The First Nurse Featured on TED Talks Launches Society For Nurse Entrepreneurs, Innovators
By Jacob Uitti
Rebecca Love, the first nurse to give a TEDx talk and the founder of many businesses including HireNurses.com, spoke with us about her inspirations, why she became a nurse and how the support from her mother, who is also a nurse, changed her life and likely the lives of many others.
The Massachusetts-based nurse is as passionate as they come. In one way, she is driven by a myriad of projects and the dream of helping all nurses find a better way to do their job. But in another way, Love is driven by a single idea: to elevate the public perception of nurses to ensure that the job of bedside caregiver doesn’t go extinct.
Why did you want to become a nurse?
To be 100% honest, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. My mother was a nurse and my dad was a lawyer.
I was applying to law school and at the time I was working on a Presidential campaign and the issue of healthcare was major. My mom flew out to visit me and we out to dinner and she said, “I really think you should be a nurse.” At the time, I remember thinking to myself, “Nursing is a really tough job.” I remember the hours that she worked but I also recognized there was very little appreciation and recognition for the work she did. And she said, “You’re very mission-driven and compassionate, you should be a nurse.” And I remember at the time when I was working on the Presidential campaign, I started to feel like, “How can I preach to the choir if I’m not a member of the choir?”
I think that is where I changed my perception. It was such an important topic on the campaign, the access to care, the denial of care. I had heard stories of my mother’s patients dying because their insurance had been cut off. So, my ambition really came from that direction: if I really wanted to create change in an industry that could really impact the lives of others, becoming a nurse really was the front door.
What did it mean for you to be the first nurse featured on TED Talks?
I would say that it was long overdue. It is an incredible honor but it also is just so surprising to me that in the decades of TED Talks and TEDMED that there had never been a nurse featured on the main TED platform.
Many people have recognized the importance and value of nursing but I think that they actually didn’t understand how important nurses were in healthcare. The message that nurses have always been this unsung, natural hero in health care resonated.
It seemed to be a mystery to many that we might be facing perhaps the greatest challenge to our profession that we have ever seen - that if we don’t change how we view nursing and the opportunities that we present to nurses, then potentially young people won’t become nurses and there will be no one left at the bedside to care for patients.
So, it was this huge honor, don’t get me wrong. But I think it was long overdue.
In your TEDx talk, you spoke eloquently about trusting nurses and their bedside innovations. What is the danger of not listening to the innovations nurses make?
Not recognizing the workarounds nurses are doing as actually innovations shows, again, the disconnect between how we view the stature and importance of nurses to transform healthcare. I think the danger of not recognizing nurses as innovators is it undermines their value and their role. But more importantly, it prevents the transformations we so desperately need to address in healthcare.
So, the danger of not exploring the world of nurse innovation or recognizing nurse-led innovations is to miss out on perhaps catalyzing a transformation in healthcare.
There is no one closer to the patient than the nurse and they understand where all the gaps of care are; where all the challenges to our current healthcare system exist.
If we can give nurses a seat at the table and recognize these innovations then we might actually be able to move healthcare forward in a way that many people say it should.
What balance do you think should be struck between challenging the status quo and maintaining protocol?
Following protocol is always going to be important within the system, because protocols have been in place based on evidence-based practice and research to maintain the best outcomes.
The importance is to give time and space so nurses can bring these innovations and workarounds forward so that they can improve the system. There has to be a balance.
In a place where life and death are on the line, following protocol is the safest path in almost every situation. But there are always going to be those outliers, those moments where challenging the status quo and thinking differently is warranted - if you keep doing things and expecting different results, then that’s the definition of insanity. There are moments when you have to try things differently to make progress.
What we need to do in our healthcare system is recognize nurses are dealing with these bottlenecks everyday. We have to create a system in healthcare where the nurses can safely maneuver those bottlenecks and also be given the time, space and resources to address problems so that they can create the solutions to improve patient care for all.
How did you become involved in the business and entrepreneurial realm of nursing?
I learned the hard way. I started my own company as a nurse because I wanted to make it easier for nurses to find a job and for my hospice patients to find nurses and my nursing students to find jobs. So, I created a company and I thought it was as easy as putting up a website and everything would work out. For five years, I struggled every single day to figure out how to build a company and that was my entry into the world of business — the school of hard knocks. That’s when I went to a Hackathon and it changed my perception, I realized how I, as a nurse, had never been taught business skills. In the course of a weekend at the Hackathon, I learned more about the business side of healthcare than I had learned in a year of trying to start a company.
It was then that I realized, “Holy cow! We need to have nursing Hackathons.” So that they can identify the problem, create solutions that also get some business knowledge to nurses so that they can speak the language of business. Because in nursing, we’re taught to speak in empathetic terms: “I think, I feel, I believe.” But that doesn’t allow for a compelling argument to your manager or the CFO. In the world of the business of healthcare, you have to speak to finance, operations and strategy and we were never given those skillsets. This is why I became so passionate about how can I help nurses get the skill sets they need to drive change.
The truth is typical nursing education gave us great clinical skill sets but they gave us no business skill sets. So I learned by starting my own business and we built the first nursing innovation entrepreneurship program in the country at Northeastern University and I literally just started the program saying, “Gosh, I wish somebody would have told me the 15 facts of starting a business.” Like, don’t look for a name, buy a URL. All these little hints that I wish I’d done.
Working with now hundreds, if not thousands, of nurses who are trying to start a business or patent a product, I’ve become very well versed in all the stumbling blocks, the challenges and now I just say to people, “You got this, keep going!”
So often you strive to empower people, which is a very beautiful quality. Where do you think that comes from?
I’m very passionate about empowering people. I think part of that comes from being a nurse, right? You don’t choose to become a nurse if you don’t want to help other people. I’ve always believed that nurses are the most pure entrepreneurs because we got into this profession to save people’s lives, not to make money. Every day that I went to the bedside and took care of dying patients, it wasn’t because I was getting a paycheck, it was because I wanted to alleviate their suffering.
This transition into trying to empower nurses to have more of a voice so they can drive changes in healthcare comes from the heart of being a nurse, which is: Let me help others because that’s going to help the world overall.
I feel that nursing has been mostly disempowered as a profession and the way that we can change that is by giving nurses the tools to be successful. I think it’s going to make humanity better, too. I am petrified that potentially one day in the future there will be no nurses by the bedside because we didn’t do anything to strengthen that profession, to have it be seen as beautiful, knowledgeable, intelligent and expert at keeping patients alive. That’s really how I fundamentally live my life.
You’ve created a new nursing society, SONSIEL: Society of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs and Leaders. What is the mission?
We started a new nursing society around this, actually. And it took me about six months to get comfortable with the idea that we were going to launch a new nursing society, it’s called SONSIEL: Society Of Nurse Scientists, Innovators, Entrepreneurs and Leaders. It’s based on this idea that we just want nurses to be valued for how smart they are and how intelligent they are based on their value in healthcare.
It took me six months to decide I was going to do this - we already have 800 nursing organizations in the country, but not one of them deals with the issues around the image of nurses in society. I wanted to create a place where nurses would be seen as the experts they are in healthcare.
Founding members include the Chief Nursing Officer at Microsoft and The Director of Innovation at the School of Nursing at UPenn. These are rockstar nurses who have all challenged the status quo, walked on the edge, done things differently but never could find other nurses like them to say, “Hey guys, it’s okay to be different in nursing and challenge the status quo and if you want to invent and if you want to start a company, we want to support you because we believe in your vision, we want to support and elevate it.”
We joke but we say we’ve created this stable for unicorns in nursing. We just launched in January and we have nurses from around the world reaching out to us saying, “Oh my gosh, there you’ve been, I’m not by myself! I’m just so happy!”
Your mother, who is also a nurse, helped you financially to start HireNurses.com when your father and husband wouldn’t. What did that trust and initial investment mean to you?
So, my mother gave me her nursing retirement to start HireNurses.com, that was our company. She went back to nursing school when she was almost turning 50. I was a freshman in college and she called me and said, “Am I too old to become a nurse?” It had always been her dream. And I said, “No, mom! You’re not too old to become a nurse!”
I remember when my dad and husband said they weren’t going to give us money to start this company. I had three little kids and my dad said, “If this was a great idea, why didn’t somebody else do this?”
So, my mom and I left that meeting with my dad, we were walking down the highway from the restaurant — we were so frustrated — on our way home. And my mother looked at me, and said, “Look, they’re not nurses. They don’t understand what you and I see in the community and I’ll give you my nursing retirement to start this company.” And I think it’s the only reason I never gave up.
Let me tell you, there were horrible times. Terrible things happened when starting the business; things I could not even imagine would go wrong went wrong. I won’t even go into them because I don’t want to scare anybody off, but just know there are incredibly dark moments and incredibly bright moments when starting a company.
Because that was my mom’s nursing retirement money she had given me, I just kept going. I could never give up because I knew the blood, sweat and tears that she had put behind that money. And if she hadn’t believed in me then and there, I don’t know if I would be where I am today. In fact, I know I wouldn’t.
Sometimes I wonder, would this conversation of nurse innovation in the world have taken off in the way it has if somebody hadn’t believed in me? If somebody hadn’t believed in all the other nurse innovators out there? I’m not sure, without her support in saying, “Yeah you can do something different,” if I would have ever had the courage to do it on my own.
What would it mean to you to throw out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game?
I think my kids would be super impressed. I think I would embarrass myself in front of an entire audience. But I think it would be absolutely exhilarating. But also if it gave nurses the courage to sit there and say, “I too can walk on the edge,” then that’s exactly why I would do it.