Interview: Caitlin Dolkart, Co-Founder and Managing Director, Flare
Building emergency services in a year of uncertainty
We spoke to Caitlin Dolkart to reflect on her journey to bring access to emergency services to Kenya, and how the past year has shaped Flare. Caitlin is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Flare, a VSQ Conscious Collective portfolio company
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your journey leading up to building Flare
My name is Caitlin and I am a sister, daughter, partner, friend, co-founder and entrepreneur. Based in Nairobi, Kenya for much of the last 10 years, I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. At 25, I left a good gig in management consulting, to explore the world of public health and joined the Clinton Foundation. I spent years traveling and working with governments across Africa to save lives from malaria by ensuring access to effective and affordable treatment. After going back and forth for years between the US and Africa, and even permanently moving back for a stint to go to MIT and get my MBA, I decided to put down roots in Nairobi. In 2016, I decided to launch and build Flare with my co-captain Maria. What started as an adventure has remained an adventure, and throughout it all - whether it be consulting for major hospitals in the US or governments in Africa - access has always been at the center of my work.
When we started, Maria and I tested a few ideas over several months all centered on improving access (ask us about Health Cloud!), but we ultimately and universally agreed to build Flare. We made this choice because it was simple and felt like the elephant in the room when we talk about how to improve healthcare and access:
The majority of the world lives in a country without 911 and it is quite an urgent problem, literally
The technology developed and deployed in the US and Europe (where 911 exists) is from the 1970s
In absence of a 911, there are hundreds of ambulances in Kenya (and tens of thousands across the continent) that remain underutilized yet available
It’s been a year since the world went into a global lockdown, how are you coping with the current situation?
It’s been a wild and unexpected year. Operating in emergency response, we are hyper prepared at a company level and always have backup plans. On a personal level, I feel just the opposite. All my travels and time to reconnect with friends and family were put on hold and triaged out of 2020. There were no backup plans in my personal life, and I think that’s ok. Above all, I feel lucky - we built Flare at the right time and in the right place to play an important role in a pandemic, and while my personal life took a backseat, I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve built and how our team muscled through the year. For that, I’m coping just fine!
How did you recalibrate your operations amidst the pandemic breakout?
In the early days of March 2020, when the first case arrived in Kenya, we prepared and prepared again. We ensured our ambulance teams were equipped with PPE, buying in bulk from China and re-distributing to bring down the cost. We overnight created curricula to train them on proper disinfection techniques and how to put on / take off PPE. We developed new dispatch protocols. We re-mapped key services like Oxygen availability and ICU beds, and modeled what our fate would look like several months later.
For all our prep, we couldn’t have predicted though what would happen - the rates of COVID19 would never come close to those in Europe or the US, and the impact on the rest of the emergencies wasn’t considered. Operationally, we kicked into high gear within weeks, but like much of 2020, this year taught us to constantly take pauses to reassess. These moments were key for us to see what was actually happening outside of our modeled world and readjust.
For example, weeks after the curfew in Nairobi began we saw major reductions in road accidents because there were far fewer people on the road and less drunk driving. However, during this same period we saw a rise in maternal mortality as women could not get to the hospital to deliver at night. The unexpected consequences of COVID19 and policy were not something we operationally prepared for at first, but how could we have known? Instead, we recalibrated several times throughout the year to remain operationally on our toes, and ready to respond.
Did you need to adapt or change your business model?
We didn’t need to make any adjustments to our business model. If anything, COVID19 emphasized the importance of our service, and drove business to us. The way our business works is that we sign up households and corporates on plans much like an insurance scheme (check out rescue.co) to ensure all households or their team members are covered if they have an emergency. There was an increased awareness of healthcare, and everyone overnight became an epidemiologist, so you can guess that with our service as well, many more became curious or conscious of the fact that ambulance services are central to accessing healthcare.
How has this changed the way you're thinking about your business?
2020 inspired us to scale and expand faster. We are a central node to Kenya’s healthcare system and the COVID19 response. It made us realize just how urgent it is for us to move into our 2nd, 3rd and several other countries in order to have more impact.
2020 reminded us of the everyday heroes we always think about, but don’t talk about often enough - the ambulance operators and paramedics who everyday respond to life-threatening emergencies, and put themselves second to the patient. It made us think about the additional tools we can provide them via our technology like training videos.
2020 made us realize how important certainty and trust is for our patients. During a pandemic, everything feels uncertain, but what we need to continue providing to our patients is the right information and delivering fast and quality services.
How does the post-pandemic future look like for Flare?
We prepare for the next pandemic. But seriously, yes - we don’t forget COVID19, and ensure this remains part of our contingency planning and protocols. Beyond COVID19, in 2021, we are looking to grow our impact and scale in Kenya and beyond. Stay tuned for Flare launching in other markets.
Throughout all this uncertainty, what is something that has surprised you during this time?
That despite the convenience of Zoom, I crave personal interaction. For me, 2020 quickly became a tetris game of managing my schedule between team members, clients, investors, Board members, and partners. What keeps me fresh, inspired, on my toes and strategic is coffee with peers in the industry, doctors and others in the healthcare space, and our clients / members. Losing this was big for my energy and motivation. I’ve found ways to now re-integrate some of this back into my day to day like walks outside instead of lunches in a cafe. Whoever comes up with the next Zoom 2.0 that is more personal will certainly be a billionaire.
Interested in joining a dynamic team that is redefining the future of HealthTech in Africa? Flare is currently hiring a Business Development and Sales Executive