Editor’s note: This is a guest post written by Seattle entrepreneur Chuks Onwuneme, which first appeared on LinkedIn. The version below includes additional material.
I co-founded optimize.health with Jeff LeBrun, initially as Pillsy in 2015, and later pivoted to focus on Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM). Optimize.heath is now a market leader in the RPM space, providing physician practices with the tools to simplify clinical workflows in connected care programs, as well as automation of regulatory and administrative tasks for recordkeeping. In the summer of 2020, we raised a $15.6 million Series A venture round to power our growth, and help accelerate the adoption of RPM.
As a black entrepreneur and CTO in this fast growing healthcare technology space, I have often found myself in spaces where I am usually the lone black person at the table. I have since realized how grossly underrepresented black CEOs, CTOs or other C-Suite executives and founders of VC-backed startups are in this space. This matters a lot, because the psychology of humans is linked to connections, and it’s much easier to follow a trend when you can see yourself in others.
Over the past few years, it has weighed heavily on me to use my voice, recognition and experience to provide a blueprint for people like myself who wish to explore a similar career path. My approach has always been to encourage others from underrepresented backgrounds to see the benefits that could be attained in charting their own pathways in technology, given that talent in technology can be found anywhere in the world. In particular, aspiring to a technical co-founder/CTO in a high-growth technology startup is just as rewarding as any other career path.
Permission is never needed nor granted, just the right motivation to succeed.
So, how did I get here? Perhaps it helps to tell my story, which starts halfway around the world.
I was born and raised in Nigeria, and barely 18 when I embarked on a one-way mission to study in the U.S. for college. As I stepped onto that airplane for the first time, I became fully aware of the weight of those I’d be leaving behind and immediately felt that what awaited me at the other end was going to be life altering. I wasn’t wrong.
I grew up in a place where many of the adults around me were of the engineering discipline, including my hero, my dad, who instilled in me at a very young age that engineering was to be my chosen path.
As I grew older, I realized that I was really good at tunneling deep into specific subjects, most especially anything related to math and science. This translated into exceptional grades, and before long, I became obsessed with competing at math and science competitions.
I was never satisfied whenever I didn’t place in the top ranks in these competitions. One program that sucked up my entire life in high school was the Junior Engineers, Technicians and Scientists (JETS) club. The JETS club was a national organization that was formed to foster STEM education around Nigeria and West Africa, with a particular focus on identifying promising students and helping chart a pathway to a career in the sciences.
In the later part of my high school years, the family of a childhood friend purchased a home PC, a rarity at the time, and often invited me to his home to join him in learning how to work on it. This was a time when owning a home PC was unheard of in the community where I grew up.
We played around and took turns learning how to do basic tasks. I quickly became obsessed with this newfound contraption, and before long I started programming in the BASIC language.
That same year, the JETS program in my high school introduced a computer lab with about five donated PCs, the first of its kind of any school in my town. I quickly became the go-to PC kid, always sneaking into the lab to write programs.
In the summer of 1995, I was selected to represent my high school and state in the newly-formed National Computer Programing Contest, where I placed third overall. This was the first time I had placed in the top 3 positions in a national scholastic contest, and it was at that point that I made up my mind to pursue a career in computing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any adult mentors who could advise me, as computing was relatively unknown in Nigeria at the time.
In those pre-internet days, the next few years were spent researching how I could land a funded trip to study computer science and engineering in the U.S., mostly using borrowed books and talking to wealthier friends who had access to some of this information. This was very rare for someone in my economic strata, as you had to be from a high net worth family to be allowed into the U.S. on a student visa, and I wasn’t.
Nevertheless, I was undeterred because in a country that culturally placed a high importance on scholastic achievements over everything else, I had something that always worked in my favor: I achieved the highest academic results of anyone in my school at that time. In the U.S., that would be called valedictorian.
Despite the very limited exposure to data on U.S. education, my research led me to the computer science program at The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), the only college I applied to because they offered full merit-based academic scholarships to international students. I also couldn’t afford to apply elsewhere.
My arrival in the U.S. didn‘t come without trepidation, as I quickly found myself alone in a new and unfamiliar world, far away from home and having to learn a new culture. I also discovered that I was one of the few black kids like myself in almost all my engineering classes, totally naive to the underlying misconceptions about race in America, and the field I had chosen to study.
I was convinced, nevertheless, that I was on a mission to compete at the highest levels, and a strict focus on my studies led me to live a mostly heads-down-studying college lifestyle throughout my entire time at UTA. One of the strict requirements placed on international students like myself, funded by an academic scholarship, was maintaining a high GPA at all times. Losing that scholarship was not an option, hence my natural curiosity led me to unlock additional sources of academic merit financial awards.
By my third year in the computer science & engineering program at UTA, I started seriously thinking about where my career path would take me. I was not a U.S. citizen at the time, and even though I maintained top grades in my class and was in the honors program, the choices of where I could go were limited, and in many cases non-existent due to U.S. immigration law restrictions on foreign students.
I quickly saw how my American friends had a leg up here, even though I consistently scored better. I was passed on by many internships and opportunities because of my foreign student status in the U.S. I was stuck in a classic non-immigrant conundrum, which was my first major disappointment.
My time in college was quickly coming to an end without a clear future. I certainly couldn’t return to Nigeria after college, as the country hadn’t caught up yet with my education. However, given my unwavering belief in my mission to succeed in America, I finally landed a software engineering position at IBM through its student internship program, where I stayed for the next two years until after I graduated with an Honors Bachelor of Science degree in computer science and engineering in 2002.
Later that fall of 2002, I got a call out of nowhere from a recruiter at Nokia. I do not recall ever applying for a job at Nokia, so I cannot say how the recruiter got my information. I took the call, and heard him say something about smartphone OS development. I had no clue what that was (I was a server infrastructure type at IBM), but I went in for the interview and liked what I saw. They offered me the job, and that was how I got into Nokia, developing for the Symbian Smartphone Operating System, the precursor to everything we know today in the smartphone world.
Joining Nokia was arguably the best decision I ever made in my career, as it opened up so many doors for me. At Nokia, I was exposed to a whole new world, the culture of Finland, where I have many lifelong friends, and saw how my work was impacting many people in the world.
For example, a family living in a rural village somewhere on the African continent could now call for healthcare to the nearest city and have a doctor check in for wellness. A farmer somewhere in a remote Indian village could get real-time prices of crops on his phone and know how to sell his produce in the local market. Kenya’s M-PESA practically kicked off the mobile payment revolution and Fintech in Africa, using Nokia phones.
All of these are examples of what Nokia’s technology ecosystem enabled for real people who had little means around the world. These things were often overlooked in the western world, but the impact was deep in many developing countries, where Nokia was king.
For the first time I was able to tie my work directly to impact, and it gave me great joy seeing people all around the world using products I had a hand in developing. At this time since leaving my home country, I could call my parents back in Nigeria, and they would pick up my call on a Nokia smartphone I helped develop. That was the life-altering mission I came here for.
Additionally, through my employment at Nokia, I became eligible for permanent residency in the U.S., a process which took a few years to complete, after which I became a U.S. citizen. I felt accomplished, and with frequent trips to Europe with my global team at Nokia, life was really good!
In 2011, as the Microsoft acquisition of Nokia was ongoing, I had the opportunity to consider what was next for me. By this time, I was already bitten by the entrepreneurial bug after interviewing so many technology startup founders and reading so much about how people were building the world in Silicon Valley.
However, I had no direct relationships in the Valley. It wasn’t until I met with a well known VC, Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures, at SXSW in Austin, whom I had tracked down from his blog via Twitter, that I was convinced to make the move to technology startups.
I moved to Seattle, and quickly established my footing in yet another city. After a few years with various tech ventures, I met Dr. Erich Huang in 2013 at a mutual friend’s dinner in Seattle. At the time he was working in the cancer research sector, and described a peculiar problem he was facing with trial patients and medication data.
Freshly out of a tech consulting gig, where I developed a bluetooth tracker for a large telecoms company, the idea for repurposing a bluetooth tracker for cancer medications was born. I enjoyed ideating on this potential solution with Dr. Huang, but in the end, I dropped the idea.
Serendipity has happened several times in my journey. About a year after I dropped the idea of building a bluetooth connected medication tracker with Dr. Huang, I met Jeff LeBrun, who had been looking to solve a similar problem of non-adherence to medication in healthcare, and was looking for a software engineer to collaborate with.
Jeff articulated the problem to me in a way that I hadn’t considered earlier, and because of that, as well as his genuine attachment to solving this problem, I decided that it was going to be worthwhile to do it with him. I felt mission driven to devote my time to this problem in healthcare, which claims over 125,000 lives in the U.S. yearly. After more than six months working together with Jeff, we co-founded Pillsy in March 2015. In the spring of 2017, after 2.5 years of R&D, we officially launched the world’s first bluetooth connected smart pill bottle.
We pivoted the company in 2019, and turned our focus on RPM. Our 6-plus years journey together has been filled with lots of trying times, including the current global pandemic. I can’t say that I haven’t been personally affected by it all. The mental toll this journey has taken on me and my family has been unprecedented. However, I have managed to maintain a positive outlook because of the strong support system I am lucky to have around me.
Recently, many people have reached out for mentorship and guidance as they try to navigate through possible career choices in technology. I always default to passing on a message of empowerment. Hence, these are some pointers I often offer to people I speak with, especially to those who can identify with my background and are interested in technology:
- There are no gatekeepers to the acquisition of knowledge in technology, as the internet has become a leveler to the democratization of knowledge over the past few decades. This is a good thing.
- The value of mentorship cannot be overemphasized. Always be curious. Reach out to people who you respect, and ask lots of questions. This can be intimidating, but remember this — you actually have nothing to lose.
- As an entrepreneur, you will make mistakes, so learn to embrace failure and rejection early. You will stick out, sometimes like a sore thumb. However, use this to your advantage. This is likely the hardest of it all, however if you’re easy on yourself, you’ll quickly realize that it doesn’t matter much whether your “failures” are perceived as “red flags.” What matters most is what you learned, and that you tried. Sooner or later, you’ll get to a destination.
- Stay humble. However, you have to believe that you do not always need an invitation to the game. You can start your own game. The reference I always give is that many top tech companies were started by founders who were rejected from a job application, or who wouldn’t even have made it past a technical interview.
I thought it was important to share my story and despite how relentless I may have been, I also acknowledge publicly that this journey isn’t for everyone. The entrepreneurial map will take you through very trying times, and there will come a time when your resolve will beg you to quit.
However, for anyone who seriously considers this as a pathway, the possibilities are for you to imagine. I do not know how the journey ends, neither can I predict how the pandemic will end. However, the one thing I’d always be at peace with is the thought that I embarked on this mission to solve one of the toughest healthcare challenges facing our nation. Looking back to where I came from, I am humbled by it all, but energized by the inherent superpowers this career choice can represent, especially when channeled towards improving the human condition.