Building a digital health company on the foundation of diversity: A Q&A with Collective Health CEO Ali Diab

As a past Rock Health Summit speaker and current digital health founder and CEO, Ali Diab is no stranger to the many complexities of growing a digital health company. He has spent the past five years building Rock Health portfolio company Collective Health—a cloud-based, integrated health benefits platform that enables self-insured employers to get more out of their healthcare investment while taking better care of their people. With Ali at the helm, Collective has not only helped employers and their people dramatically drive healthcare costs down—it’s also kept the value of diversity at the forefront, closing the gender wage gap along the way.

We couldn’t be more excited to welcome him back to the Rock Health Summit stage this year to share his perspective with other entrepreneurs and industry stakeholders. We caught up with Ali to get his take on tactics for holding leadership accountable, opening lines of communication, and promoting a diverse workforce while building an impactful healthcare company ahead of his session on October 17th (grab your ticket here!):

Company culture is critical when building a company from scratch. How did you determine the type of culture you wanted at Collective—and how has that led you to where you are now?

How I think about company culture runs very much in parallel to how we as an organization think about creating a better healthcare industry—both have to be based on principles of humility, trust, and transparency. I’ve always been very open about my thoughts on what it takes to build a strong and sustainable culture, and I believe it starts with creating a balanced workplace where opportunities for growth are based strictly on merit and blind to any bias—whether it’s gender, ethnicity, or anything else.

My philosophy on this was instilled far before I entered the workforce myself—I observed the challenges my mother faced on her path to becoming a surgeon both in her home country of Syria and here in the US. There’s certainly been a lot of progress made in gender equality in particular since those days, but many of the issues she faced still stubbornly persist in the modern workplace. To me, it’s simply unacceptable for women or people of color to not be paid equally for equal work, and that belief has been at the root of our culture at Collective Health from the outset of the company.

How do you create an environment where employees from different backgrounds know you truly value their ideas?

First and foremost, as a CEO, you need to hold yourself accountable to your employees. They need to know that their opinions are being heard and evaluated at the highest level of the organization. A good example: each week, we host a Q&A during our company-wide all hands where employees have the option to submit questions anonymously—and no matter how thorny or uncomfortable, our executive team transparently answers these questions in front of the entire company. Over the years, people have used this as an opportunity to question certain business strategies or better understand our diversity initiatives. This feedback is taken very seriously, and is often woven into strategic discussions across departments and among management and the leadership team.

Fostering this kind of cohesive environment starts at the top, but it has a powerful trickle-down effect across the organization, where people feel safe and uninhibited to drive initiatives or projects that have special meaning to them. Our Chief People Officer, Jude, has done some of the most critical work in this area by helping to facilitate the creation of various internal inclusion groups like The Black Collective, Collective Pride, Collective Women, and Collective Comunidad. These groups were created by our employees for other employees, and they represent the best of what our culture stands for in making sure every person’s voice is heard. Our People team is also responsible for our bi-annual internal workplace survey, which we call Collective Beat. It’s an invaluable tool for gaining insight into how our people view their work and social experience at Collective Health.

What initiatives do you provide to your employees to support career growth? How do you ensure each of your employees has an equal opportunity to pursue these options?

The results of the Collective Beat survey I mentioned have informed the several programs we’ve created to help facilitate equal opportunity for growth across our workforce:

First, we have a great internal mobility program that allows our people the opportunity to learn new skills by moving to different teams or across departments. After someone has been at Collective Health for a year, they are eligible to apply for a new role within the company. It’s a very active program that we highlight through the year and at each promotional cycle. As a result, we have a very high participation rate. I’ve been particularly excited to see women and underrepresented minorities move into engineering from other departments. We need to stop using “lack of a STEM pipeline” as an excuse and start thinking about how we facilitate talented people moving into these positions that might not have the perfect background on paper.

Second, we have an internal mentorship program called Collective Grow, which supports professional development by leveraging the amazing talent we have in-house. The purpose of Collective Grow is to match mentors and mentees as a jumping-off point to build relationships and learn from each other. It’s a really valuable initiative that connects our people in a way you simply don’t get in meetings or hallway encounters.

These initiatives wouldn’t be as impactful if we hadn’t established an equal playing field early on. When Collective Health was in its initial growth phase, we allowed a wage gap to develop that favored men. Fortunately, our exceptionally dedicated People team worked fast to eradicate the pay imbalance before it grew to be a serious problem. It’s been an ongoing effort, but the wage gap remains closed to this day. It has helped us establish a working environment based on merit, and where men and women receive equal pay for equal work.

What efforts has Collective Health made to reduce bias in the hiring process?

Fortunately, our recruiting team is one of our most vocal departments when it comes to maintaining our commitment to a diverse and inclusive working environment. As part of the People team, this group has a significant level of responsibility and influence on the makeup of our organization, and they take that responsibility very seriously. We’ve partnered with a handful of companies and search firms that focus on keeping our pipeline balanced with candidates from all ethnic, socio-economic, lifestyle, and gender identity backgrounds. Our recruiting managers do a great job setting criteria around diversity, and making sure it’s a requirement for each search we embark on—from the most junior roles up to the executive level.

How do you assess the success of your workplace diversity and inclusion program?

There are a lot of ways you could define success, but nothing speaks louder than hard numbers. We examine our population and payroll data thoroughly on a regular basis to make sure the data matches our vision for a truly diverse and inclusive workplace. As of today, I am proud to report our workforce is 59% female, and we have equal representation of women and men in management roles. Within engineering, where women have historically been underrepresented, we are 31% female, and I have made it a key objective of our leadership team to get that number to 50% (or more) over the coming few years.

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, but we also know there’s a lot more work to do. It’s important to remember that maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce is a constant work in progress. I think our diversity and inclusion program is working if there continues to be an open conversation about it that’s held regularly, and at every level of our organization. If your company isn’t talking to you about diversity and inclusion efforts, or is being cagey about progress, that would be a red flag in my book. Diversity and inclusion is in our DNA, and the openness with which we discuss how to improve upon our past success is something I take immense pride in.

Who holds Collective Health accountable to uphold its diversity and inclusion principles?

We all do, but it starts with me and our executive team. As Rock Health recently reported, the healthcare industry, not unlike the technology industry, is woefully behind the curve in that regard, and we all feel collectively (pardon the pun!) responsible to change that. If our leaders aren’t holding themselves accountable to the diversity and inclusion goals we’ve set, we have a much larger group to hold us accountable: our 400+ employees. As I alluded to earlier, our employees do an incredible job of holding our leadership team accountable by utilizing the communications platforms at their disposal. We want people to recognize Collective Health as an incredibly diverse and dynamic place to work, because it truly is.

Are there any customer or employee testimonials that really stand out to you and why? What feedback from your customers/team makes you think, “This is why we do what we do”?

Truthfully, I have a moment like that—where I think, this is why we do what we do—just about every week. Healthcare is unique in its complexity. It has many deep-rooted problems that often impact people at the worst time, so there’s a lot of opportunity to make a meaningful difference. We recently pulled together a video highlighting feedback our Member Advocates have received from our members over the last year, and it is truly inspiring to hear the gratitude in our member’s voices. Nothing is more validating to me than hearing from the hundreds of thousands of people we serve that we’ve made their experience interacting with the healthcare system better—whether that was because we found a way to save them money, helped guide them to a doctor that helped cure them, or were just there for support at a vulnerable moment.

Our member feedback is as important to us as it is to our employer clients, who want to know their investment is paying off with their employees. Activision Blizzard, whose popular video games are played by 500M+ people each month, has been a big advocate of Collective Health. Its VP of Benefits, Milt Ezzard, once said, “Collective Health has the technology and vision to not only take Activision Blizzard’s benefits to the next level, but to change the world of healthcare delivery.” Milt is an exceptional leader who provides his people with an innovative, world class benefits program, and he is representative of an increasingly active and vocal cadre of benefits professionals who want to buck the status quo and challenge the industry to do better. Hearing those words come from someone like Milt, whose feedback has always meant a lot to me personally, is genuinely motivating as we look to continue evolving our offering to solve even harder problems across the healthcare industry.

Hungry for more insights from Ali and other leaders from technology, medicine, policy, and beyond? Check out the speaker lineup for the seventh annual Rock Health Summit and snag your ticket before they sell out.