10 Questions with Cynthia Benjamin, CEO of Together Senior Health
As part of our “10 Questions with Redesign Health CEOs” series, we welcome Cynthia Benjamin, CEO, and Co-Founder of Together Senior Health. June is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, making this the opportune time to highlight Cynthia’s work with Together: a digital therapeutic and community platform dedicated to helping people with Alzheimer’s and dementia remain healthy and independent at home.
Together Senior Health is on a mission to help people with cognitive decline, memory loss, Alzheimer’s, and dementia remain independent and reduce isolation. By combining leading research with an easy-to-use, community-based therapeutic health platform that offers evidence-based programming, Together is moving cognitive health forward. Learn more about Together Senior Health and other Redesign Health Operating Companies here.
1. What does redesigning health mean to you?
I have a background in design, which makes the concept of redesigning health particularly exciting to me. One of the reasons that I was initially interested in connecting with Redesign Health is their commitment to deeply understanding the challenges within the healthcare space and reframing those obstacles as opportunities for change. There’s also real impetus on taking action. Both of those elements of redesigning health stem from design principles, which I’ve now had the opportunity to see work quite well when solving problems and catalyzing innovation.
2. What role does curiosity play in innovation?
Curiosity is absolutely central to innovation. You need to be able to ask questions and be open to not knowing the answers. It’s critical for innovation to meet the needs of the people you’re trying to serve. Instead of operating on assumptions, you need to consider what their needs really are. That takes curiosity and openness.
3. What is the most crucial decision you made in the first 100 days of launching Together Senior Health?
Deciding to work with my co-founder and friend since college, Deborah Barnes. She brings a wealth of knowledge about this space, our users, and the history of research conducted within the fields of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss to the table. It’s been a real joy to work with Deb — our skill sets are complementary, and we both really want to impact this particular audience. When serving an older audience, it’s critical that we meet their real needs, build credibility with our customer base, and offer evidence-based solutions. Without Deb’s expertise, our solutions wouldn’t be backed by such substantial research.
4. What’s the most unexpected lesson you’ve learned through your journey as a founder?
Healthcare is an exciting area, and it’s been rewarding to learn how many people working across different sectors want to make a difference. From the business side, at the systemic level, there’s a lot of complexity, inefficiency, and waste — people encounter that and are motivated to try and change it. And on the other side, it’s so deeply personal. Within any group of people, there’s somebody who has been touched by Alzheimer’s, whose grandparent or parent or aunt or friend has been impacted by it.
5. What’s the most important feedback you’ve gotten from a customer or patient? What role did it play in shaping your business?
I bring a human-centered approach to design, so we performed a lot of interviews for our initial proof of concept. We were visiting people in their homes to see firsthand how they interact with their space. We wanted to do an online program, but we knew people would inevitably say, “Oh, I’m older. I’m not tech-savvy.” However, when we went into people’s homes, we were able to observe technology that they hadn’t thought to mention, often a computer but sometimes an iPhone or a Kindle or perhaps something someone had gifted them. So they may have technology integrated within their space, even though it’s not top of mind. It was a good reminder that you can’t always learn from asking questions — sometimes it’s important to observe carefully and experience it firsthand.
One example I’ll share is I went into someone’s home who was having trouble getting online. The IT professional I was with asked her where her router was — and it was immediately clear from the look on her face that she didn’t know what a router was. But when I asked her if there was a box plugged into the wall somewhere, she was able to direct us to the router. You never want to make anyone feel unintelligent. Sometimes you have to observe people to meet them where they’re at and learn what language is accessible to them.
6. What’s the key to building trust with your employees and customers or patients?
I think what’s really important is trying to be your best, authentic self. Being transparent and appreciative and sharing a bit of yourself, including your own questions and learnings, helps people relax and be themselves. It allows them to talk about things candidly without being afraid of making mistakes. When you’re building something together, it’s so important to support each other as teammates and recognize we all have strengths and opportunities to learn.
7. What’s most important to you when thinking about the work environment you want to create?
Particularly when working in a startup environment, it’s crucial to have a learning mindset — much of what we’re doing hasn’t been done before. Obviously, you want to be open to learning from the world around you and have the ability to build on what other people have done. But you also need to be smart about trying new things and not letting fear of failure or need for perfection get in the way of building your way forward. One of my favorite design principles is about iteration. In most cases you can reframe failure as learning — that’s how you grow and avoid making the same mistake twice.
8. What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed in the morning?
After making a cup of coffee, I read the physical newspaper — the San Francisco Chronicle is awesome and delivered to me every morning. Knowing what’s going on locally helps me feel grounded and I can absorb so much more quickly across a spread of paper than I can on a tiny screen, though I also read the national news on my phone. Using both mediums allows me to use each one for its best features.
9. What brings you the most joy — inside and outside of work?
Inside of work, I love hearing anecdotes from our classes. It really brings me joy to hear what people are saying. Not only do they love being together — they’re more mobile, they’ve got more stamina, and they’re doing things that they wouldn’t be doing otherwise.
Outside of work, I love spending time with my family — seeing the kids get older and the family grow. They’re taller than me now (which isn’t a tough feat)!
10. What’s a fact others may not know about you?
I went to an all-girls school for my entire life before college. I got to try everything — sports, drama, and a wide array of classes, learning about myself and leadership skills that carry over to this day.
I also own a couple of really old vehicles. I still own my first car, a 1963 MGB convertible, which is really fun to drive. My husband and I also own an old hippie bus for camping. And I own (but rarely drive) a motorcycle.
After earning degrees from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, Cynthia’s unique career path, which sees her background in design strongly influencing her passion for healthcare, began to blossom. After working as a Product Design Engineer, she acted as the Founder and President of Samson-McCann, designing and producing a range of consumer products. After eight years as the Senior Engagement Manager for the Strategic Decisions Group, the healthcare space began to benefit from Cynthia’s keen eye for design: she held the position of Director of Innovation at IMS Health (where she ultimately led the creation of a Big Data and Health IT growth platform) before acting as the Director of Design and Innovation at the Thrive Foundation. Cynthia has worked for over six years with business and nonprofit teams as an independent consultant, bringing strategic, thoughtful innovation to challenging projects, and has been a Lecturer at Stanford’s d.school for fourteen years.
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