Alumni Spotlight: Allysa Dittmar
HBS alum, Allysa Dittmar, BA '14, MHS '17, discusses promoting accessibility in healthcare, scaling a business amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and applying her public health training in her day-to-day work with her company, ClearMask.
Just three years after earning her MHS in Social Factors in Health from the Department of Health, Behavior and Society, Allysa Dittmar, BA '14, MHS '17, was named to Forbes 30 under 30. The honor recognized Dittmar and her co-founders, who jointly launched ClearMask, a transparent face mask company which aims to promote accessibility and visual communication.
The inspiration for the business started in 2015 after Dittmar, who is deaf, unexpectedly had to navigate a surgery without an interpreter. That adverse experience solidified Dittmar’s commitment to strengthening healthcare accessibility. Together with her co-founders, Dittmar worked to transform ClearMask from idea to full-fledged business, which has since sold over 17 million masks and now employs a 250-person staff.
Dittmar recently spoke with HBS Stories, reflecting on her experiences promoting accessibility in healthcare, scaling a company amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and applying her public health training in her day-to-day work with ClearMask.
What sparked your interest in public health?
I’ve always wanted to be an advocate for others, especially for those who are vulnerable and lack access to resources that affect their health and wellbeing. I know what it’s like to experience barriers. Having firsthand, real life experience makes the work extremely important to me, and I have a deep motivation to change the status quo.
What inspired you to stay at Johns Hopkins to pursue a master’s degree in public health?
When I first came to Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate, I was told that I was the first deaf student to attend Johns Hopkins who communicated in sign language and used sign language interpreters. Johns Hopkins did an exceptional job with providing access to quality interpreters and accommodations throughout my undergraduate career, and staying to continue my studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health was a no-brainer.
What attracted you to the MHS in Social Factors in Health from the Department of Health, Behavior and Society?
I had intimately experienced barriers in healthcare access myself all my life as a deaf person, and from my surgery experience in 2015, which actually led to the creation of the ClearMask. After that surgery experience, I knew that was my life’s calling – to improve healthcare access for others. I deeply resonated with the Department of Health, Behavior and Society’s focus on how individuals’ health status can be influenced and affected by different layers of society. Most specifically, I wanted to study health disparities in the deaf and hard of hearing community so that I could better implement and advance healthcare policies to increase access.
Statistically speaking, deaf and hard of hearing individuals experience worse health outcomes than their hearing counterparts due to a variety of reasons, including lack of access to quality communication in medical care. Quality communication can include qualified interpreters, transparent masks, and culturally competent medical staff – all factors that I’ve rarely experienced in my life.
How did mentorship shape your time at JHSPH?
The entire practicum experience was extremely valuable to me – from start to finish. Working with the Department’s faculty for guidance, feedback, and advice on the practicum was a huge asset. I enjoyed gaining real world, hands-on experience through research; I interned with the Kennedy Krieger Institute in the Deafness-Related Evaluations and More (DREAM) Clinic that provides neuropsychological services to children who are deaf or hard of hearing. The program’s director, Dr. Jennifer Reesman, was my supervisor and mentor, and to this day, she is one of my role models and valued mentors in the field of deaf health and research.
Not only did you attend Johns Hopkins for your undergraduate and graduate degrees, but you co-founded ClearMask alongside three other Johns Hopkins students. Would you speak to the impact of the Johns Hopkins ecosystem on your personal and professional growth?
It was at Johns Hopkins that we started building the idea of ClearMask and advocating for better access in healthcare. Johns Hopkins has an incredible ecosystem full of resources and support to pursue new ideas and innovation.
We first joined a class at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine called “Medical Entrepreneurship” in October 2016 and pitched the ClearMask idea to the class as a term-long project. The class objective was to actually develop a business plan for an innovative idea. We found our two other co-founders in that class who believed in the idea and wanted to help. Shortly afterwards, we were accepted to the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab, where we gained valuable knowledge and mentorship and went on to receive the cohort prize, $25K. We always tell others that Johns Hopkins was truly the spark behind the ClearMask and where it all started. Because of Johns Hopkins, I’ve learned many professional skills that have helped me grow as a public health leader and executive.
How do you leverage your MHS training in your day-to-day work with ClearMask?
Johns Hopkins’ various public health programs have taught me how to partner with, advocate for, and communicate with many different populations, especially those who are the most vulnerable and overlooked. I worked closely with the deaf and hard of hearing population, pediatrics, and those with long term chronic disabilities.
I gained very valuable skills especially in cultural competency and sensitivity with a better understanding of how different individuals navigate their lives and the healthcare system. These experiences have been critical to my daily work with ClearMask, in which we work with many different stakeholders and populations across the board, from young children to older individuals.
What have been the most challenging and rewarding aspects of scaling the business, especially amidst a pandemic?
The biggest challenge is staying agile and adaptable in a pandemic environment, with massive amounts of unknowns and uncertainty. During the pandemic, many companies have experienced significant backorders or limitations in manufacturing due to the high demand, while our company was able to adapt and continue high production via a novel supply chain using different materials while not disrupting the existing mask supply chain.
Being able to connect people by removing barriers to communication during such a scary and stressful time has been incredibly rewarding.
In 2020, you and your co-founders were named to Forbes 30 Under 30. What did that mean to you?
When we found out, I was truly speechless! It was just mind-blowing and really spoke to how widely ClearMask transparent masks were used and needed. Being a part of Forbes 30 under 30 as a deaf person is also extremely important to me as we are very underrepresented.
This interview has been edited and compressed. Views expressed are the subject's own.