Katy Ashe is the co-founder of Noora Health, a tech NGO in India. When she visited the hospitals of Bangalore as a graduate student, she saw a sea of people sitting around in the hallways. Who were they? They were family members of the patients—and they were scared, bored, and lacked basic health information. Many slept outside the hospitals, waiting for days. They had nothing to do but wait.

The incredible waste of time was tragic. But Katy and her cofounders saw opportunity amidst the tragedy.

The cofounders asked themselves, what if these people sitting around in the hallways spent those hours learning about health, physical therapy, and disease prevention? After all, some people didn’t even know what a pulse was, and at least 40% of the patients had diabetes.

Noora Health began by showing one health video that they filmed in a parking lot. To the surprise of the founders, patients and their families loved the video. They wanted more. But there was a problem: the founders had no money. Yet something inside Katy kept saying, “We need to go all in and become an organization and throw our lives into this.” 

For months, Katy lived in garages, attics and tents to make ends meet. She worked part time bartending and babysitting while she built up Noora Health with her professional soulmate, Edith.

The founders grew the nonprofit organization and created countless health workshops. Now Noora Health operates in 16 cities in India. They have provided training to 90,000 people and impact studies have shown a 36% reduction in post-surgical complications.

Fast Company rated Noora Health as one of the most innovative companies in 2016. They’ve been recognized by Y-Combinator, Echoing Green, and Ashoka. Katy Ashe was recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List for social entrepreneurship.

Listen to Katy’s amazing story.

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Katy Ashe’s Reading List

Katy Ashe Show Notes

  • Katy Ashe did an undergraduate thesis project in the Amazon rainforest in Peru
  • She accidentally began studying environmental contamination for mercury in the illegal gold mining industry
  • Noora Health started out as a class project for a at Stanford’s School of Design
  • They utilized the Human Centered Design Practice for their project to find out what was happening in the hospitals of India
  • Katy Ashe discovered that the patients and their family members were not ready to go home after they were treated due to uncertainty
  • In India, many family members accompany a patient to the hospital. They wait and camp out outside the hospital for days
  • Communication between patients, family members, and medical personnel was lacking
  • Medical personnel rarely explain to the patients and family members follow up procedures
  • Katy Ashe and her team decided to train and educate the family members who were waiting around and bored
  • 40% of the patients going to the hospital had been diagnosed with diabetes; many others probably had it but were undiagnosed
  • The majority of the people Katy worked with had never been to a hospital or a health class
  • Some people didn’t even know what a pulse was
  • Katy Ashe and her team were actually determined NOT to start an organization through the class project
  • Then they used a point and shoot camera to make a video. A nurse in India showed the video to teach a class to the bored family members
  • A huge line of people showed up to watch
  • The video showed people how to walk after surgery, physical therapy techniques, basic diet advice
  • The impact numbers were surprisingly positive; infection rates were lowered, satisfaction levels for the hospital increased, people didn’t need to go to the hospital as much afterwards
  • The Amazon rainforest project had gotten too dangerous for Katy Ashe. The gold mining mafia wanted to kill Katy
  • Two of the co-founders had moved onto medical school
  • Katy Ashe went to India for a couple of weeks but ended up staying for nearly a year
  • Living in India is very affordable, but Bangalore is a tech city and costs are increasing quickly. A ramen at a ramen bar in Bangalore can cost $15!
  • The hospital asked Noora Health to do their programs in their other hospitals
  • “We need to go all in and become an organization and throw our lives into this.”
  • The founders did not want the project to fade away
  • They gave themselves three months to get things going
  • Katy Ashe was living in a friend’s garage to make ends meet
  • Edith, the other co-founder, was job searching
  • Katy nor Edith could find jobs that were as impactful to the world, and they are impact-aligned people
  • They wanted to turn the dial using their lives
  • Katy Ashe was looking at IDEO, getting a PhD, becoming a researcher
  • Katy Ashe and Edith consider themselves “professional soul mates”
  • They started Noora Health without any money or funding
  • They made pitches about Noora Health everywhere they went
  • In the beginning, the founders didn’t know how to tell a story
  • At the tail end of the three month deadline, they were accepted by Y-Combinator, an accelerator for tech startups (Air B&B, Dropbox, etc.). They create a community for the entrepreneurs and create a space for accelerated growth
  • Katy had part-time jobs (bartending, babysitting, odd jobs) while starting Noora Health, just getting by
  • Katy had unusual housing arrangements to make ends meet, such as attics connected with ladders, tents, garages
  • At Y-Combinator, nonprofits are treated the same way as everyone else
  • Noora Health was the second nonprofit ever to be accepted by Y-Combinator
  • Y-Combinator lasts 3-4 months but you become part of the community forever
  • Katy Ashe went into Y-Combinator without knowing too much about it, without expectations
  • Noora Health shot out of Y-Combinator “like a cannon ball”
  • “We’ve been trying to keep the cannon ball in the air.”
  • Katy had to learn how to hire people, create a team, create a culture
  • The four founders had started the class project without naming a leader or CEO
  • “Every couple of months I rewrite my job description.”
  • Katy Ashe is currently focusing on external communication, such as writing articles and sharing their impact study data sets
  • Katy Ashe loves to travel, kind of like Dr. Who, to go to conferences and make pitches
  • She was rarely in one place for longer than two weeks
  • Noora Health now works in 16 different cities in India
  • Excessive traveling can make you confused and lose your center
  • The original nurse in India that helped show the first video is now Noora’s Director of Training!
  • Noora Health now sets up schools inside the hospitals and provide the staff with videos, flip charts, take home materials, everything they need
  • Their material is largely visual since many of the beneficiaries are illiterate
  • Noora Health has more than 30 employees now in the team
  • Noora Health has filmmakers and designers on the team and they create the curriculum
  • They are currently trying to change 5-10 behaviors
  • Noora Health has trained more than 90,000 family members
  • “You should be paying competitive wages.”
  • Noora Health sometimes give full time jobs to their volunteers
  • Being indispensable and adding value are keys to finding jobs
  • Katy Ashe considers herself a messy person
  • She is always starting new projects, reading more books, adding more tasks onto her already busy life
  • She considers herself “too curious”
  • Noora Health wants to take their model to all of India and eventually to other countries
  • The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to be advocates for world peace while working on ourselves