Conscious Entrepreneurship: May I introduce Kurt Waltenbaugh

Conscious Entrepreneurship: May I introduce Kurt Waltenbaugh

CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP — What meaning do you give this term?

“Conscious entrepreneurship” is at the heart of being an entrepreneur. As entrepreneurs, we must be conscious of the world around us and the impact of our actions. For example, at Carrot Health, we are acutely aware there is power — and potential consequences — in using data modeling. For example, Optum (UnitedHealth Group) used models based on historical medical spend to identify future risk. The models were biased against populations with limited access to a doctor (i.e., lower spend), such as BIPOC communities. As an unintended consequence, the models tended to recommend more services to white members than BIPOC members. Failing to understand the bias in your data can result in critical mistakes and, in this case, perpetuate systemic racism.

Knowing that every data model has systemic bias and racism, we must be careful how data is interpreted and applied.

When viewed through this lens, conscious entrepreneurship is Carrot Health’s core driver. We choose to use our data to do good and improve health outcomes for the lives of many. If a customer/client asks to use it differently — perhaps to deny someone insurance coverage or justify an unsubstantiated premium increase — we say no. Our data is (and should always be) used to identify and help remove barriers keeping people from leading healthier lives.

MENTORS — We all need a little help along the journey. Who has been an invaluable mentor for you? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Throughout my journey, I’ve often worked in small, insulated groups with customers and employees scattered across the country. The lack of local connections made it a challenge to find mentors. But more than 20 years ago, I connected with someone who helped fund one of my startups. This connection led to a partnership and he stepped into the role of CEO and mentor. To this day, I see his influence in my own approach to business. For example, he hired a coach who taught me how to be a leader. Now, I’m passing these lessons onto two younger individuals in my company — and I’ve brought in that same coach to work with them. To see and share the impact he had on me has been eye-opening and fun.

CAUSE — What are the causes close to your heart, and you are supporting right now? Can you share a story how you got involved? How did it make you feel?

Causes impacting public health and safety are closest to my heart, both personally and professionally. I live in Minneapolis, where I witnessed the dual impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. This pushed me to look at why these events occurred. During my quest, it became clear that public health and safety crises are significantly influenced by social determinants of health and by excluding disadvantaged individuals and communities from the conversations around them. In Minneapolis, homelessness in Black and Native American populations is three times greater than it is among whites. Add in disparities in healthcare access and public safety, plus inequality in nutrition and education, and you begin to see the pattern leading to the crises that rocked our nation in 2020.

I saw a microcosm of this when a neighbor lost her job during the pandemic. Eager to make a difference, she reached out to help others around her, revealing another 180 families close to her who were also struggling due to job loss and other issues. She enlisted her network to help and my family joined, assisting with the delivery of 100 Thanksgiving meals to the families within this network. She recruited neighbors and colleagues to help and today, all 180 families have been “adopted” by others with the means to provide support to get through the winter — including holiday presents for their kids. For our adopted family, we provided bedding, drapes, towels, clothing, and gifts for their six kids. She’s also working with local retailers, including one which donated 180 holiday meal baskets. It’s been very rewarding and, more importantly, it’s exposed my kids to the needs that exist outside our little bubble.

THE FUTURE — How do you see the face of entrepreneurship in 5 years? How do companies /brands need to adapt to secure their place in the future?

The concept of entrepreneurship hasn’t changed for centuries. Today, brands and companies must adapt by finding a need and filling it. If we take a step back and look at the current economic environment, we see winnings are falling to a shrinking group of companies that have access to a greater amount of investment capital. This makes it much harder for entrepreneurs outside this group to find a financial foothold to innovate and operate. This dynamic also created a unique challenge for companies wielding this power: How do we avoid stifling creativity for the next generation of entrepreneurs? Companies need to reach back and successfully pull others up the ladder rather than hording resources.

Entrepreneurs, as a breed, are inherent optimists. I have no doubt we will bounce back from the economic fallout of the pandemic. But it is a setback, especially for those without access to sufficient capital. In many communities, a significant number of small businesses, especially neighborhood restaurants and bars, are going to go out of business. As we emerge from the pandemic and discover that the places where we once congregated are gone, we’ll be confronted with the new challenge of rebuilding these small businesses. It will require capital — something larger chains or businesses can easily access that clears the way for a faster reopening. Entrepreneurs and smaller businesses will struggle to rebuild at a pace that lets them keep up. As a result, we’re going to see a tilt toward corporate-backed businesses vs. the family-owned ventures that are often the backbone of a community. To restore the character of a community, those who haven’t been as deeply impacted by the economic devastation of the pandemic need to find ways to lift our neighbors and peers to help them get back in business.

ADVICE — What kind of advice would you like to give to an aspiring entrepreneur who feels limited due to their background or lack of resources?

Be persistent. It’s the main attribute that makes a successful entrepreneur — that ability to put your head down and keep doing what you’re doing. This holds true even during times when you’re not yet able to pay salaries, a time made more stressful when you don’t yet have the personal financial resources to forgo a paycheck. Luckily, entrepreneurs are uniquely able to tighten their belt and get through it.

It can also be challenging for entrepreneurs who are starting their business fresh out of college or without deep experience and expertise. It can be hard to convince prospects to take the chance on something new. But it’s possible, especially if they can figure out how to combine insights from different disciplines they know and use that as a springboard for innovation. For example, at Carrot Health, we identify and solve healthcare problems through a data lens, which is something I learned during my early days in retail. Coming at a problem with solutions derived from different disciplines helps cross-pollinate industries that need to be re-energized, such as healthcare.

Another thing you can do from a resource perspective is go to the customer. I’ve always valued the customer over the investor. Focus on finding ways to best serve the customer, even if it’s something too small to pay the bills. Doing so lets you learn how to deliver what the customer wants. Then you can go to the investor and say, “This is what I can do. Now help me figure out how to scale it.”

The first contract we signed at Carrot Health was for $9,000. We put in tons of hours of work for that $9,000. But it was important to get that first customer to write even a small check, because they then expected value for that expenditure — value we delivered. Getting this kind of financial commitment is the best way to get more traditional, risk-averse companies to put their trust in your startup.

CHALLENGES — Entrepreneurship is very challenging. We each have our own coping mechanism. Mine is humor. What is yours? Can you share a story?

My coping mechanism is my bicycle. Especially during the pandemic, it’s been important to get a change of scenery. I love my family, but there are days when I need to see other faces. That’s when I get outside and on my bike. In 2020, I rode over 3,000 miles. That’s double the distance I’ve ever ridden in a single year. It’s been fun to keep track of that. I look forward to getting on the bike and just go for an hour or two.


Demee Koch about the MEDIUM interview series on CONSCIOUS ENTREPRENEURSHIP:



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