Our Women in Tech series continues with a conversation with Silvia Pfeiffer, CEO and Co-Founder of Coviu Global.
In this interview, Silvia shares her insights on the growing role of virtual consultations in healthcare, the importance of creating a supportive and inclusive culture in tech, and the need for greater gender diversity in the industry.
We dive into Silvia’s career highlights, the challenges she faced along the way, and her advice for women looking to make their mark in the tech world.
What inspired you to start Coviu Global, and how do you envision your technology transforming healthcare?
My education and previous career experience in STEM set me up with all the tools I needed for success in the field. For background, I completed a PhD in computer science before moving to Australia from Germany to work on my Postdoc with CSIRO. There, I’ve realised my passion laid in video and video standards, remaining the same to this day.
When I started working on Coviu as a research project run within CSIRO, I was able to see the full scope of benefits that video would offer the healthcare industry and I was also about to make it happen. In 2018 Coviu spun out of CSIRO and we drove even harder to make quality, equitable and accessible health care available for all Australians through Coviu.
As healthtech grows, we are presented with new opportunities to grow Coviu and use a broad range of technology supported solutions to transform the healthcare industry. Right now, technology is best used to increase equal access through virtual consultations that every day get better and more helpful in reducing costs, unburdening waiting rooms and clinicians, and offering solutions for a range of diverse needs.
Can you share any examples of how Coviu Global has already had an impact on healthcare delivery, and how it has helped clinicians to better serve their patients?
Pre-pandemic, Coviu focused on adopting telehealth in primary care and allied health practices in an attempt to address the access to care shortage in rural and remote areas. We had great success — achieving the delivery of 400 consultations a day.
During the pandemic, we helped primary, secondary and tertiary healthcare providers with their telehealth implementation across all states and territories of Australia. At the height of the pandemic, we delivered 25,000 consultations a day, supporting Australia’s conversion to digital care.
The digital transformation of our healthcare system remains a focus of our work, as Australia now considers virtual care as an integral part of our healthcare system. Some reports estimate video telehealth services will grow to $14 billion by 2030, ensuring clinicians can care for their patients regardless of their location or physical restrictions.
At Coviu, we had the privilege of contributing to this growth, delivering 9 million of the 12 million video telehealth services in the 2020-2022 period. Our innovative platform features and integrations including Pearson Clinical, The Clinician, Propell Health, 2M Lingo, and others continue to drive this growth and will further assist in helping clinicians to better serve their patients as digital adoption expands.
You’ve worked at several leading corporations, including Google, Mozilla, NICTA, and CSIRO. What have been some of the highlights of your career so far, and what have you learned from these experiences?
I started my professional career in a very academic setting, pursuing a PhD after completing my double degree in business management and computer science. Instead of pursuing the academic career path, I’ve always been driven by making a change in research and industry transformation. I wanted my ideas to positively affect everyday people.
Fast forward to after completing my PhD and joining CSIRO. This was when I first started thinking of founding a startup — during a time when many Australian founders were immigrating to the US to pursue commercialisation and when the industry wasn’t set up to support similar companies.
Despite many unsuccessful pitching attempts with Australian investors, this was a critical time in my entrepreneurship because I learnt how to raise capital, understand team and stress management, communication, and, ultimately, persistence.
In 2012, I gave up on the idea of creating that startup and went to work for Mozilla and Google, hoping to have an impact on humanity through my involvement with standards bodies (MPEG, IETF and W3C) and open source software (Xiph.org, Mozilla, Linux). However, after seeing big corporations like YouTube and Netflix making a lot of money on the back of these standards by building startups, my interest to found a startup piqued again.
By 2018, I had decided that our research work within the CSIRO around video conferencing technology in web browsers and its application for telehealth was sufficiently interesting for healthcare provider organisations to turn it into a product and spin out as a company. The process of spinning Coviu out of the CSIRO was certainly another highlight in my career and a deep insight into the workings of CSIRO and investors.
As a woman with over 20 years of experience in the tech industry, have you encountered any specific challenges or obstacles related to gender? If so, how have you overcome them?
You certainly have to be a fighter to be the first woman in your family to get access to university, the first to do a PhD in a STEM field, and to then immigrate to Australia and work in R&D, which is a very competitive field. Then being a female founder of a tech company, at a time when most tech companies are founded by men, came with its own set of challenges.
I’ve never taken the simple path in my life. That’s maybe why I’ve picked one of the most complex industries in the world to try and make a difference in: healthcare. And I’m certain I’ve had more obstacles to overcome than my male colleagues, particularly more prejudice. But it’s often very subliminal and hidden behind other arguments.
The one time that I experienced explicit prejudice because of my gender was during my exams at Mannheim University. One of my exams was with a professor who openly opposed women’s education. During an exam I took with two other male colleagues, I felt the professor gave me a worse mark than I deserved. When I asked to be questioned again, his response was that I should be glad to be at university and passing a test. If he were to ask me again, he would just give me a worse mark. That really got to me.
It was therefore not surprising to see that during my studies, the number of women students participating in the course dropped from 40 per cent to below 15 percent within a few years. This is where I first started seeing the impact of systematic and socially accepted perceived male dominance in the industry.
To overcome these challenges, it is important to not let other people’s voices and background noise impact your confidence and rather face challenges with assertiveness and belief in your skills. Women should feel empowered to embrace roles in technology, drive to be leaders and support a healthier future for the field.
What advice would you give to young women who are interested in pursuing a career in STEM, but may feel intimidated or unsure of themselves due to a perceived lack of representation or barriers to entry?
The computing revolution was driven and dominated by women who owned the software programming space. Society can be guilty of forgetting this, but women were the first computer programmers before it was linked to engineering and perceived authority was taken over by men. Look at Ada Lovelace as your inspiration!
Technology has ample space for women, we need to see areas like software engineering not only as valid for women, but as a space to reclaim.
Be confident in your capabilities, don’t let other people define yourself and your limits and choose who you want to be and what you want to achieve.
How have you worked to create a supportive and inclusive culture at Coviu Global, particularly for women and other underrepresented groups in the tech industry?
At Coviu we find it very important to build the right culture. We believe that if the culture is inclusive – not just for women, but for everybody – if it is collegial and we’re all there to support each other, it will be a great place to work.
We are very focused on building a culture of performance and open communication, which should work for everybody. We are a remote first workforce, which also makes it easier for everybody to be treated the same way. And we are very flexible with our work arrangements, supporting part-time and full-time work. We’re also very family-friendly with several of our staff having had babies in recent years.
We don’t specifically prioritise women over men in interviews, but we try to write our job ads such that all genders are encouraged to apply. We would like to see more female software engineers join our team – that’s where the balance is the worst right now. But we are struggling to get great applicants in this space. All other areas of our company are pretty much balanced.
We could do more, of course – and we will always strive to do better – but the intention is there, and everybody knows that we’re always putting the person and their context first to make the most for them and for Coviu.
How can the tech industry work to create a more inclusive and supportive culture, particularly for women and other underrepresented groups? What steps do you think need to be taken to achieve this goal?
Having equal opportunities for women, and any other underrepresented groups, will mean we’re more consciously and successfully developing technology and solutions for everybody.
In terms of female participation in STEM specifically, the 2022 Equity Monitor shows a 24 per cent increase in women enrolling in STEM courses between 2015-2020. While this uptake is encouraging, we should push harder to grow this number further so women can become equal participants in the field.
This ultimately requires us to make subjects like software engineering part of the school curriculum. With software a part of almost every profession, learning code should be seen as important as learning traditional basics like mathematics.
We should also make more effort to celebrate the achievements of women in STEM, giving younger generations something to look up to and work towards. Empowering everybody with knowledge is the best way to ensure everybody can contribute to the development of better technology.
Can you speak more to the importance of promoting gender diversity in the tech industry, and the positive impacts that this can have on innovation and company culture?
While there are certainly a host of strong women in STEM, unfortunately only 23 percent of senior management and 8 percent of CEOs in STEM-qualified industries are women. This lack of diversity creates an image of the sector which then becomes self-perpetuating.
Take the ‘Draw-a-Scientist’ experiment for example, an American study asked children to draw a stick figure of how they see a scientist. In the results of this experiment, only 24 percent of students drew a female scientist, presumably because they are not exposed to as much female representation in the industry.
We need to take this insight and recognise that by promoting gender diversity, we’re creating space for more female role models to inspire and shift the mindset of future generations. More women and diversity in the field then brings new perspectives and ideas that can better the industry and our lives.
However, I also believe we need to try leading by example and I am over the moon to say that we just recently promoted our first female tech lead at Coviu, further diversifying a difference in perspectives and innovation opportunities for women in tech.
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