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By Kyle Waters
A message pops up in my Slack window. It’s my Operations Lead. He says an analyzer is down at one of our lab partners. Everything in the queue from a digital health company who processes HIV tests will be delayed. Are we really going to withhold life-changing results from these people for two extra days? He asks.
I’m the CPO and Co-founder at a B2B healthtech startup called Ash Wellness. We partner with hospitals, universities, digital health companies, and public health institutions to onboard home diagnostics. We provide all the back end support — logistics, lab processing, physician of record services, HIPAA-compliant tech infrastructure, and payer management. We’re responsible for getting self-test kits to patients and customers, and reporting their results. Many of our partnerships support sexual health testing, incuding STIs and HIV.
When something like this happens — an analyzer goes down, results are delayed — it can feel like a major crisis. There is a mental toll to working in at-home diagnostic testing, especially as a gay cis man who grew up on the other side of the AIDS epidemic. What happens when things don’t go smoothly? Or when I realize we’re about to submit a life-changing HIV result?
It’s okay, I remind our Operations Lead. We’re doing everything we can. HIV is no longer a terminal diagnosis. Folks awaiting results can still receive the care they need. Over time, I’ve learned to prioritize mental health interventions — lean on the other co-founders, get perspective, take a walk, prioritize life outside work, and (a big one!) go to therapy. Home diagnostics is a powerful intervention that helps vulnerable populations access healthcare, and I’m proud to play my part. Below are some of the mental health supports I recommend for folks getting started in the home diagnostics space:
Find the right team
Ash Wellness CEO David Stein and I met at a Cornell Tech program focused on building and launching startups. We became fast friends, and realized we shared a passion for accessible healthcare, especially STI self-testing. Through the ups and downs of securing funding, building products, pivoting our startup from D2C to B2B, David has been a major emotional support system. We laugh, we cry. If I’m having a bad week, David gets a call.
At Cornell Tech, we also met Nick Sempere, who now runs Ash Wellness engineering, and Mio Akasako, who leads brand and design. The four of us have a bi-weekly informal founders meeting to share and be raw. No strategy. No shop talk. No best selves. Nothing is going according to plan! These delays are killing me! We rely on each other as founders, but also as human beings. Usually, we get lucky. My ‘everything is going wrong’ week is not Nick’s bad week. I can support him one day, and he can help calm me down the next.
When work feels overwhelming, I try to get some perspective. Home diagnostics is an accessible and impactful healthcare intervention. We test for cancer. We test for STIs. Ash Wellness sends out ten thousand PrEP test kits a month. Our team supports end-users all over the country.
When I was single, PrEP was only just coming on the scene. Certain types of sex still carried a big risk for contracting HIV. I think about those who died during the AIDS epidemic. Imagine if I could reach back in time and tell them that they weren’t going to be silenced forever. That it would be possible to live a long and healthy life with an HIV diagnosis, while others at risk could take a pill every day to protect themselves. We built an entire company to enable queer care, I’d say. And we’re not even the only ones!
Take a walk
Turn off the computer and go outside. So simple, so effective. I love taking walks in Ithaca, where I live with my partner, Mike. I look at the trees, take deep breaths, and sometimes I’ll grab a cup of coffee at a local shop. I went to school in New York City, but I’ll admit there are huge perks to moving upstate; especially when the foliage turns. Walking can also improve your mood, cognition, memory and sleep, and I need a good night’s sleep to manage client success and operations. If it’s too gross out, I’ll do a Peloton spin instead.
Prioritize time outside of work
As much as I love my teammates, sometimes I need to talk about something besides work. Mike and I try to go out for drinks with friends at least once a week. We take trips together. I close my computer early if I need to step away and decompress. We have unlimited PTO at Ash Wellness, and we want our employees to actually use it. Some folks have tried to work while on vacation, and I swat them away. Go live your life! Sit at the beach and drink a margarita. Pet a dog. You can’t be at one hundred percent all the time. It’s just not sustainable.
Go to therapy
Yes, I know. Therapy isn’t a quick fix. I’ve seen my therapist for years, even before we founded our company. If you pull up the Google calendars at Ash Wellness, you can see that many of us have a therapist we see weekly. Therapists help our team function at a high capacity with kindness and generosity. Our founders also rely on an executive coach to help us break down problems.
In the end, the best mental health practices boil down to a philosophy of care. Care about yourself. Care about others. I’m proud that we’ve created a space where it’s safe and encouraged to prioritize wellbeing.
Kyle Waters is the CPO and Co-Founder at Ash Wellness, a B2B at-home diagnostic testing company. He oversees product management, internal operations, and client success. Kyle holds an MBA from the Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management. He lives in Ithaca, New York with his partner. Prior to Ash, Kyle worked as a senior consultant for Deloitte Digital.