People 04 December 2017
One peek at Julia Cheek's path, and you can see she was bound for something big right from the start. But it's hard to imagine anyone could have foreseen how dramatic her rise or how vital her work would truly be. But dramatic and vital it is. Julie Cheek is the CEO and Founder of EverlyWell, “the next-generation health testing platform empowering consumers to order, self-collect, and understand lab tests."
To date, EverlyWell has raised $5 M, making it one of the fastest-growing consumer healthcare startups in recent history. With seventeen employees and thousands of customers around the country, in just one year after launching in beta, EverlyWell has reached millions in sales.
CIO Magazine named Cheek “the number one female entrepreneur to watch" for 2017. No wonder. Prior to founding EverlyWell, Cheek served as the Vice President of Corporate Development and Strategy at MoneyGram International where she the youngest VP in the company, and that's not the half of it.
Photo Courtesy of EverlyWell
Originally from Dallas, Cheek earned her degrees in Economics and Psychology at Vanderbilt University, summa cum laude, naturally. In March of 2016, she relocated to Austin to build EverlyWell, relying on her background in strategy and operations. “I ran corporate strategy for a public company; earned my MBA from Harvard Business School where I graduated as a Baker Scholar; and started my career in consulting," Cheek explains.
Having the opportunity to attend the schools she attended was an important part of her success, Cheek says. “I've been very fortunate to get access to some of the best educational institutions in the world. I was introduced to my first investor by my college roommate. And, as I mentioned earlier, my exposure to entrepreneurship and my classmates at Harvard made me realize that I wanted to start a company. Being around incredible people that were bringing their ideas to life was a big part of determining my own career and life path. You have to surround yourself with people that you can look up to and that can push you to be better."
Success is in Cheek's blood. She says she's always excelled academically and been extremely driven at whatever she set my mind to. “I'm an only child, and both my parents are lawyers. Since I was eight years old, I showed horses and was a competitive equestrian. I sort of always 'marched to the beat of my own drum,' if you will. I retired at 25 from showing horses and finished as a multiple world champion."
Julia Cheek on Shark Tank
"I always graduated at the top of my class from high school, college, and business school. It's a natural ambition that's hard to explain, and not something I always viewed positively. My parents actually discouraged me from taking so many honors classes in high school because they wanted me to have some fun. That work ethic continued into my 20s and now in my early 30s. I think to have a strong sense of self and never-give-up work ethic are two key traits to entrepreneurship." says Cheek.
Cheek's reasons for starting EverlyWell are extremely personal. “After personally having a really bad experience with very expensive lab testing that resulted in little explanation from my doctors, I knew there had to be a better way – especially since managing biomarkers is a top contributor to preventing chronic disease."
Along with a few other passionate people, Cheek launched Everlywell “to redesign lab testing to be convenient and meaningful." She was confident she could make such an endeavor work.
“In the beginning, I wasn't necessarily inclined to take the startup route, but my exposure to entrepreneurship and my classmates at Harvard Business School made me realize that it was possible. For me, I didn't realize that entrepreneurship could be a career path and that someone like me could do it. But being around incredible people that were bringing their ideas to life, made me think, 'I have to try this!'"
Cheek says witnessing the inefficiencies in the healthcare system and seeing how consumers were moving towards taking control of their personal health, as well as having faith that the market was ready, made her realize she had to take the leap. “I knew that if I didn't at least try, that I would regret that decision for the rest of my life. I was super passionate about the idea and solution, but I also looked at the market forces and believed this could actually work."
As one would likely imagine, starting EverlyWell has been equal parts rewarding and challenging. But, Cheek says, she can't imagine erasing one minute of the experience. “I think one year at a startup is equivalent to five years in the corporate world. I've had to become an expert in every function and grow the company and team at a very fast pace."
Because of the nature of what EverlyWell does, launching it did have its unique challenges, Cheek explains. “When you're a startup you want to be disruptive and transformative, but in our case, we are working with people's health and their data. So, there is a level of discipline you have to have from day one that you simply cannot compromise."
Photo Courtesy of EverlyWell
Taking on such a challenging pursuit might be an unexpected from some. Not so for Cheek. She says that she doesn't think a person who knows her was surprised. “My friends say my husband and I are the most risk-tolerant couple they know. He's also an entrepreneur. I also think very, very few people understand what it takes to build a company from scratch, even if you've watched it as an investor or early employee. You really have to be a founder to understand - something I know now.
"As for support, Cheek had that on every front. Perhaps that's what kept her from ever seriously considering giving up. “I am constantly evaluating if we have the right products, right business model, and right approach - but that means tweaking or shifting direction, not giving up. It has never crossed my mind. That being said, I work 24/7 and hope at some point I'll be able to find some balance. The response from our customers and our team keeps me going. For example, we had one customer that utilized our Vitamin D and inflammation test after experiencing inflammation and fatigue. Through this, she learned her hs-CRP was abnormal, and after visiting her physician, found out that she had Thyroid cancer, and she was then able to go into treatment and is now in remission."
That's not to say that she doesn't get criticized. “I get it all the time," Cheek says, “from employees, from potential investors, from media. Most people don't compliment the boss. I've learned to take what's valuable and let go of the rest. If I worried about 99 percent of people thinking the company wouldn't work, then I wouldn't have started the company. It's a bit counter to the idea of entrepreneurship in and of itself. I can't worry about being liked. I want to be respected, valued, thoughtful, and fair."
It would be difficult to talk about challenges Cheek faced and not wonder how the Theranos debacle affected Cheek and her work. Cheek explains, that, “It's definitely a topic that came up while I was raising funds back in late 2015/early 2016. EverlyWell works with some of the most well-respected and fully-certified partner labs and has not created any new testing method. We utilize only existing, technologies, and our labs are both internally and third-party validated through regular proficiency testing."
The most recent and exciting chapter in Cheek's story is her major Shark Tank win, which is as remarkable as it is inspiring. Cheek says she is a big fan of the show and has been watching it for years. One of her investors, Halle Tecco (the founder of Rock Health) and one of her board members suggested she apply for the show, seeing her as the perfect fit – so she did.
The twenty-page application took about fifteen to twenty hours to complete, Cheek says. And, she continues, “there is an extremely low probability that you will even make it airing. But I was really committed and felt like the audience for Shark Tank is where I wanted to tell our story. We have a consumer product, and people don't even know that this option exists for lab testing. We know that our brand and consumer education is incredibly important to our growth, so it was really a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to pitch the sharks for an investment.
You get one shot to tell the story to the sharks and to America. I put a ton of pressure on myself to be sure I could tell the story of EverlyWell in the best light - and ideally get a deal from a shark." Needless to say, Cheek describes being on the show as nothing short of nerve-wracking. As for the result? Well, Cheek says, “We're extremely excited to be partnering with Lori. Her investment will help us roll out an additional twelve plus tests next year. We'll also be announcing several big partnerships, that will all make our at-home health tests even more accessible and affordable for our consumers."
Ask Cheek what she would say to others looking for investors of the grand kind she would advise anyone to choose their investors wisely. “As CEO of EverlyWell, I've been through a few funding rounds, and I've experienced firsthand how difficult the process can be. One of my top pieces of advice for raising your first round of funding is choosing the right type of investor for your business.
Pick your investors the same way you would pick your employees: look for someone who is a fit for both a skill set and cultural perspective. Know exactly why you want to work with them and why they should fund you. You need to know how it fits in with their portfolio and vision - and you want to vet them as much as they vet you. You can waste a lot of time talking to great VCs or angels who just structurally or philosophically don't fit with your company."
Cheek hopes other women will see her success as something they can have to. There's plenty of room for greatness, and here's what she hopes that every woman knows. “Being a female founder can be particularly challenging, but it can also be amazing. I would love for women to know that starting your own company can be amazing and rewarding, and it can be the best career path in the world. I really want to encourage other women to build the life and the business you want."
Cheek's Top Three Keys to Success
1. You know your business better than anyone else. Listen to feedback from advisors and investors, but ultimately remember that you know your business best, and you are the one building it with your team! If you hear a consistent theme, figure out how to address it. But if you take every piece of feedback seriously, you'll never be able to move forward. You have to have a healthy amount of confidence in your business and path forward to be able to stay focused and incorporate advice sparingly.
2. Hold your principles. “It's easier to hold your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold them 98 percent of the time" —Clayton Christensen, one of my professors from business school. To me, this holds true in life and in entrepreneurship. As a founder, you set the standard for the company and the team. You'll make a lot of mistakes, but doing the right thing—in any type of situation—is critical to building respect and being proud of your own actions.
3. Your business is your #1 priority. I am a pretty transparent person, so when asked how I maintain a work-life balance - the reality is that I don't -- and I do not have a goal to achieve that balance. At this stage, my business is a 24/7 job, and from every founder I've talked to, that does not get any better with time and scale - the challenges are just different!
New parents re-entering the workforce are often juggling the tangible realities of daycare logistics, sleep deprivation, and a cascade of overwhelming work. No matter how parents build their family, they often struggle with the guilt of being split between home and work and not feeling exceptionally successful in either place.
Women building their families often face a set of challenges different from men. Those who have had children biologically may be navigating the world of pumping at work. Others might feel pulled in multiple directions when bringing a child into their home after adoption. Some women are trying to learn how to care for a newborn for the first time. New parents need all the help they can get with their transition.
Women returning to work after kids sometimes have to address comments such as:
"I didn't think you'd come back."
"You must feel so guilty."
"You missed a lot while you were out."
To counteract this difficult situation, women are finding mentors and making targeting connections. Parent mentors can help new moms address integrating their new life realities with work, finding resources within the organization and local community, and create connections with peers.
There's also an important role for parent mentors to play in discussing career trajectory. Traditionally, men who have families see more promotions compared to women with children. Knowing that having kids may represent a career setback for women, they may work with their mentors to create an action plan to "back on track" or to get recognized for their contributions as quickly as possible after returning to work.
Previously, in a bid to accommodate mothers transitioning back to work, corporate managers would make a show at lessoning the workload for newly returned mothers. This approach actually did more harm than good, as the mother's skills and ambitions were marginalized by these alleged "family friendly" policies, ultimately defining her for the workplace as a mother, rather than a person focused on career.
Today, this is changing. Some larger organizations, such as JP Morgan Chase, have structured mentorship programs that specifically target these issues and provide mentors for new parents. These programs match new parents navigating a transition back to work with volunteer mentors who are interested in helping and sponsoring moms. Mentors in the programs do not need to be moms, or even parents, themselves, but are passionate about making sure the opportunities are available.
It's just one other valuable way corporations are evolving when it comes to building quality relationships with their employees – and successfully retaining them, empowering women who face their own set of special barriers to career growth and leadership success.
Mentoring will always be a two way street. In ideal situations, both parties will benefit from the relationship. It's no different when women mentor working mothers getting back on track on the job. But there a few factors to consider when embracing this new form of mentorship
How to be a good Momtor?
Listen: For those mentoring a new parent, one of the best strategies to take is active listening. Be present and aware while the mentee shares their thoughts, repeat back what you hear in your own words, and acknowledge emotions. The returning mother is facing a range of emotions and potentially complicated situations, and the last thing she wants to hear is advice about how she should be feeling about the transition. Instead, be a sounding board for her feelings and issues with returning to work. Validate her concerns and provide a space where she can express herself without fear of retribution or bull-pen politics. This will allow the mentee a safe space to sort through her feelings and focus on her real challenges as a mother returning to work.
Share: Assure the mentee that they aren't alone, that other parents just like them are navigating the transition back to work. Provide a list of ways you've coped with the transition yourself, as well as your best parenting tips. Don't be afraid to discuss mothering skills as well as career skills. Work on creative solutions to the particular issues your mentee is facing in striking her new work/life balance.
Update Work Goals: A career-minded woman often faces a new reality once a new child enters the picture. Previous career goals may appear out of reach now that she has family responsibilities at home. Each mentee is affected by this differently, but good momtors help parents update her work goals and strategies for realizing them, explaining, where applicable, where the company is in a position to help them with their dreams either through continuing education support or specific training initiatives.
Being a role model for a working mother provides a support system, at work, that they can rely on just like the one they rely on at home with family and friends. Knowing they have someone in the office, who has knowledge about both being a mom and a career woman, will go a long way towards helping them make the transition successfully themselves.