Women We’re Watching: Tegan Bukowski, Co-Founder and CEO of WellSet
Tegan Bukowski is almost exactly the type of multi-hyphenate you’d expect to launch a wellness platform grounded in the tech sphere. She’s a trained architectural designer who has designed projects as diverse as a viral proposal for the border wall, NASA’s first astronaut blog from space with astronauts on the ISS and homewares for Harrods and Swarovski. She also designed East Africa’s first utility-scale photovoltaic field that now powers 10 percent of the Rwandan energy grid while also supporting an orphanage.
As an architectural designer, she worked for Zaha Hadid in London where she designed skyscrapers, airports, urban spaces and homewares. When Zaha Hadid passed away, Tegan wrote about the meaning of losing one of the major female architects in the world in an oped in the NYTimes. Add to her impressive resume that she’s also a yoga teach and mindfulness coach and you’ll quickly understand why she co-founded WellSet, the first centralized marketplace to find and book alternative healthcare professionals—and why she’s the latest in our Women We’re Watching series.
This new wellness platform is kind of exactly what I’ve been looking for in terms of finding practitioners. Why was launching this into the tech space important to you?
I realized the immense need for a marketplace to find wellness practitioners to exist through having my own healing journey where I had a very hard time finding the right person to help me navigate an illness. I have a chronic condition that has landed me in the hospital once or twice a year over the past 15 years. The doctors in the ER would give me morphine for a day and then send me home every single time, not having found anything acute enough to operate on (appendicitis, for example). It wasn’t until I was in the hospital for a week and a half with internal bleeding that they took me seriously.
When trying to find the right practitioners to help me get better, I was struck with how difficult it is to find the right modality and practitioner. It is hard to even know where to start—let alone find someone who is in your price range, covered by your insurance, in your geographical area and a specialist in what you specifically need help with. I knew there could be an easier way.
What if we created a wellness marketplace that could bring all of the preventative health and wellbeing modalities together in one platform with a robust search that allows you to find a practitioner based on your health need? What if we created a platform that helps clients find the right practitioner but also helps practitioners build their businesses in a holistic way? What if we created a system for verification across the entire industry so that people know they can trust their practitioners? When I met my co-founder Sky Meltzer (he built Manduka), and he had a similar vision for a wellbeing marketplace, WellSet was born.
I think the biggest learning from my own personal healing journey is that I had to learn what “wellbeing” is—it isn’t a destination or a thing you have if you take the right Instagram-worthy photo in yoga pants; it’s an everyday practice of paying attention to what you are eating, how you are treating your body, how you are quieting your mind. And it also extends to how you treat others and the environment.
That ethos informs how we are building WellSet from a brand and business standpoint and also how we build our company culture.
What cities/areas will the platform serve when it launches? What plans do you have to expand past those initial launch cities?
We are launching now in the Los Angeles area with 1000 hand-picked practitioners. About half of them have been background checked and credential checked as part of our WellSet Select trust program. We have had almost 5000 practitioners apply to be a part of this beta but we are limiting our numbers in early days to make sure we get the product just right before fully launching. We already have a critical mass of practitioners who have joined in the top 15 markets across the country (calculated by GDP) and plan to launch in NYC and San Fransisco towards the start of 2020, if all goes according to plan!
WellSet is poised to impact the healthcare industry by starting to prevent illness, injury and disease with preventative care instead of reactive care. Why is this a key part of your mission?
We are facing a number of preventable healthcare epidemics in the United States right now. Mental health, obesity, autoimmune disorders, inflammatory diseases. Millions of people are affected by these diseases. According to the CDC, 90 percent of money spent on healthcare in the U.S. goes towards treating preventable chronic and mental health conditions. That is crazy!
There is a two-part problem with how patients are treated in the United States. First, the system is structured so that Western-trained doctors—who we love by the way—are often forced to focus on last-minute, acute care rather than long-term, preventative care for their patients. Pills and surgery are often presented as last-minute fixes to problems that could have been prevented with lifestyle changes if caught earlier.
The full spectrum of preventative health and wellbeing is often completely ignored—diet, environmental toxins, allergies and food sensitivities, exercise, mindfulness/stress management, community and human connection, musculoskeletal adjustment—until it is too late. This is a drain not only on the humans who are experiencing distress, but also on the healthcare system and the doctors who treat them.
Secondly, it can be hard to afford and make time for preventative healthcare when our current medical system is already so expensive and out of reach for most people. We are working on having more wellness modalities covered by insurance providers so that at least people who are covered by health insurance can have easier access to wellness providers and hopefully take more proactive action to address their personal wellbeing.
How are practitioners vetted before joining the platform? How do we know we can trust them?
Right now, navigating the wellness industry can be like comparing apples to oranges to pineapples—where do you even start looking for a practitioner and when you find one, how can you tell if they have been certified? On top of that, what modalities (types of practitioner specialties) are trustworthy and right to help you with your specific health condition? Up until now, the industry has been so hard to navigate and WellSet aims to change that. There are three ways that we are creating tools to navigate trust within the wellness industry:
- WellSet Circles: Circles are our way of bringing IRL referrals online.Wellness brands you trust, influencers, incredible practitioners and clients are able to create a listing of their favorite wellness providers that is easily shareable with others. Circle curators receive a 10 to 20 percent (depending on the type of user they are) referral fee when someone books a session through their Circle. We already have some incredible, big-name wellness brands and platforms signed on to make Circles, as well as incredible practitioners and institutions. We are really excited about it— it’s sort of like a wellness Pinterest board that you can get paid for curating.
- Ratings and Reviews: We have reciprocal ratings (like Uber or Airbnb for all wellness sessions so that you can get an accurate idea of what it is like to see a practitioner before you book with them.
- WellSet Select Practitioners/Verification: We only list practitioner types that are covered by Flex Spending Accounts—HSAs/FSAs/HRAs—so most of our practitioners are probably covered by and trusted by your health insurance already. We are creating a tool to navigate this process specifically. WellSet Select practitioners are those that have opted in to be “verified” on our system with background, credentials and reference checks. They are listed with a blue checkmark by their name and are shown first in the search results.
You’re a female-led tech company with funding/investment from Broadway Angels. Why is this significant, for the tech world in general and for wellness in tech?
I think it is significant and also insignificant. We are a group of talented people from diverse backgrounds who hope the world can be a little bit healthier and happier—and have a thesis about how that might come to pass. This has very little to do with our gender.
That being said, female founders received only 2.2 percent of $130 billion in VC funding in 2018. Let me tell you, from the point of view of a female CEO who is a part of that 2.2 percent—it was no walk in the park to raise money for a wellness-focused company in this climate. I think people are catching on that this $32 billion domestically and $4.2 trillion worldwide industry is not going away—and that it will be the mission-focused companies in the space that emerge above the noise. I (and our investors!) think we are that.
If you could wave a wand and change one thing about the world, what would you change and why?
It sounds trite but I wish that we could live in a world where more people had access to the basics (housing, food, healthcare) without living in fear every day. We work from downtown LA where we pass homeless people on the street every day (Hanna—my COO—and I saw someone give their entire uneaten lunch to a homeless man today on our lunch break and it made us tear up). Homelessness is an extreme, but so many hardworking Americans also have a hard time making it through the month. I grew up living on a boat, not always knowing where my next meal would come from and not always having health insurance, so I think it hits close to home that so many live their entire lives in that space.
Female founders tell great stories. Discover how this woman overcame domestic abuse to start a clothing line, and how this woman took her own struggle with postpartum anxiety to create a CBD line.
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