It's All About Equity: Health Innovation Meets the Global Marketplace
Anika Penn ‘99
Founder of Frontier Health & Smith’s 1st Alumna Entrepreneur in Residence
When Anika Penn ‘99 graduated from Smith she never expected to end up pursuing a career in the health industry. When she first applied to Smith, Anika thought she was going to major in government and focus on civil rights with the dream in mind of one day becoming the head of the Children’s Defense Fund. But after taking a diverse range of classes, African American history and Chinese language and literature sparked her interest most. When Anika graduated from Smith she started her career in civil rights advocacy and policy in Washington D.C. — a job that turned out to be too slow-moving for Anika’s taste. Quickly realizing that federal policy work was not for her, Anika ultimately started a position at an organization that promoted adolescent reproductive health throughout the world. “I had never even thought about working in global or public health at all. It just wasn’t on my radar but it is very much a civil rights and equity issue,” Anika explains. Once the organization offered Anika the chance to begin the job with a trip to London, the deal was sealed. As an 8th generation Ohioan, Anika was intrigued by the opportunity to go to places like Barcelona, Cape Town, and New Delhi to improve countries’ health systems and make healthcare more equitable.
Upon getting her foot in the door in the healthcare industry and finishing graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, Anika quickly became aware of a problem that combined her understanding of the health industry with her passion for civil rights and global equity.
“The size of the medical device market is $400 billion dollars annually, yet 80% of that market is focused on basically 14% of the population, so the remaining 6 billion people on earth are left with 20% of the market.”
After learning that many medical devices specifically designed for the developing world already existed, but were unknown to the hospitals in the countries that needed them to most, Anika realized that the inequitable global distribution of medical devices is not only an issue of availability, but also of access. This sparked Anika’s idea for her own company, Frontier Health — a marketplace for medical devices for the developing world. “I wanted to encourage the development and production of devices that would work in a Rwandan hospital system, or a hospital system in rural Mexico or India. And you encourage that by making sure that the products actually get to the market, so it’s a supply side issue as well as an investment issue,” Anika says.
Anika’s biggest challenge in founding Frontier Health was gaining access to capital. “For any woman founder, and minority founder, and as an African American woman founder, the number of rooms you get in is far less and the number of skeptics you encounter is far more,” Anika says. The unequal access to venture capital (VC) is an equity issue that Anika has become increasingly attuned to since starting her own company. “Through my entrepreneurial venture I developed a really keen understanding of the lack of access for minority and minority women entrepreneurs,” Anika reiterates. She explains that women entrepreneurs are on the receiving end of only 3% of VC funding. Of this 3%, only 10% goes to women of color.
“Yet, women of color start the most businesses out of any demographic group, so there is a huge disconnect between good ideas and capital, which contributes to this huge, several hundred year wealth gap,” Anika adds. “White guys don’t have a monopoly on good ideas, they just have a monopoly on capital, so I want to fix that and I don’t know how.”
Anika emphasizes that founding any company is not an easy journey and requires coach-ability and adaptability. The saying that, as an entrepreneur, the lows are lower and the highs are higher is one that accurately speaks to Anika’s experiences. “Your best day is better than any day you could ever have working for anyone. But on your worst day, you feel like nothing will ever be okay,” Anika reflects. Yet, Anika emphasizes that diving into any entrepreneurial endeavor with passion is incredibly rewarding. In late 2018, Anika made the brave yet difficult decision to shutter Frontier Health. While she considers her next opportunity, and explores ways to address the inequity in capital access, Anika will serve as the inaugural alumna Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Smith College. Her advice for anyone who is thinking about starting their own company:
“talk to as many people as possible. Start taking people for coffee because for the price of a latte you can get hours of expert advice.”
Anika Penn ‘99
Anika Penn ‘99 graduated from Smith with a major in Afro-American Studies and a minor in East Asian Languages and Literature major. She received a master’s degree in International Relations, with concentrations in International Economics and China Studies from Johns Hopkins University. Her 20-year career has spanned the fields of HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, medical research finance and ethics, and human rights policy and led her to found her company, Frontier Health in 2015.
Anika will start her EIR at Smith College on Monday, March 4th. During her residency she’ll work with Smith entrepreneurs to help them prepare for the upcoming Smith Prize in Entrepreneurship, Draper Competition and more.
Connect with Anika on LinkedIn