Before coming to India, I had worked at a few small non-profit organizations in Philadelphia and New Jersey. I spent hours sitting with mothers in public housing sites in Philly, talking to them about their reproductive rights and helping them access quality prenatal and postnatal care. I had countless visits to public libraries and churches and municipal office buildings around New Jersey where I’d talk to seniors about their health needs as they aged. I was fueled by these interactions with people, and though I felt that I was contributing to change, the scale of that change felt limited at times. These feelings of inadequacy would creep up every time I read articles about social enterprise and technology startups that were paving new paths in the social sector; I would scan through the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and feel like I was falling short compared to peers who had already developed life-saving technologies.
Over the past couple of years, I have been somewhat consumed by the desire to create “sustainable impact.” I know it’s a buzzword, but with all that I saw in the media, I often found myself questioning the power of my work in the non-profit sector, and I sought to get some experience in a tech-based social enterprise.
Fast forward a few months later, and thanks to the Fellowship, I’m sitting at a desk at Bempu Health. I’ve joined the “startup” crowd and got my dream of working at a social enterprise–a company that developed an incredible, innovative device that saves newborn lives by catching hypothermia at its earliest stages. We’re funded by the best of the best of global public health foundations, have more products in our development pipeline, and are quickly expanding our reach through India and across international borders.
I have seen our product make an impact. It offers incredible assistance to mothers in hospitals in Bangalore; not only does it give parents peace of mind, but it promotes higher rates of hospital follow-ups and Kangaroo Care, increases weight gain, and ultimately, lowers neonatal mortality. It’s been exciting to see how a well-designed product can serve as such an incredible public health tool.
Still, as we have deployed our device in more and more resource-poor settings, I’ve seen that there are sometimes gaps that are too big for our device to close. We’ve encountered a 15-year old mother in rural Rajasthan who is malnourished and weak, has received extremely little formal education, and is navigating being a new mother, wife, and daughter-in-law all at once. She is fatigued and overwhelmed, and even when our device alarms signaling that her baby is hypothermic, she may not have the strength to conduct Kangaroo care, and she may not be able to properly breastfeed. We’ve met a mother who is singlehandedly taking care of the household and 6 daughters. Her husband works in the city and so she is busy and overworked. When the Bracelet alarms for hypothermia, she hears it, but has no time to give her baby hours of Kangaroo care, as she has 6 other mouths to feed, not to mention in-laws to take care of, too.
Don’t get me wrong–Bempu has actually served many families even in the most resource-poor settings; however, these cases have left me with a lot of questions about how to even more effectively make an impact in the public sector. I’m beginning to realize that while technology is incredible powerful, it cannot solve every problem. Even the most exciting, cutting-edge technology falls short when there is little foundation for it to stand upon.
While I am certain I will spend much of my life in the pursuit of sustainable impact, I am eager to see if the time I have left in India will give me some answers.