By the time Irene Pylypenko graduated from her high school, St. Paul's in Ottawa, she had amassed more than 300 hours of volunteer work – roughly eight times the provincial requirement.
She spent four weeks in the Dominican Republic building schools. She was a peer tutor. She raised money for Kids Help Phone. Later on, as an undergrad at the University of Western Ontario, she became president of the salsa club and ran a leadership education program. As a graduate student at McGill University, where she studied bioinformatics, she volunteered as a mentor for a non-profit that introduces women to computer coding.
"At one point I had to ask myself: Why am I doing all this?" says Ms. Pylypenko of her eclectic volunteer career. "I think it was Steve Jobs who said you're only going to connect the dots looking back."
As she does look back, she realizes that the common thread is her motivation to build community and bring people together. Now, at 29, she feels like she's finally found her niche – a place where she can combine her passion for health care, her talents as an entrepreneur, and her unique role as a connector. That place is Hacking Health, a non-profit that connects medical professionals with people in the startup scene to collaborate on ways to improve the health care system through technology.
Ms. Pylypenko's day job is as marketing director of petalMD, a software company that makes scheduling and messaging apps specifically for medical staff. The firm supports her work with Hacking Health through flexible hours and the freedom to take time away from her workday for important meetings or events.
Ms. Pylypenko was a yoga teacher actively looking to get involved in a tech startup in 2012 when she first heard about Hacking Health. In the space of a month, she says, five friends told her about the organization, which was then in its infancy. When she met one of the co-founders, a fellow Montrealer named Luc Sirois, and learned more about it, she felt like "it was one of those things that was meant to be."
Mr. Sirois, who is now a managing director of Hacking Health, said when he first met Ms. Pylypenko she wasted no time telling him how the organization could have more of a presence in Montreal. "She told me to do more events, more outreach," he recalls. "She was certain we could have a bigger and more connected community."
"That's when I said, hey, thanks for your advice, what do you do on your evenings and weekends?"
Ms. Pylypenko took the helm of the Montreal chapter of Hacking Health. In February of 2014, she organized the first hackathon – a marathon event in which teams conceived of and built apps over the course of a few days – at Sainte-Justine, a pediatric and obstetric hospital affiliated with the Université de Montréal. Initially, she says, there was concern from hospital executives about what, exactly, these hackers would be doing. "We had to explain the modern sense of the word hacker, as a creative designer, a problem solver."
Around 500 people, including developers, designers, health care professionals and entrepreneurs, installed themselves at the hospital for 48 hours. Some of the ideas that came out of that weekend, including Project Sentinelle, an app to help young people manage their mental health, is being implemented at Sainte-Justine.
"It was definitely one of my proudest moments," says Ms. Pylypenko. "This whole bottom-up approach to changing things, changing the system, whether that's building startups or starting a movement, it comes from bringing together regular people."
Ms. Pylypenko's motivation to bring regular people together, and inspire them to do greater things, also comes from a deep sense of gratitude. When she was 10, her mother brought her and her younger sister here from Moldova, the former Soviet republic, which was in the throes of a economic and unemployment crisis. "I feel so lucky to be living in Canada and having the opportunities that I have here," says Ms. Pylypenko. "It makes me happy to help people get to that space where they can take advantage of opportunities and express themselves fully."
"That's thanks to my mom," adds Ms. Pylypenko. "She's been the biggest mentor and somebody to look up to. As an immigrant, as a woman, and as a woman in technology as well."
Ms. Pylypenko manages a team of 20 volunteers and is the point person in Montreal for developers interested in the health care sector, and for health care professionals who are interested in technological solutions. "We're a network and we're connectors," says Ms. Pylypenko. "We don't build apps at Hacking Health, but we provide a space and a platform for people to come together for those things to be created."
She says what she's learned at petalMD about the health care industry in Canada, the main technology players and the complicated privacy and security restrictions, has been invaluable to her Hacking Health community.
"This has allowed me to approach the Hacking Health participants with a more realistic approach," she says, "since you've got to know the industry rules before breaking them to disrupt the industry."
In the beginning, Hacking Health was almost a full-time job, taking 15 to 20 hours of her week. About six months ago, she says, she took a day off to sit quietly and reflect – a practice she picked up during yoga training – and realized she needed to scale back. "Ever since I did that, I've been much more effective about how I use my time."
Hacking Health's non-profit, volunteer-run model has been crucial to its success, she says. "We're a neutral platform. We're not motivated by profit, we're not motivated by certain goals, so there's a big advantage to that," says Ms. Pylypenko. "Our objective is simply: health care and innovation and collaboration."
Mr. Sirois credits the organization's success (it operates in 24 cities worldwide) with leaders like Ms. Pylypenko who have big ideas but also the tenacity to follow through.
"Yes, she has a lot of energy. Yes, she's got an an entrepreneurial flair. Yes, she wants to make great things happen," he says. "But above all that, she's been steady. She's been there."
And that, he adds, is the difference between volunteering to go out and give a hand, and volunteering to build a movement.