pressed to find that data, you know, readily available.
And so really the mission of of, of Sergo, you know, when we started Sergo Foundation, it was, it was really an operating foundation meant to incubate an idea and it was really meant to incubate this idea of how can we bring a big data approach. To really understanding people. So not beyond doing focus groups and having conversations, but how do we generate this data at scale and, and more importantly, and, you know, how do we analyze the idea?
So what are the innovations in the analytics space, and then how do we make it actionable for, for various stakeholders. Um, so Server Foundation, um, again, was really meant to. Demonstrate, incubate this idea. And we successfully did that in various programs actually in India. Um, and then let that led to the spinoff of Servo Ventures and from their um, servo health, which happy to go into the why behind those spinoffs.
Naji Gehchan: Yeah, I love it. Before we go into the why of the spinoffs, can we double click cuz you’re, you’re talking really about something that means a lot to me. Insights, right? Like you’re looking into, uh, patients insights, customer insights, to understand the why. Uh, can you share with us some specific example of how do you see, how do you gather those insights at scale?
And then mm-hmm. How do you run those analytics for us to be able, uh, to solve problems, as you say, with precision? I like this word. So how, how, how do you do this practic?
Sema Sgaier: Yeah, there, there are many ways to, to gather data, but I think fundamentally where you have to start is what is it that you wanna collect?
Uh, and I think, um, one of the things we learned very, very quickly is that, um, stepping back and, and really being clear what are the variables that need to be collected to answer the why question is really an important part of the equation. And so, We’ve built, um, over the years, um, a team of, a multidisciplinary team of actually, um, scientists and I would say behavioral scientists who come from various disciplines, right?
So when people approach human behavior, they approach it from a, from various disciplines, right? You have the behavioral economist who are really looking at just biases and heuristics. Uh, you have social scientists who really emphasize the, the social, uh, ecosystem in which people live. But in reality, all of these things really matter.
And so the approach we take in, um, in designing these data collection efforts in, in stepping back and saying, you know, beliefs matter, biases matter, heuristics matter, social norms matter. Um, and then in the context, the laws and policies matter. The systems matter, the access. Influencers, media, all of these matter.
And so we really need to be comprehensive in what we collect and, and so that we can get a complete picture. And so the first, the first step is really making sure that you have a good sense of what you wanna collect. The second step is then, of course, figuring out how, how you, how you collect it. And we have various methodologies.
But one of the things that we do, um, to get scale is a, is actually design a large scale survey. So we collect data in, you know, in the thousands, tens of thousands and, and sometimes hundreds of thousands depending on what platform we use, whether it’s, um, whether we, um, you know, use some of the social media platforms in, in way to get respondents or whether we use panels.
So that gives us the first scale. And then from there we apply our machine learning, um, analytics or predictive models, approaches to be able to then predict that for, you know, all the people that were not part of that initial data collection effort. So there are various steps in this journey. Thanks for sharing
Naji Gehchan: those.
Uh, you, you know, as I was looking, you’ve done incredible work, obviously on several different disease states. H I V you shared about, I saw your work where on Covid 19 and, and the CDCC is taking it. You know, I kept thinking data, precision science, really in an era where I’m like, many times I’m feeling misinformation.
Uh, like wrong theories, hate populism is somehow ruling, sometimes policy actions, but even like people’s actions towards their health that is actually harming them. So since you’re collecting those, Data, are you seeing this trend? Is this something real that you’re seeing? Is this something that is coming out?
I, I would really love your thoughts about precision in data and then actually what we’re seeing that is more fictional, I would say.
Sema Sgaier: Yeah. Um, yeah, unfortunately we are, and, and during the Covid pa pandemic, we, we did see, and in fact we were one of the, the, the first and few who tried to really measure some of this misinformation.
Particularly we measured conspiracy theories, uh, that people were believing in. And, and so we really looked into, What are those theories and actually went in and measured those and, and when I say measured, really tried to understand what percentage of people, for example, believe that, you know, government is using covid to control people, you know, are implanting chips.
Like there’s all sorts of conspiracy theories. And so we wanted to see not only how often, but really who specifically is believing these conspiracy theories. I think when it comes to misinformation and, and, and you talked about data, you know, people at the end of the day believe in. Uh, it’s not about the data, it’s the story and the power of the story.
And, and even as scientists ourselves, you know, what’s really on us is when we want to communicate our data, the, you know, quote unquote, Real true data, we really have to put effort in, in using stories to tell, to tell that so that people can really align to that emotionally. We’re emotional beings. We’ve learned to, you know, listen and hear stories, you know, from thousands of years ago, and that’s what resonates.
And so I think. Storytelling is, is really an important part of, of this equation. And Naji, I don’t know whether that’s the answer you’re looking for, but, but I think that’s really important as scientists and data scientists who sometimes can seem very boring and just crunching numbers.
Naji Gehchan: Yeah, no. Well, actually that was my question and I think you answered it.
The, the next one was really from, because you look from a customer, uh, lens, uh, on, on those data. So my question was, is data enough to convince? But I think you, you said it beautifully, it’s really about the story and how to shape those data in a language that is emotional enough for, for patients, for customers to change behavior.
Uh, I’d love if you have some specific example where actually. Because you talked about the actionability of what you do. So I’m, I’m intrigued and interested to, uh, to see how you turn those insights into actions to improve at the end patient’s health.
Sema Sgaier: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll g I’ll give you, uh, I have two, but I’ll, I’ll start with one and then, uh, happy to move on to the site.
And so the first one actually goes way back when I was working in India, uh, on h I V prevention. And there we were working, uh, with high-risk groups. And these were, um, sex workers, injecting drug users and, and men who had sex with men. And actually what was really interesting about this program was that community members were the, um, were people that were leading and delivering this program to their peers.
Uh, and so here you had, um, sex workers who had to go out to the community to be able to provide the services, and so it was very important for them. To know where these members were. And it was very important to them to know, for example, where the nearest clinic healthcare clinic was, where the nearest police station was, where the nearest safe house was, et cetera.
And so while the, um, you know, the, the scientists were collecting this data to put in the hands of this community. The question was how do we communicate this data in a way that they, you know, that, that they could use? And what they came up with was, was so interesting was, um, drawings, right? They, they took this data and rather than having these like sheets of like line items of here’s, you know, here’s where this person is and their address, they actually did these beautiful hand drawn, um, kind of, um, diagrams where they actually mapped locations and, you know, there were, there were like these children’s maps, but they showed where everything was.
And so this was. For me, it was an incredible example of taking hard data, right? Transforming it in, in, in, in a visual story and then putting it in hands of, um, actually people who deliver health so that their day-to-day healthcare delivery was, was, you know, effective. And, and, and it was, you know, we, we had a lot of evidence that this worked.
Naji Gehchan: I love this. Can you share the other, other
Sema Sgaier: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. The, the other example goes back to Covid. Uh, and again, you know, we all lived Covid and we also know that it was, it was, um, bombardment of information for all of us. Uh, and one of the, one of the approaches that we took during Covid is, uh, actually.
Data visualization and, and, and really, again, bringing art to telling that data story. So, uh, we, we had this amazing, we did these amazing stories with the New York Times. And so one of the stories that we did was a, was called Find Your Line in Your, find Your Place in the Vaccine Line. Uh, it was, I think one, it was the top red story of the New York Times that, that year or something like that.
But it, but it, you know, I don’t know if you remember in the early days, we were also concerned, when are we gonna get our vaccine shot? How long were we gonna wait? Now it’s a very different world. And so the, and we had that data. So we, we actually, um, were able to, um, show which group was gonna get their vaccine when across the United States.
And they did this beautiful visual where you could go in and put a few of your details, like your age, where you lived, and then they would draw this, uh, visual line and they would tell, You know, you’re gonna get your vaccine in 300 days or so. I’m, I’m making this up. But it was such an impactful way of actually communicating, um, you know, this notion of there’s, uh, an order at which these vaccines are going to be delivered.
You know, there’s certain priority populations that need to get it first. Um, and it, it was, it, it was, you know, so well read and people resonated with that. People understood it. They understood that whole vaccine delivery schedule, right, that we had in the early days through, through data and story.
Naji Gehchan: I love it.
What, what you’re talking about is just, it resonates so much, right? Like from, from really data, it’s all about data, right? But from data generation to understanding the why, not only the what and and what’s going on, but also on how you tell and how you share the story to make an impact at the end on, on people’s lives.
I love this. I wanna pivot though to, uh, to a question more on leadership. So you’ve had several experiences, uh, obviously in in non-profit, uh, with, uh, the Gates Foundation. You’re a serial entrepreneur. You’ve also founded a profit for-profit, uh, company recently. Uh, I’d love to, uh, to get what are your key learnings from a leadership standpoint, uh, that you are taking with you today from all those experiences and running, uh, your.
Uh, endeavor as a c e O.
Sema Sgaier: Mm-hmm. Um, Being a leader is, is, is an, uh, you’re always learning how to be a leader. I, I, I think it’s every day you’re, you’re, you’re going, you know, two steps forward, five steps backwards. I, it’s, it’s, it’s, uh, it’s a never ending, I would say, um, learning process. Um, and, and I, you know, I certainly have a long ways to go in, in, in that, in that place.
Um, so what are some of my learnings, you know, Several, but one I would say, um, is that leadership, um, in many ways actually, um, has to be adapted to the culture and context and environment that you’re in. Um, you know, I I, I worked in many different countries and many different types of organizations, but one of the.
I’ll give you an example. So when I first started my, my job in India, that was kind of my first job outside of academia. And I was, you know, leading, um, you know, these research groups on the ground. You know, really my first job managing teams, or I should say big teams. And I would, you know, show up into these trainings and, uh, you know, day one people show up.
Day two people showed up. And then day two before they started, like falling, you know, Two people were missing three people. And then one day I was just so down and I went home and, you know, I had a roommate, she was, uh, from India, and I said, what is going on? People are not showing up. And um, she said, you know, you have to adapt to the culture.
You know, you have to, you have to lead in a way that resonates to them. And so that led me really to introspect and, and to really adapt. And so, and, and that was really true across right From there, then I moved to, um, you know, the, the India Office of the Gates Foundation, which was a small team of 15 people that was led by, um, the ex country head of McKinsey, India that everyone else was, was ex McKinsey.
And that was a totally different environment. My point is that, uh, when you are leading teams, The culture can be so different depending on what country, which country you are, and what type of organization you are. And so in many ways, you need to adapt your leadership skills, um, you know, to that. Really, that was one of my, my key learnings.
Um, the second one I think is, is, is really being authentic, right? I, I think in the initial days I was thinking, well, how do I become like that person or that leader or, you know, people that I admired and, and. Quickly learned that that’s, that’s a bad idea. Um, you are who you are. You, you cannot change who you are, but you can adapt.
Um, but you really need to be au authentic as you know. And you need, you need to be, um, honest and, and, you know, and, um, you know, be who you are in, in that environment. Um, so those are, for me, the, the key learnings. I have many, but those, I would say stand top for me.
Naji Gehchan: Thanks, Sarah, for this. Uh, I would give you now one word and I’d love your reaction to.
So the first, the first one is leadership
challenging. The second one is women in science. Inspirational. Can you share a little bit more? I know you’re, you’re passionate about diversity and, and women in leadership and
Sema Sgaier: science. Um, I, I’m, I’m very inspired by, um, well, first of all, I’m a scientist and I think, uh, women in science, uh, are, are really phenomenal and, and we need way more of them.
Uh, and I find it really in. Inspiring, uh, to actually coach and develop and, and have women in science grow. And, and I’ve actually dedicated a lot of, of, of my, I should say, leadership, uh, you know, skills to that as well. So, so I, I, I find it inspiring seeing more women in, in science.
Naji Gehchan: Can, can you tell me the number one advice you give to, uh, women and uh, and young girls that are in science or want to go there?
Sema Sgaier: Uh, be bold. Uh, you know, go for
Naji Gehchan: it.
The third word is health equity.
Sema Sgaier: A must the, I give you a two word answer.
Naji Gehchan: Give me more. I, I wanna hear more about how you look at equity, because I know it’s, uh, one of the core values of, uh, of also sergo.
Sema Sgaier: Yeah, I think we look at equity as something on top, right? Like something else. Something in addition.
Equity to me is everything. It’s core, right? Equity. To me, equity is everyone. Equity means that, you know, every single person needs to be part of that. And, and that’s really equity, right? It’s, it’s not about like, There’s, there’s the core and then there’s another group. You know, it, it really, if you have equitable healthcare, essentially what that means is that you’re making sure that the barriers to, um, you know, living a healthy, happy life is for all.
Uh, you remove the barriers for all, and those barriers are exist for all. And they’re very different for all right? For you and I, it may be a time issue, but it really is a must and, and that’s something we should all strive for, uh,
Naji Gehchan: for. The last one is spread love in organizations.
Sema Sgaier: Oh, amazing. It actually reminds me, uh, if you don’t mind, Naji, since you brought, uh, you brought this, um, I, it reminds me of love languages, and this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, you know, talking about leadership. One of the things about leadership, I think that’s really important is, um, how to motivate, you know, knowing how to motivate different people, uh, and understanding that different people are motivated by, by different reasons.
And it was really interesting. One of, one of my, um, one of my colleagues, one, you know, during his first week shared his love language with me just out of the blue and said, you know, my love language is words of affirmation and I. Okay. You know, I was like, that’s weird, you know, sharing your love language.
Uh, that was first week, but then, In retrospect, it, it is actually we need the, our professional love languages, right? We, we need to understand what is it that really motivates us, or what is it that really, um, gets us, you know, to, to be loving. Uh, and I, and I, and I think that’s really important, right?
Whether, whether it’s words of affirmation, whether. You know, it is the outcome or you know, whether it’s quality time or, you know, you can, you can translate it to work. But, sorry, the, when you said that spread love, I, it reminded me of the love languages and, and I think it’s a, it’s an important piece of the puzzle.
Naji Gehchan: It certainly is, and it’s a great reminder for all of us. Any final word of wisdom sum up for healthcare leaders around
Sema Sgaier: the. Um, I think this is, to me, it is the most important, uh, one of our most important topics of our time. And I, I would say that for everyone, be bold, uh, step up and, and really go after big ideas.
I think we are at a time where we have the opportunity to actually take a lot of big ideas forward and, and make this something for, you know, health for all. It’s, it’s really important. So, really go for it.
Naji Gehchan: This is such, such an amazing charger leaving us all with. Thank you so much, uh, SVA for being with me today.
Sema Sgaier: Thank you. It was an honor. I appreciate it.
Naji Gehchan: Thank you all for listening to Spread Love in Organizations podcast. Drop us a review on your preferred podcast platform
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