Interview by Nicole Dahlstrom @nicoledahlstrom
Anke Huiskes has a deep passion for how new technology can improve people’s lives, especially around women’s health. She began her career in the Netherlands by starting her first company at age 22 and sold it after two years to join Procter & Gamble to learn all the ins and outs of sales and marketing in a retail environment. Five years ago, she moved to San Francisco to say goodbye to the corporate life and join some (early stage) startups. She currently works at Willow, a platform of products to improve women’s health, where she is leading the sales and trade marketing. Anke has a Masters Degree (Cum Laude) and lives with her husband and 2-year-old son in San Francisco.
Anke, you are Director of Sales and Trade Marketing at Willow, a platform for products that help improve the lives and health of women. What was the idea behind Willow and your first product, the Willow® Wearable Breast Pump?
All moms want to give their babies the best start in life and for many that means breastfeeding. And many moms find they need to compromise in order to do this. Willow is the first truly mobile all-in-one breast pump that cuts the cords, ditches the dangling bottles, and fits easily inside a bra. Mobile and hands-free, Willow allows women the flexibility to pump discreetly on the move without being tethered to the wall or to a separate pump. Willow removes limits and lets moms choose how to spend their time and live their lives.
Where did your passion for FemTech start and how has your background as both a successful entrepreneur and in leading roles at companies weaved together to support your current role at Willow?
I’ve always been passionate about new innovation and the more I learned about women’s health in general, the more I realized how many unmet needs there still are for women.
In terms of past experiences: being an entrepreneur taught me to wear many hats, and I always look for opportunities that help solve problems. Working at Procter & Gamble in various roles taught me all the ins and outs of retail, from both the retailers point of view as well as from the manufacturer. During my time at Pebble I learned a lot about wearable tech in general, so all those experiences, together with the fact that I just became a mom, blended perfectly to get this fantastic job at Willow.
There is no doubt that you are a very talented and seasoned marketing professional, but in your opinion, how does your own personal experience as a breastfeeding mother assist you in your role at Willow? Do you think it is essential that women have leading roles in companies creating products and services for female health?
I was actively looking for a company like Willow because I experienced the hassle of pumping myself, being a full-time-working mom, traveling, often overseas, and having a strong desire to breastfeed my baby for at least a year. I was so fed up with the existing breast pump models that I either wanted to start my own company or join one, to end the horrible breast pump era.
I was wearing this tiny smartwatch every day that did so much and that I could talk to. In contrast in order to pump back then I still needed to be plugged into a wall. It made me feel like I’m in the ’80s...it just didn’t make sense to me. It definitely helps me in my role to be a mom, because I’m super passionate about Willow and the category in general.
What are some of the projects you are excited about at Willow at the moment?
I love the fact that the Willow App tracks information like milk volume, pumping time, and pumping history. We plan to continuously add features to our App based on moms’ feedback. The other part I’m very excited about is our coaching program. With the purchase of Willow, every mom receives personalized 1:1 coaching to help them achieve their breastfeeding goals. It’s amazing to see the great feedback we’re getting through our coaches.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle? What are your biggest achievements to date?
So, if you would have told me I would be where I am right now, I wouldn’t have believed you. I never really planned my career, but I think I’ve been fortunate to get the right opportunities, and I've given my all to each opportunity. Having my own business during my studies taught me that I like the entrepreneurial side of business; wearing many different hats and always looking for opportunities. After that I joined P&G for 5 years as my first job out of college. I was lucky enough to get promoted really fast, but I had to learn things the hard way as well. It wasn’t always easy to be stretched beyond my comfort zone. It definitely gave me a steep learning curve though!
The move from the Netherlands, where I’m from, to San Francisco, was the best choice I could have made. I had to start all over because I came here without a job or network, but in 5 years, I’m very satisfied to see where I am. I think in many ways the biggest obstacle is not knowing the right people who can help guide you in a new setting, but as soon as you get to that point, many doors will open.
My biggest achievements to date? I’m proud that I was able to start and sell my company during my studies, so I didn’t have any student loans. I’m proud for all the work that I’ve done at Pebble, to start with 0 stores and grow the distribution to 4000 stores all over Europe, by finding the right retail and distribution partners, in only two years' time. It was one big adventure and I loved it. And now at Willow, we’ve had some big wins only one year after we announced the product at CES. At CES 2017, we came home with seven awards of which two were "Best of CES". We were also one of TIME’s 25 Best Inventions of 2017. If you would ask me personally, though, the biggest achievements are the customer satisfaction stories from moms who use Willow. Some of them literally make me cry, because I know how hard it is and how Willow would have made a difference in my life if I had access to it during that time of pumping around the clock.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and digital health industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
The big tech companies are coming to health care. As software becomes a point of differentiation in health care, tech giants have an advantage with expertise in the area as well as direct relationships with consumers.
I also believe that Wearable Tech in Health will become so much more popular. Wearables will get many new and relevant user cases within health care and it’s great to see them become better looking and more fashionable!
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you?
It is just so exciting to me. Women’s Health Tech is a huge market, with so many unmet needs, and I feel it’s only now that people are starting to pay attention. We need more big wins, to convince the skeptics that this is where they want to start paying attention. The more women can support each other by giving them access to capital, network, coaching, the more success cases we will see, the more we all, including men, will benefit from it. I feel we’re just getting started and I’m excited to be part of the movement.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and digital health?
KR Liu. KR was my first manager at Pebble, she taught me a lot on how to do business in the US and in Consumer Electronics in general. She started her career young as a female in the CE space, mainly dominated by men, and knows how to navigate the system. KR helped me land the job at Willow. She works as a passionate advocate for hearing loss access and was at a ‘hearables’ companies previously. I don’t know of many other people who are 200% focused on their cause, she is a great inspirational leader to me.
Anne DeGheest. Anne is the Founder and Managing Director of Health Tech Capital, the Angel Investment Group that I’m affiliated with as an analyst in my spare time. She pioneered the Digital Health space as healthcare executive, an entrepreneur, angel investor, and mentor. She is one of the smartest people I know and is always taking my calls if I need her advice both professionally as well as personally☺.
Naomi Kelman, my CEO at Willow. I don’t know how to other say it than she is a real badass. She is smart, strategic, great with people, she is just a very strong leader. She has many many years of experience leading gigantic teams at gigantic companies like J&J and here I am, reporting directly to her. I feel super lucky to have her as my manager and learn from her daily routines, how she acts in board meetings, client meetings and/or company meetings. She is just an exceptionally good leader.
This interview was conducted by Nicole Dahlstrom, Women of Wearables Ambassador in San Francisco, USA. She has been providing marketing and project management services to non profits for the past six years. Passionate about women's health and fem tech, Nicole decided to leverage her network of established feminine health companies, industry professionals, and leaders in the women's health space to develop a network of support for founders of female health focused tech startups called FemTech Collective. Their mission is to shape the future of healthcare through technology that meets the needs of women. Connect with Nicole via Twitter: @nicoledahlstrom or LinkedIn: Nicole Dahlstrom