Krithika Kumar ’20 arrived at Rice University with a general interest in the medical industry, but her career plans really began to solidify when she answered a call for undergraduate engineers to join a startup.
Now a Senior Strategy Analyst for Accenture, the bioengineering (BIOE) alumna recalls the invitation that set her feet firmly on the patient care path.
“Matthew Peña, then a postdoctoral research associate at Rice, was working on a medical device to help identify newborns who had trouble breastfeeding,” she said. “He sent a message out to the BIOE listserv asking if anyone could help him with the engineering aspects of the device. I had always been interested in healthcare innovation, so I contacted Matt, and we pitched BaroLac to Rice’s OwlSpark accelerator program.”
“That summer, as part of our participation in the OwlSpark accelerator, we connected with around 80 mothers (who had experienced issues with breastfeeding) and lactation consultants. Those customer interviews included conditions of each child’s birth and details of various breastfeeding problems. It was eye-opening and fascinating, and I worked on BaroLac all that summer as well as in my junior and senior years.”
She said her most difficult challenge was not the customer interviews or product innovation but the entrepreneurial lessons she had to quickly learn and master. Kumar had no experience with fundraising or moving through the early stages of a startup.
“I felt really blessed to be part of the BaroLac startup and OwlSpark program,” said Kumar. “OwlSpark provided guest speakers and lectures where participants learned the value of talking with customers and finding a good fit in the market. By the end, I had developed a really good working knowledge of the startup process and stages.”
“That was helpful for my second product development project, At Your Cervix. Reproductive health had always been an interest of mine and a pair of doctors at the Baylor College of Medicine wanted to find a new way to efficiently deliver targeted radiation in late-stage cervical cancer treatments.”
The resulting product At Your Cervix created was an innovative and low-cost 3D-printed radiation applicator suitable for use in low-resource settings, which matched the mission of their sponsor, the Rice 360° Institute for Global Health Technologies. Working with one BIOE and three Rice Global Health students, Kumar contributed to the engineering backbone for the project and found herself immediately captivated by the product’s potential impact for women in regions with limited options for reproductive health issues.
She said, “I had taken only one global health course, but all engineering projects go through a similar set of design stages, such as working with stakeholders, and understanding the product and its place in the market. Leveraging my existing tools and previous startup knowledge with the global health experiences of my peers positioned me to both learn more about the health tech innovation process and to ultimately make a really good product.”
Kumar continues to find projects that match her passion for improving health care services and products. She said the beauty of working at Accenture is the ability to identify and join those types of client projects and to use internal channels to put herself out at the edge of developing concepts in the medical field.
“There are endless opportunities at Accenture,” said Kumar. “Almost anything I would want to work on will eventually come across my desk. Few things have prevented me from finding and working on the initiatives that matter most to me and there is plenty of space to explore my career options. The hardest part of my role is probably choosing what I want to do next.”
Plus ones, or activities outside of normal client work that expand analysts’ consulting skills, also help her remain at the peak of her practice.
“I can reach out to different managers or even peers with more expertise in fields where I want to grow in to support proposals for future client work and contribute to thought leadership. Before a client takes on Accenture to solve business problems, Accenture consultants pitch their expertise to the client to show the extent of our assets and skillsets of our team. This is a great place to get your feet wet in a specific industry.”
Kumar’s communication experience, which she began developing in courses and projects at Rice, prepared her for writing articles and presenting ideas to internal teams at Accenture as well as their clients. She said one of her current communication challenges is to provide reasoned recommendations that bear in mind the client’s existing expertise in the industry.
“There’s a steep learning curve on every project, and as we as consultants become well-versed in an industry, we must realize that the client already comes to us with expertise. We must explain solutions in a way that doesn’t come off as patronizing or implies that ours is the only right answer. A two-way street of consultant-client relationship is the best way to problem-solve. I am mindful of approaching the project in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel they don’t know or can’t find answers given enough space and time to focus on the problem.”
But her overarching guideline when communicating with their clients is to ensure that all health care problems are seen through a human lens. Whether her current project is going to help a health insurance provider or hospital, the ultimate end user is the patient.
“Someone is dealing with a health issue and they need help getting through the process. That patient and/or their caregiver is already going through something difficult, so it is extremely important to make this process work for them,” said Kumar.
“For example, an implementation of a new set of programs for mental health or substance abuse support involves very difficult, very personal conversation topics. In addition to a financially and technically sound recommendation, we must be compassionate and understanding about how the service is delivered to the consumer.”
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.