“The most worthwhile problems to solve are complex. They're beautiful because there is not one way to solve it. If you continue to think in just one way of trying to solve complex problems, the best solution won't present itself.”
Shaka Bahadu is the COO & Co-Founder of Cipher Skin, a high-tech company that revolutionizes the way data is collected and analyzed on the human body or any physical object. Shaka is an experienced operator and also holds several degrees including a Bachelor's from Harvard, an MBA from Stanford, and an M.D. from Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan.
Your original interest was in medicine. Where did that start?
I was born in L.A. but I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. My father was a firefighter and my mother was a nurse. My mother died of breast cancer when I was eight. Due to this tragic and traumatic event, I felt compelled to become a physician because I didn't want other people to have to deal with what my father, my younger sister, and I dealt with. It was devastating. At that time, there wasn't much of a philosophy of hospice care and dignity in death. It really drove me to find a solution. I ended up working really hard in high school and got into Harvard. I remember the very first day of college, the Student Body President at the time, Neil Rudenstine, said, “Well, you guys are all here because you're smart. You’re here because you’re competitive. Some of you are going to consistently make the Dean’s List and some of you won’t because the people who get A’s get the A’s. However, the most important thing you can do, and I can’t stress this enough, is meet all of these very interesting people. What matters most is to meet your classmates and build long-lasting relationships.” So that's what I did. My grades weren’t as high as I’d have liked in comparison to my high school career, but it didn't matter. Afterward Harvard, I joined Teach for America for two years; I wanted to give back to the world in some form of public/civic service. I still knew I was always going to be a physician and after Teach for America, I applied for medical school and went to Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan. Because a degree in medicine isn’t hard enough already, you also got your MBA from Stanford. How did that unfold and what garnered your interest in a business degree?
From the start, I had planned on being a heart surgeon. That was my dream. I shied away from being an oncologist as the emotion was too raw for me. The summer after my first year of medical school, I was granted the opportunity to go to Tanzania. The few months spent in the Bugando Hospital made me realize that I had the brains for internal medicine and infectious disease. So I stopped thinking about surgery and started thinking more about pursuing internal medicine. There was also a desire to change healthcare operations. How we build the facilities and deliver care is simply incorrect. I thought Bugando was an isolated incident in operational catastrophe, but as it turns out, when I arrived back in New York City, the way care was being delivered was also terrible. This sparked me to apply for business school. I wanted to be able to change the way in which patient care is delivered. I decided on the MBA because the methodology for problem solving that medicine teaches is very systematic, very specific, and not adapted to other areas. You see plenty of physicians jump out of clinical medicine and into business that are completely out of their depth. The MBA would allow me to approach problems, a heterogeneous set of problems, and lay siege on those problems. I was accepted to Stanford which was serendipitous because their philosophy is around cross disciplinary thinking - being as holistic as you can about business. It’s not just business; it’s philosophy, linguistics, engineering, literature, and all these parts combined. It’s also about entrepreneurship and learning how to build and that's what I needed to learn. My two years at Cornell provided the best educational experience of my life by far. It showed me that the world wasn’t small and that there were many avenues that could allow me to drive impact. I completed my master’s program and went back to medical school. I performed residency in Miami. It was incredibly challenging, but I was able to see the mechanics of various types of health systems. What made you leave practicing medicine and get into entrepreneurship?
Halfway through my residency, I burned out. I persevered to finish the program but realized I couldn't keep practicing. I would always take my work home. I would take the patients’ problems home. My business education led me to the conclusion that a startup would bring me peace. I jumped into startups in San Francisco. I started at Medisas and then joined Picnic Health where I was more operationally focused. It was there that I realized my love for operations. I helped Picnic Health scale their operations offshore. During that time, I met Phil Bogdanovich (Cipher Skin’s CEO) at a bar and he told me about Cipher Skin. I started working nights and weekends on Cipher Skin on top of my full-time job, in addition to having a newborn with my wife. Before diving into Cipher Skin, you spoke about “cross-disciplinary thinking” during your time at Stanford. Can you describe that more and how it’s helped you solve problems in entrepreneurship?
The most worthwhile and satisfying problems to solve are complex. Three types of problems exist in the world: simple problems, complicated problems, and complex problems. Complex problems are essentially complicated problems with the added challenge of being a moving target. Complex problems are beautiful because there is no one way to solve them. If you continue to think in just one way of trying to solve complex problems, you may not arrive at the best solution. You may produce an answer to the problem, but likely, not the optimal solution. When looking at wearable technology (which Cipher Skin is not), there are some wearable tech companies that have been built by purely engineers who have attempted to create a wearable garment for athletic activities. Not one of them had background or knowledge on these activities, so they produced a wearable that nobody wanted to buy. Was it really cool? Sure, but not applicable. There’s also the opposite side of the spectrum with athletes who want to measure a performance attribute. At Cipher Skin, we take diversity seriously. We have people who are mechanical engineers with soccer backgrounds. We have electrical engineers who played basketball. There are mathematicians, people who worked in the French Parliament. We have a woman on our engineering team (we need more) which is critical! Our team comes from several countries, speak different languages, and have learned their disciplines in different ways. We all have various perspectives and voices that come together to create the solution to the problem. We're filling in as many gaps as possible along the way. In cross-disciplinary thinking, where the adage is true - There is more than one way to skin the cat. It’s so interesting to talk about diversity from that perspective of a competitive advantage rather than just checking the box to avoid scrutiny. You’ve built such a diverse team at Cipher Skin. How did you do it?
It's challenging work, but what Phil and I have done is asked ourselves and everyone else that works here: is the candidate exactly like you? If so, we don't need them. If you're talking to someone and what they say doesn't feel right with you because it's a different opinion from yours and makes you uncomfortable, then that is an individual that we need to get to know. They may not necessarily be hired, but we need to know them. You are looking for someone who is not you. A common, humanistic “flaw” that exists in hiring is that we are drawn to people who tend to talk like us, think like us, and look like us. Most of it has to do with looking right. There was a great article in the Harvard Business Review that said a successful candidate is determined in 30 seconds. You walk into the room and whether I feel good about you in the interview, it’s going to go well. You and I haven't even said a word, yet the outcome has been decided. For us at Cipher Skin, we ask strongly - does this person make you feel a little uncomfortable? Do they answer a question in a way that you didn't expect? If so, let's learn more! A perspective that is completely different from ours offers incredible value.
Is it difficult to raise capital as a diverse team?
It can be a challenge, and it's nearly impossible to know one way or the other, to be perfectly honest. Phil and I have kept a list of every single venture capitalist and investor that we've ever spoken to and what the outcome was. Most of them have said ‘No’ in a variety of different ways. Is it about the diversity of our team? It’s a possibility. It could also be due to where we are headquartered. We’re based in Denver and not in Silicon Valley. There is an implicit bias there as well. Whether they're willing to admit it or not, it's a tough barrier for them. What does it take to change that perception?
Success. That’s it. For Denver, or Austin, or places in the South that are trying to become tech hubs – it’s great to have a lot of companies doing a lot of cool stuff. But at the end of the day, the only way that we're going to change the perception that the only worthwhile companies that truly deserve the headlines in the New York Times or the WSJ is success. That’s what we’re working on at Cipher Skin.
Regarding the Cipher Skin product, you’ve got so many different use cases for the product and markets you could go into. How has your team gone about picking a target market?
Here’s the canned response – “Well, we planned this out. We've been executing on that plan and it's been very clear and obvious to us.” BUT the actual answer is we have a plan and then the world happens. A specific example would be COVID-19. The sleeve itself is an answer to a math and physics problem. We started with cylinders and flat surfaces as objects. How do we take technology, wrap it around a cylinder or lay it on a flat surface to measure motion and other items? We start with one cylinder because that's the simplest and why we have a sleeve. Next, we said, “What can we do with a sleeve?” We could measure motion. We could measure other biometrics at the exact same time. The next question would be what area or what market would find value in that? After extensive research, it turned out that physical therapists made sense to start with. That's not where we are today but physical therapy needed this device to measure motion. Data collection can be automated and stored, the quality of a patient’s body motion can be measured, and not only with numbers. A one-on-one can be performed with the patient and it’s all being recorded on the iPad. Then COVID-19 happened. The BioSleeve was a device that was supposed to be in the facility. Onsite, live sessions would be recorded. But with the pandemic, nobody wants to go near a health care facility because they don’t want to risk infection. Today we're in a position where the hardware, software, and the data is a Telehealth solution. Broadly, it's facilitating the interaction between the provider and a patient; we’re able to facilitate the monitoring and measuring of specific biometrics remotely. You are the Co-Founder and now COO of the company. How do you view your title and role as the COO?
The title doesn't mean anything. It's a fancy title. My job is to solve problems, and to be perfectly honest, my role is to help other folks succeed at their jobs. If my teammates are not excelling or are unhappy, that's my problem. I’m here to help support and make sure that the boat keeps floating and moving on the ocean towards shore. I’m sure you’ve learned a lot from great people at Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It's certainly two-fold. One piece is, “Don't be an asshole”. At the end of the day, business is common sense and how you treat other people. A leader’s job is to actually serve other people. You get a lot of credit for the success, incur the blame for the failures, but the secret to either outcome is whether you view yourself as a servant or someone who should be served. I see myself as a servant and that was the advice that I got. You've now worked at a couple early stage companies and have co-founded Cipher Skin. What is so important to do in the early days of a company to really set yourself up for success?
This is my first time founding a company. I’ve been an early employee at a couple others. There's a lot going on, but it's trust, honesty, and humility. Especially humility on doing things right and doing things the right way, because if you take the shortcuts early, it's going to screw you later on. There is a myriad of examples of that. What are the shortcuts that are so tempting to take?
One is being unwilling to accept that your technology doesn't work the way that you thought that it would. Theranos is a prime example of this. Or, realizing that your business model is actually not economically sustainable, like WeWork’s case. The pitfall happens when you get really good at telling the story. You rely on the story and believe in the story only, while leaving the problems you have unsolved. Finishing up here, do you have a favorite book to share?
My favorite book is actually the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole. My favorite career book, which influences my work approach, is The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. In one part in the book, Rand writes about the protagonist and he's talking about - why do I do the things that I do, why do I work? There's one sentence that says, “The only thing that matters - my goal, my reward, my beginning, my end, is the work itself.” It’s because he finds joy and meaning in the work itself. That has resonated with me ever since I read it in 2005 when I was in Teach for America. I care about excellence for excellence’s sake. I care about my work for the work’s sake. It's not about how other people view me. I don't do the things that I do because I want to be on a panel talking about how great I am as an entrepreneur. I care about the work primarily. My other advice is for folks to read the book that your significant other, best friend, or your business partner has recently recommended to you. The reason why is because it helps you learn more about that person that recommended the book to you, because they care about you. You get to understand how they're learning and growing as an individual. But they also learned something that they think you would benefit from. Do you have a favorite quote?
I have two: one from my dad and one from my mom. My father would always say that, “Someone has to sacrifice in order for others to have something.” My mother would say, “Do what is right, not what feels good.” I always think about those.