20 Years, 20 Leaders: Sophia Yen, MD


“There's nothing wrong with asking for help.”

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.

Sophia Yen, M.D. is CEO and chief medical officer of Pandia Medical Group, a telemedicine practice that specializes in providing contraception for women, whether they have insurance or not. An adolescent health and reproductive health specialist, she is a clinical associate professor of pediatrics in the Adolescent Division of Stanford Medical School.

Here’s what we learned from Dr. Yen:

Why did you choose to go into medicine or your related field?

To help people. To make women's lives better by preventing unplanned pregnancies. When I was a teenager I volunteered at Planned Parenthood. I ran a test for a 13-year-old girl and it came back positive. I thought about how different her life would be if she had access to birth control and comprehensive sex education.

What’s your core philosophy?

Do unto others as I would have done unto me. Treat my patients as I would my family or myself. Do good in this world. Pay it forward and hope that it will come back. Karma.

What motivates you?

I want to contribute something positive in this world. I want to do good.

How do you motivate others?

By finding out what their goal is and helping them achieve it. By showing them it can be done and they can do it, too. With praise when they accomplish their goals. By sharing with them the consequences if they don't change their current course if they are going down the wrong path.

What challenges have you had to overcome?

As a woman, doctor, academic, mother, and older person in the startup world, I'm seen as less competent, or worthy, or able to run a startup. However, I feel these are my advantages. I have connections via women's organizations such as sororities, Girl Scouts, and mothers’ groups. As a doctor, I have domain expertise. As an academic, I know how to examine data and use that to make my patients' lives better.  As a mother, I know how to get things done. I know there are lots of hours in the day, including evenings and weekends. As an older person, my connections have far more experience than a fresh-out-of-college grad’s connections. I've also had far more experience in leading people and balancing a budget.  

Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward.

In junior high and high school, I ran for office seven times and lost. The first seven times, I was too proud to ask for any help and tried to do it by myself. The eighth time I asked everyone for help, from the young woman in my physical education class who was of a totally different social group, to my friend who had lots of friends, to the guy that sat next to me in math class. And that time I won! I learned that you need to ask for help and there's nothing wrong with asking for it. At MIT, I got back my first test and got a 20 out of 100. I was appalled. But I learned there are always people smarter than you and you shouldn't be afraid to ask for help.  

Who was your most important mentor(s) and why?

It takes a village. At different periods in my life, I’ve had people I looked up to, aspired to be like, modeled myself after, learned from. Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with support from family, friends, colleagues, and others. I am thankful for all their help throughout the years and going forward. 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There is always someone smarter and wiser that you can learn from. It’s easier with more hands to do the work. I don’t know it all and getting other perspectives can have a better result.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?

Making my company succeed. Helping my patients live a healthy life. Empowering women and girls. Helping those around me. I'm working on it and doing it.

What do you see in store for the future of medicine and the related fields?

I look forward to a “Star Trek world” with a tricorder that you can use to scan your body and learn what is wrong. I see fewer visits to the doctor’s office for things that can be handled at home such as birth control, acne, many skin conditions, menopause, and therapy.  

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine and the medical sciences?

Sit at the table. Speak up. Echo your fellow women’s words if they aren’t being heard in a meeting. Help each other rise.

The Backstory on Dr. Yen

Sophia Yen earned her B.S. in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her medical degree at University of California at San Francisco Medical School. She also holds a master’s in public health from Berkley, specializing in maternal child health.

Among her many honors is the Laya Weisner Award for the woman undergraduate who has contributed the most to MIT, and the Outstanding Interdepartmental Faculty Member chosen by the OB/GYN staff at Stanford.

She decided to launch a practice that would offer patients birth control consultations over the internet and delivery of contraception through the mail when she was researching a presentation to a physicians’ group on why women skip their birth control medication.