While there are millions of problems in the world today, global health is arguably one of the most crucial. Health is at the core of everything we are and everything we do; without health, we cannot function. Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship is taking vital steps to improve global health through its work with health-based social enterprises all over the world. Thanks to Miller Center, I was able to work with CareNX Innovations last summer, a company striving to eliminate preventable maternal and neonatal deaths in India. I had the opportunity to hear powerful stories from pregnant mothers and hospital employees, and experience gaps in healthcare first-hand. Solving the global health crisis will not be easy, but by giving social enterprises the tools they need to succeed, Miller Center will continue to improve access to healthcare worldwide and improve countless lives.
The CareNX Team at the HQ at IIT (Mumbai, India)
I spent the summer of 2017 working at UnitedHealthcare as a sales and market analyst intern. While I loved the fast-paced environment and enjoyed learning about the healthcare system and insurance cycle, I couldn’t see myself as a healthcare sales representative. I was yearning for something more hands-on. I wanted to be a changemaker. I registered my interest in the Global Social Benefit Fellowship, with the inkling that it could lead me in the right direction. When I read about CareNX’s mission to decrease neonatal and maternal mortality rates through a smartphone integrated diagnostic kit, I knew I was looking in the right place. I was excited by the possibility of spending my summer doing meaningful work that could truly impact the lives of thousands of pregnant women in India. Fast-forward six months to June, and I was on a flight to Mumbai, India.
Fast-forward six months to June, and I was on a flight to Mumbai, India.
My partner, Varsha, and I had spent the three months before the trip building a detailed, 54-page research plan. We had spent countless hours mapping out the logistics of our research project, and I was ready to tackle every step of our plan, which I believed would allow us to gather the research necessary to complete our deliverables successfully. I was confident in our ability to provide enhanced social impact reporting and support CareNX’s scaling through implementing strategy recommendations and business model innovation. While I was prepared from a business standpoint, I wasn’t prepared from an emotional one. Varsha and I had collectively read dozens of articles regarding India’s maternal and neonatal mortality rates. I was aware that India accounts for 20 percent of maternal fatalities globally, resulting in approximately 44,000 deaths every year. However, understanding a statistic and meeting the women behind the statistic are two very different things. I was ready to create solutions to fix the maternal healthcare crisis, but I wasn’t mentally prepared to come face to face with the problem.
Reflecting on Hardships
Varsha, Preeti and I sat on the floor of Jyotsana Varthak’s home. Jyotsana was the very last community health worker we interviewed in India. Jyotsana is a highly skilled community health worker, with 30 years of experience as an auxiliary nurse midwife (ANM). We asked her what barriers—personal, familial, societal—she saw preventing the successful adoption of CareMother in mothers. Jyotsana told us that the biggest obstacle for maternal care was education. Jyotsana explained that most of the pregnant women she visits are uneducated, illiterate, and unsure of their age.
Uncertain of their own age.
This detail shouldn’t have been surprising to me; at this point in our journey, we had interviewed a handful of mothers who looked confused when we’d asked the question. To me, it was such a simple question. It was a question I was asked frequently as a child. Eager to grow up, my response would usually involve a fraction. I’m nine and three quarters, and I would state proudly — each birthday I celebrated with family, friends, and a homemade cake. I couldn’t fathom the idea of not knowing my age. I realized I had taken my birthday for granted in a way I hadn’t known was possible.
What was even more unsettling was the impact this lack of education had on these women’s health. The pregnant women Jyotsana cares for had never learned about reproductive health—or even taken a general health class. Instead, they learned about myths and superstitions from their mothers and grandmothers. One of the superstitions Jyotsana told us about required the pregnant women to stay locked in their rooms where they gave birth —alone— for three days. During this time, the women were forced to clean up the mess that had been made during their labor. A different myth required mothers to burn their baby on his or her ribcage with an iron rod. I’m not sure if I would have believed this if Jyotsana hadn’t lifted up the shirt of a baby boy for us to see the scar. The child immediately shrieked. It was evident he had been scarred from the experience in more ways than one.
I was filled with disbelief and rage. How could a mother put her child in pain? I didn’t understand. Did they love their children less?
The rage slowly turned into embarrassment. I realized I was imposing my own beliefs on these women’s culture. Of course, they loved their children. They didn’t want to see them in pain. These mothers felt obligated to harm their babies because of the cultural traditions and societal norms imposed on them. There was no logical reason for these mothers to trust medical doctors. To them, western medicine seemed more foreign and dangerous than the superstitions their families’ had been following for generations. Choosing to seek medical care for their pregnancies was not only seen as foolish, but disrespectful to their elders.
This was just one of many moments where I felt helpless in India. The language barriers had also proved to be a more significant hindrance than I had expected. While Varsha could understand three different Indian languages, I struggled to comprehend my fellow CareNX team member’s broken English. Most of the mothers and community health workers we interviewed couldn’t understand my American accent either, so Varsha or Pritee (our translator) conducted most of the interviews while I jotted down notes. From speech and debate club in high school to numerous sales roles in college, I have always felt confident in my communication skills. Being unable to have a leadership role on the communication front made me feel utterly useless in the field.
However, this weakness gave me the opportunity to build invaluable listening skills. When Varsha and I returned from the field, we sat down together to analyze our data and discuss our findings. Flipping through my notebook, I realized how much knowledge I had gained. I had scribbled down notes on stories mothers had shared, ideas about ways to increase partnership efficiency, thoughts from a customer experience perspective after talking with community health workers, and much more. The language barriers and communication obstacles had given me the chance to devote all of my energy towards listening and observing. This allowed me to better understand India’s maternal health crisis as well as CareNX’s own business challenges before jumping to creating solutions.
Nine months ago, I knew I wanted to be a changemaker. However, I was unsure the best way to incorporate that goal into my career path. This fellowship has given me a deeper understanding of the types of work I enjoy and a more clear direction for my vocational journey.
I discovered that slow-paced work environments frustrate me, and it is essential for me to work with people that know how to prioritize and balance responsibilities effectively. I am more likely to succeed in a fast-paced environment, surrounded by highly-motivated and competent individuals.
This fellowship also taught me how to truly collaborate – and I’m not talking about the typical “collaboration” facilitated by group projects in college classes. Varsha and I carved out 20 hours each week to meet up and work on our deliverables in person. True collaboration can foster some of the best ideas, and when Varsha and I created a solution to a problem we had been circling it was exhilarating.
I learned that I love strategizing. Analyzing the way current systems work and creating solutions to optimize efficiency excites me. While most people consider an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and curiosity as common traits for entrepreneurs, I discovered that I don’t need to start my own company to utilize these talents. By questioning the logic behind current processes and creating change with creative solutions, I can provide value to any organization.
My passions lie in helping current, mid to large size organizations create and change products to accelerate social impact. This isn’t limited to changing drink beverage companies’ straws from plastic to biodegradable, although this certainly is important. We know that the way we create and consume products impact the world from an environmental perspective. However, products also can impact consumers in countless ways, ranging from physical health to child psychological development and so much more. Changing and creating products within organizations through a social impact lens can make a difference in the quality of millions of lives. The opportunities to make the world a better place are endless, and I am excited to see where my journey will lead to next.
Beautiful Himachal Pradesh, India