20 Years, 20 Leaders: Ellen Stang, MD
"You have to knock on a lot of doors for the right one to open."
Our connection to the experiences of those who came before helps to define the present and future of medicine. The Foundation is celebrating 20 years by joining in conversation with 20 women leaders in all aspects of medicine to understand their stories and how their experiences will shape the next generation.
Ellen Stang, MD is the Founder, President and CEO of ProgenyHealth, the market leader in evidence-based care management solutions for premature and medically complex newborns.
Here's what we learned from Dr. Stang:
Why did you choose to go into medicine or your related field?
I decided to go into medicine in my early teens when I volunteered as a candy striper at my local hospital. When I was in ninth grade, I actually wanted to do more – I wanted to be an orderly in the operating room. There were some male high school friends in my class working as orderlies during the summer and they were getting a lot of exposure to how medicine was practiced. When I asked the head of volunteers at the local hospital if I could be an orderly too, I was told that I couldn’t because I wasn’t a doctor’s son.
If that’s the rule, I thought, I’d find another way. So I went back and became a candy striper. I told the volunteer manager that I really wanted to see what a career in medicine would be like and asked if I could volunteer in the emergency room. She said yes. I got a lot more experience than I would have as an orderly, and the ER was where I fell in love with medicine. I saw young and more seasoned doctors in action, and I learned that I could handle the blood and guts, too. It was a fantastic experience.
As far as my journey to founding my company, ProgenyHealth, I fell in love with pediatrics when I was in medical school. I loved working with children who are joyful and resilient, as well as playing an integral part in the life of young parents and their families.
After almost a decade in private practice, I transitioned to a medical director role working in Medicaid managed care. In this new role, I realized that I could have a broader reach and positively affect more lives than I could through my small private practice. In this role I saw many young, single parents not getting the support they needed when their premature infants were discharged. They just weren’t getting the tools and emotional support they needed to keep their newborn healthy and out of the hospital.
I knew there was a better way. An infant admitted to the NICU has ongoing health care and support needs that do not end at NICU discharge. There’s more to do. So I founded ProgenyHealth, which today is the market leader in evidence-based care management solutions for premature and medically complex newborns. At Progeny, we manage NICU graduates throughout the first year of life. Doctors appreciate knowing there’s extra support service available post NICU discharge, and parents like knowing they have someone to talk to whenever the need arises.
What’s your core philosophy?
I would say that I’m one of those people where the glass is always half full. There’s a solution to every problem - there’s always a way to make things work. That has really helped form my approach to life. If you hit a barrier, you find a way around it. With the right attitude and a tremendous work ethic, you can overcome just about anything.
What motivates you?
I have a deep desire to improve health outcomes for infants and children. In my current role, I can work at scale and touch so many lives nationwide. I’m motivated to have the business grow so we can do more and help more families across the US.
How do you motivate others?
At my company, it’s about making sure that people understand the vision and our why, and ensuring that they’re aligned with our core values as a business. In our case, we are selfless, we will always do the right thing, and we are passionately driven by a greater cause.
We always share our purpose with our team. It’s why we exist, why each one of us comes to work at Progeny every day. It hasn’t changed from the founding of the business; it’s just gotten bigger. We have always been laser-focused on improving the health and wellbeing of the next generation, one baby at a time and one family at a time. It guides everything we do.
I say this because motivation comes from a shared vision. Those we hire are aligned and want to be here for all the right reasons.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
My biggest challenge was getting my business started. You begin as one person with a vision of what can be. You can see it, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You just know you’ll figure it out.
The next step is trying to get out there and convince other people. In the beginning, it’s just you. Your first customers believe in and buy into you, and in the mission of the business. They are the early adopters. They’re the people who give entrepreneurs a chance. We could not make it without them.
I’ve had the good fortune to meet open-minded people who could see that the future could be different. Fast-forward to today and Progeny is in its fifteenth year of business.
When it comes to being a woman in business, you have to work harder and just keep at it. I’ve never let anything hold me back. As I have learned, you have to knock on a lot of doors for the right one to open. Once it does, the company and results will speak for themselves.
You just have to keep climbing the mountain.
Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward.
You learn some lessons the hard way. One failure was thinking that one point of contact for an infant and their family was a good idea. I learned quickly that hospital-based teams and those handling family needs post-discharge are two separate roles and skill sets. We ultimately split the roles between two people.
At another point, we thought we should build our own mobile app. We built one called Baby Trax® that helps us to connect with families, so we figured it would be great. We were wrong. There are many people out there who can build a mobile app better than we could. We ultimately went out and hired those people. Some things you can do and do well, but the lesson learned is to not take on something that you could hire someone to do far better than you could.
Who was your most important mentor(s) and why?
There have been many and it has changed over the course of my career. In the early years of my business, my family and friends were my cheerleaders.
As the company grew, my attorney – and others – were fantastic advisors. I was honored to have been selected into the Ernst and Young Winning Women program, and I connected with many women there. It gave me a place to ask my peers, “Hey, how’d you handle this?” They understood the journey and continue to be a strong support group for me as I scale the business.
I don’t forget how many women and men have helped me along the way. I see women entrepreneurs, who are so bright-eyed and hopeful at the launch of their companies, and I try to take the time to engage and talk to them because someone did it for me. The journey of growing never ends. You have to be grateful for those who helped you because you don’t get there by yourself. Pay it forward.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?
The secret to success is dogged perseverance and there’s no other way around it. When you meet people who are 1,000 percent focused on what they want to achieve, they don’t stop, they don’t quit.
As I built my resume to apply to medical school, I tried to differentiate myself. I worked as hard as I could to make myself well-rounded outside of my academic pursuits. One thing I did was run for and was elected president of the senior class in college. I do think that helped me stand out and ultimately get accepted to a great medical school.
This mindset translates into business. When you look out on the marketplace, you have to ask, "How am I going to be different and how am I going to stand out? "
But you must have the perseverance to execute, as well as the resilience. You will have days where you fall on your face. On those days, you have to step back and ask why you’re doing this so you get your perspective back and can continue to move forward.
How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?
In my company, I define it based on the question – why are we all here? What is our purpose in coming to work every day? All of the talent under my roof is working to improve the health outcomes of babies and the next generation. Sometimes, they’re born with a more difficult start and we need to help set the stage for them to have a healthy life. That’s true success. We’ve done it measurably. We’ve published our results, and we’re proud of that.
When it comes to business success, when we focus on our core purpose – improving the health and well-being of the next generation – it leads to happy, engaged employees and happy customers. On both fronts, I see success when I see our teams focused on our work and our customers there with us. It truly is a partnership that moves the mission forward.
What do you see in store for the future of medicine and related fields?
I think the future of medicine is incredibly strong. No matter how healthcare changes, we still need dedicated doctors and nurses who are the cornerstone of healthcare, to lead people to better health outcomes.
You also need clinicians who understand how hard it is to be a practicing doctor or nurse to get involved in the business world outside of direct patient care. I understand the challenges and how emotionally draining it is to support these babies and their families, and that insight helps guide our good work together, collaborating with medical teams nationwide.
The medical care in the US is outstanding. Our challenge is that the cost of healthcare continues to go up. We need more doctors and nurses doing what I’ve done, those who understand the practice of medicine, to create market-leading companies which are improving health outcomes of patients at a lower cost.
We also need to have more doctors and nurses become agents of change. I hire many doctors and nurses at ProgenyHealth, and hope that as they learn more from being in this company, maybe they will be inspired to become innovators as well and solve the many problems facing the healthcare system today and in the future.
What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine and the medical sciences?
My advice would be to make sure you lean in and have a seat at the table. I’ve been in many boardrooms and often see some women sitting in the back row. I encourage them to come take a seat at the table. The sky is the limit with their career. You can spend your life in direct patient care, but there are also opportunities as your career progresses to apply your skills and talents and do other things, like founding a healthcare company.
Strive for leadership roles, make sure your voice is heard, consider starting a business or becoming a senior executive or CEO of a hospital system. Women have everything they need to pursue these career goals if that’s what they desire.
The Backstory on Dr. Stang
Right out of residency, Ellie founded a private practice with a friend from her residency and worked at that practice for seven years. She then transitioned into her next job as a Regional Medical Director at Keystone Mercy Health Plan where she worked exclusively on the managed care needs of pediatric members. It was here she saw a broken system of support for high-risk newborns and their families. Knowing there had to be a better way to meet their needs, she left her job and set out to found ProgenyHealth.
She is currently the president of the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) in Philadelphia. She has been a member of the organization for the past six years and considers it an honor to help other women founders scale their businesses.
She is also on the board of trustees at Gwynedd Mercy University where she provides a healthcare leader’s perspective on the academic curriculum. She’s impressed by the diversity of the board membership and the opportunity to learn more about the education of college students today.
The two awards that she is most proud of are being selected as one of the 2012 Ernst and Young Winning Women and the March of Dimes 2017 Roosevelt Award for Humanity. For the first, EY picks ten women nationwide who have founded high-growth companies and provides support and education to help them as they scale. The latter is presented by the March of Dimes, a cause Ellie supports because of their focus on helping to prevent premature births through research and education. She was also a 2015 Brava Award winner, which honors top female CEOs, and the 2014 Health Care CEO of the Year winner.