Female Founder Stories: Edith Elliott and Katy Ashe, Founders of Noora Health (YC W14)

by Y Combinator2/8/2015

Noora Health is a non-profit that trains patient families with the medical skills they need to improve health outcomes and save lives.

Q: Tell us about your background before starting Noora Health.
Katy: I grew up without running water or electricity in rural America and went on to get two engineering degrees from Stanford. Before starting Noora Health I was living in the Amazon Rainforest leading an international campaign against illegal gold mining and its devastating health, environmental, and social impacts. I spent the majority of my time traveling to rural Amazonian communities (often semi-contacted tribes) by dugout canoe, collecting stories, and conducting health research, community organizing and working within illegal mining zones with trafficked women. This all started when I infiltrated the most violent guerrilla mining zone in the Peruvian Amazon by accident and witnessed severe human rights violations in the camps.

Edith: Like Katy, I grew up in a very small town (only 2,000 year-round residents) in Colorado, but unlike Katy we did have electricity and running water. I think our small-town backgrounds are part of what make us work so well together. We are humble but effective, honest and real. Before starting Noora Health I worked for an international health organization doing HIV/AIDS prevention, malaria prevention/treatment and safe water work in the developing world. If you had told me I would be the founder of a tech non-profit startup three years ago I would have laughed at you.

Q: Why did you start Noora Health?
Katy & Edith: We met as a team of four randomly assigned graduate students for a class project in the Stanford Design School course “Design for Extreme Affordability.” For the class project we were partnered with a chain of hospitals in India called Narayana Health. They wanted us to improve patient flow through the hospital and reduce crowding.

What started as a class project soon turned into our obsession, primarily because we found a simple solution for a direct, tangible need that needed to be solved, but also because we had found what we like to call “our professional soulmates.” Most teams coming out of the course disintegrate after people shift their attention back to their “real lives.” Around the time most projects wind down, we found ourselves spending every waking minute working on Noora Health.

Q: What was your YC experience like?
Katy: Honestly, I was a bit horrified going in and had a lot of preconceptions. I had gotten my engineering BS & MS at Stanford and had operated in an extremely male dominated and often hostile technical context. YC was always the shining goal for many of my male counterparts and I just never seriously saw it is a place where I would fit. I think that I just extrapolated what I saw in engineering culture and expected a more severe egotistical version of it in YC.

I went in with my guard up, expecting an absolute female-hostile shark tank. I am still shocked by just how wrong I was. What I found inside of YC was actually one of the most supportive, humble and effective communities I have ever been in and I grew an incredible amount not only as a founder, but as a person during my time there. The process of YC is extremely well designed, tested, and iterated upon down to a science. During group office hours we could share our insights and struggles with a group of founders and partners; it was like group therapy for the struggles that founders face and it did an incredible job of making us less afraid of what was going on under the hoods of everyone’s shiny startups and focus more honestly on our hurdles to growth. The communication style within YC was direct, humble and authentic. It was bootcamp for being effective as founders, period. The most important thing that I learned was to stop asking for permission so much and to just do it (whatever that may be). It was almost training on how to be brave and put yourself out there and to make building yourself, your company, your product, a continual process.

There is a strong female presence amongst the partners at Y Combinator and their leadership with the accelerator sent a really strong signal that women have a space in the community. It was the most pro-women professional or academic experience that I have ever had. Further, the partners went out of their way to prepare us and support us for parts of the startup process they knew would be harder for us as women. For example, giving us additional coaching on fundraising and pitching because they know how hostile the VC community (not everyone, but enough biases exist that it has been shown scientifically to be much more difficult) can be towards women founders. Instead of ignoring the parts of the process that were most likely going to be difficult for us as women for the sake of political correctness, they helped train us with tools and supported us to get out in front of the challenges.

Edith: I honestly had no idea what to expect going into YC. Similar to Katy, my guard was up, and I had a few preconceived notions of what I was walking into– all of which ended up being wildly incorrect. As a non-technical, female cofounder I expected to have to “prove myself” and, in turn, had put up a thick armor in preparation. It sounds so cliche, but I expected to find a room full of guys hunched over computers pounding out code all hours of the day and night, with your occasional business school bro buzzing around keeping order. What I found couldn’t have been more different. YC is an incredibly collaborative, supportive and brilliant community of founders and partners. The extreme focus each group had on delighting their users, refining their solution and bringing something truly unique to the market was beyond inspiring. The level of detailed attention and preparation partners provided to us then and now is truly game changing for Noora Health. Nowhere else in the world could we have accelerated our growth and development in such a way.

Q: Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?
Edith & Katy: In some contexts is it a pro and in some a con. It has been easier for our male counterparts to close checks from funders on the front end, but we think it has been much easier for us to develop powerful partnerships. We have a culture of being very open, collaborative, and this has welcomed strong mentorship and participation from a variety of sources. We also have the wonderful benefit of being colorfully dressed women in a room full of men in hoodies– we automatically tend to to stand out.

Q: What was the hardest part about being a female founder?
Edith & Katy: The hardest parts about being a female founder are probably the same as the hardest parts of being a male founder. Being a good founder requires a web of skills that are non-trivial and permeate your life.

As a female, fundraising conversations were more difficult and aggressive asks seemed to go over less successfully than our male counterparts. The psychology behind women asking for money is a different beast because of our cultural context and it would be silly to ignore that reality. Unfortunately, most of the awesome advice out there for fundraising is definitely geared towards younger men asking older men for money– which makes sense purely from a supply and demand perspective. However, leaning on the insights of other female founders helped us hack the system.

Q: Why do you think there are fewer startups with female founders than male ones?
Katy: I think in large part there are fewer startups with female founders than male ones for the same reason that I was initially horrified to enter and never envisioned myself in being either an engineer or participant in YC. I didn’t feel welcome, invited, or like I would belong. Unfortunately, I interpreted the low percentage of women as an implicit signal that women weren’t welcome or that it wasn’t what “people like me” do. I never set out to be a founder; it feels like something that I just naturally stumbled into because of my personality and motivations. My leadership style isn’t commonly portrayed in media and I didn’t have female CEO role models growing up.

Edith: This issue is incredibly complex. More young women need to be encouraged to be engineers and made to feel welcome by the hacker and coder community, and non-technical women need to be made aware of the fact that they have a place at the table that is powerful and meaningful alongside their technical counterparts. Only then will women realize that they should be starting companies and having a leading voice. The lack of wildly successful companies founded by women certainly plays into this as well. The trickle down impact, I suppose, is that women have a harder time imagining themselves as the founder of a tech startup when there are very few examples out there to compare oneself to. Hopefully that piece will change in the coming years as more female-founded or led companies “make it.”

Q: What do you wish someone had told you when you were 15?
Katy: People that tell you that you can’t do something, but are not physicists talking about a physical reality of the situation, are not worth taking advice from. You get to define your limits; do not define what you can and can’t do based on others’ small-minded fears.

Edith: Typically the best things to do in life are the the exact things others say are too risky or would be “insane” to take on. Probably that and learn how to code. Definitely learn how to code!

Q: What is the biggest challenge you, as a non-profit founder, face that for-profit founders don’t have to deal with?
Katy & Edith: Many people in Silicon Valley just don’t get why we would make our ROI a return on impact instead of a return on investment; and they take us less seriously because they think that perhaps we missed the point or couldn’t hack it in the for-profit world. The more traditional can’t or don’t necessarily wrap their brains around social entrepreneurs yet. With them, the tone can often turn the corner into being paternal or cute very quickly. We want to make big impact, we want to change the world, and we want to do it in a radically effective way. Luckily, being a team of female founders and social entrepreneurs also serves as our largest asset because it acts as a weeding process– and we get to work with some of the most visionary investors and founders in the valley.


  • Y Combinator

    Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon