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Joella Almeida: Advocating for Equality of Access to Entrepreneurship and Health

The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent personal and economic impacts have, no doubt, had vast ramifications on daily life for both individuals and businesses—a fact sadly truer for some Canadians more than others. Fortunately, there are leaders like Joella Almeida, whose work—which focuses on equitable access in both the non-profit sector and through a health-tech start-up—could not be timelier.

Through her role as a director of strategic partnerships with the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce (CanWCC), Almeida works to enhance opportunities for women entrepreneurs and business owners to overcome commonly faced challenges, including systematic barriers to success and a lack of community connection. In 2019, Almeida also co-founded MedEssist, alongside Michael Do, whose inventory-based platform is playing a critical role in the current COVID-19 vaccine distribution to Canadians, connecting patients to doses based on personal risk and priority.

MedEssist has been right in the thick of things amid the current vaccine rollout, having just partnered with the Ontario Pharmacists Association, but Almeida took time out of her busy schedule to speak with The Edge about the challenges women and marginalized groups have faced during the pandemic and the future of digital health in Canada.

In a nutshell, briefly describe your career background and your current work with both the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce and MedEssist.

There is no way I can do justice to this answer in a nutshell! My full-time role is leading Operations at MedEssist, a start-up that provides technology and digital infrastructure to pharmacies solving population scale health initiatives like COVID-19 vaccine dissemination. It’s a unique role where I work with my team to improve the everyday health of Canadians by empowering them to access, understand and manage their health through technology, actively participating in the current vaccine rollout across Canada.

In my longer-standing, part-time role with the Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce, I lead Strategic Partnerships to level the business playing field for Canadian women entrepreneurs across the country so they can access growth opportunities for their businesses.

Have you had a defining moment in your life and, if so, how has this changed you for the better?

There have been multiple defining moments stemming from my time at the University of Toronto and to learn from them has taken a lot of meditating on actions and past intentions but also focusing on what the learnings in each challenging moment were. The strongest thing I could point to is sticking to my core values and beliefs and I’m very grateful for my third culture background and upbringing for enabling me this grounding.

What has led you to want to work with women in an advocacy role and how have you been able to do this through your work with the Women’s Chamber of Commerce?

I’ve studied, observed, lived and seen first-hand how women have still not achieved equity in so many areas of society, especially as entrepreneurs and business owners. The year 2020 showed us that advocacy is incredibly powerful. Through COVID-19, the rise all of North America, we’ve seen a return to grassroots activism and political advocacy play a huge role in garnering change in leadership and actions at the highest levels of government. Right here in Canada, we saw funding disproportionately restricted from underrepresented groups like Black and Indigenous women as well as the LGBTQ community.

The Canadian Women’s Chamber of Commerce surveyed members and produced a report in March at the onset of the pandemic called “Falling Through the Cracks,” that led to the release of $15 million in funding for the women entrepreneurial ecosystem. Throughout the pandemic, the Chamber supported members and the women’s entrepreneurial community by advocating for funding, resources and holistic support for entrepreneurs. In our pre-budget consultation, we recommended the government consider recovery funding, refundable tax credits for mental health expenses and a universal childcare plan; all of which were referenced later in the Throne Speech.

With your vast experience working with women business leaders, and as a woman executive and entrepreneur yourself, what do you think are the main obstacles facing women in the workforce in today’s economic climate?

A lack of financial, operational and policy support. We found that 53 per cent of women entrepreneurs experienced an additional burden of childcare compared to only 12 per cent of men entrepreneurs in a national survey conducted in March, for example. Operationally speaking, women entrepreneurs struggled to balance work from home alongside virtual classrooms during the pandemic that urged for adopting new models in the way we work from home by either offering flexible hours or providing stipends for parents to access services to assist in childcare while working from home. An intersectional gender lens was missing from policy decisions and left many women of color and underrepresented groups with an inability to access government programs and benefits, including financial subsidies and even emergency benefits. I don’t think it’s up for debate anymore.

Research from FreshBooks confirmed this year and showed that on average it took Canadian women-owned businesses ten weeks to rebound from COVID-19 versus five weeks for men. Even industries that are normally women-dominated (e.g., healthcare and social assistance) are now seeing male-owned businesses recovering significantly faster as often they don’t have the burden of care (of family members) placed on them.

Tell us more about the origins and need for a service such as MedEssist. Upon co-founding in early 2019, pre-COVID-19, what was your mission and vision for the company? Has the pandemic since changed this strategic direction?

Our mission pre-pandemic was to improve the everyday health of our patients by empowering them to see, understand and manage their health through technology. We also wanted to do this in a way that eased the process or workflow on pharmacists who are actually the most accessible frontline health care workers during the pandemic. The onset of the pandemic brought our strategic plans to achieve this forward from three years to six months. We were not only able to scale our solutions across Canada despite the move to a virtual environment, but we succeeded at helping thousands of Canadians get access to healthcare services like flu shots across the country despite delays in supply and the ever-changing provincial regulations due to the pandemic. Today we’re solving population-scale health initiatives like distributing COVID-19 vaccines to Canadians through their pharmacies across Canada, and actively through the Ontario pharmacy pilots across Toronto, Windsor and Kingston. However, we’re also providing digital infrastructure for other areas of pharmacy practice as well, like easier access to services such as asymptomatic COVID-19 testing, staff screening, medication reviews and much more.

What developments would you like to see in the Canadian health-tech sector in the near future?

It’s a cliché but Canada really is behind in adopting digital health compared to the rest of the world in some respects. However, the pandemic brought forward a lot of new initiatives and an unwavering prioritization of patient care like we’ve never seen before. Virtual doctor visits, digital consultations, online prescriptions, [and] access to lab work and patient records all saw a huge leap forward that is probably here to stay. I’d like to see stronger legislation around access to healthcare services that isn’t restrictive and even more patient-centered care without barriers by regional and provincial governing bodies but more interoperability that’s built into the design of solutions.

What have been some of the greatest challenges that you’ve had to endure while building your business and what lessons have you learned from these adversities?

During the height of the pandemic, trying to find a sense of normalcy and work-life balance was absolutely impossible, especially as close acquaintances dealt with health issues and remote work robbed us of a sense of in-person camaraderie and physical community. The biggest lesson was how resilient my teams were. I consistently say that working at a start-up and a non-profit have a lot in common—both have incredibly passionate people at the helm, are constantly under resourced but overly motivated, and both attract strong, resilient folks looking to make a difference in the world.

Due to the current instability and an uncertain future, what advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs wanting to start a business now and especially to those who are afraid to do so?

There really is no better time to start than now purely because if you can overcome all the challenges that present itself during a pandemic and are still able to rise to the occasion and start something, you may certainly be able to channel that energy into long-term success. All the greatest innovations were born from tough times. COVID-19 has definitely disproportionately affected women and people of color, however, so if you’re still finding yourself itching to start something now, do it. Your ambition will guide you and you’ll be better for it. Fear is the great paralyzer, so don’t give in; take the leap and in the worst-case scenario you [will] learn something new and gain new transferable skills!

What does success mean to you?

I find success really hard to define, but, at the moment, it’s about being able to live a life that’s authentic to my values of empathy, loyalty and chasing how much positive impact I can leave on the world through what I build at work, my interactions with people and supporting those around me.

Carlie Doan | Coordinating Editor

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