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Donna Leever’s Holistic Approach to Success

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A decade after receiving her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at UC Davis, Donna Leever MBA 93 returned to campus to enroll in the Graduate School of Management. Two years later, she embarked on a career as a strategic planner and marketer at both startups and multinationals—including H-P, Agilent Technologies, Tektronix and TDK—with multiple successes in formulating and executing business strategies for sustainable growth.

In 2011 Leever co-founded SweetWater Health. The company, she says, is revolutionizing mobile health monitoring and stress management by combining proven medical research techniques with the latest mobile computing technological advances.

“It was a confluence of three areas of my life: my education, three decades of work experience building expertise in new product and new market development, and my desire to lead a simple holistic life style and share it with others,” Leever says. “I ran into Ronda Collier, my close friend from the UC Davis College of Engineering, just as she had developed the first software algorithm. I could see the technology wave just beginning in the market. Ronda introduced me to Jo Beth Dow, another engineer, and I knew we had a great executive team and could build a company together.”

You recently taught at the Biomedical and Engineering Entrepreneurship Academy. Why is is important to educate and inspire aspiring entrepreneurs? 

I presented the business validation session with my business partner, Ronda Collier, also a UCD alum. We were so happy to be able to share our story and startup journey with new entrepreneurs. It takes high very high level of commitment to start a company; a passion for the mission, customers and products to survive; and the ability to adapt and evolve to thrive. We wanted to inspire others—especially high-technology women—to start their journey.

Your favorite experience at the academy?​

It was a pleasure to return to our alma mater! The entrepreneurship academy is an excellent venue for connecting academia with the business world. It was great to meet the new generation of technologists and help answer their questions about beginning new ventures.

What are you passionate about in your work?

SweetWater Health is driven by the mission to empower people to manage their health and well being. Riding the wave of biosensor technology, we develop software algorithms that measure heart rate variability (HRV), giving users a realtime, holistic view of their nervous system. HRV provides an objective measure of fitness level and overall health. Our customers can reduce their stress, improve their fitness level and make small behavior changes in their daily activities for significant positive impact on their well being.

Where is your career headed?

SweetWater Health is growing rapidly and we’re partnering with established companies in strategic areas for traction and long-term sustainability. HRV can provide insights into early disease detection and other health concerns, and we are continually developing algorithms for new applications. I would like to see SweetWater Health become a major presence in the market or become integrated into a large multinational company with the resources to reach many more people.

How are you a game changer? Or—how are you making a positive impact in the world?

With the current healthcare crisis in the U.S., we hope to provide a cost-effective way to help people manage their health. Objective measure of an individual’s biometrics gives them insights into their level of health—and an opportunity to make changes before they need to consult a doctor about concerns of serious illness. For elite and professional athletes, HRV is a holistic indicator of their readiness for training and competition, as well as daily measure their performance level.

How has your UC Davis MBA experience helped shape your success?

Both my undergraduate engineering degree and my MBA studies were instrumental in preparing me for my work. I learned to apply concepts in marketing and strategy to bring new products to market and shape the evolution of a customer or industry segment. Technology and product development are tangible and the value is understood in high tech, but successful execution of a new product in a new market can be difficult and risky. The GSM gave me the tools to forge a successful path in the market.

What is the most significant thing that’s happened to you since graduating?

Working endless hours in Silicon Valley while raising two kids with my husband put a serious strain on my health. It was a turning point for me as I sought ways to optimize my health—and balance my work and family life. SweetWater Health is an outcome of that experience and new way of thinking.

Your favorite GSM memory?

I vividly remember a day at the GSM when my good friend and fellow student Lisa Lane  and I were working on a project for Professor Dorf’s New Business Ventures course. We said we wanted to run our own companies, make our own destinies in the business world. Today, we’re both doing that!

How do you support and participate in the GSM now? Why do you believe it is important to support graduate business education?

I’m happy to return to UC Davis as a connector to the high-tech business world. Networking is essential for growing a new venture, and I’d like to assist others in making those strategic connections.

Anything else you’d like to share?

When my youngest left for college last year, my husband and I relocated to the Sierras. I was able to downsize my life and live more simply. I work remotely most of the time and commute to the Bay Area for meetings and business trips. In building a new company I also redesigned my life.

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