McDonald keeps finding himself boomeranging back to Austin. He grew up in a military family, primarily in Killeen, Texas, then came to Austin to attend the University of Texas. He moved away for a few years, came back. Did it again, and is back again.
McDonald expected to follow his parents into the military; he was going to be an officer. He received a full ROTC scholarship to attend UT, but it was rescinded for medical reasons. So he ended up trying out both communications and economics, and realized one could technically apply those basic business skills in any profession.
One of his first jobs was working at a medical clinic in Killeen, under a man who would become a lifelong mentor, Dr. Lavelle Ford. “Looking back, I know it was something he did purposely — reach out to young, Black men to expose them to medical careers,” said McDonald. “He never necessarily said, ‘Jerold, you need to be a doctor like me,’ but it was the taking me with him to surgeries, to talk to patients, seeing the business side. He did it for countless young men and women.”
You have to create your own heroes because, no one person is perfect. Take the best traits from many mentors, and then make a composite of what you can/want to be. Once you can see a future ‘you,’ then you can be it … and all kids should have that opportunity.
“I just wanted to be proud of the people these kids would become. I wanted them to be good people, take care of their family, and give back to the community — that’s what makes me smile.
-Dr. Lavelle Ford
He grew up mostly under the tutelage of his mother, who enlisted the help of “many village people” — the play aunties and uncles and sorority and fraternity members who would help shape the man McDonald would become. “We got to see different types of people, all the time,” he said. “Different ways you can create a career, different ways to set up a family.”
“Not everyone has the benefit of growing up all over the world, but being a child who had different experiences, I grew comfortable with the idea of being different and still being strong,” McDonald continued. “I definitely view myself as having a perspective that is multi-layered. I think that feeling of difference is one of my greatest strengths.”
He carried those experiences with him into a career in healthcare, where he worked on every side, from directly in the office to working for insurance companies. Still, McDonald never considered a career in healthcare administration, until a conversation with the parent of a child he was mentoring, who happened to be a healthcare administrator. After that, he went the traditional path to be a hospital CEO but came to realize he could make more of an impact from outside of the industry.
“Your experiences really do frame how you’re able to naturally see things,” he said. He decided to leave the hospital where he was working and founded Omaiven Health, an AI-powered digital health company that aims to identify, understand and overcome any barriers an individual may face to reach care.
For instance, in a conversation about telehealth, if a provider chooses to develop an app, apps require a smartphone and a reliable data plan. One’s zip code, cultural nuances, reading level, first language — “those things shouldn’t be a barrier to getting the care you need. That’s the gap we bridge,” McDonald said.
“It just comes from considering those things before you build,” he said. “There are all types of people you’ve limited access to, where if you had just flipped your delivery channel (to something like text message instead), everyone can use it. Simple things, just regular things, having someone at the table to ask these questions can make all the difference.”
McDonald said empathy is his superpower.
“People have a bad idea of what empathy is in Western society — when people say walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, they are saying, ‘I’m going to take my experiences and put myself in your shoes,’” he said. “Instead, what it should be, is saying, ‘now based on who I understand you to be, your circumstances, the other factors facing your life, how would I act if I were in your shoes?’”
Many at the decision-making tables in healthcare, as in other industries, all come from similar backgrounds and have a limited sense of the experiences of others. That is why McDonald sees the work he does as a consultant as so critical: He has the opportunity to sit at tables and ask the questions others would not think to ask.
“Growing up, I thought service meant military,” he said. “I’ve come to learn you can use your gifts and talents — whatever they are — to serve.”