On Saturday February 25, the winners from the 2016 HealthTech Competition, hosted by Telus, took a Skype call to discuss their motivation, fears, team dynamic, and all things NBTC. Disclaimer: you don’t need to be a 4.0 student with a ton of extracurricular activities on the side to succeed. NBTC provides students with a bridge to connect to hundreds of talented delegates, speakers and employers across the country; it’s up to you what you do with that opportunity.
Sean Pendlebury | University: McMaster Graduated: 2016, B.Com. Work: Bateman MacKay, Accounting
Serena Li | University: Queens Graduated: 2016, B.Com. Work: Accenture, Consulting
Nancy Du | University: McMaster Graduated: 2016, BSc, Life Science Work: Rangle.io, Software Engineer
Serena: Companies pay a ton of money each year for their employee’s health-related expenses. The gist of the competition was to come up with a technological solution that could manage employee wellness. We pitched a wearable AI app that essentially functioned as a smart coach.
At the time, I was using Lark, an app that was developed out of MIT. We used this idea as our base, built it up and took it to the next level.
Serena: I joke with people that I got my degree in PowerPoint, so I took on some of the presentation-building for our group. Nancy has terrific life-sci knowledge, including the research skills needed dig deeper into our topic. Sean helped with the overall cohesion.
Sean: The case competition is different because you have time to work on a presentation. We met two or three times on Skype leading up to the event, researched material individually, made our slides and brought it together online. I never met Serena or Nancy in person until NBTC.
Nancy: We didn’t know what the prizes were until we got them. I wasn’t motivated by what we could win. We were all interested in the topic and I wanted to see what was out there and what a case competition was like. I had an interest in the tech-biz space, but I come from a life science background; it’s completely different.
Serena: I attended the conference in my first year and felt a bit overwhelmed. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. People knew what panels they wanted to see and they knew what to do at the networking sessions. I was shy and didn’t want to talk to people, but I forced myself to muster up the courage to get in there. It went well. You really learn how to build a relationships with people you just meet.
Sean: There’s so much to do. There were a few times when there were three different events at the same time. You’d be surprised how far 30 minutes of research will take you. Go in with an understanding of what each company does, as you’ll have a better grasp on their presentation and which ones you should attend. You can customize the conference to your needs.
Don’t go in and think, “I’m here to land a job.” Instead, go in with a genuine interest to learn.
Serena: After the first presentation round, we were coached by a consultant. We had an hour to integrate lots of pointers, adjust the presentation and nail it. Was it nerve wracking? Absolutely. I remember the adrenaline rush and then feeling on top of cloud nine.
Nancy: Both portions — the lead up and presentation — were challenging for me. My last experience with a case study competition was DECA (high school). The format was different, so I was coming into this event blind. It seemed more like a business thing, but Serena gave me great advice: find where you fit in and where your strength lies.
I remember freaking out. I broke down and said, “no I can’t do this.” But I did. It’s scary, but you have to get out there and do it.
Sean: There was also an (NBTC) event that Telus was talking about their products. It was just Nancy, Serena and I who went up after to chat with the reps. We looked for every opportunity to advance ourselves. We had a few late nights rehearsing and refining the presentation, but this extra work really built up the event for ourselves. We created our own pressure to succeed.
I wish someone captured our faces [when we won]. We didn’t expect it. The refining and coaching period made it more exciting; there was definitely a surprise factor. When I think of NBTC, I think of that “holy shit moment.” I couldn’t stop smiling. There’s nothing else comparable.
Nancy: I went to NBTC to seek out opportunities outside life sciences. After graduating, I successfully made my transition to become a software engineer. Of course, learning code is very different from my degree, but conferences like NBTC and events like Hackathons really helped me to get a bigger perspective on what’s out there. I was so focused on life sciences before my last year, but I knew I didn’t have to go to graduate school and limit myself to this path; NBTC was the beginning of everything.
Serena: I gained a lot of self-confidence through the competition. It was neat to look back and think, “I’ve come a long way.”
Sean: When you attend NBTC, you’re surrounded by other highly engaged students that share your interests; you’re with the top of the crop. It was eye opening to see all this potential in one room.
Nancy: I was afraid to make the transition out of university. I didn’t know what questions to ask or who to talk to. It helped to hear different people talk about their journeys, and no journey is linear. There’s a lot of successful people out there that don’t come from traditional paths. Winning the case competition was definitely a confidence boost, especially for someone like me who didn’t have a lot of experience in this realm.
Sean: I remember going to one panel with a rep from 500px. He told us how he transitioned through a number of different jobs, including Goldman and Sachs and Accenture. There was a specific skills set he took away from each job. It was fascinating to listen to the arc of his career; what he started out with was completely different from what he does now. It made me think about what i’m doing, what I can do with it, and where it can take me.
Serena: I see my growth in two ways, 1) exploration phase, and 2) pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. I heard a quote from Sheryl Sandberg that said, “careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.” You don’t have to keep advancing on a single path; you can move laterally and explore. It’s liberating. There’s another great quote from an Oxford guy who started 80,000 hours. He said that the time you spend exploring is not wasted; you must take time to understand who you are and what you’re good at.
I used to be reserved, shy, and not into networking by any means. I’ve done a number of competitions and some I did well, and some I fell flat. But it’s the ones that I fell flat that I fixed what needed to be fixed, and moved on.
Don’t be afraid to be the man in the arena [Theodore Roosevelt speech]. You may be scared to fall on your face, but get back up and do it again. I spent a lot of time in uni being scared to try too hard for fear of looking silly. You’re scared to talk to that person who is surrounded by people. You may feel awkward. But so what? In the long run, it’s the one good conversation, out of a lot of awkward ones, that you take away.
Nancy: Networking is not something you talk about in life science, it’s something I still struggle with. There’s an over emphasis on studying, doing well and “going” for opportunities. But you don’t necessarily have to talk to a lot of people. I didn’t know who to talk to, or how to step up. But I knew I had to create my own opportunities. I look back to my years in university when I was silent. This is the time to accelerate your outreach.
Sean: Networking at NBTC doesn’t feel like a room of total strangers. These delegates have the same interest as you and you’re going for the same kind of experience. Everyone is from different universities, but it’s an easy and safe space to get to know people who share your passions. There’s not a whole lot of places you can casually talk to people about the effects of AI and what that means for business and health. NBTC is a great environment to “dig in” and get the most of all these bright minds.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.