Each month, I will introduce you to a public health consultant or entrepreneur and they will share their path to self-employment and outline key pieces of advice for aspiring business owners.
Today we welcome Sujani Sivanantharajah from Canada! (In addition to sharing her story, Sujani also has a special course discount just for my blog readers and social media followers!)
1. Please share your educational background and business title/name.
HBSc (Honours Bachelor of Science degree), MPH (Master of Public Health)
2. Tell us how you entered the field of public health and what your education and work experience was prior to starting your own business.
My journey into public health was not intentional; I stumbled into it as I navigated the stressful years of undergrad at the University of Toronto (in Canada). I thought I would become a dentist when I first entered university. I really thought I liked medicine and science, and in addition I enjoyed working with tools. My naive young self thought that a logical career would be to become a dentist…
Fortunately, a number of elective courses I enrolled into guided me to the world of public health, and into Epidemiology. One such public health course had a beautiful quote at the beginning of the assigned course reading. It read:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Donne
These words were so profound and powerful, and it resonated so much with me that they became words I wanted to live by.
This course, along with others, introduced me to the concept of population health, and to great public health figures like Edward Jenner (pioneer of the smallpox vaccine), Florence Nightingale (a nurse who improved sanitary conditions in hospitals), and in modern day, Paul Farmer. These individuals inspired me with their selfless contributions to the world. The kind of impact they were making on the human population was not at an individual level, but rather, in the thousands, and sometimes millions. When you want to see change, you want to see it in these large numbers, and that’s what I wanted to do!
As you can imagine, I was enjoying the elective courses more than those I needed for dental school (chemistry, physics, and calculus). I soon realised that pursuing something I was not interested in was not the smartest thing. Towards the end of my second year I made the switch to a Health Studies program (and graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree, with a double major in Biology and Health Studies). I began to explore careers in public health and discovered Epidemiology, which led me to apply to a Master’s program in Public Health.
The MPH program at the University of Saskatchewan was especially appealing to me because I didn’t have full-time work experience at the time. I did however have significant volunteer experience at not-for-profit organizations, research labs, and in front-line health care. With this, I was able to prepare a strong application and was accepted to the School of Public Health. I began my MPH in August of 2011, and graduated in the spring of 2013.
Soon after, in the summer of 2013, I landed a job as an Outbreak Epidemiologist (my “dream” job, and the reason I pursued an MPH) at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). As an Outbreak Epidemiologist, I worked on national projects that supported cluster detection and outbreak response activities. In March 2018, I moved into a different role as an opioids Public Health Officer (still with PHAC) and was placed in a different province to support the opioids overdose surveillance work in the province.
3. When did you start your business and what were your motivations for pursuing self-employment?
I moved from Toronto to Saskatoon to pursue my MPH degree – quite the move, as you can imagine (over 3000 km from home). The 20 months I spent in Saskatoon were some of my best days. In addition to the many learning opportunities the program provided, I saw myself grow as an individual. I not only made lifelong friends, I also met inspiring mentors, learnt the power of seeking your own opportunities, and discovered my love for building things, which led me to the world of entrepreneurship.
I have always looked for solutions to problems in my life. It didn’t click to me then that I could be the one to find the solution, and try to solve these problems on a larger scale for others to benefit from.
During my “Research Methods in Public Health” course, I based my term paper on a population that I belonged to – Tamil-speaking Canadians. I proposed an overall goal to conduct a needs assessment in the Canadian Tamil population, beginning with the Greater Toronto Area. The needs assessment would address the health needs of the population to provide services and tools to improve the community’s health. As I wrote this paper, I had an itch to actually conduct the needs assessment back home in Toronto.
In August of 2013, I founded a not-for-profit organization, the Tamil Health Association (THA), to focus on research within the Tamil population. We did indeed go on to conducting the needs assessment study in the summer of 2013 (in addition to a number of other research projects, community outreach events, health promotion activities, and collaborations with many organizations). This initiative led us to understand that the community was interested and looking for resources to help make lifestyle diet changes. This year we will celebrate 6 years since launch, and we continue to stay motivated to continue finding answers to some tough questions within our community.
As I worked on THA, I would receive countless emails and LinkedIn messages from individuals looking to pursue an MPH, or who had graduated from an MPH program. I never turned anyone down because I was once in their position looking for guidance. So, every weekend, I would sit down with a handful of eager students.
Sitting down with these young professionals, I realised that their questions were almost always the same: What was your public health journey like? What did you do after undergrad? What motivated you to start THA? Should I pursue an MPH?
I patiently responded to them all, using the story I had recited over the years.
One summer however, I sat down with so many people that I knew it wasn’t practical for me to do this every weekend! I needed a solution, to not only lessen my load but to try to help more students and young professionals, especially those who may not be confident enough to reach out to professionals they didn’t know.
In the winter of 2016, I started building PH SPOT. And in January of 2017, I launched PH SPOT with the help of some friends and my husband. PH SPOT was going to be a dedicated space for public health professionals. The mission was to support public health professionals to build their careers. We would deliver hand-picked public health jobs, resources, mentorship, and inspiration through an online space/platform. Most importantly, I had replaced my one-on-one stories by encouraging other public health professionals to share theirs. This specially curated blog showcased real-life success stories, failures, resilience, career advice and insights from new and established professionals.
As I read and heard from readers of the PH SPOT blog, I realised that everyone’s journey in public health was valuable to the next generation of public health professionals, and even those who had an established career.
I strongly believe that inspiration can come in any form and at any point in one’s career. Whether contributors chose to share a story on why they decided to pursue education in public health, or perhaps they were one of the leaders involved in the eradication of Smallpox, we wanted to capture it all. PH SPOT was on its way to being a brand that supported continuous learning, big dreams, and a sense of community within the public health field.
I currently run PH SPOT, in addition to working as an Epidemiologist.
4. Who is your ideal client? What services do you offer?
My “ideal client” (users of PH SPOT) are public health professionals who are looking to build their careers. The services we offer through the platform are hand-picked public health jobs through a weekly newsletter, inspiration and career guidance via our blog, and resources and downloadable tools - these can include application tips for a graduate degree and online courses.
5. Do you have a particular product or service that you’d like to highlight? Tell us all about it!
One of the resources we have built for public health professionals is our flagship course: Infographics 101 - How to design public health infographics with softwares you know & use. It’s an online self-paced course designed with public health in mind, and focuses on building the confidence to create infographics. After having designed infographics for almost 7 years, I knew that the thought of designing an infographic just felt so daunting to many people, especially within the public health field because it was not something that was taught in school.
Most of them asked questions like: “Where do I start? How much information should I include? How do I even know I’m doing this correctly? And, don’t I need those fancy softwares like Photoshop or InDesign?”
These are exactly the questions that Infographics 101 helps to answer, because it helps cut through all of that confusion. This course is for individuals who want to learn the basics of design and infographics, and also need some support to equip themselves with all of the tools needed to design infographics with confidence and ease. In the course, I walk students through the entire process of designing their first infographic, step-by-step. The course content is not overwhelming, and it includes high-quality videos, cheat sheets, templates, a course book, and access to me via a Facebook group/newsletter. With all of this support, you’ll be on your way to designing and publishing your first infographic in no time. If this sounds interesting to you, I invite you to check out the course page for more details.
*A special deal for Leah’s audience: 10% off the course price using the code: “LEAHRPH” at checkout.
Please note that prices are in Canadian Dollars. The current registration cycle closes on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 at 11:59pm EST.
Course Audience: This course is not for you if you already have the tools and strategies to jump onto a design platform and create infographics. This course is designed specifically for individuals who are looking for a bit more guidance.
Learn More: You can learn more about the origin of this course and why we built it on our blog: The story of our online course – Infographics 101.
Additional Resource: If you don’t think you are ready to commit to an online course yet, but would like some guidance on infographic design, I invite you to download our 9-step guide which will not only give you access to a tool to help plan your infographics, but it will sign you up for our newsletter which also delivers great value around infographic design in public health.
6. Many of our readers are considering a career as a self-employed public health consultant or entrepreneur. What is your best piece of advice for those considering or just starting out?
My one piece of advice for individuals who want to start their own public health focused business is to start now...like, today!
You may have big ideas and dreams, and that’s important, but it’s also important to start small by taking small steps towards those big dreams. Even if you can’t be a full time consultant or entrepreneur right now, at this exact moment, start doing something on the side. The cumulative effect of your small actions will be huge a year down the road when perhaps you are more ready.
You may have heard the saying “Think Big, Start Small”. I really believe in this. The small actions you take every day will get you closer to your goal. Small actions can look something like these (these are things I did):
Share your ideas with people in your network to see what they think about it (positive and negative feedback is great to help refine your idea)
Write out your ideas/plan for your business in a dedicated “idea book”
Research about your idea and see what others in the similar space are doing
Put something out there (i.e. a website of your service/idea) - you won’t know if it’s a good idea until you’ve put it out and receive feedback
As you can see, these small actions don’t have to be things that are groundbreaking or huge!
Public health doesn’t have a great reputation within the “self-employed” or “business/startup” space compared to other industries, like tech. I believe that it’s so important for those of us who want to be in that space to look around for inspiration and really believe and feel empowered that we too can do this. To see “someone like us” doing what we want to do goes a long way in terms of our mindset. So, don’t feel discouraged if you find someone else doing similar work. Always remember that the unique value you deliver (and only you can deliver) will attract your unique community/clientele. I encourage you to feel inspired and empowered when you see someone with a similar idea to yours, and feel that “yes, I too can do this”.
That’s one of the many reasons I love the work Leah has been doing. Her platform not only provides consultants and entrepreneurs with tangible tools and strategies, but it also shows us all that there are people in the public health industry who are able to follow their entrepreneurial dreams. I pull a lot of inspiration from just hearing about the work they do!
7. How can readers connect with you? Please share links to relevant websites and social media accounts:
If you are a public health professional, we’d love for you to contribute your career story/journey on our blog. See our contribute page if you are interested.
*Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link to the Infographics 101 course. This means Roman Public Health Consulting LLC receives a small percentage of compensation if you make a purchase through my link, without any extra cost to you. Affiliate relationships help support the free content and resources I provide through this blog. Thank you for your support!