In celebration of Black History Month, Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS is featuring our team, partners and collaborators all February long. Have a leader you want to spotlight? Join in the celebration by tagging @JLABS on Twitter and introducing us to them!
Ellington West is CEO of Sonavi Labs, a company that is a JPOD @ Philadelphia resident since 2019. Her dedication to overcoming – and helping others overcome – systemic barriers to education, the workplace and entrepreneurship is profound, and her story is inspiring. She believes that brilliance can be found anywhere, and you only need to nourish and support it. It’s the sentiment toward innovation, partnerships and business that we at Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS share, measure and believe.
We invited Ellington to join us as we celebrate Black History Month and couldn’t think of a better way to share her story than to let her tell it, herself.
To the Life Sciences Community, My Fellow Entrepreneurs & the Brilliant Innovators of Tomorrow,
In my life, I have had to really sit with the fact that I am an anomaly and I have truly had an extraordinary experience, which has allowed me the opportunities that led me to this very moment. I am blessed to have been raised by a living legend, a Black man who changed the world as we know it, and continues to defy boundaries at 90 years old.
My father, Dr. Jim West, is a major reason why I co-founded this startup, and why I am so fiercely determined to ensure that this company is a success. His impact has been felt by our entire team, and while they know the brilliant inventor, I am also deeply familiar with the man who has been disrespected and challenged at nearly every turn. Among the moments that stand out occurred when I was young, I watched my father be mistaken for the valet on his way to deliver a keynote address. This moment has truly sat with me.
Being a Black woman and leading a startup in the med-tech industry has presented so many opportunities for me to show that my father’s hardships, and the lessons he taught me through those hardships, were not in vain. Of course, I have had to deal with men speaking over me, or finding myself at a conference having to correct people who assume that one of my male counterparts is the CEO.
Those instances are common, because so few people who look like me are afforded the opportunity to raise millions of dollars to spin out a company from a world-renowned institution, with a world-renowned inventor at the helm. I am so very grateful to have had the network and resources needed to transform Sonavi Labs from a concept into a growing global health company. While my journey has been an anomaly, it does not have to be.
We are all aware of the systemic barriers that prevent many students from developing their talents and gifts. The inequitable and disparate funding of school districts around the country is a major reason why volunteerism is such a priority in my family. My father has shown me through his work with the Ingenuity Project, which I am now involved in, that brilliance like his can be found anywhere. It only needs to be nourished and supported. Students that would otherwise have been overlooked, continue to excel in this program, and many receive acceptances from the nation’s top institutions. It is because of mentorship, encouragement and exposure that these students go on to do great work in the world.
The access to an incredible roster of mentors is the reason why we wanted to join the Johnson & Johnson Innovation - JLABS program and become a portfolio company. The Johnson & Johnson Innovation network is incredibly vast, and the company’s dedication to supporting women in the workplace truly resonated with me as a young woman, venturing into entrepreneurship. Our JPAL, Will Colon has provided great advice on agencies and organizations that we could collaborate with to deploy our technology. Stephen Pitt, Head of JLABS North East and Sally Allain, Head of JLABS @ Washington, DC also made meaningful introductions and ensured that our company is constantly promoted within the Johnson & Johnson Innovation network.
This past year has taught me so much about the need for our technology, absolutely, but it has also shown me the need for more inclusive leadership teams, especially in large healthcare institutions. We have certainly been impacted by the growing demand for telehealth solutions and by the rising interest in supporting Black founders and including Black voices. I am happy to be lending my insights as a Black woman, and founder, to ensure that as plans for the future are created and progress is made, the efforts aren’t performative or myopic.
And that is ultimately what I hope for everyone and every company that wants the world to be better for future generations. Whether a company is developing a new drug, technology, software or process, they should consider the full range of users. We’ve seen this happen in everything from the development of therapeutics that lacked diversity in clinical trials to automated sensors that can’t detect dark skin. If companies aren’t intentional and deliberate about seeking diverse leadership and perspectives, then it will show in their products, marketing, and in the faces, words and actions of their team.
The goal should be growth. That is our goal as a startup. I know that this is an uncertain and long road ahead for everyone but together, we can.
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