Andrea Berchowitz ’06 Improves Women’s Health and Ditches the Stigma
She cofounded Vira Health, which helps women cope with menopause while closing the workplace gender gap
Hot flashes and night sweats, insomnia and incontinence, weight gain and libido loss.
Menopausal miseries have yet to hit 38-year-old Andrea Berchowitz ’06, but when they do, Vira Health will give her relief.
Meanwhile, the digital therapeutics company she cofounded in 2019 is doing just that for thousands of women in the United Kingdom and United States. Along with tackling menopausal symptoms and their threat to long-term health, Berchowitz, who lives in London, is helping businesses create more menopause-friendly places for women to work.
Vira Health’s (pronounced “veera”) app, called Stella, features evidence-based cognitive-behavioral techniques; tailored exercise, diet, and lifestyle tracking and support; and a menopause coach women can talk with. Eventually, enough data collected from the app, combined with AI, will reveal health trends and personalize each woman’s journey with Stella along the three-stage menopausal path.
Every woman travels it differently. It starts typically in the late-40s to early-50s, as perimenopause, when progesterone levels gradually decline, causing a relative excess of estrogen that fluctuates widely. Hello hot flashes. Once she naturally stops ovulating for 12 months straight, she’s reached menopause and immediately enters post-menopause, often with new symptoms.
It doesn’t stop there.
“The risk of not taking menopause seriously may contribute to many of the conditions that can really disrupt women’s health in their 70s and 80s, such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, and dementia,” said Berchowitz.
She explained how Stella works: “A woman tells us the symptoms bothering her, and we take the most troublesome and build a 12-week plan with weekly lessons about what’s happening in her body and specific habits to adopt. At the end, we assess how she’s improving, look at any new symptoms, and set up a health-maintenance plan and/or suggest new Stella courses.”
The impact of menopause on the gender gap
Nearly one billion women worldwide are at some stage of menopause. It impedes daily life for more than 80 percent of them and, for about half, also their work life, Berchowitz said.
“Menopausal symptoms can increase absenteeism and reduce productivity in the workplace, affecting job promotion and retention,” she said. “We need more women to stick around for their highest-earning years. Employers only benefit from senior-level women, who have decades of experience and serve as role models for junior staff. Many companies that attract and keep high-quality talent already offer other wellness apps and programs. Why not for menopause, too?”
Berchowitz addressed this and more in her July 2021 TED talk, “The link between menopause and gender inequity at work,” which so far has racked up 1.5 million views.
She is meeting with human resource directors of large grocery stores, banks, law firms, and big media companies to offer Stella up to their staff—and ditch the stigma of talking about menopause. Acceptance in the workplace also means paid time off, breathable-fabric uniforms, and no big deal if a woman starts fanning herself.
“Colby was incredibly supportive”
The high-pressured corporate world is one Berchowitz knows well. After graduating from Colby with a B.A. in government, she worked for the global management-consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, in 2012 she received her M.P.A. in economics and international development from Columbia University and returned to the firm, in London. She stayed there, serving as head of Middle East relations for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, until 2019.
“Those positions put me in boardrooms and meeting ministers of finance and CEOs. My experiences taught me how to work and helped me set the bar high for what I’m capable of. I also saw so few female senior executives, and that was depressing to me. It made me want to make a career shift, but I did not yet know it would be in the area of menopause,” she said.
In 2019 she met Rebecca Love, Ph.D., with a background in chronic disease, and they founded Vira Health. “The odds were not good. In 2020 less than 2 percent of venture capital money went to women,” Berchowitz said.
Yet that summer they raised $2 million and a significantly larger amount since then, to be announced publicly soon. Today, Vira Health employs 20 people.
Tying her current success to Colby, Berchowitz points to “the great female role models that contributed to me knowing that I could achieve at the highest level,” she said, referring to Patrice Franko, Grossman Professor of Economics, and Jennifer Yoder, Robert E. Diamond Professor of Government and Global Studies.
“Colby was an incredibly supportive place for me. The diversity of thought and creativity with a liberal arts education, the many international students, and learning from super academics have all helped me in the startup world, building this company.”
Vira Health’s main priority is getting Stella into more companies, and then clinical trials.
“We want to change women’s health, with a totally new treatment option for menopause. When it comes for them, whether it’s with hot flashes or insomnia, we want them to feel better and live a long, healthy life,” she said. “That’s what matters most.”
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