A physician, lawyer, and business leader, Okey brings a rich mix of experience to 23andMe. We sat down to learn more about his background, education, and future aspirations in his new role.
Okey began his career as an IP litigator, with stints at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and Kasowitz, Benson, Torres, & Friedman LLP, serving as a partner at the latter. Throughout his career, Okey has practiced medicine at the V.A. Palo Alto Emergency Department, leveraging his unique background to develop broad expertise in clinical medical operations.
Building on this experience, Okey founded and led Zobreus Medical, a StartX-backed company that developed patient-centered digital health solutions for consumers and providers. Most recently, Okey worked as counsel at K&L Gates LLP, and then as in-house counsel and Head of Medical Affairs for Virta Health Corp.
Okey earned his undergraduate and medical degrees from The Ohio State University and its College of Medicine before completing a family medicine residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. He received his J.D. from Stanford Law School.
Okey is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and serves as a Senior Flight Surgeon for the United States Air Force Reserves. Okey is an avid sports fan, and a married, father of three.
Tell us about your childhood and growing up, as well as your family’s connection to Ohio State University.
I was born and raised in Columbus, OH, the firstborn of Nigerian immigrants who emigrated as part of the mass exodus of Nigerians in the many years after the Nigerian Civil War. They came to Ohio State for graduate studies.
My father was a professor of political science and black studies, and my mother held various leadership positions at the university. Even though my grandparents were illiterate, my parents were academics (both PhDs) and raised four professional children who went on to become doctors and lawyers. We grew up on Ohio State’s campus and all four children graduated from the university.
How did you become interested in medicine?
I remember being interested in math and science at least by the fourth grade and wanting to be a scientist. I think I settled on being a doctor around middle school, probably as a result of the Cosby Show.
And not only do you have an M.D. but you also received a J.D. Tell us more about your shift to law and what led to that career move?
Toward the middle of my residency, I started to feel a bit jaded about medicine. I was working in an underserved community (Washington Heights) in an era of increasing consolidation, managed care, and various reimbursement challenges. The joy of practicing medicine was fading and I wanted to work on health care reform.
I set out originally thinking I would do government or policy work, but I ended up being a patent litigator for most of my career. What I didn’t plan for was how relevant the litigation and regulatory skill set I picked up would be for health care leadership. When combined with clinical practice, this has given me a 360 degree perspective on many health care issues.
You also serve as a Senior Flight Surgeon in the US Air Force. Can you share what you’ve done in this admirable role?
Around the time I started law school, I was commissioned into the United States Air Force Reserves. After living through September 11, 2001 in Manhattan, I knew I wanted to serve.
I trained as a flight surgeon, which is a fancy term used in the military to describe a physician who is trained to manage critical health care scenarios while in flight, and if necessary, in combat. I thought one weekend a month would be a manageable commitment that would allow me to stay connected to medicine.
But it’s been more involved, and I’ve had two overseas deployments including one in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom during the surge. During that service, I was awarded an Air Medal for Meritorious Achievement While Participating in Aerial Flight — one of the proudest achievements in my career.
Why did you decide to join 23andMe?
I was looking for three things in my next opportunity: impact, innovation, and inspiration. I wanted to go somewhere I genuinely felt I could help have a positive impact not only at the company, but on healthcare as a whole. I was looking to join an innovative company that was committed to developing new products and services in creative ways, while continuing to delight on its existing offerings.
And lastly, I desperately wanted to go to a place where I would be inspired every day, working with amazing people with a passion for tackling tough problems.
Somewhere that values what I bring to the table, and where I’m in turn awed by my phenomenal colleagues. 23andMe is such a place. And once I learned more about Anne’s incredible vision, and after I met my future teammates, it was a no-brainer!
What most excites you about this role?
I’m excited about playing a role in defining a new category in the delivery of healthcare. While the exact contours remain to be defined, this role will have a substantive impact on shaping that category.
What are some of the biggest challenges you foresee?
Defining a new category in healthcare is daunting. There will be naysayers and opponents. There will be entrenched interests who currently benefit from the inefficiencies we seek to address.
But the biggest potential challenge will not be external. It will be whether or not we have the resolve to weather these storms and persist in our determination to bring something better to the table. Given past challenges, and having met many on the leadership team, I have no doubt we will overcome all obstacles.
What is the best career advice you can share?
The best supervisors and bosses work for you, and not the other way around. Make sure to push your supervisors to challenge you and give you opportunities above your current skills or experience set. Think about what it is that you want to do next and then ask for projects related to that.
This is how you grow and prepare yourself for more advanced roles.
What are you passionate about?
My children are the center of my universe. Everything my wife and I do is aimed toward making the world a little bit better for them. This means proactively contributing to ensuring that they live in a world that’s tolerant, inclusive, and equitable.
As black children, they need to grow up believing — knowing — that their skin color isn’t a liability, or worse, a death sentence. That’s not the world we live in now, and nothing that I do will mean anything if that doesn’t change.