Growing up in Los Altos, California, Kathy Ford didn't make many choices when it came to sports.
"I played almost all the school sports, and my family showed Tennessee Walking Horses on weekends. I was really active," she says. "I'm competitive by nature, and that's reflected in my career path – not settling for 'no,' having confidence that I'll figure it out and get it done."
That's part of the reason Chattanooga orthodontist Keith Dressler named Ford to serve as president and chief product officer of Rhinogram, the health care technology company he founded in 2017.
"In a startup, you're going to have obstacles," Dressler says. "You have to figure out how you get over, around or through those obstacles. Kathy has that can-do mindset and is focused on the goal — getting where we want to be and not letting anything stop us."
But it was far more than Ford's competitive bent that moved Dressler to hire her. Her resumé is dotted with multiple executive roles and stops at Siemens Healthcare and GE Healthcare. Ford also sits on the board of Women Business Leaders of the U.S. Health Care Industry Foundation.
"We're going to be a global company," Dressler says of Rhinogram, "so you want someone with global experience, and that's not easy to find.
"Kathy is a well-recognized, global health care executive who's delivered more than 100 impactful solutions to the market. She understands what's required, and she's done it," he says.
And Ford has done every bit of it without a college degree.
"My father was a CEO in the Bay Area," she says. "I looked up to him and wanted to climb the corporate ladder, as he did. I thought sales would be a great place to spend my career."
Ford says she chose to pursue a corporate opportunity that came her way while she was an undergraduate. Her initial plan was to go to night school, but that plan yielded to her career progress.
"At this stage, I've had fantastic opportunities, and what I've learned over the years well surpasses what I'd have learned in school," she says. "I have no regrets."
The lack of a degree should have kept Ford from getting her job at GE – but it didn't.
"They had a very strict policy," she says, "but my boss got special approval."
It was at GE that Ford, not yet 30 at the time, was tapped to take part in the company's leadership training institute at Crotonville, New York, about an hour north of New York City.
"If you're picked to go, you're challenged in a number of ways to see if you could be a future leader for a GE business," she says. "It's very intensive, and you're assessed by other GE CEOs."
Ford says that before her Crotonville experience, she was more focused on execution than the "social intel" side of business. It was in that arena, she says, that she learned a "career-changing" lesson.
"I got feedback about how I could interact with people in a more holistic way," she says. "You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you're not effective at bringing people along, if you're not sensitive to how other people learn, you'll have unnecessary challenges.
"It was really meaningful and helped shape my ability to lead much bigger teams in many different countries and with many different sensitivities," she says.
The team Ford leads at Rhinogram has certainly had a good run since she came on board in mid-2018. The Chattanooga-based company, which helps individuals use text messages to access health care, was named Startup of the Year and High-Growth Company of the Year during Chattanooga's Startup Week in October 2020.
"We started with hundreds of thousands of patients accessing care through our platform, and we're up now to 5.5 million," she says. "Our revenue is up 200 percent year to year and we've improved client retention from 95 percent to 99.5 percent."