Had the rebel in her completely had her way, Sumbul Desai would have ended up as a journalist or a media honcho. But after many pivots in her career path, Dr Sumbul Desai is now one of the most influential women in tech, as VP-Health at Apple.
“You never think that all of those stops you make will help you with your ultimate role. All that learning ends up putting you exactly where you should be,” Dr Desai tells The Indian Express on a video call from California.
It was almost exactly five years ago that she joined Apple, leaving her role as Vice Chair of Strategy and Innovation in the Department of Medicine at Stanford Medicine as well as Associate Chief Medical Officer at Stanford Healthcare, to strengthen the Cupertino-based tech giant’s foray into personal health technologies.
But it is her stints with the Walt Disney Company and ABC Medicine in the early part of her career that stick out in her impressive medical resume. “My parents wanted me to be either a doctor or an engineer,” remembers Dr Desai, echoing millions of Indians across the world. Her parents, who moved from North India to Sweden and then the US, were no different when it came to securing the future of their children.
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But young Sumbul had other plans. “I always wanted to do something more than that. So, when I started my undergraduate studies, I was initially hoping to go to a bachelor’s program in liberal arts. I also had gotten into a six-year Bachelors of Science in MD program, which is very rare,” she says. “I did not want to go and so, during the application process, I gave smart-aleck answers hoping the admission officers wouldn’t take me seriously.” That strategy didn’t go as planned. “That probably made me sound well rounded… I got in.”
But though she joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, mostly because her father was really keen, she did not do particularly well in the first semester. “I was deliberately not trying very hard in school.” That’s when her dad gave in and told her to do what she wanted. “I changed my major to computer science with a minor in communications.”
So Dr Desai’s career started with the media industry, where she soon transitioned into the business side and worked on strategy. But in August 2001, she was visiting her family in New York when her mother had a massive stroke. “She went immediately into a coma and was critically ill in the ICU on a ventilator. For me that day, life fundamentally changed…”
A month later, when ICUs in the city were cleared to make way for survivors of the September 11 attacks, she had to take care of her mother in a rehab facility. “A piece of advice that one of the physicians had given me on the way out was that you have to empower and really advocate for your mother, because she can’t,” remembers Dr Desai, whose mother was in hospital for a year and had to relearn everything from walking to breathing.
“That changed my perspective on healthcare, to see that when it comes together in a really beautiful way, it can be a multi-faceted journey. It also is very much a collaboration across many disciplines… the outcome can either be really good or the collaboration doesn’t work. That was the driving force of why I decided to go back to medical school later in life,” says Dr Desai.
Like during her communications minor when she interned at Doordarshan and Time of India, Dr Desai was in Delhi while studying for medicine too. “I spent the day with some cardiologists at Escorts, then at Holy Family and also with a nephrologist who had a private practice,” remembers Dr Desai.
The complexity of the cases she saw in Delhi blew her mind and “solidified” her desire to go into healthcare. “Part of why I wanted to get into healthcare was how do you give back to people and how you have an impact,” she says.
Dr Desai says though she was born in Sweden and spent most of her life in the US, this connect she has with India is a big part of who she is. “My mother is from Delhi and my father grew in UP near Meerut. We come from a family of very proud Indians. We used to go back to India almost every other year growing up. When I was younger, it was almost every summer and then as we became a little older, it became every other year.”
Now, Dr Desai feels those visits to her grandparents made her more grounded. “Whenever you go back, you really go back to your roots and it grounds you, you always come back a little bit more grounded. There’s something about the culture, the people, the sense of community that we sometimes don’t have in the States. That’s something that I like really long for and I miss,” she says, adding that she is aware that this could be a romanticised view of reality. “Obviously the world is changing there too.”
Though as a teenager she rebelled against her Indian parents’ eagerness to see her as a doctor or an engineer, she now appreciates what they were trying to achieve. “The one thing that I’m blessed with is that as a woman, and especially as a Muslim woman, my parents always felt that I should be independent and be able to support myself. It was never like you have to go off and get married… it was very much you need to have a career and support yourself and find a stable way of doing that. And to them, that was engineering and medicine.”
Dr Desai accepts that her experience in communication helps in her role at Apple now. “The ability to communicate is really critical, because you want to be able to take very complex topics and figure out how do you distill it down in a simple way so that it’s understandable,” she says, adding those in the Apple Health team “spend a lot of time obsessing about how do we simplify the message that the individual gets so they really understand in the moment what we are telling them”.
She says that is where the ability to take complex messages and simplify it as a physician is incredibly valuable. “I think all of my experiences amounted to being able to drive our teams to do that in a meaningful way.”
As someone who has been working on tech that alerts millions of people of something going wrong in their body based on the data their body is generating, Dr Desai it’s an “honour” that people choose to use these devices and they are with them every day.
She says it is about empowering individuals to feel like they are in control of their health. “That means both with the information we provide but also with the fact that privacy is central and the core to everything we do so that the individual owns the data on their device, and is in control of that data. That’s also part of the empowerment.”
Dr Desai is clear Apple does not want to provide information for information’s sake, “because that doesn’t do anything”. “We want the individual and the medical community to have an understanding of the scientific backing of these insights. We really believe that this partnership is sacred, and we want to enrich that partnership so that the practitioner has more information to rely on from a scientific basis,” says Dr Desai who still teaches at times in Stanford and even helped with Covid-19 work.
For her, these little data moments are “almost like snapshots and pictures, like you take of your everyday life with the camera”.
Dr Desai says physicians like her would love more information and “now we have some data points that supplement” whatever patients are saying.
“Along with the traditional clinical metrics, it just gives us more of a comprehensive data set to be able to potentially make clinical decisions. Our devices are never meant for diagnosis. What they are meant for is additional screening, or additional information so that you can make more actionable decisions.”
Despite the huge advancements in health tech in recent years, even with the acceleration in the segment because of the pandemic, Dr Desai knows there’s a lot more to be done. “As advanced as technology is when it comes to healthcare, we are still very early in our journey… But I do think an individual now feels more empowered about asking the right questions.”