There are more than 18 million health care workers in the United States; 80% of them are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While women make up the vast majority of home health care workers, they are a minority in the C-Suite. Only 40% of the industry’s key decision-makers are female.

Homecare is a tough space to succeed in, and while org charts may not reflect it, this industry is loaded with strong, determined women doing incredibly meaningful work — they simply do not get the recognition they deserve! 

Here at HHAeXchange, we would like to take one small step towards changing that. ‘Extraordinary Women in Homecare’ is a series of feature articles designed to celebrate women who bring strength, passion, and creativity to their roles in the home care industry.

We recently spoke with Yelena Schmidt, President & CEO of Friends & Family Home Care. Founded in 2013, Friends & Family currently services thousands of members across the New York metropolitan area. In this article, Yelena reveals the best career decision she ever made, how she stays mentally tough, and why she doesn’t believe in climbing the corporate ladder.

What brought you to the homecare industry?

I’m a lawyer by trade. I was in my 20s practicing law, and wasn’t happy in my career. My parents had been working in healthcare for decades, and owned clinics in Washington Heights. Elderly people would often come into their clinics unattended and would require assistance. We recognized the need for homecare services, and realized we had a unique opportunity to help people in our communities. My parents took a leap of faith in me, and together we started Friends & Family Home Care. It’s a wonderful organization – I’m proud and humbled to be at the forefront.

What’s one thing you do to set yourself up for success each day?

Friends & Family recently moved to a five-story building, which is our headquarters, so now we have most of our staff under one roof. Each morning, I like to walk from floor to floor and greet everyone. It’s an opportunity to not only say hello, but also to open the door for conversation and to address any issues, questions, or concerns. This is how we start many of our internal dialogues.

My team is very important to me. Often, they are the boots on the ground. I value their feedback.

Homecare is a fast-paced, dynamic industry. How do you deal with all the pressure and challenges homecare presents?

I was a national tennis player growing up, I thrive on pressure and challenge! Being on the tennis court alone for so many years breeds a certain kind of resilience.Homecare is a very interesting industry. When you deal with human lives, there is a lot at stake. As leaders, we have to understand that we are bound by rules and regulations, and all for good reason. Being in homecare for 10 years, I’ve learned that there will always be surprises and changes – whether we like it or not. Administrations change, and we have to be prepared accordingly.I have a fantastic leadership team, and together we deal with the changes and challenges that come our way. We’re ready for it.

The caregiver shortage is deeply impacting the entire homecare ecosystem. What is your agency doing to maintain its services?

We have a very strong presence and reputation, which allows us to be in a good position to continue providing care to the most vulnerable members of our community. People know us, and they know the quality of services they’re going to get. Our caregivers are some of the most compassionate and hardworking people, and we are grateful every day for their help.

Do you think the homecare industry is more open to technology now than before the pandemic?

Absolutely. During the pandemic we were all forced to work from home, and we learned how to deal with technology the hard way. Technology is no longer the future – it’s the present. Especially now, with so much emphasis on value-based care, you need technology to get the right data and ensure you’re operating efficiently. You either adapt, or you get pushed out.

What qualities should a leader in homecare possess?

In my opinion, a good leader is someone who can find a common language with their team. A good leader listens to criticism and is open to suggestions and new ways of doing things.People look at me, and are often confused – I’m young and I’m a woman. How could this have happened in an industry traditionally dominated by middle aged men? In my opinion, a good leader in homecare is mentally and emotionally strong. You’re always dealing with regulatory changes and people with varying personalities. It can be grueling.But the most important thing, and the thing that distinguishes homecare from other industries, is that you have to be compassionate and empathetic. It’s important to understand that we don’t sell shoes in our industry – we deal with human beings. If you don’t wake up with the desire to help people daily, you’re not going to be a good leader in homecare.

Did you have a personal connection to homecare before you started working in the industry?

My grandparents all received home care services. Their caregivers were amazing. My grandmother on my dad’s side ended up getting very sick and was on hospice towards the end of her life. Her home health aide truly loved her and cared for her – it was heartwarming to see. My grandfather’s home health aide is still part of our family. He was so attached to her at the time of his passing that he asked for us to take care of her, and so she is a part of our lives today. Being a caregiver is arguably one of the toughest jobs, and I am still indebted to the caregivers who cared for my grandparents.When I make decisions, I’m able to put myself into the shoes of the family because I’ve been in their position, I understand. My personal experience with homecare very much guides my decision-making on a daily basis.

Who were your role models growing up?

Undoubtedly my parents – they are still my role models today.I was born in Kyiv, Ukraine. When I was four years old, my dad made the tough decision to immigrate to the US in search of a better life. The USSR was riddled with antisemitism and inequality. He brought my mother and me to New York. Given the state of events in Ukraine today, getting us out of there was the best thing he could have done for our family – he gave us opportunity and freedom. To me, now more than ever, he’s a hero.My mom is an unbelievable woman. She’s my mentor. In my mind, she’s a very strong and powerful woman. She was the epitome of a female leader when the concept didn’t even exist. Everything I do in my life, both personally and professionally, I aim to be like her. I hope to be as much of an inspiration to my daughter as my mother has been to me.

What is one of the best decisions you’ve ever made in your professional life?

I was a lawyer before my family and I started Friends & Family Home Care. I took a risk and decided to completely shift careers and to focus on helping people – that was the best career decision I’ve ever made.Being able to help people is very gratifying, both personally and professionally.

What advice would you give to a woman who wants to climb the corporate ladder?

I would say, why do you have to climb?  Don’t climb the corporate ladder – create your own trajectory.It’s OK not to follow the rules. Aim for where you feel you deserve to be. I never climbed, I went straight for the top because I believed in myself and my mission.Women are always encouraged to fight for a seat at the table. We should be fighting to sit at the head of the table.