Charu Ramanathan’s entrepreneurial journey began when she arrived in the United States to start graduate school at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). While completing both her master’s degree and PhD, Ramanathan worked on developing a technology that would enable cardiologists to look at the heart noninvasively.
While developing this technology, Ramanathan asked herself, “How is this ever going to reach patients?” In order to take their research and develop it into a product, Ramanathan and her team would need to form a company.
“Despite the doubts that surrounded Ramanathan's entrepreneurial experience, she knew she wanted to take this product to market. "I didn't know about starting a business, but I did know the technology inside and out. I knew that it was producing really good results and it could help people."
After graduating from CWRU and completing her dissertation, Ramanathan and her colleague started a company that they hoped could bring the product to market.
“The journey that ensued was much more difficult than and that I envisioned,” Ramanathan shared about this first entrepreneurial venture. “But sometimes optimism can make you formidably foolish, which is a good thing.”
It was this experience that would give her the knowledge and skills to launch her newest company.
Vitalxchange is a digital ecosystem where parents and providers caring for special needs children can partner to help children thrive. On the digital platform, parents are matched to highly experienced mentors and experts to guide them along every step of the way.
Ramanathan explains, “We've picked special needs as the area where we want to transform, because COVID really changed the game for a lot of families that already we're dealing with six or seven different types of providers, from pediatric neurologists, to occupational therapists, speech therapists, etc.”
She continued, “Parents have to deal with trying to juggle their child from different places and there are a lot of mental stressors associated with caregiving. So, we decided to launch Vitalxchange for this group of caregivers. We realized that with platforms that also have health communities, like Facebook and Reddit, there is a lot of information, but it is not high quality. Parents would go from getting thousands of Google results that you have to really parse through, to thousands of highly opinionated answers from average people. Because of that, we realized that we really need to connect them directly to experts or medical care.”
Unlike some other companies, COVID helped Vitalxchange. The pandemic created a paradigm shift in the telehealth aspects that showed people that remote healthcare could create access to good services for the patients. Ramanathan is hopeful that his model will translate to other fields as well.
“Every day we're learning something new,” Ramanathan explained. “We are super excited about it.”
For Ramanathan, being able to hear how her company has impacted the lives of many is what makes it all worth it. “When we hear testimonials from parents that are saying, ‘this is so wonderful,’ or ‘your company helped me do this,’ there's no bigger joy. I truly believe that the joy you get is out of altruism. I really don't think a yard, cars, or a bigger house can give you that joy that you get by helping other people.”
CardioInsight Technologies, Ramanathan's first start-up, was acquired in 2015. After this experience, Ramanathan served as a business unit leader for the acquirer, Medtronic. However, she realized that corporate America wasn’t where she wanted to be. Instead, she was ready for the next era in her entrepreneurial journey. She wanted to do something “really audacious, but at the same time, something that would scale to the global population and transform and disrupt the way that healthcare was practiced.”
Together with her colleague at CardioInsight and fellow CWRU alumni, Ketal Patel, decided to start a new Company.
“We were searching Google all the time looking for [healthcare] information.” With her background and knowledge of healthcare, Ramanathan figured while she may have the ability to easily process health information, she knew most people could not.
“Actionable health information, that a patient can use to make informed decisions, wasn't easy to find online,” she said. “I realized that if it wasn't easy for us, how could an average health consumer really be able break down the information and figure out what it is that they need to do.”
Ramanathan saw this problem as an opportunity. She knew she needed to find a way to change years of “misalignment and practices” in order to better serve the greater community.
Specifically, Ramanathan wanted to make it easier for parents of special-needs children to get their questions and concerns answered. She wanted to provide a peer network, actionable health content, tools and resources to prompt healthcare consumer engagement and action.
“I wanted to do something in the digital realm, something that could be delivered through a mobile app, something that would democratize access to health care,” Ramanathan stated. “That's how we came upon the concept of Vitalxchange.”
Life as an Entrepreneur:
Ramanathan did a deep dive into what it means to be both a woman and an entrepreneur in a heavily male-dominated field.
“It can be challenging being a woman in business,” she explained. “I do think that I have to fight a little bit harder.”
With that a smaller window of opportunity, not only is it more challenging for women to enter into their chosen field, it is especially challenging when a woman has a family. However, Ramanathan stressed that no one should be forced to choose between the two.
“The stats we heard from the pandemic is that one in three women have either left the workforce or are very close to leaving the workforce. That tells me that we need to be more vocal about being a woman with a career.” Ramanathan continued, “When I had my children, I was very capable of being a mother and a career woman. I would say, ‘don't worry about my productivity, I’ll get it done.’ Women often apologize for having a family and there is no need to apologize.”
This same mindset of empowerment carries over into Ramanathan’s own company.
She stated, “Vitalxchange is enabling women by providing solutions. Anytime you provide childcare or caregiving solutions, women benefit. Our company empowers women to continue being productive, while reducing their absence in the workplace. As a result, they can be promoted rather than punished for taking time off to take care of their kids.”
With all that being said, Ramanathan wants women to continue embracing who they are and proving just how capable they are.
“I think the biggest thing is to embrace being a woman. If you can’t show up for a board meeting or leadership meeting, just say I can't and that’s perfectly okay. I think we should stop feeling embarrassed for doing womanly things. We need to continue to assert positions of power and embrace it.”
Ramanathan credits her experiences at CWRU’s graduate programs for helping her excel in her career.
She recounts her time at the university stating, “Some of my most favorite memories were actually in the lab and not in the classroom.” She continued, “It was really a world class lab, I learned a lot about how to be tenacious and how to actually get things done.”
For Ramanathan, her time at CWRU enabled her to think of schooling and learning differently.
“I think I've really learned how to be a learner from CWRU. So that was really a moment of transformation for me.” She continued, “I transformed from a bookworm where I was told what to learn and what I should study to realizing that learning is just as much about originality, creativity and self- motivation as anything else.”
Ramanathan emphasizes that CWRU students should always do what is right for them when choosing a career.
She explained, “You need to have more fulfillment.It's really important that you think about your career as a marathon and not a sprint. If you want to climb the corporate ladder, you know, go for it if that's what makes you happy. But do it because that's what makes you happy, not because someone said that's what you are supposed to do.”
She also mentioned the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people. “The journey is super hard. Really surround yourself with mentors—people that you will look up to and that you can talk to. They don't have to be career specific. They can be life specific. They can be anyone to help you get the balance that you need.”
And above all else, Ramanathan hopes that CWRU students never stop learning.
“Be prepared to learn,” she stated. “As long as you're a lifelong learner, you will always move forward. When complacency sets in, that’s when you just start accepting and start making excuses based on somebody else's success.”