Conversation with a Creative: Meet Novelist & Startup Founder Amanda Havard

About once a month I change things up on my blog and interview a creative. I think it's important to hear what inspires other people and what they've learned along their own unique creative journeys. Today on the blog I’m thrilled to share an interview with Amanda Havard. Amanda is a Nashville-based tech entrepreneur—one of the 3% of female tech entrepreneurs in the United States. Yep, 97% of tech entrepreneur are men. Today I wanted to take a deep dive into Amanda’s career trajectory—from studying early childhood development in college to penning a young adult fiction series to steering a technology enterprise that could very well turn the healthcare industry on its head. And yeah, she’s done all this by age 30. Here's my conversation with Amanda. 

HS: So, thanks for letting me interview you! I’m so stoked! I always start with this question: What does creativity mean to you?

AH: To me creativity is probably more of a lens than a process. I’ve heard people call it a way of life, and I like that. It’s about being able to think without structures or limits in any capacity. In that way, you can be creative with things we think of as creative — e.g. music, the written word, performance, other arts — but you can also be creative with businesses, life hacks, conversations, the way you dress, the way you are. Creativity is a kind of boundlessness to me, a way to interact with every interesting and boring thing you encounter in a series of “what ifs” more than rules about what is.

HS: So you piqued my interest as someone to interview because I find your path pretty unusual and interesting: childhood development major turned YA fiction writer turned tech entrepreneur. That’s not something you hear every day! Why did you first decide to study childhood development and then embark on a career as a writer and then pivot to running a tech startup? Can you unpack your journey a bit?

AH: It’s definitely not something easy to see when you hear it like that, but there’s actually been a pretty clear through-line. I started with childhood development because I was interested in people. I worked in summer camps and things of the like growing up, and I was fascinated to see kids of different ages interact, problem solve, and learn differently than kids of other ages. I was somewhat obsessive about seeing the commonalities and what changed as they aged, what stayed the same. When I realized this was something you could actually study in school, I went that route.

You could also say I’ve always been interested in studying people. I wasn’t a huge people person growing up, and in a weird way that made me more of a people person. I watched. I learned. I narrated in my head. So I had a natural inclination toward storytelling. I’ve been writing stories my whole life.

In grad school, these things came together. I majored in child development and in early childhood education at Vanderbilt in undergrad. In grad school I got a research fellowship to study cognitive development as it pertained to curriculum design. I was also writing my first (well...what would be first published) novel. As I learned more and more about the cognitive processes that happen during reading and that we HOPE happen during reading, I imagined a technology we could build that would help foster this process. This was what became my first startup, Immersedition, and how I began my career in tech. We used my first novel as the prototype for Immersedition.

The more I worked in tech the more I realized that that cognitive-development-informing-curriculum-design skill and lens I had was really a human-development-influencing-information-design.

So then I realized my skills were not just limited to teachable or educational technologies.  In recent years I’ve broadened to larger tech industries. Circle back to that idea I said on creativity being a lens. I think creative entrepreneurs can enter non-creative fields (like I’m in healthcare right now) because they can bring an alternative or disruptive viewpoint. So that’s what I do now.

HS: Aha. It had broader application than just cognitive development.

AH: Exactly!

HS: So is the long game to remain in health tech? Or do you have goals that live outside of that industry? In other words--it sounds like “tech healthcare” is not your “calling”--it’s disruptive technology. 

AH: The long term goal is to keep using my skills to innovate. Healthcare is my current domain — specifically public health, state-funded health programs like Medicaid, and the like — and I like what we’re doing because it’s reinventing critical but outdated processes. I don’t imagine I’ll be in healthcare forever because I don’t imagine I’ll just be in one place forever. I keep amassing understanding that all entrepreneurs (hopefully) do: how to run a business, how to grow one, how to build a team. I also am becoming more and more technical all the time. I imagine disruptive technology, as you say, will be the through line. 

And I keep current in conversations outside my field. Just this morning I had a breakfast meeting with a hugely innovative guy in Nashville who is so insanely talented, creative, and business-strategic for creative industries. I want to keep working with people like that. Keep up all the parts of myself.

HS: Totally. So now let’s chat about your YA fiction series. I’d love to hear about your writing journey and the series. 

AH: Ah, my writing journey. It’s been... a journey. First to know, since we’re talking about it, is that none of the books I ever published — called THE SURVIVORS SERIES — are currently available for sale. This was a purposeful choice on my part to serve my current company in a more focused way. So to say there are sequels is an understatement. Three books in the series were out (and taken down), and there were two more. One of those two was already written, so there’s an entire one sitting there for no one to see. In the time that I was publishing SURVIVORS I developed story worlds and plots for about nine other books. And though you’d only ever see it if I became a Gaiman-esque prolific writer, SURVIVORS was actually the story world that could birth all the others. It was a supernatural story that played on the idea that a bunch of kids were accused as witches during the Salem Witch Trials. They were exiled instead of killed, and by a miracle, they survived. Of course, they survived because they were supernatural. The story itself takes place in modern day and is following one of their descendants who grew up in a Village-style hidden commune where all these Survivors lived, but she escaped and lives among people.

Now: The theory of how SURVIVORS was the initial concept for my supernatural plans comes in the “rules” of the story world. It assumes all human history is true. It assumes that all supernatural creatures, legends, lore, monsters — whatever — are real. And it assumes that it’s on the same timeline human history is. That is to say: anything could happen. I grew up on comic books, and you could imagine from this that I was thinking of how to build a universe that could house any story I could throw at it.

HS: Fascinating. Well, I hope these become available to the public sooner or later. Ok, so tell me about your health tech startup, Health ELT! How did go from an idea to a thing Where did the idea manifest?

AH: My dad and I co-founded the company. He’s a longtime healthcare entrepreneur, and he was starting to play in the Medicaid space because there’s a lot shifting there. I knew nothing about Medicaid but I knew a lot about digital audience engagement, and we used to have interesting conversations about how I could reach the same populations he was trying to for frivolous purposes but the Medicaid industry as a whole has trouble engaging its own populations for their healthcare needs. It’s very bizarre but it presented us with an interesting opportunity to take what someone with my skill set and mobile app/digital audience knowledge and his extreme healthcare knowledge and start tackling some big problems. Some of them are exactly what you’d expect: making health-driven apps for the Americans who have the fewest resources and the greatest needs. But our core business is actually in a bizarre but critical place: assessments.

The entire Medicaid system is run by assessments. Assessment of what you need, what you qualify for, how you’re doing now compared to how you were doing “before,” etc. And so, so, so much of this happens on paper still. With paper comes a myriad of troubles: slow workflow, human error, information that isn’t usable, data-entry people if you want the info to become useful, and so on. So I decided to deep, deep dive into Medicaid and learn where the real problems are. Most of those problems are in places where assessments are critical. So we create big systems that help the health plans (insurance companies) who are paid by the government and now run Medicaid in most states. Mobile apps for people who go into the field for their work. Web dashboards for people who work in offices, need to keep track of their workforce, etc.

It sounds unsexy, and I’m sure that it is. But it fills a huge, huge need. And to circle it back to the human development part: that’s all in how I handle interface design. My goal is to stop creating enterprise tech that requires three weeks of training. Stuff people use for work should be as simple as the stuff they use for life. We should be thinking a lot more Facebook-profile simple for someone’s health records than...well whatever they look like now. I’m working on all that.

In fact, creating enterprise tech to the simple-to-use, pretty-and-clean interface standard that feels more like the apps you use in your everyday life is my current overarching pursuit. I hate that there’s a dichotomy and tech: cool and great to use vs. important but terrible to use.

"My goal is to stop creating enterprise tech that requires three weeks of training. Stuff people use for work should be as simple as the stuff they use for life. We should be thinking a lot more Facebook-profile simple for someone’s health records than...well whatever they look like now."

HS: I don’t know anything but I know that medical records in and of themselves are the furthest from simple and organized.

AH: Right! And imagine if you had never had health insurance, knew NOTHING about your rights or responsibilities as a patient, and had a government entity involved in the process of your health records. THEN what kind of mess would it be like?

HS: So let’s go back to you being a creative, innovative person. How does that play out in your work on a really practical level? How do you use creativity every day?

AH: I definitely have to think through the use of creativity in my daily life. Recently I noticed I was getting too far away from creative pursuits, and so I’ve had to baby step my way back in so that my creative brain turned itself on all the time. If it’s on, then I can use it creatively everywhere. If it’s off, then I’m useless and just a boring ol business person who has lost her spark.

So I started reading comic books again. Lots and lots and lots of comic books. I travel ALL the time, and I used to get on planes and instantly try to get caught up on emails, work docs, wireframes to review, and all that. But I was never letting my brain work its magic. So now plane time is reserved (mostly) for comic books or reading other entertaining things. It probably sounds silly but the colors and extremity of them put my brain in a place they never go. By that definition, I can take my business brain to places it never goes.

I’ve also started carrying around a physical notebook, which is a great irony for my obsessive tech pursuits. I always did this when writing but got away from it. Now it’s helping me think things out in a big and sprawling way. 

I also just have to challenge my brain to think thoughts it doesn’t always. Keep playing piano. Keep outlining story ideas when they come to me. I can’t feel guilty or unproductive when I get a synopsis for a new story in my head. I have to let my brain decompress, write it out, and then when I’m done, 90% of the time I’ve also solved a business problem while I don’t even know it. I’m becoming a much better entrepreneur this way.

HS: That’s a brilliant habit—reading for fun on planes—to keep you fresh. 

AH: Plus, it allows me to sometimes support my business points with comic book panels that bizarrely illustrate my point. (Insert here how I referenced a Tony Stark sequence with Spider-Girl talking about information hubs and organization to discuss with my research team how we document Medicaid research.) The habit is helping. Noticeably. 

HS: Haha! That’s amazing! So let’s switch gears a little. I’m big on fighting the fear in the creative process. In your field--and career journey--it looks to me like there’s a lot of opportunity to overcome fear: being an outlier in a male-dominated industry, pivoting from writing to tech, etc. So how do you fight fear as you try new things and take big risks? What’s your secret sauce? 

AH: Oh man. I might have a secret sauce. I could pretend it’s the armor I wear — red lipstick! kickass heels! — but the armor is there just to help fortify what matters most: confidence. I had this really, really, really big revelation when I was switching industries. I had emotionally attached to Immersedition in a way I couldn’t even describe, but I’d felt nothing like it in my life. When something didn’t go well creatively, I thought it was a reflection of failure on my part, and I was, as you say, fearful. But it dawned on me that I was protective of that idea because it felt like my one chance to make something. And that was insane.

I am going to have an infinite number of chances as long as I am eternally willing to work for more chances. And I am. 

I had to gather the confidence to realize that I was going to keep having ideas. It didn’t mean they’d all be worth building. It certainly didn’t mean that all my ideas would be successful. It did mean that I had to find the right way to temper emotion at all — not just fear — into what I was doing. I believe SO STRONGLY in the Immersedition methodology. I believe SO SERIOUSLY in the need for Medicaid reform. I believe in so many things! I believe in them, and so I will fight for them. I have to be confident that I will always have that strength, and I will always have that vision.

I’ve flipped the fear to a place of opportunity. Moments of chaos, even dysfunction, allow for new opportunities. I can see that now. Realistically I’ll be able to see that better as time goes on and as my experience grows.

And I will say this too... on being an outlier. A pioneer. A minority. Whatever. As I have been all those things. Being great at something trumps whatever disparities could come to you. The world isn’t fair, the opportunities aren’t equal, and that all sucks. Sure. But I never talk about it sucking, and no one ever talks about me being good at what I do “for being a girl” or whatever else they could say. If you work hard enough, keep your head down, and produce great things, then people tend to forget about the rest.

"I am going to have an infinite number of chances as long as I am eternally willing to work for more chances. And I am." 

HS: So true.

AH: If anything, those things end up working in my favor. It impresses people that kids of our generation are willing to quietly work their asses off. You think I’m kidding, but the confusion other generations have around ours is insane. I don’t know how many people get to see that the way I do since I typically interface with serious business people twice my age. 

HS: What inspires you? Any book recommendations? TedTalks that changed your life? Anything we can ingest that made a big impact on you? 

AH: Comics? No, really… I can make great recommendations for how to get started. There are huge books that change my life, of course. In fact, Sean and I have a library in our upstairs that’s done by category, and one of the categories are “the books that most profoundly affected Amanda’s writing career.” Some are the ones you’d expect, but to share a few, I’d say Janet Fitch’s PAINT IT BLACK (but you know her from WHITE OLEANDER). Elizabeth Kostova’s THE HISTORIAN is where I got fascinated with the idea of supernatural history + human history. All of Curtis Sittenfeld’s books (read them in order! PREP, MAN OF MY DREAMS, AMERICAN WIFE, SISTERLAND). Women will probably appreciate the hell out of her innate ability to have an incisive narrative voice in even mundane moments we’ve all been through. And a fast several: Sylvia Plath’s COLLECTED POEMS, John Corey Whaley’s WHERE THINGS COME BACK (He is the best!), Gillian Flynn’s SHARP OBJECTS, Asne Seirstand THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL, S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS, and finally finally Sandra Cisneros’ THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET. It might be my favorite book, which I’ve carefully kept from ever saying. To make your brain melt, READY PLAYER ONE. (You HAVE to read it before it becomes a movie!)

I also read myths from cultures all over the world. Still love poetry for what it does to your brain in such a small space. I listen to tons of music because we collect vinyl and live in Nashville. I like making a soundtrack for moments and a soundtrack for different emotions. And fashion! Oh man, I love fashion.

Street style blogs are life changing. The Sartorialist is the best place to start. His ability to make you stop and notice every choice some supremely unique and fashionable human has put into their appearance is huge. It’s almost like a learning tool. A noticing exercise.

I love fashion for a lot of reasons, but I mainly love it for how it is the way you speak to the world about yourself. You get to choose an image from scratch every day. Think of this! The opportunity! People like to say fashion and style can be frivolous and I heartily call bullsh—. What are you choosing to tell people about you when you walk out of the house? Your style is like your posture: It better be strong because whether you like it or not it is communicating to the world exactly what you think of yourself. So stand up straight and find a personal style that makes you feel most you.

HS: What advice would you have for someone starting out in their career that would like to have a multi-faceted career like yours and/or take the world by storm via tech startup? :) 

AH: Other than “Stand up straight and find a personal style that makes you feel most you?” Ha! I’d say: always be learning. Read magazines like Inc. and Wired and Fortune and Forbes that talk about business and startup culture and funding rounds. Be more well-versed in your industry (and in others!) than anyone ever, ever expects you to be. Shock them with how well-studied you are. When you do this and let the knowledge and practicality infiltrate your creativity and your original business idea, you’ll start to be able to see things in a three-dimensional space inside your head. This thing you’l be able to see: it’s what we call having vision. Being a visionary. Use every skill and sense you have to figure out how this vision should take shape, how it should form and evolve. Use every skill and sense you have to guide it and build it. Use everything you’ve got. You must.

Also: if you’re not technical, you MUST find a tech partner that you trust with your life. If the code doesn’t work, nothing else will.

HS: Closing thought? 

AH: Sometimes people talk to me about leaving creative fields to go “work,” and I think this misses the mark. Creativity and work can and should be universal. Bring creativity to all the work you do. Work at your creativity, even if it comes naturally to you. This is how you hold yourself to a high enough standard. Don’t expect things to be easy; they won’t be. If they were, you simply didn’t challenge yourself enough.

Many, many thinks to Amanda Havard for texting with me for an hour about her life as a startup founder, creative, and all around cool girl. Follow Amanda on Twitter at @AmandaHavard and Instagram. And if you liked this post and want this kind of thing in your inbox, subscribe here.