In ELLE.com’s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month, we spoke to Sumbul Desai, MD, the vice president of health at Apple. In her role at the iconic tech company, Desai oversees health initiatives, like the new mental health and vision health features that launched this summer. But Desai’s career didn’t start in medicine. After working at ABC News and Disney, a family emergency inspired her to go back to school. Now, she says, her goal is to “empower people to understand their health and never feel helpless—or at least be their best own advocate.” Below, Desai explains the twists and turns that got her here, and the one question she’s asked herself along the way.
My first job
My first job was working in the library when I was 12 or 13. The reason I wanted to work there was because I loved books and reading. That turned out to be the same reason I wasn’t very good at it, because I would read in the corner.
The most challenging job I’ve ever had
Being a resident. You would rotate through different specialties, so for four weeks, you’d be on an oncology unit working with people who are fighting for their lives, and then the other four weeks, you’re working in the ICU. We had a 30-hour call every fourth night, so that was pretty intense. While it was the most challenging, it was actually one of the most memorable times of my life. Often I was taking care of patients who were critically ill or at a point where they potentially weren’t going to have many more years left. Being there for someone at that point in their life is really impactful; it’s very real when you have to tell someone that their time is coming to an end. You remember every story, every family member, every little anecdote from the situation. Those memories have stayed with me through the work that I do, even today. It drives a lot of how you focus your efforts moving forward.
How a family emergency led me to medical school
In 2001, my mom had a massive hemorrhagic stroke, so she had a big brain bleed. She was healthy one minute and then went into a coma the next, right in front of my eyes. I will never forget, when that happened and when we were at the hospital, feeling somewhat helpless. I didn’t know what was going on, and I decided I never wanted to feel that way again. So I chose to switch careers and go to medical school. That experience really drove my desire to empower individuals to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their own health and not feel helpless the way I did.
In contrast, I recently lost my father, who was sick, and while it was incredibly difficult, I felt a little bit more empowered understanding some of the things we were doing, having more knowledge. If we can pass that feeling on to our customers in a way, that would be one of the greatest gifts.
The one common theme in my career path
I started my career doing an undergrad in computer science. Then I went into media and did news and learned how to communicate with others and communicate a message. After, I worked for the Walt Disney Company on the studio side, and I was really focused on what drives business decisions. Then I went back to medical school, and when I finished, I ended up in a role at Stanford, where I was focused on the intersection of technology and medicine. Now, I’m at Apple. The one through line is that I’ve always wanted to focus on how you empower people. How do you have impact, and how do you make good in the world? Initially, it was about media being such a powerful medium to share messages, share thoughts, to drive change in positive ways. I’m really lucky that I ended up then becoming a physician, where I could drive change more on a micro level with an individual patient. Now, I have the opportunity at Apple to be able drive impact and empower individuals at scale.
From a career standpoint, every one of my experiences comes in handy today. I work with engineers, so I get to leverage certain things I learned back in the day. Disney does an amazing job at communication and design, and at Apple, we really focus on the intersection between design and engineering. Then the ability to share messages—that’s such a big part of what we do. Not only are we providing features, but we’re educating people in new areas. Everything happens for a reason, and I lucked out and found a job that brings all of my experiences together in a really meaningful way.
Why we need to embrace unexpected pivots
So often we try to pre-plan our lives, like, I’m going to do this at 25, and I’m going to do this at 28, and I’m going to get this job. I really think there’s no straight line in any career or life journey. It’s important to embrace each moment as a learning experience and realize that it may not make sense to you now, but it will at some point in the future. Take those changes in stride and realize that this is giving you strength to be better than you were. You always want to think about, how can I enhance my skills, my experience in a way that’s fulfilling to me? And if you love what you’re doing that day, ultimately, it will translate to a successful career. Too often, we’re focused on the end point and not focused on enjoying the journey.
How I’ve prioritized my mental health over the years
When I was in residency, I really leaned on physical activity, and getting outside was key. I was able to walk home, and it was a way to decompress; giving yourself space between the time you finish work and you go home is really beneficial, not just for yourself, but for your loved ones. When I went to Stanford, I had a new job, new career, and then I ended up having children. During that period, I had to adjust my self-care, whether it was 15, 30 minutes just to take a quiet moment. Now, I really use the morning as a key part of my mental health routine. I get up before everybody else in the house. I’m a big believer in prayer and meditation, so I take the first 20 minutes in the morning for that. Then my first cup of coffee. I exercise, and I start my day. It does require me getting up early and going to bed earlier. As I’ve gotten older, I have no regrets about that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madison is the digital deputy editor at ELLE, where she also covers news, politics, and culture. If she’s not online, she’s probably napping or trying not to fall while rock climbing.