Meet the Harvard Doctor Who Won Startup Weekend DC

Dr. Charlene Brown has spent her life immersed in medicine. Her mother, both of her godmothers, and most of her mother’s friends all worked as nurses. She was drawn to their profession early on. But she also had fixed notions of gender roles that were challenged at a childhood checkup.

“My pediatrician was a man, and I somehow formed the view that only men could be doctors,” Dr. Brown recalls. “When my mother took me to the hospital clinic as a child, I met a physician who was a woman for the first time.

My mother tells me that I was confused and refused to be treated by the physician because I was certain that she was a nurse and I wanted to see the doctor. Once it finally sunk in that she was actually a doctor, I decided that I wanted to be a doctor shortly thereafter.”

Dr. Brown didn’t miss a beat. Her academic excellence in New York City led her to major in chemical engineering at Princeton University. She went on to earn her MD at Harvard Medical School and her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health. Her career highlights include Deputy Commissioner for Medical Operations with the Baltimore City Health Department; Medical Officer at USAID; and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Emory University School of Medicine.

Now, she can add CEO and Co-Founder to that list. Dr. Brown led a team of 5 to pitch and prototype ReciproCare –an online platform and mobile app to bridge service gaps for home care agencies while expanding work opportunities for home care workers. Dr. Brown and her team built ReciproCare at Startup Weekend’s Flip the Ratio event in Washington, DC, from September 25-27. ReciproCare went on to win 1st place in that weekend’s competition.

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Dr. Brown had been honing this idea with her co-founder, Faran Negarestan, for several months prior to Flip the Ratio. Their concept — initially called ReciproCall — kept pivoting in the months beforehand. Eventually, it became the pitch that Dr. Brown gave for ReciproCare on Flip the Ratio’s opening night. That first pitch involved persuading attendees to join her team and build her idea. It was a turning point for Dr. Brown. She assumed that since most participants were younger, a tech solution for elders care would not interest them.

“I was wrong,” Dr. Brown says. “Our pitch resonated with many participants who shared their personal caregiving experiences with me and others on our team throughout the weekend. Our incredible team included people with a diverse range of skills that perfectly complemented my own.

“I was joined initially by my partner from ReciproCall, Faran Negarestan; he is a talented, full-stack developer with a commitment to work that can make a difference in people’s lives. Next, Vince Natale, who has both a strong background and training in sales and home care industry knowledge, joined our team. He was followed by Evan Taylor, who brought an ideal fusion of insightful design and project management skills to the table; she kept us on task throughout the weekend using Scrum.

“Finally, we were joined by Roy Morris, who brought a combination of personal experiences as a former adult caregiver for his father, an extensive background in business, and experience as a startup advisor to our team. I felt incredibly humbled by the dedication and talent of this team and was absolutely thrilled to work so intensely and collaboratively with them on ReciproCare.”

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ReciproCare beat 9 other teams to win Flip the Ratio — an event held to increase female tech participation. There was roughly a 50/50 gender split among attendees; ReciproCare’s own team consisted of three men and two women.

Their success serves as a sobering reminder that most founding teams do not look like them. A mere 14% of leadership roles at S&P 500 companies are held by women. But repeating this number disguises deeper problems. While gender diversity is abysmal, racial diversity is even worse.

14% of the U.S. population is black — but there are four black CEOs in the Fortune 500. The problem is so severe that when former Brown University President Ruth Simmons joined Square’s Board of Directors, she became its second woman and black director — an extreme rarity. Tech giants including Facebook and Apple have no black board members at all. Nor do 74 companies on Standard & Poor’s 250 index.

Statistics like these are why events like Flip the Ratio exist. But for her part, Dr. Brown never joined Startup Weekend to make a statement. She first fell in love with hackathons after joining a healthcare-themed one in Boston. She joined the Startup Weekend mailing list and kept an eye out for events in DC. Flip the Ratio was the first event that worked with her schedule — but it was not her first time as an entrepreneur.

Dr. Brown previously started her own real estate and healthcare companies within the past decade. She has seen how tech can transform healthcare to break down barriers in a bureaucratic business. As part of their Flip the Ratio grand prize, ReciproCare won a of their own booth at DC Tech Day on October 6. Dr. Brown says it was just the start of her burgeoning business.

Her current focus is expanding customer development efforts to home care agencies. She cites a recent Department of Labor ruling that will slap home care agencies with increased workforce expenses. Dr. Brown wants to help new and existing home care agencies comply with federal requirements and reduce costs while improving care. She plans to work on ReciproCare full time, and cites Startup Weekend as the catalyst that propelled her forward. 

“We made so much progress and had so many iterative, micro-pivots over the weekend that I was stunned at the scope and quality of our outputs,” Dr. Brown says. “For anyone who wants to start a company, I strongly recommend finding people with complementary skills who are as excited about your concept as you are and building on the power of teamwork.”








Startup Weekend Winners: A Q&A with Orate Co-Founder Sara Capra

Sara Capra is the co-founder of Orate – a DC-based startup that makes it simple for event organizers to find speakers within their budgets.

Orate’s story began last year at Startup Weekend DC – an event where participants launch startups in less than 54 hours. Orate took first place in that weekend’s competition – even though Capra had taken a chance to be there in the first place.

Capra entered Startup Weekend with some concerns that her idea wouldn’t resonate with event participants. She was quickly proved wrong — she and Orate co-founder Veronica Eklund ended up building the largest team, which developed a mock-up of the future platform.

Sara shared Orate’s journey with Startup Weekend DC’s Elvina Kamalova. Answers have been edited for length and clarity:

Tell us about Orate.

Orate is an online platform that simplifies the process of finding, vetting, and booking public speakers simple. Our mission is twofold: 1) Make it easy to find quality speakers on any budget; and 2) Assist speakers in more effectively marketing themselves and getting them in front of the right audiences.

What was the role of Startup Weekend in starting and developing your project?

The Orate journey began at Startup Weekend DC in 2014. It was the launch pad for what Orate has become, and sparked the initial evolution of the concept. We began with an idea to alleviate the stress of filling last minute speaking cancellations. That resonated with many people, but through the feedback process over the weekend, we decided the business model around that was not one that would be sustainable.

Through our mentors, sending out surveys, and in-depth conversations with the team, we decided the business model needed to be based on more than that. Startup Weekend helped to give us the ecosystem and structure we needed to take our first big step in understanding how to test and validate our ideas.

How did you build your team?

Building the team during startup weekend was mostly organic. Initially, I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough interest. One of the great things about Startup Weekend is that you only need two people to work on an idea. My co-founder attended and joined my team, so we would be able to explore the idea no matter what. It turns out there was quite a bit of interest, and we ended up with the largest team in the competition. I thought our most important team member would be a developer, ideally one who knew front and back end since this was meant to be a web and mobile app.

One of the most important lessons I learned that weekend was how much you can do with a little bit of resourcefulness and creativity, when there’s a lack of technical expertise. We had a wonderful graphic designer.

As opposed to trying to build out any applications over the weekend, she instead mocked up what we wanted the website to look like. That way, we could walk the audience through the customer journey, without getting too bogged down with feature aspirations and technical details. After all, it was just the beginning! We knew if so much could change in one weekend, there were many more changes to come.

What are the biggest challenges in your startup journey?

The biggest challenges have shifted over time. Initially it was staying focused. There were so many things to be excited about – potential partnerships, big ideas, ideas within those ideas, the way you envision the company 1, 2, 3 years down the road.

The challenge is taking that long-term vision and working backward to map out your trajectory starting with today, and breaking down steps for initial short-term growth. We’re over a year in and have now seen a lot of our early ideas come to fruition. We are still constantly brainstorming, but we’re much more skilled at capturing ideas for a future state, and continuing to stay focused on the short-term execution to make them happen.

The other challenge we face is getting into the heads of our customers. Collectively, we’ve conducted hundreds of formal and informal interviews, feedback surveys, and tests. While there are times that what users say and what they do are parallel, we have found that monitoring their actions is most effective.

Did you have technical skills coming to SW?

Aside from some basic HTML (we all had MySpace, right?), I didn’t have any experience with coding going into Startup Weekend DC. However, attending the event and launching the company inspired me to spend more time learning about software development, and gave me the ability to discuss the basics of other languages when I need to.

Tell us how you realized your goal for building your venture.

I’m still getting there! We are in the middle of fundraising to get to our next phase. We have achieved a lot so far. We’ve scaled our speaker database extensively, had only positive feedback from clients, and launched a new website and subscription service. While I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, we don’t rest on our laurels. We have big plans moving forward and the wonderful team me and my co-founder have built is at the core of making those happen.

How did you raise your first funding?

We socialized Orate early and often. We pitched a lot, organized the data and financial information we had to help us have informed conversations, and put all of our cards and chips on the table. Our initial round was mostly from angel investors, and some funding came from the accelerator program Orate participated in called The Startup Factory.

What would be your advice to starting entrepreneurs?

Sharpen your communication skills. Entrepreneurs must always be networking and selling, even if their title or job responsibilities don’t formally include it. Entrepreneurs have to effectively communicate with and motivate their team to execute on the vision. They need to be good role models, and inspire the team to be brand advocates. Establishing and growing relationships are crucial to starting a company. Being a genuine, impactful, and effective communicator, is instrumental in that process.

It’s also important to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Take the “no’s,” the risk, the ambiguity, self-doubt, and constant change, and learn from it all. After you learn from it, embrace it. Two of the best things about life are that almost nothing is final and the possibilities are endless. Reflect on the lessons you learned, what led you there, and use them to make better, more informed decisions moving forward. This is one of the reasons it’s crucial to have good advisors and mentors. You need a brain trust that can help you step back, put things in perspective, and work through challenges.

To start your own startup story, join us for Startup Weekend on September 25-27. Register here and buy your tickets today!