WoW Woman in Health Tech | Suzanne Spence MS, Registered Nurse at Teen STAR and healthcare expert

Interview by Nicole Dahlstrom @nicoledahlstrom

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Born and raised in Silicon Valley, Suzanne pursued a career in health care and worked as an RN in Pediatrics at Stanford Hospital.

Later, working at Stanford's School of Medicine with medical students in their Center for Immersive Learning, she observed that some things had to be experienced, not just taught - even for the best and brightest!

Outside of work, she became interested in women's health after the birth of her children, especially as her daughters entered their teen years, and she volunteered at a community women's clinic in her free time.

What is the idea behind Teen STAR and how did you become involved with the program?

The idea behind Teen STAR (Sexuality Teaching in the context of Adult Responsibility) is to empower teenagers through the guided experience of how their bodies function as adults. As a fertility health literacy middle & high school curriculum, Teen STAR teaches young women to observe and track their menstrual cycles over several months, complemented by a rich social- emotional mastery curriculum, which helps them to become aware of the impact of these fluctuating hormones on their moods and energy levels.

Distinct from contraceptive or abstinence-only based programs, Teen STAR stands out as it acknowledges the adolescents' new capacity for parenthood without judgement or fear and encourages the teens themselves to integrate this knowledge into their operational self- concepts. Teen STAR also includes young men by offering a parallel curriculum which teaches them about women's cycles, and to practice mindfulness in observing and tracking their own feelings about growing up to manhood. I discovered the Teen STAR program when studying for my Master's in Healthcare Ethics and in an attempt to determine the best sex education for my own children and the patients at the women's clinic where I volunteered.

When did you decide to bring Teen STAR to the Bay Area and did you have other members on your team?

After graduating with my Master's in April 2017, I accepted the position of Western Regional Director for Teen STAR. Currently based in Bethesda, MD, we are expanding westward in the U.S. under the direction of Teen STAR founder, Dr. Hanna Klaus, OBGYN. Also on board are my husband, Steve, a semi-retired tech writer, who is a Teen STAR instructor for young men, and my son, Jacob, whose company, New Eve Media, helps to develop Teen STAR's internet and social media presence.

How long did it take you to be where you are now with this initiative?

I am still in the beginning stages of scaling Teen STAR here in the Western U.S. region, having just begun working for Teen STAR in November of last year. Teen STAR itself is backed by 30 years of empirical research conducted by the founder, Hanna Klaus, MD, an OBGYN who has spent her career working in mission territory all over the world. Teen STAR has already been embraced in Europe and Asia, and was chosen at one point by USAID for use in its funded sites worldwide.

What has the biggest obstacle been for starting a fertility literacy program for youth?

Misunderstanding! Some concerned parents and teachers believe that teaching fertility awareness to teens will only encourage them to become sexually active at a younger age. Actually, the reverse has shown to be true.

The focus of Teen STAR is not primarily the prevention of pregnancy, but the maintenance of health. In "Cycle Mindfulness: What happens when you teach fertility awareness to teen girls" Natural Womanhood co-founder Anna Migeon reports how Leslie Carol Botha helped teens in care homes for at-risk girls regain control of their lives by teaching them to chart their fertility cycles. The adolescent woman can rise above feeling like a victim of her hormones if she is aware of their cycling and influence on her moods. Instead of "falling down a rabbit hole" of increased anger, disruptive and self-destructive behaviors in the premenstrual phase, the young women in the author's class recognized that such phases were normal, and only phases-- which made all the difference in their ability to handle them.

The "social" benefit of Teen STAR's social-emotional curriculum has also been observed: A Teen STAR teacher in an inner-city setting recently writing to Dr. Klaus detailed that there had been a noticeable drop in bullying among her students who had learned to track their fertility cycles. Actually, the concern for acting out sexually (or otherwise) with fertility awareness is misplaced. In a 2014 study, virginity was maintained by 97-99% of participants. In fact, Teen STAR does not teach abstinence or contraception, it teaches fertility awareness. In the aforementioned study, 40-50% of previously sexually active young women decided for themselves to discontinue sexual activity, determining that other life goals were more important to them than engaging in sexual activities which might bring about premature parenthood.

What are your biggest achievements for Teen STAR to date?

We were invited by the Newman's Own Foundation to participate in their 2017 Holiday Challenge, a crowd-sourced fundraiser for non-profits. With only a short lead time, and new on the job, our team was able to raise over $2000.00 for Teen STAR! Also, being interviewed for Women of Wearables is a similarly big achievement, thank you!

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What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?

Thankfully, fertility is a space where female entrepreneurship is not only welcomed but appreciated and needed! I find the biggest challenge is getting through the rhetoric on both sides of the women's movement as it is currently perceived. Teen STAR is neither conservative nor liberal, religious nor secular; it is human! It is a curriculum based on a practical psychology which equips young women and men to deal with the challenges of sexuality which we all face. No one can oppose knowledge, least of all when that understanding comes from one's personal experience. If we want truly comprehensive sexual education, no curriculum is complete without fertility literacy. If we women aspire to decide for ourselves what is best, fertility literacy builds confidence in the young that they can make the right decisions for themselves as well. Teen STAR is founded on that confidence. Teen STAR is a bridge-builder which unites women of all kinds in mutual self-understanding and appreciation.

Is the #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?

#WomenInTech and Women of Wearables are both of vital importance to Teen STAR! That is because for the first time in human history, we have the capacity to collect and store enormous amounts of detailed personal data for our interpretation and application. Fertility charting is exactly that! And it is on the rise among women of all ages. In "Fitbit for your period: the rise of fertility tracking" Moira Weigel reports that fertility tracking apps are the 2nd most commonly downloaded health app from the Apple Health store, after fitness apps (like Fitbit). Planned Parenthood has already introduced "Spot On" its period tracker which "makes it easier for you to understand your unique cycle so that you can rule it, instead of it ruling you."

What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?

Work together! Don't let your political convictions or viewpoint of the world get in the way of open, constructive dialogue. Join forces; As women we have more in common than that which divides us and it is in cooperating, despite our collective differences, where we'll find our strength. Thank you to those many women on both sides of the issues who have met with me and made time for meaningful conversation about Teen STAR. Also, be alert to the men around you who support and defend the dignity of women's empowerment without feeling threatened by it. They are a wonderful and often undervalued resource.

What will be the key trends in the health tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?

Wearable fertility trackers are surely on the horizon, which will be evolutionary! Dr. Carl Djerassi, developer of the birth control pill, suggested in his 1990 article "Fertility Awareness: Jet-Age Rhythm Method?" that eventually a woman might conclude that "the determination of when and whether she is ovulating should be a routine item of personal health information to which she is entitled as a matter of course."

Teen STAR has observed that the proportion of women who share this view is on the rise, as evidenced by the increasing use of fertility tracking apps by all women, not just by those attempting to achieve pregnancy. Teen STAR hopes to lower the age at which young women are introduced to this self-knowledge which they have a right to know, being fertile themselves.

The concern with fertility apps now (and even more with wearables in the future) is how they will be used, and by whom. Teen STAR supports young women to understand their own bodies and to make their own decisions, before transitioning to charting on an app which may actually be co-opted from serving her individual needs to serving purely market or socio-politically based motives.

The Spot On period tracker mentioned above is one cautionary example: It not only allows users to track and predict periods, therefore better understanding their menstrual cycle, it also assists them to "manage their birth control" with built-in reminders to take and refill prescriptions for birth control at Planned Parenthood. Teen STAR questions such use of personal protected health information (PHI) and sees a possible breach of the patient-provider relationship, recommending as an alternative the FEMM app as a perfect complement to Teen STAR’s independent philosophy, which allows users to share their data only if and when they choose.

Who are your 3 inspirational women in health tech?

Dr. Hanna Klaus, founder and Executive Director Teen STAR; Dr. Pilar Vigil, founder and Medical Director FEMM Health (Fertility Education & Medical Management); Nicole Dahlstrom, founder and CEO FemTech Collective.

 

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Website: http://teenstar.org/

Facebook: Teen STAR

 

 

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