Soltan Bryce ’13
Trans-affirming startup Plume has Carolina roots
Story By Claire Cusick
When Jerrica Kirkley ‘12 (MD) and Soltan Bryce ’13 were in Chapel Hill, they didn’t know each other. They found out later that they studied at Carolina during some of the same years, and likely passed by each other on the Carrboro bike path. Bryce was a Morehead-Cain Scholar, and Kirkley was a recent NCSU graduate earning her medical degree.
Almost a decade later, though, in early 2020, Kirkley and Bryce were brought together through an investor connection, to help build the promising telehealth startup, Plume, that Kirkley had founded with her best friend from medical school, Matthew Wetschler ’13 (MD).
Plume provides gender-affirming health care services to the trans community. “Plume came about from all my experiences as a family physician, and also coming out as a trans person myself,” Kirkley said. Even as a doctor with resources and familiarity with the system, she had found it challenging to get quality gender-affirming care. “I saw a need for not only a virtual solution, which certainly gets to a lot of those pain points, but an access point that is affirming, that takes into account the lived experience of trans patients, and centers on the community, not a disease or medical process.”
Beginning in 2019, Kirkley and her co-founder bootstrapped the business themselves, until raising $2.9 million in venture funding in early 2020. Then, one of Plume’s investors introduced them to Bryce, who was by then at Harvard Business School. Bryce, who is also trans, joined Plume as Head of Growth.
Bryce’s family were Palestinian refugees who came to the U.S. from Kuwait during the first Gulf War. They moved to North Carolina when Bryce was a child. He later became the first Morehead-Cain Scholar from Rocky Mount in a decade, as a member of the class of 2013. “I spent my time at Carolina studying and thinking about how systems work for people or don’t,” Bryce said. “That ultimately made me decide to focus on health care after I graduated. I ended up at business school still asking a similar question, which is how to make the healthcare system work for more people. That has continued to inform my path through and after Plume.”
During her time at UNC-Chapel Hill, Kirkley was doing a similar exploration about where to take her career in medicine. “I couldn’t have said then that I would be running my own company, or founding a startup,” she said. “But I knew that I went into medicine for reasons around social justice. I always had an eye – even before medical school – on communities that have been marginalized and don’t have as much access to the health care system.”
Jerrica Kirkley ‘12 (MD)
Medical school was also where Kirkley first came to understand that there is a big gap in comprehensive care for LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans people. “It catapulted me to dedicate my career to providing access to trans folks who are trying to find health care,” she said.
Kirkley and Bryce worked together at Plume for about a year. In early 2021, Plume secured $14 million in venture capital funding, and Bryce moved on to become the special assistant to the COO and EVP of strategy at Boston Medical Center Health System. Kirkley remains at the still-growing Plume, which now operates in 37 states and is caring for 10,000 patients. She serves as chief medical officer.
Service and generosity are embedded into the mission at Plume, Kirkley said. “Having been on so many different sides of this equation in health care, I’ve seen many people doing incredible work,” she said. “I have an immense appreciation for it, especially in the trans health care space. It feels like allyship in the truest sense of the word.”
Both Kirkley and Bryce still feel the impact of their Carolina experiences.
“When I think about my personal journey, I think about how much of it is through the generosity of others,” Bryce said. “That really informs my point of view on how to be a successful person. A big part of being an entrepreneur is being willing to say yes, and also being willing to not only receive generosity, but also to give it when it’s your turn.
“The Carolina piece matters, because there’s this element of service, this question of what it means to be a contributing member of society, and to create opportunities for other people to thrive,” he continued. “I think Plume is doing that. And I think it’s just part of what people pick up when they come through Carolina.”