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Geek of the Week: Skye Gilbert takes PATH toward health equity — with side trips to mountain peaks

Skye Gilbert
Skye Gilbert, deputy director of digital health at Seattle-based PATH, on the summit of Prusik Peak in Washington’s Enchantments. (Photo Courtesy of Skye Gilbert)

Skye Gilbert has been a journey for years in search of answers to complex societal questions. At PATH, the trail has led toward a mission of health equity, and more complex puzzles she delights in solving.

Gilbert is the Seattle-based nonprofit’s deputy director of digital health solutions, a position she has held since last November. She’s also GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

“I am a geek whose life pursuits generally involve some combination of mountains, social justice, solving complex problems and empowering others,” Gilbert said. “My team is redefining the boundaries of global health by researching and building digital health solutions that are then deployed throughout PATH programs across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.”

Prior to joining PATH, Gilbert worked on health and information systems from a variety of different lenses, first as an academic researcher living in Senegal and China, then as a consultant to the private sector at the Boston Consulting Group, and finally as a program and strategy officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she helped shaped a major new initiative for building immunization information systems in very poor countries.

Gilbert has a Global Executive M.B.A. from INSEAD and bachelor degrees in Economics, International Studies, and Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

“When I’m not working, I can be found climbing mountains or playing competitive board games over wine and popcorn,” she said.

Gilbert lives in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood with her climbing-partner-fiancé Sharvil, her mountain-biker roommate Chuanqi and her “xtreme-napper” cat Sadie.

Learn about this week’s Geek of the Week, Skye Gilbert:

What do you do, and why do you do it? “When I was 19 years old, I arrived in Senegal with an abiding interest in cross-cultural differences and drivers of behavior, and a research grant that was supposed to jumpstart an academic career. After seven months of interviewing families and health facilities in rural settlements, I had developed a very different view on equity and social justice. It took a while for me to figure out how to reconcile this new worldview with my life, and I’ve been on quite a career journey since then, spanning industries, geographies and domains. Across that journey, the two constants have been driving towards a mission of health equity, and finding deeply complex puzzles that I’ll enjoy solving in pursuit of that mission.

“Today, I’m grounded in an organization whose mission is focused on health equity. My day-to-day puzzles extend across technical work, partnerships and management. Our business model is very similar to a consulting one, so I puzzle over staffing Jenga on a regular basis. I play Diplomacy for a large part of my day — brokering multi-party negotiations and decisions in which donors, technical implementers, government officials and frontline workers all need to buy in. I slip into Sudoku when I’m thinking through new business models to try or game-changing applications of a recent digital innovation. But my most beautiful game is Hanabi, in which I give information and support to others, and then they use that to achieve more than I ever could alone.”

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “‘Digital health’ is neither an optional add-on nor a magical silver bullet for health programs. It’s a fundamental platform that will ensure health equity for generations to come. It will help us connect professional care to people living in regions with few medical professionals. It will help low-income patients access personalized medicine. And it will diversify the biodata available for computational analysis, which will be critical to future research.”

Where do you find your inspiration? “Any time I meet someone whose life situation seems hopeless, and yet he/she is full of hope and driving for change.”

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “SAT phone. Critical for high-risk travel to remote locations. That could either be going to a conflict area for work, or doing a risky, remote mountaineering expedition for fun.”

Skye Gilbert
Skye Gilbert raises the flag at PATH in Seattle.

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “Our workspace is summer camp. We have a snack drawer, a pirate flag, a stuffed Narwal, impromptu social hour by the file cabinet on Thursday afternoons, and animal poppers. We’re a little light on whiteboards, espresso machines and cats, but otherwise it’s pretty perfect.”

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “I believe very strongly in single-tasking, compartmentalization and being in the moment. If my team is in front of me, I’m fully present for my team. If I’m having dinner with my fiancé, I’m fully present for him. This approach keeps me sane, but it’s frustrating for folks trying to reach me since they have to wait for the moment in which I’m fully present for my phone. It’s a hard balance to maintain, but it helps me stay focused.”

Mac, Windows or Linux? “Linux for my ideal self, Windows for my real self.”

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “Malcolm Reynolds.”

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “Transporter function, cloak form.”

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Invest in some of the extraordinary early-stage entrepreneurs I know (e.g. see the amazing work of Logistimo, Macro-Eyes, and Dropbyke), and keep doing what I’m doing.”

I once waited in line for … “It took me two years to climb Mt. Rainier, because I waited for the right weather, right conditions, right team and right personal skill. Safely summiting to a gorgeous sunrise, while guiding another up the mountain, was a very empowering experience and worth the wait. In my work, we sometimes wait for the right conditions as well. My team has a repository of unfunded ‘digital health accelerators’ that we’ve developed in our own time. We do this because our bridging role enables us to see unique opportunities to adapt digital innovations to health programs in low-resource settings. And as with Rainier, it’s always a powerful and motivating experience when something moves out of that list and into real life.”

Your role models: “My core values as a professional and a person are authenticity, kindness and having a positive impact on the world. My role models are people who embody these attributes and include:

  • Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky: I have a deep regard for Kahneman and Tversky’s courage in generating research that challenged decades of well-established academic assumptions. That courage extended beyond challenging others and included challenging themselves. In ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ Kahneman repeatedly notes where his hypotheses were wrong. That kind of authenticity is difficult to maintain in a highly competitive ‘publish or perish’ industry.
  • Elizabeth Warren: For me, she embodies fearless authenticity while remaining respectful and kind, even when taking a confrontational stance. I believe these qualities, and the way she used them in Senate hearings last year, contributed to the resignation of Wells Fargo’s CEO and will ultimately result in a more ethical company.
  • Dr. Orin Levine: I used to work on Dr. Levine’s team, and now that I’m managing a team, I have an increasingly deep appreciation for his skill at remaining authentic to the team while dealing with legally binding information asymmetries (e.g. HR), and the kindness with which he handled politically tricky situations.”

Greatest game in history: “The free market.”

Best gadget ever: “Right now I’m really into Totem Cams.”

First computer: “I was 5 years old. It was a Macintosh that allowed me to print greeting cards and get really good at card games.”

Current phone: “Samsung Galaxy S7.”

Favorite app: “Whatsapp. Clean, simple, encrypted.”

Favorite cause: “Health equity.”

Most important technology of 2016: “Artificial Intelligence wasn’t invented in 2016, but Google AI beat a human at Go and autonomous vehicles were launched from Pittsburgh to Singapore. These 2016 milestones helped me evolve my own thinking on AI’s role in the next global economic revolution.”

Most important technology of 2018: “I don’t know which technology, but I anticipate it will be in the domain of digital privacy and security. The last few years have seen very large security breaches, from large-scale ransomware attacks on consumers to hacks into government, academic and corporate databases. That’s spurred investment and interest in this space, and I anticipate seeing early results soon.”

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Many fellow geeks tell me that their work is removed from positive social impact. If you feel your work is lacking purpose, my first advice would be to think deeper about the implications of what you’re doing. For example, if you’re growing a new digital economy (e.g. VR/AR), your new market or platform could be architected to create jobs around the world that will lift people out of poverty. If you’re optimizing supply chains for a middle- or high-income market (e.g. instant delivery), your optimization algorithms could one day be adapted to transform rural supply chains and save lives.

“So think deeper to find that angle, create a dialogue among your colleagues, align around a social purpose that also makes business sense for your organization and build a community that works towards achieving that purpose. Then let groups like PATH know what you’re doing so that we can celebrate your efforts and amplify your impact!”

Website: Gordian Lab

LinkedIn: Skye Gilbert

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