Women in Business Q&A: Fiona Smythe, Vice President of Strategy, mscripts

05/30/2015 05:52 am ET | Updated May 30, 2016

As Vice President of Strategy at mscripts, Fiona Smythe manages a cross-functional team that sets strategy, defines product direction, creates and executes marketing strategies. Her team focuses on leveraging mobile technology to deliver compelling patient engagement and medication adherence solutions for pharmacies. Fiona is passionate about creating mobile solutions that will improve patient outcomes, keep patients healthy and address the global issue of medication non-adherence.

Prior to mscripts, Fiona held several management positions with start-ups and global enterprises, including and Informix Software. Fiona holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Williams College and has done graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I grew up as an ex-pat kid in Panama. My dad was an English biologist doing research for the Smithsonian and my family was very intellectual. At the same time, I went to school with American military kids and was immersed in Latin American culture. Because we were living overseas, my parents sent me away to boarding school in Massachusetts, where I was again, pretty different from the kids I met there. While it was really hard to leave home when I was 14, having to figure things out for myself at that age made me very resilient and gave me a lot of self-confidence. I think the experience of being different; both culturally and ethnically, also gave me a real appreciation of the potential that comes from cultural diversity, but also an appreciation for diversity of thought. Today, if you look at my team at work, I've got someone who's very literary, an architect who moved over to do UX work, woman who started out as a mechanical engineer, and a software engineer. . We're focused on helping people manage their medications to keep themselves healthy, tackling the new field of mobile health in new and creative ways. We many different constituents, of varying ages, and with a varying exposure to technology (a fifth of our user base is over 50.) With that in mind, our apps are available in both English and Spanish, we've worked with the American Foundation for the Blind to make sure it's highly accessible, and we use a lot of help tips to ensure that users understand how features work. We saw that many of our users were asking to manage medications on behalf of their family, so we introduced family accounts. Today, an astounding 80% of those family accounts are managed by women.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at mscripts?
I think there have been two jobs that have really helped me. I worked at a startup that was bought by, and when I went there, I really got a crash course in consumer marketing and customer service. At Christmas time we'd work all day, and then we would all go and pack books at the warehouse until 2 or 3 in the morning. That singular focus on making the customer happy is something I think is the hallmark of a great business, and we emulate that at mscripts. We work very closely with our pharmacies to gather requirements for new product features, and we spend a lot of time understanding what their customers are looking for. The other job was teaching an entry-level English class as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, which taught me to bring both an analytic and an empathetic lens to coaching and providing feedback. When you are trying to teach someone how to write, you have to be very precise and very logic-driven, but you also have to understand how painful the process of taking feedback on something you've worked incredibly hard on can be. I try to bring that to my work at mscripts, encouraging attention to detail, improvement through iteration, and working outside of your comfort zone in order to expand it.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at mscripts?
They are really two sides of the same coin. Growing from a very small to a medium-size start-up was very challenging and also incredibly rewarding. You have to build process and increasingly specialize as you go from 4 people to 70, and that can sometimes be really hard, when you're taking an employee who has previously been responsible for four or five areas in the company and asking them to focus more and more on one. Likewise, it's hard to impose process where it hasn't existed in the past.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
1) Have confidence that you can be the boss. I was having lunch with a friend of mine recently who had a great idea for a company in the health tech space, and she kept talking about finding a CEO to run her company. I finally asked her why she felt she had to bring someone else in to run it. She's a smart, competent, experienced professional, and yet she didn't feel somehow that she could be the top person. This doesn't seem to be an anxiety that men cope with, at least not to the same extent.
2) If you, like my friend, feel you lack an area of expertise that's preventing you from succeeding, hire someone to work for you who can fill that gap. Don't feel you have to be able to do it all.
3) Work with people you like and trust.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
How be a 'maker', how to hire other 'makers', and how to create an environment that fosters creative work. It's really difficult to start a project from scratch and carry it through to completion. Of course, when you are building your own company and creating something completely new you have to do this on an on-going basis, and everyone on your team has to be able to do it too. At mscripts, we often talk about makers and consumers. In a lot of large and medium-sized companies it's easy to become a consumer of pre-packaged work, but if you want to be successful in a small company, you constantly have to build things yourself. Things I do with my team to support this: I give them ambitious but achievable goals and help them set a timeline; I meet with them at least once a week, and often multiple times a day, to check in on their progress; I encourage brainstorming and team cross-pollination; I try to make it ok to fail, because failure should be a waystation on the way to success, not an ignominious end point.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I wish I were better at this! My husband and I work together right now, which simultaneously makes it easier and harder for me. On the one hand, I get to commute to and from work with him, and I see him throughout the day. On the other hand, it's really hard for us to turn off work when we're home. I am obsessive about work, so over the years I've decided I can focus on two main areas in my life well, or try to do more, but poorly. So besides work, my main focus right now is on time with my kids. I put aside two or three hours at the end of the day to do homework with my girls. I insist that we always have dinner as a family. I read to my younger daughter before bed, and I make time to do things with my older daughter that she loves, like walking our dogs or dancing in the kitchen. We ski together during the winter, which is great family time, because they are awesome skiers.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I started working in the valley in 1992, and my experience then was very different from what is being reported on today. I had a great experience of working mostly with nerdy men, and I mean that in the most complimentary way, who were interested in creating new ways of living through technology, whether that was the power of unlocking data or new ways of conducting commerce. I found it a fairly egalitarian environment if you were smart and hard working. However, I've been saddened by the recent press around sexism in Silicon Valley. The challenges that young women are facing now include the same old issues that we've always faced, like glass ceilings or having access to childcare or family leave, but also new issues like getting funding bias and outright harassment at work. As this new wave of highly accomplished young women are coming out of college they are moving into an environment which is weirdly anachronistic in its aggressive behavior towards their aspirations and who they are. I am encouraged that many of them are speaking out on the topic, and I hope they are able to take that experience and turn it into something positive.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
When I was just starting out I had a great female mentor who gave me my first real break, letting me manage the Latin American marketing department for a large software company, a position which was a real stretch for me. Now that I'm more experienced, I find that mentoring others is incredibly rewarding and I enjoy every opportunity I get to encourage other women. If I had one recommendation to young women it would be to actively seek mentorship. If there's not a person in your network who can provide that for you, go out and find someone experienced to help you. People love to give advice. When we were just getting started at mscripts we brought in a great advisor, Ken Ross, who helped us strategize on how to transition from a start-up to a mid-sized company. His ability to mentor us based on his past experiences was invaluable to me individually, and mscripts as a company.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are women I admire in the abstract, like Judy Faulkner at Epic, because they've built large companies, they are tough and smart, and they've succeeded in a competitive marketplace, but I am really lucky to have lots of friends who are women who, like me, have gone back to work after having kids, and done something risky - they've started their own small companies and built new marketplaces. So Mariam Naficy at Minted, who has changed the way we think about and buy holiday cards, stationery and art, Anna Brockway at Chairish, who is changing the way we buy and sell used furniture, and Maryam Mohit at Gemshare (and now Nextdoor), who is changing the way we recommend services to friends, are all women who I deeply respect and admire. They've all started their own companies, balancing work and family, and are really dedicated and passionate about what they do.

What do you want mscripts to accomplish in the next year?
We are partnering with our pharmacies to help patients get access to and understand their medications, and to take them as directed. Around half of U.S. patients with chronic conditions don't take the medications they need to address their condition, and that has serious consequences. Medication non-adherence leads to 125,000 deaths annually and contributes to about 10% of hospital readmissions. It has also been estimated to contribute to between $100 and 150 billion in annual costs to our health care system. We are working with our network of pharmacies to deliver educational resources, coupons, reminders, and lifestyle support directly to people's phones. At the same time, we're using surveys and the data that we gather to understand non-adherence better. So our goals are ambitious - we hope to have a measurable positive impact on the health of our customers, and to provide them with a convenient and easy way to manage their health.