Jessica Greenwalt: co-founder of CrowdMed. Graphic designer. Greeting card maker.
Longtime web designer and now co-founder of a digital health startup, Jessica Greenwalt spoke to TechRepublic about her professional journey and how she went from graphic design to a medical technology startup.
When Jessica Greenwalt was first called a tomboy, she froze. She was just a kid, catching tadpoles in a stream at a family reunion, when her cousin told her. It was a completely alien concept that playing outside could mean she was acting like a boy.
She credits her father—he was an electrical engineer, and as soon as she was old enough to hold a soldering iron, he taught her how to build small radios and messaging devices. Her options were limitless, he taught her, and she expected to be able to do whatever she wanted in life.
“The distinction was never made for me, and I’m grateful for that,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t been brought up with the sense of entitlement that a young white boy was brought up with.”
Greenwalt is quick-witted, quick-witted, and honest. She is one of those rare people who is passionate about both the arts and computers, and she is good at both. Now co-founder of crowded, a crowdsourcing platform for medical diagnostics, she has always been a successful graphic designer.
Seattle, Washington is where Greenwalt lives, but she went to elementary school in Honolulu, Hawaii. Later, her parents ended up moving back to Washington, but when they divorced, Greenwalt moved to San Diego with her mother. Of course, coming from places other than California, she expected sunny skies, palm-lined streets and surf culture. And in San Diego, that’s pretty much what she saw.
While in college at California Polytechnic State University, Greenwalt took a course in digital media, where she learned about graphic design. As an artist interested in technology, she was thrilled – it was an art form she could be paid for. She called him her “career soulmate” and decided she would pursue him.
She had started a design business in high school and so continued it through college. She created prints and logos, as well as websites using HTML tables for neighbors, friends, and even people she found looking for help in newspaper classifieds. The curriculum at the university was mainly focused on printing and the courses were just beginning to focus on web development when it was about to be released. Much of what Greenwalt now uses as the basis for what she does day-to-day she learned for free online from blogs and videos.
After college, Greenwalt wanted to go independent, but her parents wanted her to get a full-time gig. So she worked for two years in a research journal publishing company, which she wasn’t really passionate about. She almost left several times, but the travel and salary kept increasing, so she stayed. Finally, she realized something important.
“Clearly [I was] not satisfied enough to stay inherently, and I could make twice as much just by freelancing and working half the time. That’s what I wanted to do in the first place, have a design business.”
Her company, Jessica Greenwalt Design, which she had run since 2003, grew into a larger design company in 2011 which she called Pixelkeet. She had the university’s clientele and relationships with designers and developers. She was in the Bay Area then and also expanded her clientele to startup founders. At first she did most of the design work herself, then hired other people and started to really handle the business side of things.
This is only the first part of his career. The second half of Greenwalt’s story is, in many ways, very different from the first, and a question he is often asked.
“There was a huge change in my life that changed things a lot,” she said.
She lived in San Francisco and was engaged to a man she had known for many years and reconnected with. He was working for a startup, and around the time they started dating, he invited her to a party. Greenwalt ended up discussing the effects of crowdsourcing with a man named Jared Heyman. He had a business card that he outsourced to design, and she said it was the ugliest thing she had ever seen. He told her that maybe she could do better, and she told him “actually, I can”.
She started helping him with his web design for CrowdMed, which Heyman had started because of his sister who had been sick for three years and spent six figures trying to figure out what was wrong. He wanted to see if multiple experts could outsource medical diagnostics to solve cases faster, cheaper, and more accurately than specialists.
“We started working on this thing together…working on the framework that would become CrowdMed, shortly after that party,” she said. They added Axel Setyanto, a third co-founder, and built a prototype that they tested to gather crowdsourcing wisdom to solve medical cases. Once they knew they had a product that had value, they flew to DC to launch it in conjunction with TEDMed. Greenwalt and his co-founders stayed up for three days coding the site and finished just in time. This trip, as stressful as it was, allowed Greenwalt to do some soul-searching. The time away from wedding planning and her fiancé made her think more about what she was doing with her life, and so when she returned to San Francisco, she called off her wedding and moved out.
“I don’t know if this would have happened without the experiences I had [with CrowdMed]”, she said. “I may still be independent and I live in San Francisco, and I’m probably married now … I’m grateful to be where I am now, I think it suits me.
Earlier this year, she moved full-time to CrowdMed and handed Pixelkeet responsibility to Jessica Parsons. Greenwalt is pretty sure many of her clients still don’t realize they’re talking to a new Jessica. At CrowdMed, Greenwalt is CIO and spends most of his day communicating with people at all levels about user experience and design. Her favorite times of the day are talking to patients and the medical sleuths who use the platform, to find out what they want to improve. Now there are four people on the team, plus a community of medical advisors and medical students who help promote CrowdMed on campuses and review cases for the site.
“The design firm was much more relaxing, and I mean it’s intense. I feel really alive, there’s not a moment where I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said. she declared. “It’s exciting, energizing, and it all happens so fast [so there’s an] instant gratification. You see the results and it’s on to the next thing. It’s satisfying in that sense.”
In his own words…
What are some of your hobbies?
“I like to throw craft parties. People come and work on the most random things. A friend of mine is a – do you know what yarn bombing is? Instead of a street art permanent, it’s temporary…they’ll be knitting things that will cover public property, like lampposts, etc. So she’ll go out and knit her next yarn bomb project.Some people are working on robots, collages, papier mache. It’s the most eclectic group of projects, it’s kind of cool. Since I spend so much time in front of technology, I’m basically happy to do anything that doesn’t involve a machine. I do a lot of paper crafts. I love making greeting cards. It’s an amazing outlet for me.
Looking back, what advice would you give yourself?
“I would have thought if I could, to get some advice from someone who’s done this before because I kind of did it all very experimentally, I took the plunge. I’ve done a lot of mistakes that took me longer to learn things than if I just asked for help initially I would say don’t try to do everything yourself, don’t be afraid to ask for help help, and people are generally willing to give advice in the Bay Area in my experience. No reason to be shy about reaching out to someone. People are willing to help and able to help. ‘help here. I don’t know if it’s because of the way I was raised or the culture before I came here, it made me feel like I shouldn’t ask for things, it helps me made it harder and put a bigger burden on me and made me the bottleneck for things because I had to do everything myself.”