Erica Plybeah witnessed the struggle her grandmother, a Type 2 Diabetic, double-leg amputee, faced when seeking non-emergency transportation to her doctor’s appointments and knew that something needed to be done.
The 33-year-old CEO of Memphis-based med tech company MedHaul, took matters into her own hands and created a platform to help healthcare providers facilitate special-needs transportation for patients to and from their medical appointments.
“I wanted to find a way to positively impact patients and the healthcare providers who are [now] my customers,” Plybeah says. As a result, low-income patients, the elderly, and those with intellectual and physical disabilities, don’t have to worry about at least one aspect of their medical care. MedHaul’s streamlined, cloud-based process also means personnel in clinics, hospitals, and other medical care venues spend less time making travel arrangements for their patients. Before they had access to the MedHaul service, it’s said booking rides for patients would normally take clinical personnel an average of 11 phone calls and 2.5 hours of staff time per appointment.
The company is making a difference for many in the transportation business, as well. “We partner with small transportation companies that have specialized vans that can accommodate wheelchairs and stretchers,” she says. In many southeastern cities, including Memphis, New Orleans, and Birmingham, Plybeah noticed that many transportation vehicles were sitting unused, sometimes as much as 50- to-70% of the week.
Even with all this good work, Plybeah didn’t expect her career path would be that of an entrepreneur. She’d seen her hard-working Liberian father run his own business and decided early on that that life was not for her. “My dad owned printing shops, and he just always looked so stressed out,” she says.
But the entrepreneurial bug bit Plybeah when she saw a billboard advertising taxi services for new mothers. “That billboard was put there by the health system. They were trying to help because they know that a lot of new moms have issues with prenatal and postnatal transportation,” she says. “I was a fairly new mom at that time, and I just could not imagine leaving the hospital, especially after a C-section or difficult delivery, and hopping in a taxi with a three-day-old. Unfortunately, that’s just what a lot of women must do. That bothered me.”
Two weeks after spotting the billboard, Plybeah found out about the Memphis Medical District Collaborative Operation Opportunity Challenge. It was a competition to find aspiring entrepreneurs who could create solutions for operational problems within the Memphis medical district. “Transportation management was one of their top pain points,” she says.
Kismet? Maybe, but Plybeah missed the deadline.
“I saw the competition and I was like, that seems cool. It’s such a coincidence, but nope, I’m not applying. Then two weeks later, I got an email that the deadline for the competition had been extended.” She submitted her business plan and became one of the two challenge winners. What might have been a coincidence, soon turned into confirmation. Plybeah was awarded $20,000 towards financing her business and hasn’t looked back since.
“That just kind of fueled the fire,” Plybeah says. She then completed the Epicenter Logistics Accelerator and received another $50,000 in startup capital as a result. “I was looking for mentorship around logistics, because I didn’t have any logistics experience at the time.”
Other opportunities for growth followed, including the Google for Startups Accelerator for Black founders.
In the beginning, Plybeah made a mock-up of how she envisioned the design and built an early version of the technology on her own. “I could do that myself. I knew just enough about tech to be dangerous,” she says. “I’m not a software engineer, but my background is in clinical and research informatics, which is a fancy word for healthcare IT.” Software engineers were hired for the final rendering.
It’s been two years since MedHaul’s launch. The company has facilitated about 9,000 rides to date and continues to grow as Plybeah actively adds to her virtual team. She has also learned to trust her gut instincts. “I think in the very beginning, I got very overwhelmed by all the different advice. I was trying to take all of it,” she says. Adding that while it’s important for an entrepreneur to be coachable, that they should also realize they will most likely not use much of the advice they are given.
A native of Greenwood, Mississippi, Plybeah is adamant about keeping her focus on expanding her business in the southeastern states, as she has in her current Memphis hometown. “I’ve seen over the years that innovation typically skips over the communities that need it. The southeast has some of the lowest income and sickest people. This is where we need innovation. Everything doesn’t always have to go to San Francisco or New York.”
MedHaul is a Certified B Corporation, a fairly new category of about 4,000 businesses, in more than 70 countries, that aspire to balance purpose and profit.