I’m Cat Perez, the Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer of HealthSherpa. I was born and raised in New Jersey. My father is Puerto Rican and my mother is Korean. Growing up, I remember both of my parents working multiple jobs to provide for our family. Despite my parents’ hectic work schedule, we still found time to go camping along the Delaware River, have large salsa and merengue dance parties, and go on road trips to Florida — with a pitstop at Disney, of course.
However, ever since I was about five or six years old, I knew I was different. I refused to wear dresses, I played soccer with the boys during recess, and I was always interested in playing with action figures vs. dolls. As you can imagine in the 80’s, I felt a lot of pressure to fit into the social norms of what gender identity represented back then, to me as a child.
At 18, I was the first person in my family to attend college. During my sophomore year, I met my first serious girlfriend. We spent just about all of our time together but kept our relationship a secret. At my college, being out was not common and being openly on the LGBTQ+ spectrum was frowned upon by some of the staff members. I went on to be the first in my family to graduate from college with honors.
After I graduated, I continued to struggle with my identity. My girlfriend and I broke up and I found myself yet again, trying to fit into the narrative of being a cis-straight woman. I openly dated men but secretly turned to online communities to connect with women. These were the years of Makeout Club, Myspace, and Tumblr.
In 2004, something pivotal happened. I got into a very bad car accident, was unable to walk for 4 months, and ended up in recovery for 6 months. This meant lots of time to reflect on how fragile life was and decided to make every moment count moving forward. To me, that meant living a life that felt honest, fulfilling, and ultimately embracing who I truly was. I knew something had to change.
That’s when I decided to make moves in the literal sense. I packed two suitcases, said goodbye to my friends and family, and purchased a one-way ticket to San Francisco. It was in San Francisco where I finally found a community that helped me find a stronger sense of identity. I was able to experience so many firsts (Pride, The Lexington, Community centers, and more) in a city that felt safe and inclusive. However, despite feeling this acceptance within the LGBTQ+ community, when I decided to come out to my parents, it didn’t end up going well.
My parents, who were actively religious at the time, were upset and really played up the sinful nature of my sexuality during many heated exchanges. After I came out, I didn’t speak to them for nearly a year. I assumed they were mourning the death of who they thought I was and/or would become, and I was afraid I’d lost them forever.
During this time, I created a family from the friends I had made in San Francisco. Not only did I work on projects early on that highlighted this community, like Lesbians in San Francisco, but I also began to focus on my career. In 2013, the year HealthCare.gov launched, I participated in a Salesforce hackathon. At the hackathon, I identified an opportunity to build a user-friendly HealthCare.gov for iOS and I went on to win first place — including a $1 million dollar prize.
From there, I did the logical thing and left the security of my full-time job to devote myself to entrepreneurship (making every moment count). Coincidently, this was during the same time period that HealthSherpa was created. In 2015, I was approached by HealthSherpa to come on as a Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer. I said yes, and since have led the company to over 1.4 million people enrolled in health coverage.
Now, building products and experiences that increase healthcare access and awareness to the LGBTQ+ community is a top priority for me and my team. We focused on creating and testing new products, including a way for folks to filter by LGBTQ+ friendly providers when looking for a new health plan. We’ve also put together resources and articles focused on LGBTQ+ healthcare and we partner with other mission-driven organizations to further reach the community.
I credit most of my success in business to my parent’s strong work ethic. Both of them were constantly making bets, pushing themselves, and finding an opportunity or an opening whenever they could — lessons I certainly took to heart. Now, over a decade after coming out, my parents and I are so much closer. They are beyond supportive, even protective of my identity and have moved to California to be closer to me.
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