A handful of years ago, I was working at the Fuqua School of Business and got to spend a lot of my time there with budding entrepreneurs. During this time, I watched students come into the program with wide eyes and wild dreams of pursuing their idea and hitting it big. As they moved through their MBA program, their enthusiasm would start to slowly fade away. Sometimes they would realize their business idea just wasn't a good one, sometimes the idea was good but it was the wrong team or the wrong time, and sometimes students would realize they weren't cut out for the startup life. For anyone who hasn't gotten the memo or gone down this path before, entrepreneurship is hard...really hard.
One of my favorite students to work with during this time was Anne Steptoe, Founder and Executive Director of MedServe, the Teach for America of healthcare. Anne's tenacity to follow an idea that she came to business school with beyond doubts, obstacles, and some failures along the way was inspiring to witness, and now exciting to follow the impact she's making in the healthcare space.
This week, Anne took time out of her insanely busy schedule to have an authentic career conversation with me. Check out her story below.
JF: We met at Fuqua School of Business while you were an MBA student participating in the Program for Entrepreneurs. You had some failures and some success while going through this program. What was the most impactful thing you learned?
Anne Steptoe: I learned that entrepreneurship is a mixture of the right idea, the right person or people, and the right time. I came to Fuqua with a laundry list of problems that I thought needed solving, and a definite narrow focus on great ideas. I learned that I wasn't the right person to solve them all and that sometimes an industry isn't in a place that's primed for innovation. I worked on a venture in my first year at Fuqua that was ultimately unsuccessful. It was a compelling idea, but in an industry I (and the rest of my team) knew very little about and at a time when some of the tools we could have used to implement the idea efficiently weren't normal industry practices. I was the first person to stand up and cheer when a student came along approximately three years later with a very similar idea, but a lot more relevant industry experience and favorable industry timing. She's been successful, and it's been awesome to watch and a great lesson about the many factors which need to coalesce to launch an organization successfully.
JF: Not long after your first venture at Fuqua fizzled, you were back for more! You came back to the table with the passion that led you to business school in the first place and started your second venture, MedServe. What is MedServe, and why did you create it?
AS: We call MedServe the Teach for America for healthcare. Our organization connects recent college graduates with two-year service opportunities in primary care clinics in rural and underserved communities. At clinics, our Fellows help the healthcare team in their work delivery of core primary care services. They also work on community health projects or programs that try to address some of the most pressing public health problems here in North Carolina.
I started MedServe very much as a user of the problem I was trying to solve. I am also a pediatrician, and I experienced a rough transition to medical education. I come from a small town in a rural area where the shortage of quality healthcare isn't just a statistic but a source of struggle for friends and family. In college, I was very engaged in public health, health policy, and community service. I chose medicine as a career pathway because of brief encounters with role models who were physician agents of change in communities like mine. However, the closer I got to my dream, the further apart medicine and service seemed to be. The details or organic chemistry and the wrote memorization needed for MCAT standardized testing were so separate from helping people that I began to doubt my choice. I took two gap years, in part seeking confirmation of my pathway; I took a typical "pre-med" gig and sat in a cubicle for two years, gaining excellent skills and knowledge but not getting much closer to doing the service work I desired to do. MedServe is the program I wish I could have done before I headed to medical school. We work hard to connect young people with opportunities at clinics that engage their existing passions and that we hope are the beginnings of careers in similar service.
JF: Over the past few years, you've worn a variety of hats (often at the same time) as a medical student and MBA student at two of the most prestigious institutions in the country, as well as the Founder and Executive Director of your growing non-profit. How in the world have you balanced all of these varied responsibilities?
AS: As my medical education has continued into residency and my non profit obligations have scaled along with the progress of MedServe, I'd be painting a false picture if I said it has been simple. There are times that I sacrificed sleep and sanity, and I've had to become skilled at prioritizing only those things which are most important to me at a given time. I've chosen to be excellent at those things which I believe are crucial for my success in the very specific path I hope to walk in my professional career, and I've passed up opportunities or learned to be a just adequate performer that might engage me as a learner or a person but don't fit that "crucial" description. That's been a hard lesson as an overall perfectionist and almost career student at this point. Those lessons aside, I think of myself as strengthened by the division between my separate responsibilities than taxed by it. I find the ability to continue my education and take care of patients while simultaneously deepening my passion for making a difference on a public health level, and my enjoyment of growing an idea, engage very different parts of my brain. In the clinic, I get to see some of the biggest healthcare systems issues at work each day. I then have the luxury of stepping back on other days and doing something about a tiny slice of those issues. That combination is very rewarding and a much better fit for me than being wholly engaged in one side of things for too long.
JF: At Fink Development, we define an Authentic Career as one that taps into your strengths, values, and interests. Which of your strengths, values, or interests are most aligned with your work?
AS: MedServe is certainly a passion project of mine and in alignment with my personal values and interests. Growing up in a small community, I learned the value of communal support, and it is a natural extension of that for me to want to give back to communities, particularly rural and other medically underserved communities like the one I'm from. MedServe is also a project that is designed to help young people through the professional development growth period of the first post-collegiate experience. This is personal work for me, having been in a very similar position to many of my Fellows only a decade ago. Beyond the mission of the work and its alignment with my personal values and mission, MedServe has involved building and cultivating relationships and communities, whether among our clinics or our Fellows or both. In any phase of my life and education, I have found myself searching for and carving out strong communities, and this fundamental aspect of our work taps into something I find worthwhile and exciting.
JF: What's been your greatest accomplishment with MedServe so far, and what kind of milestones are you still hoping to achieve?
AS: I am proudest of the "simple" milestone moments we've had because I continue to feel a sense of amazement and gratitude that we've been able to reach them. I was proud to go from an idea on a napkin to getting to meet, in person, the first 12 MedServe Fellows in the space of a year. I am proud to now have watched that first class graduate, all be accepted to medical school, about a quarter of them with significant scholarships and about half committed to primary care, rural or underserved community care track programs. I am proud of receiving our first federal grant funding with AmeriCorps and then watching our classes grow to 50 Fellows in the field at once. I'm very excited for the "simple" milestones to come.
JF: You've already put 50 fellows into the field, and you're currently recruiting for your 5th cohort of MedServe Fellows. How would you define a good candidate for this program?
AS: This is one of the most common questions I'm asked by prospective applicants. I usually respond by admitting that MedServe is a challenging experience: it's hard to be in your first job after college and acclimate to the differences between college and work life; it's hard to move to a new community and put down roots; it's hard to join a healthcare team, a field that has its own language, situations and quirks and where mistakes can be felt strongly; and it is hard to come face-to-face with some of the biggest public health challenges of today and to work with communities that have compelling need and few resources. A good MedServe candidate has any personal or professional experience that makes it easier for them to get up any part of that learning curve, whether it's personal experience being part of a medically underserved community or professional experience working in healthcare.
JF: When you're not busy serving patients, managing your non-profit, or being a generally awesome human being, who would you be interested in connecting with, learning from, or being introduced to?
AS: I am always interested in connecting with other entrepreneurs, particularly founders of non-profits. There is no manual for our field and the closest thing to this is learning from the mistakes and successes of my peers.
Anne Steptoe currently serves as the Executive Director of MedServe and is a third-year resident in primary care pediatrics at UNC School of Medicine.
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