Talk about all in the family. For Ran Ma, who comes from three generations of doctors, healthcare is in her blood.
“The expectation for me was to go to med school like every other nice Chinese girl," Ma tells SWAAY with a laugh. “But at the end of the day, I wanted to find my own path. I really appreciate what doctors do but I wanted to make a difference more on the prevention side. I wanted to help give people the tools to do something about their health before they have to get cut open. I wanted to work higher up in the healthcare chain."
After working in a wound lab where she did a lot of research on diabetic foot, Ma says she found her calling. “It stuck in my head," she says, about the issue in which high blood pressure leads to nerve damage in the foot. “People in the medical industry know that diabetic foot is a very traumatic, expensive, life-threatening problem, but it's very preventable."
Siren's first smart sock protype
With that idea in mind, Ma, who studied biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, decided to revolutionize the way diabetes patients monitor their health at home by introducing a smart sock that would help detect temperature changes in feet. In February of 2015, Ma began officially launched her company, Siren Care, which is designed to offer practical solutions to health issues through wearable technology. Ma's first prototype, which she today laughs about and describes as “hideous" was built after hours of research and her own development with a mix of parts she bought online.
“It was very painful, very hard at the beginning. I worked for a couple other start ups when I decided to do my own thing. It was a New Year's resolution. I told myself I'm going to work out and I want to start my own startup."
In March, 2015 Ma went to DFCon (Diabetic Foot Conference) with her homemade prototype to meet with podiatrists and surgeons. “They didn't know what to think of me," says Ma. “I started talking to doctors. I went back with their feedback and worked on another version."
This time Ma paid a professional to make the product, and she switched out the electrical parts and wires for smaller, more streamlined versions. Then, she went back to the conference the following year and unveiled her newest version. At this point, Ma says the reaction to her concept was even more positive.
“The sock got a little better, a little smaller, and a little more refined each time," says Ma, who subsequently brought on board two co-founders; CTO Jie Fu and COO Henk Jan Scholten, as well as an Industrial Designer to help take her to the next level. “Then I really reached the limit of my prototyping abilities," says Ma, adding that the company is currently seeking a head of growth.
Today the Siren Smart Sock, which sends a signal to a corresponding app should there be any significant change in your foot temperature, is making waves across the globe. It is available on the company's website for pre-order.
“I just started doing research," says Ma. “I made lists and kept coming back to diabetic foot and wearables I had all these ideas."
According to Ma, a big springboard to her brand's success was winning the Techcrunch Hardware Battlefield competition. After her subsequent feature in the magazine, Ma says Siren's website traffic exploded, and the product became one of the most popular articles on Reddit.
“The news about what we do is spreading like wildfire around the world."
“We are getting inquiries from as far as the Middle East, Russia, Mexico, Iceland, and Korea," says Ma, adding that she is plans to roll out in Europe next, followed by Asia. “Diabetes can happen to anyone anywhere. It touches the lives of so many."
“Our technology has a lot more uses than diabetic foot," says Ma, who plans to expand her line to include more intelligent undergarments. “I'm very passionate about prevention and health care and adjacent industries. There are many health issues that affect a lot of people, including the elderly who live with chronic disease. I want to make sure we have dignity in our older years and have devices that are easy to use and can detect things for you."
When it comes to funding, Ma says she raised about half a million in the summer of 2016, then joined an accelerator soon after. She is currently raising her seed round as is hoping to close a “significantly larger" investment in the next few weeks.
“We call ourselves consumer healthcare brand/company," says Ma, about her hybrid B2B and B2C brand proposition. “At the end of the day we need to make consumers happy, no matter who we sell to. That's what I care about."
For Ma, the biggest motivator for pushing her company forward continues to be the people she helps with her product introductions.
“I work with patients who have ulcers and have been bedridden for months trying to heal ulcers," says Ma. “They can't go to work. They're living in fear because they don't know when they will have the next ulcer, and by the time they see a doctor it's too late, surgery is the only option. We've come in and the response has been very happy and emotional."
"We want to help people. We want them to stop living in fear."
“I started with the problem," says Ma. “Then I built the technology to solve it."
"Just keep doing what you're doing and one day you will get there."
When asked what words of advice she would give to young entrepreneurs following in her footsteps, Ma says simply, “Never give up. No matter how hard it is. When I started people laughed at me. They said “what are you doing making socks in your bedroom? You're crazy. You could get some other job, but I didn't give up."
Ma, who will be making an academic presentation at DFCon 2017, adds that entrepreneurs shouldn't be afraid to put themselves out there, regardless of which point of the launch journey they may find themselves. "When I went to the conferences with my crazy prototype people laughed at me," says Ma. "But every conference I went to it got better. As long as you keep making progress no matter how small, don't give up."
The Quick 10
1. What app do you most use?
I live the Tenderloin area of San Francisco and a lot of packages get stolen. The Doorman app is really useful so I can schedule deliveries for when I am at home and I can make sure my packages get to me in one piece.
2. Briefly describe your morning routine.
I have two types of mornings: day without presentations when I wake up 15 minutes in advance, shower, get dressed, run to work, and days with presentations when I wake up an hour and a half earlier to do hair, makeup, put on heels and a dress, land take Lyft or Uber to work.
3. Name a business mogul you admire.
Elon Musk. His vision is so big he's almost borderline crazy. I admire that!
4. What product do you wish you had invented?
Penicillin. It's one of the major milestones in modern medicine and has saved millions of lives.
5. What is your spirit animal?
Tiger. Just like my Chinese horoscope. Fearless.
6. What is your life motto?
"Never give up!"
7. Name your favorite work day snack.
8. Every entrepreneur must be what to be successful.
"Willing to take risk"
9. What's the most inspiring place you've traveled to?
Silicon Valley. I knew this is where I was going to learn how to build my company and where I was going to build it. That was three years ago.
10. Desert Island. Three things, go.
Laptop, power generator, some way to connect to the internet.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.