Sophie Smith is the Co-founder and CEO at Nabta Health, which focuses on empowering women in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia to take control of their health at vital stages in their lives with privacy, autonomy and convenience. From working as a Mentor in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, to running triathlons to raise money for AIDS orphans in Africa, Sophie is driven by a desire to have a lasting impact on the world and gives Goumbook an insight into her past experiences and her future goals.
Please tell us more about Nabta Health, how and why you founded it.
We founded Nabta with the aim of empowering women in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia to take control of their health at vital stages in their lives with privacy, autonomy and convenience. Today, we discover new ways for women to prevent, identify and manage non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease that are mostly preventable.
Why the focus on women in particular?
Women’s health has, to date, been underserved and under-researched. Until the mid-1990s, clinical research and clinical trials largely excluded women. Only since 1994, when the United States’ National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated that women and minorities were to be included as subjects in clinical research, has the research community entertained the fact that sex and/or gender differences might affect clinical outcomes.
Today, women using drugs that were approved by the early 90s, are 50–75% more likely than men to suffer adverse reactions to those therapies. Ironically, a significant proportion of the drugs in this category are those designed to treat or manage NCDs. Examples include statins and potassium channel-blockers used to manage cardiovascular disease or hypoglycaemic drugs such as Rezulin used to control diabetes.
So there is a lot of work to be done in women’s health. And every gap in a market is an opportunity.
You have such an interesting background, from working as a Mentor in the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, to running triathlons to raise money for AIDS orphans in Africa, how has all this experience brought you to where you are today?
I have always wanted to have a lasting, positive impact on the world. I spent most of my early twenties trying to figure out what that would look like. Two of the companies I founded before Nabta – Synnapps, which built a doctor-finding platform in Pakistan (myZindagi), and Le Plastics, which was Sierra Leone’s first plastic recycling company – were focused on social impact, but neither was quite the right fit. I’ve had various health issues at different points in my life, and I’ve always had a tendency to support the underdog (which, in so many areas of life, is women), so when an acquaintance on the HealthTech circuit approached me about setting up a women’s healthcare business focused on emerging markets, I knew immediately that this was it, this was the company that I was going to spend the rest of my life running, making that lasting, positive impact.
What has been the impact of COVID on your business and what does the post COVID world look like to you?
The last few months have been pretty tough, for many reasons, and for most people. We have changed our fundraising and business development plans, adjusted our focus to include more COVID content and resources, but we have not let go of anyone – in fact, we have hired more interns to provide some job security and income where otherwise there would be none. But the post-COVID world will be a great place for life sciences and healthcare companies, particularly here in MENA. We have really struggled over the past three years to make people sit up and pay attention to what we’re doing – most VCs have been exclusively focused on eCommerce, logistics and FinTech. Now, finally, funds are starting to actively invest in our sector, and in sustainable businesses in general, particularly those that guarantee security – agritech, communications and population health.
Why do you think SDG #5 Gender Equality is so important can you share any experiences of this?
SDG #5 Gender Equality is important because every person deserves to live a vibrant and fulfilled life that meets a certain standard or quality of life, with access to equal opportunities and equal freedoms. It is the job of leaders in society to discover the hidden biases that prevent people from accessing these opportunities and freedoms. The fact is, women fall behind at every tier in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – in terms of physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation. Our job is to identify those areas in the context of women’s health, across all tiers, and to fix them, so that women everywhere have the time and power to be who they want to be.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in business?
I think my greatest challenge to date has been fundraising, as a woman, for Nabta. In fundraising, as in other areas of professional life, women are judged based on what they have achieved rather than on their potential (which is how men are judged). Thing is, in the early stages of fundraising – pre-seed, seed – the unit economics, which are the tangible metrics you could use to judge a person based on what they have achieved, aren’t there. There is only potential. So, raising money at the pre-seed and seed stages as a woman is really hard – investors are judging you based on something you do not and could not have. Which means women raise less money, give more of the company away, and fewer make it beyond the pre-seed and seed stages. For this to change, investors have to recognise the inherent bias and make a conscious decision to change. Can that happen? Of course. Will it happen? Yes, but probably not until there are more female investors to force that mindshift.
What is the best advice you have ever received when starting out on your career path?
One of my favourite pieces of advice comes from Jeff Bezos: that the best leaders hold strong opinions weakly. Meaning, it is important to know what you want, and want to build, and to pursue it with every ounce of your being. But if what you want proves to be wrong, or flawed, and a better way is found, you must be willing to adapt, and to pursue the new reality with the same passion and resilience. We are not oracles, and we are often wrong. Humility in leadership is essential.
[cmsms_divider type=”solid” margin_top=”50″ margin_bottom=”50″ animation_delay=”0″]
Sophie is an entrepreneur with a background in technology consulting. She specializes in multi-platform application design and development for the healthcare and wellness industry. Prior to starting Nabta, Sophie was the Founder and CEO of SNS Consulting, a London-based business consultancy, Founder of Synnapps, a Pakistan-based software development company, Founder of Dancrs, a mobile app for dance class and event booking, and Founder of the UK arm of 22Four.
Sophie’s lifetime ambition is to have the greatest possible positive impact on the lives of some of the poorest and most deprived people in the world. To this end, Sophie is patron of Kings College London MedTech Society and works in an advisory capacity with multiple healthcare organisations including MedShr, Diabetes.co.uk and the South London Health Innovation Network.