Bears’ business is a rising star in an emerging field
by Michelle Rose
You’ll see the names of alumnae Emily Purdom and Rachel Robinson, and the business they founded, DotCom Therapy.
They are part of the magazine’s cover story titled Rising Stars: Overachieving and Under 30. DotCom Therapy is one of just 30 businesses chosen by Inc.’s panel of star judges for inclusion on the list.
It’s one of the latest accolades for DotCom Therapy, which has only existed for three years but is establishing itself as a new way to deliver speech therapy, occupational therapy, audiology and mental health services around the world.
What is speech therapy?
Purdom and Robinson started their careers as speech-language pathologists.
These professionals provide speech and language therapy, which can help children or adults who have trouble speaking, understanding and using language.
Speech-language pathologists may help children overcome stuttering or lisps.
They can teach people to correctly produce sounds. They can help patients who have dementia, or have had strokes or traumatic brain injuries. They can help adults and children overcome difficulties with feeding and swallowing, also known as dysphagia.
They may work with children or adults with conditions such as dyslexia or developmental disorders, such as autism.
“I’m a twin sister, and both of us went to speech therapy as a child, which is partly what led me into this field,” Robinson said.
“Students deserve more”
Emily Purdom did a lot of driving for her first job. A lot. Three, four hours a day.
She was working in schools near Branson, the area where she grew up. She drove so she could see all of her students.
“They could not find enough speech therapists … there is an extreme shortage.”
She loved the job.
“IT ALLOWED ME TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WITH ADMINISTRATORS, TEACHERS, KIDS AND FAMILIES IN SMALL COMMUNITIES. THAT’S HOW I GREW UP.”
However, she knew the more sessions a child has, the better he or she can communicate with others.
“Students deserve more than one visit a month,” she decided.
“We had long wait lists”
Rachel Robinson started as a gerontology major at Miami University in Ohio. Then she took an introductory speech therapy course.
“It brought together my passion for gerontology, teaching and nursing. It was a no-brainer to choose that path.”
She has worked in skilled nursing facilities and hospital systems.
In one hospital job in Springfield, she worked with patients ranging in age from 6 months old to senior citizens.
“There were so many people requiring speech-therapy services, and not enough therapists to provide them. We had long wait lists. Unfortunately, if you have a child, parent or loved one who needs those services, you need that pretty quickly.”
Just like Emily, she thought people needed more access.
The two friends reunited in 2015 in Florida at the wedding of Abby Carroll, another alumna of the communication sciences and disorders program.
“We were reconnecting and airing some grievances about the field,” Purdom said. “We’re thinking, ‘OK, what can we do here?’”
This is where serendipity enters the story, Robinson said. Purdom had just started working with a new client — in Thailand.
“The family reached out to me through a friend, desperate for services for their little girl,” Purdom said.
The child was going into preschool and had a severe speech disorder. It was hard for others to understand her.
“I said, ‘Let’s hop on a video conference,’” Purdom said. But telehealth was an emerging area in this field, so “I really didn’t know how to do this effectively.”
She figured it out her own way, logging on to Skype at 5 a.m. to conduct sessions.
“IT WAS THIS INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL EXPERIENCE FOR ME, BECAUSE I WAS ABLE TO WORK WITH SOMEBODY HALFWAY AROUND THE WORLD WHO NEEDED THE SKILL SET I POSSESSED. SEEING THE PROGRESS SHE WAS ABLE TO MAKE WAS AWESOME.”
The experience turned on a lightbulb for the two friends.
“Maybe there was something there, with teletherapy,” Robinson said. “As clinicians, why don’t we try it ourselves?”
“Do you wanna go to Alaska?”
In 2015, they founded their own company.
They did a bit of contract work on the side, but mostly, they went all in.
“Rachel came up with the name. She’s the branding genius,” Purdom said. “We started looking for opportunities. We thought, who needs speech therapists the most? They’ll probably give us a chance.”
They called school after school, week after week. Few were interested. Teletherapy was such an unknown.
But finally, they had some interest. A large rural school district in Alaska gave them a contract. But it came with stipulations.
“They said, no, we don’t want telehealth, but we need therapists. If you fly up here, we’ll fly you out to village schools on bush planes. Then, if the teachers want the telepractice between your on-site visits, we’ll see what we can do.”
Purdom had to call Robinson to get her on board with the plan.
“SHE’S HORRIFIED OF FLYING. I WAS LIKE, ‘RACH, DO YOU WANNA GO TO ALASKA? SOMEONE’S GONNA GIVE US A CHANCE.’”
Robinson didn’t let fear hold her back: “Yeah, of course. Let’s do this.” Two weeks later, they were on a plane to Anchorage.
“We flew 400 miles west to Bethel, Alaska, and from there, we each had four village schools we were responsible for,” Purdom said. “We would fly out on bush planes, or if the weather was bad, we’d take snowmobiles or the ‘ice highway’ to rural villages. We would deliver therapy services, then spend the nights on the floors of classrooms in sleeping bags. It was, to this day, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
The students in Alaska had been receiving speech therapy just a few times a year — “because think about the logistics of bringing a therapist up from the lower 48,” Purdom said. “When we implemented telehealth, they received 80 visits a year.”
The on-the-ground team proved themselves, and became an online team.
The Alaska district is still a customer.
How does teletherapy work?
Nicole Pounds, a speech-language pathologist and MSU alumna, performs a session at DotCom Therapy’s office in Springfield.
Three years later, DotCom Therapy has expanded at a rapid rate.
As well as speech and language therapy, the company now offers occupational therapy, audiology and mental health services.
The base of the company’s operations is Springfield, but their therapists can deliver services to anyone, anywhere.
Here’s how teletherapy works: The person receiving the therapy, or a facilitator working with a student or adult at a school or clinic, goes to DotCom Therapy’s website. He or she clicks on the appointment, then selects “start session.” The session can take place on a computer, tablet or smart board.
The therapist is on the other end at a computer of his or her own. Most work from home.
“We’ve taken measures to ensure that when the therapist logs on, it looks like a professional office,” Purdom said. “We have standards in place. Though therapy is changing to a model that’s more convenient for patients, we still need to be looked at as experts.”
The therapist then conducts a session with the client, just as if they were in a room together.
He or she may use materials shared through DotCom Therapy’s platform. Those may be games, puzzles or worksheets for children, or newspapers and books for adults.
“There’s a lot of planning,” Purdom said. “When you’re on site, you can grab the nearest toy to engage a child. When you transition to an online platform, you get creative.”
Therapists tell the on-site facilitators not just what they need for the session, but why they are doing each activity.
“We’re able to train facilitators in the techniques we’re using, and they’re able to carry it over throughout the week, in the lunch room, over recess and in the classroom,” Robinson said.
They tout other benefits of their model:
Access to highly skilled clinicians. “We’re not hiring by zip code,” Robinson said. “Our hiring pool is all across the country. We’re able to bring the strongest clinicians to the table.” They have had more than 1,000 applicants, but have only hired about 100 employees.
Customized treatments. Each patient is matched with a best-fit therapist, whether that’s an autism specialist, a bilingual clinician, etc.
Convenience. Therapists can work outside traditional business hours.
The company is growing so fast, Purdom and Robinson have completely moved away from conducting therapy. Instead, they do everything required to run a successful startup.
“The work our therapists do is incredible,” Purdom said. “Each session they have with each child, they make big impacts. They’re the ones making our mission happen.”
Running the show in Springfield
DotCom Therapy’s office in Springfield is in a historic building downtown, with open floor plans, a stocked mini fridge, couches and candles.
Most of the company’s directors work here, though Purdom and Robinson have moved to other cities.
“They run the show out of Springfield,” Purdom said.
Elise Mitchell, a 2011 and ’13 MSU alumna with degrees in communication sciences and disorders, was the first official employee of DotCom. She was hired about six months after the company was founded.
She’s now the executive director.
“I quickly became passionate about their business model,” Mitchell said.
“We have a different company culture. We believe if we put employees first, our services will be better.”
They want therapists to have a work-life balance, Purdom and Robinson said. They encourage interaction and collaboration, offering virtual lunch breaks, town hall meetings and yoga for therapists.
Mitchell said no matter how much DotCom Therapy grows, they’ve enjoyed keeping operations in Springfield.
“We take extreme pride in being a Missouri-founded company.”
What’s next: Worldwide services?
About that expansion: DotCom Therapy has big things on the horizon. A few goals:
Growing globally. Their therapists already conduct sessions with people in places such as Canada, China, Japan, Mexico and Tanzania. In April, the company founders traveled to Amman, Jordan, as part of a project that is still in talks. “We are in a big push to develop our technology to allow people all over the world access to therapy services,” Purdom said.
Working with MSU to demonstrate the efficacy of teleaudiology.
Expanding their services into medical facilities with patients of all ages. Their main focus up to now has been building clients from school systems.
Advancing the training they offer to teletherapists. Their goal is to be recognized for offering the best-practice standards in the industry.
“We’re one of the first to really enter this telehealth market in a powerful way,” Purdom said. “We want to continue to grow.”
Bachelor’s in communication sciences and disorders, Missouri State, 2010
Master’s in communication sciences and disorders, Missouri State, 2012
Education specialist degree in special education, Arkansas State University, 2014
First saw MSU at age 8 or 9 when she would ride to campus from her home near Table Rock Lake with her mom, a special education teacher who took graduate-level evening courses on campus
Emily describes Rachel:
“Rachel has the biggest heart of anybody I have ever known. She’s creative, she’s a visionary and she is highly empathetic. She and I are yin and yang. Everybody in our organization knows it. She can see what needs to happen, and then I come in and execute. I think that’s why we work so well together.”
Bachelor’s in communication sciences and disorders, University of Arkansas, 2010
Master’s in communication sciences and disorders, Missouri State, 2012
Madison, Wisconsin — but moving to Denver this fall
Married to an Australian; she and Tim Robinson dated long-distance while she was at MSU
Is a third-generation entrepreneur; both parents and grandparents have owned their own companies
Rachel describes Emily:
“I am the idea person — I work on the culture of our company and our branding. She’s our go-getter, our sales and numbers person. I don’t think I could’ve built this company without her. When we had to go up to Alaska and hop on little bush planes, she was the one who was next to me saying ‘we can do this.’ I was absolutely petrified. She is competitive and everything I’m not, in a good way.”
How time at Missouri State shaped this growing business
“THE GRADUATE DEPARTMENT FELT LIKE FAMILY”
Emily Purdom had some hard circumstances during graduate school.
She wasn’t excelling academically. Then, her stepbrother passed away.
“It was a horrible scenario, but the graduate department felt like family. Had I been at a university that didn’t care about me as a person, I don’t think I would be in the place I am now.”
One of her main supporters was Dr. Julie J. Masterson, who was then a professor of communication sciences and disorders.
Masterson is now associate provost and dean of the Graduate College.
“Emily was a bright light just waiting to be encouraged,” Masterson said.
Purdom, Rachel Robinson and Abby Carroll eventually became Masterson’s research advisees.
“They were outstanding,” Masterson said.
Purdom and Robinson went from students who sat in the back of class to confident researchers.
“The difference came when they had more independence,” Masterson said. “They were expected to bemy collaborators. In that environment, they beganto blossom.”
Robinson learned some of her best problem-solving methods from Masterson.
“She was spearheading research, and was just a strong and powerful figure,” Robinson said.
“She made it feel as an MSU student that you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve.”
“I think that’s why we hire so many Bears”
The founders of DotCom Therapy found more than mentors at MSU.
The public affairs mission shaped their vision for global outreach and a positive work environment.
“We had different projects where we were out and about, like doing hearing screenings for schools,” Purdom said. “MSU encouraged us to get involved.”
That spirit of bettering the community translates into better clinicians, Purdom said.
“Everybody they produce is just high-quality. I think that’s why we hire so many Bears. They’re producing exceptional clinicians, and the public affairs mission challenges them to think outside of the box.”
A graduate program’s success story
DotCom Therapy’s rising status in the business world shines a light on the quality of alumni from Missouri State’s Graduate College, Masterson said.
“We’re proud of Emily and Rachel,” she said. “I think their success confirms that our graduate programs are excellent and stellar.”
The programs also translate to the real world.
“I THINK GRADUATE EDUCATION AT MSU HAS ALWAYS BEEN STRONG, BUT IS CHARACTERIZED IN THIS MOMENT WITH A SPIRIT OF EXCITEMENT AND INNOVATION,” MASTERSON SAID. “WE WANT TO BE RESPONSIVE TO SOCIETAL AND MARKET NEEDS.”
Former professor: “I get all teary-eyed”
Masterson keeps in touch with Purdom and Robinson, chatting or emailing about every other week.
“I wish I could say they got that entrepreneurial spirit from me, but that’s not at all true! They’re very smart businesswomen. And they have been willing to take risks. I get teary-eyed when I think of these women who sat at the back of the class, who now have the confidence and willingness to succeed. They didn’t fulfill my dreams; they far exceeded them.”