No risk, no gain is a mantra Dr. Sumbul Desai swears by. She believes in getting ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable’. As a woman in STEM, her journey has been one for the books, considering the different
trajectories her endeavours have taken. At Apple, she oversees the company’s global healthcare initiatives involving clinical product development, innovative partnerships and medical research. She is also a mother, and strongly believes in women reclaiming their voices in every space. Especially, in leadership positions.
“We are never finished products as women. And our super- power is this ability to constantly push and evolve and reflect on whether we belong somewhere or if we’re doing it right,” remarks Dr. Sumbul, in a hearty chat with ELLE India where she talks about her life, career choices, the India connect and more.
ELLE: Tell us more about your unconventional career path and your foray and your foray into medicine and healthcare.
DR. SUMBUL DESAI (DR. SD): Interestingly, both my culture and my family played big roles in shaping my career decisions. As a first-generation Indian growing up in the United States, I was expected to pursue medicine or engineering, which were stable professions to my parents. However, journalism was my first love.
To make both parties happy, I enrolled in an engineering school with a major in computer science and a minor in communications. In my third year of college, I landed a broadcast intern- ship with ABC news. I worked weekends at a local TV affiliate in Albany, New York for the ‘Good Morning America’ Sunday show. The gig inched me closer to my dreams, eventually turning into a job offer.
Soon, I got more interested in the business, the decision-mak- ing and analytical side of operations in a news network, which veered me towards strategy and finance at the Walt Disney Company. However, the year 2001 was life-changing in many ways when during a visit back home for summer break, I wit- nessed my mother suffering a massive hemorrhagic stroke. In between advocating for my mother’s advanced treatment in a low-acuity, rehab hospital and taking care of her, I saw doc- tors, nurses, therapists all come together in a multi-disciplinary process to aid recovery and healing. I realised that the best of medicine requires the extraordinary co-ordination of a musical symphony orchestra.
After my mother’s recovery, I resumed work at the Disney Studios but something in me had changed forever. I wanted to help individuals feel empowered about their personal health and that of their loved ones which drove me to medical school at Stanford. That’s where I worked closely at the intersection of health and technology.
ELLE: What was your reaction when Apple extended its offer to you?
DR. SD: I always liked solving complex problems using technolo- gy but never really premeditated my career path to mirror it. So, when Apple approached me, it was certainly a ‘pinch-me’ mo- ment but I was also torn, to be fair as I loved my work at Stanford.
ELLE: How does Apple’s Health X Tech model create the right synergy in the products it delivers?
DR. SD: Designing advanced, science-backed, evidence-based solutions while keeping a simple user interface in our products is a top-notch priority at Apple, where privacy is a key tenet. Health is fundamentally made of everyday small habits adding up and therefore, the goal is to have users be in full charge of their secure health data centralised in the Health feature.
ELLE: This sounds fascinating. Could you elaborate more on how this applies to users?
DR. SD: At Apple, we deeply value the insights of the medi- cal community, which is why, some of our health features are developed in close partnership with physicians, experts and medical bodies. Having said that, these do not replace actual clinical supervision. Instead they only help forge a meaningful connection between users and their health info.
For instance, our cycle tracking feature for women users factors in the lesser-covered GI symptoms or chills associat- ed with menstrual cycles. Walking Steadiness is another such feature that tracks mobility patterns to assess fall risk in users across ages. Similarly Handwashing proved to be particularly beneficial during the pandemic. Other critical built-in indicators such as blood oxygen, irregular heart rate or ECG readings on iPhones and Apple Watches can be shared with consulting physician(s) for expert advice and those users choose to inform about their overall health status via snapshots.
ELLE: Tell us about your Indian roots and what binds you to the community back home.
DR. SD: Oh, I love to express my Indianness at every chance I get! I’m still quite comfortable with Hindi and mind you, I can negotiate well with shopkeepers in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar and South Ex. I was very close to my grandparents and spent a lot of time with my nana who was a professor at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. Frequent trips back home while growing up meant bonding with the extended family as well.
My deep-seated curiosity about how things worked in India even led me to shadow media and health professionals while visiting to learn a great deal about the country. Married to a Gujarati, I love cooking a full-course meal incorporating a mix of cuisines for my children while also making sure they get a taste of their culture.
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