|I am certain that everyone who meets Jane Chen stops dead in their tracks. If you have ever needed inspiration on how one person can solely affect universal change- this is a lady to show you the way and make you believe. Chen and her team started Embrace, a non-profit organization that has created a low cost infant incubator for use in the developing world. These products have already helped over 150, 000 babies around the world. Chen is now introducing Little Lotus for the US market, a baby swaddle, sleep sack & blanket w/NASA inspired technology to keep babies at a perfect temperature. Each purchase will help a baby in need. Products can be pre-ordered on their Kickstarter campaign through the May 29th.
1. What were you like as a child- Who are you today?
As a child, I was always very curious, inquisitive and adventurous. My first venture was when I was 7 years old. I set up a lemonade stand – but when no one bought my lemonade, I put on my roller skates and created a door-to-door lemonade service. It worked beautifully, as no one could say no to a 7-year old selling lemonade door-to-door on a hot summer day.
I hope I have that same sense of boldness and adventurousness today. I love social entrepreneurship- the idea of using my business to do something good for the world. I love exploring new ideas and places, and constantly learning- whether that’s through the company I start, my meditation practice or surfing.
I believe you can do anything you put your mind to. Don’t overthink the solution– just get out there and create something, experiment and prototype. Then refine your solution along the way-but take that first step, which is always the most difficult. Measure yourself not necessarily by the outcomes at first, but by how quickly you’re learning along the way so you can ultimately create the best solution.
Also, I believe it’s really important to be rooted in your purpose. It’s so easy to get distracted as you’re trying something new, so make sure you stay true to why you are solving this problem in the first place and how it aligns with your values.
Because when you truly believe in something, as Paulo Coehlo says, “the entire universe will conspire in helping you to achieve it.”
2. Your life’s work?
My turning point was in 2002, a few years after I graduated from college. I read an article in The New York Times that changed my life. The article was about the AIDS epidemic in China, where millions of farmers had contracted HIV through selling their blood. This was a huge campaign in which everyone’s blood was collected and pooled together. The plasma was then separated and the remaining red blood cells were re-injected into the people’s bodies with the belief that they would regenerate blood more quickly. In many of the villages, 60-80% of the adult population became HIV positive.
When I read this I was so horrified and shocked. My heart went out to these people and a light bulb turned on in my head. I realized we are among the luckiest people in this world. I could have just as easily been born into a different life and suffered this horrible fate as a result. I decided I wanted to use the opportunity and skills I had been given to do something about the situation.
I quit my consulting job. I worked with a startup NGO that was doing work in these areas by sponsoring the education of orphans who had been left behind- most of whom did not have HIV. In about two years we were able to help about 3000 children, but the greater impact of our work was that the government began providing education to all of the orphans in the affected areas and free AIDS medication to all living with the HIV virus.
It showed me that with a small, dedicated, and passionate team we were able to effect change in a really big way. It set the course of my life because I realized I was really passionate about doing this work and I loved making social impact. It became a personal goal of mine to try to bridge the healthcare disparity that I saw between developed and developing countries.
When I started Embrace, that was one of the impetus. Our product development came via a design class at Stanford called, Design for Extreme Affordability. The challenge posed to my team was to build a baby incubator that cost less than 1% of the cost of a traditional incubator which cost $20,000. From that challenge, Embrace was born. I was lucky to work with an incredible group of graduate students in that class (Linus Liang, Rahul Panicker and Razmig Hovaghimian), who would become my co-founders.
In 2008, my team launched the venture, packed our bags and headed to India. From there we conducted clinical testing and refined the product. We built an amazing team locally – without them, we could never have done any of this. We got the opportunity to help mothers and babies in the field, largely in community settings. It was an enormously impactful and moving experience for me to see our class project turned into a real, life-saving product.
The Embrace warmer has now helped over 150,000 infants across 11 countries! President Obama invited me to the White House last summer for the first-ever Maker Faire, where I got to demo the warmer to him.
3. Tell us about the hybrid business model.
Embrace started as a nonprofit organization in 2008. Soon after we started, we realized we needed much more capital than we had anticipated in order to do things like clinical studies, distribution and manufacturing. At the same time, there were more and more social impact investors coming into this space that were interested in making investments into for-profit companies with social purposes.
As a result, in 2012, we spun out a for-profit arm called Embrace Innovations. The nonprofit owns the intellectual property and raises philanthropy to both give our products away to needy areas and provide education on newborn care. The for-profit licenses the technology, handles manufacturing, sells the products to paying entities in developing countries (primarily governments), and does research and development for new technologies.
The goal of this hybrid structure was to leverage both philanthropic and private capital to more effectively achieve our mission to help as many babies around the world as possible.
When you’re working in new areas, there isn’t a set guideline or rulebook as to how things will go. You’re creating the rules as you go along, and it becomes important to have the flexibility to experiment — and to be able to pivot quickly.
Of course, not everything went exactly as we envisioned. On the for-profit side, our business model was primarily focused on governments in developing countries which run nearly all of the rural healthcare. It turned out to be extremely challenging to work with these governments, which are often volatile.
After four years of living in India, I returned to San Francisco where all my friends seemed to be having babies. Hanging out with them, I noticed they were constantly worried about their babies’ temperature. I thought, well, Embrace has a ton of experience with this. Why don’t we introduce our product to the United States and deploy a Tom’s shoe–inspired business model, where each product sold helps a baby in a developing country? So with the help of a great team of designers with experience from Timbuk2, Nike, The North Face, and Maclaren, we brainstormed, prototyped and came up with Little Lotus, which helps keeps babies at the perfect temperature so they can rest better.
In addition to the functionality, the print of the product is inspired by the Touch Our Future artwork. Touch Our Future is a global art piece raising awareness about infant mortality developed by Artist Drue Kataoka, in collaboration with Embrace Innovations. It is a collection of hand tracings of mothers and babies — many of whom have been helped by the Embrace warmer — from 14 developing countries. Leaders and activists across disciplines have participated in the artwork by lending their hand tracings, too, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Christy Turlington Burns, Heidi Klum, Stella McCartney, Arianna Huffington, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, and more. Anyone in the world can lend a hand to the cause through the mobile app using the hashtag #TouchOurFuture.
4. What is your personal measuring stick for success?
I’ve always told myself that I’ll never be able to help every single baby — but if I can help even one baby, that’s enough. There are plenty of times when I’ve felt discouraged, when I’ve wanted to give up. But in those moments, I just sit and think about the mothers I’ve met and what they’ve had to go through- watching their babies die and being helpless to do anything about it, even being blamed by their communities. The thought of being able to empower them, and to be a conduit between them and the resources of the world, gives me strength and courage.
I think every person out there can make a difference if they commit themselves to doing it. I love Tony Hsieh (Zappos CEO) philosophy of thinking everyday about how you can make the world just 1% better – because if you start in this simple way, there can be a tremendous multiplier effect.
One of the stories I feel most proud of is the first baby we helped in China. Nathan was found abandoned at birth, weighing less than two pounds. A local orphanage we had just started delivered warmers to, Little Flower, took him in and kept him in the Embrace warmer for weeks. When I went to visit seven months later, I found a healthy and interactive boy – it was the first time a baby of that size had survived in the orphanage. A few months later, we received an email from a family in Chicago telling us they had adopted Nathan and thanking us for the role we had played in saving his life. It was one of the happiest days in this journey. Nathan is now 3 years old. I got to see him just a few weeks ago when he and his mother came to CA to celebrate the launch of Little Lotus, and I got to hold him in my arms again, to see the living testament of my work. Before they left, they gave me a thank you present – it was a figurine of a guardian angel holding a little boy. It moved me to tears, and was also a reminder of all the guardian angels looking over me and Embrace on this journey to help babies all over the world.
5. In moving to India, what did you give up/ what did you gain?
One of these people was Narayana Murthy, the CEO and one of the Co-founders of Infosys, India’s largest outsourcing company. He has been the most incredible advisor and supporter of Embrace, giving us sage advice and moral support all along the way. He is an example of what a leader should be.
Last year, when I attended Davos, I met Marc Benioff during a meditation session, who was just about to start the Preterm Birth Initiative (PTBI) at UCSF, in partnership with the Gates Foundation. Marc is one of the most amazing people I’ve met, and has become one of our biggest supporters, along with the incredible Dr. Larry Rand who runs the PTBI.
And of course, all of the people who work at Embrace. Each one of them is so important in this journey, and many have dedicated themselves tirelessly to this cause, when they could have pursued more lucrative career options. One of my teammates, Raghu Dharmaraju, who is now our COO, is a shining example of this.
All of this is a great reminder to me to help people who are coming up with ideas and starting their entrepreneurial journeys, especially the ones I believe in. It is the little things you do when you have influence that so greatly help other young entrepreneurs. And it is especially important for women to help other women.
6. In India you found Vipassana, how has your practice benefited you as an individual and entrepreneur?
I did yoga religiously when I was in India. As an entrepreneur your schedule is just crazy, and it’s easy to let your work consume you. It took me a while to figure it out, but I realized how important it was to make time for myself. For the longest time, I had thought if I could get my company to a certain point, then I would have this luxury. Then one day I read an article in Harvard Business Review that highlighted research showing when managers/leaders are happy there are direct benefits for the entire organization — they are more effective in their roles, and the people they are working with are far more optimistic about reaching their goals too. I finally realized that my happiness is linked with my effectiveness in my job and that it was critical for me to maintain a balanced life to do this work.
Last year, I did a 10-day silent meditation, called Vipassana. It was an incredible experience, and one of the best things I’ve done in my life. A core tenant of the meditation practice is rooted in the notion of impermanence: everything around us is constantly changing. Therefore, you must learn to enjoy every moment, to be totally present, while at the same time not being attached to anything (including an outcome). It was a profound lesson to learn. Meditation has taught me how to clear my mind and to sit completely still with myself- to find inner peace, no matter how chaotic things are around me. I’ve learned how to be goal-oriented, but at the same time, to not be whetted to a specific path to getting there, or to the outcome. By doing this, I’m better able to react opportunistically and to roll with the many punches that come my way. I’ve also learned to not take myself as seriously. I know the universe will go on without me .
7. When you came back to the States, what lessons did you bring with you? And how did you assimilate back into life here?
I think the most important thing I learned while living in India is that you ultimately choose the lens through which you see the world. I would often meet people who had been doing work in the social impact space, whom after years of living abroad were completely jaded. Their spirit was often broken. Living in India taught me why. It’s easy to see all the terrible things around you and get frustrated: the extreme poverty, the corruption, the systemic challenges that make it extremely difficult to make progress. There were moments of deep frustration in my journey- many moments when I wanted to give up.
But there was such immense beauty around me as well. Including the beauty of all the people who came together to help us achieve our mission, from our advisors and mentors, to our staff. The most beautiful thing I got to see, everyday, is the love a mother has a for her child. I realized that a mother, no matter how poor, or uneducated or impoverished, will do anything to save her child. It’s the purest and most selfless love in the world. I get to see that every single day in my job. I decided at some point that this is the lens I want to see the world through: the lens of beauty, and love, and hope. And in choosing this lens, I have the optimism to keep doing what I do everyday.
Ultimately, I think it’s critical to be rooted in why you do what you do. Simon Sinek did a great TED talk about this — about how important it is to stay rooted in your purpose. The “what” and the “how” are secondary. Being very clear about your “why” will get you through your toughest moments. It will help you make challenging decisions. It will help you shape the values you want to instill in your organization, and the work that you do. Whenever I have doubts, I just go back to that “why,” and it always gives me the clarity and strength I need.
Coming back from India to the US wasn’t as easy as I expected. One thing that was challenging was leaving behind the people I wanted to help, especially the mothers I got to know better during my time there. The mothers who had lost their babies, who had trusted me enough to tell their stories, and whom represented the millions of women around the world who have lost their babies each year. I would often find myself thinking about these women, and in moments where I wasn’t on the go and I had time to sit in stillness, I would be overwhelmed by sadness. I felt their pain as my own.
In India, I met so many courageous mothers. Many of them had lost their babies in horrible ways, but were full of strength and hope. I often talk about the story of Sujatha.
I knew my job wasn’t done, but after 4 years in India I wanted to figure out how to link my life back in the US to the work I am committed to doing in developing countries. That’s where Little Lotus comes in. As I studied the Tom’s shoes and Warby Parker models, I felt confident we could do something similar in the baby space. I wanted to use the love and compassion of mothers here in the US to help mothers and babies all over the world.
8. Tell us about your latest obsession with surfing, the teachings of your blog Hanging Zen, and how you came to name your board Solana.
I had tried surfing many times over the years, but started doing it more seriously last December, when my family spent Christmas in Hawaii. That’s when I fell in love with the sport.
It requires not only strength, endurance, speed, balance, agility, etc — but an unparallelled amount of awareness and observation, because your environment is constantly changing. This also makes it a sport that is insanely challenging to learn. It’s a deeply humbling experience.
I learn life lessons every time I go out into the water. Many of these lessons are deeply tied to two other major parts of my life: meditation and entrepreneurship. I’m finding profound triangulation across all three. Each time I go into the ocean, I have to surrender to the power and beauty of nature. For someone who’s not used to ‘surrendering,’ it’s a novel feeling- a medium for learning that is completely new, humbling, and mind-blowing all at the same time.
With regards to meditation and entrepreneurship, and how surfing links to this, here are a few examples. Impermanence. This is a core part of Buddhist philosophy and of my meditation practice. Everything around us is constantly changing, and we need to be fully aware of this fact. Surfing reminds you of this. The same beach one day may look totally different the next day- which reinforces the need to observe and understand what’s happening around you before you jump into the water. In business, this is equally important. Design thinking teaches us that before jumping in to solve a problem, you should observe and understand what’s going on around you. When my team at Stanford was challenged to build a baby incubator, we took the time to travel to India and Nepal. We realized the reason traditional incubators didn’t work in those settings was because there was often no electricity to power them, no one was trained on how to use those complicated machines, and if a part broke there were no spares for replacement. Furthermore, many infant deaths were happening in village settings, so we needed a solution that would work at that level. It was these critical observations that led us to reframe the problem and develop the Embrace infant warmers.
Don’t get attached. In my meditation practice, the idea of impermanence makes you both realize the need to appreciate every single moment, as well as to be not attached to anything – knowing it’s all going to change.
Surfing is the most amazing feeling in the world– when I’m riding a wave, I remember every second of the experience. So when the conditions aren’t good, it’s really easy to get bummed out. In those instances, I just have to remember that no matter how many waves I catch, I am so lucky to just have the chance to be in the water. I constantly remind myself that surfing is about being in the moment, seeing what comes, and what I learn.
My board’s names is Solana. The story behind the name: I was once obsessed with tomatoes. I just loved this humble fruit masquerading as a vegetable. I even had a pipe dream about opening up a tomato themed restaurant called Solana, after the latin root for the families which tomatoes come from. Since my board looks like a roma tomato, I decided to use the name for my board instead.
9. Where do you see Jane Chen next?
I hope we are able to help millions of lives through the Embrace warmers and Little Lotus, and that we continue to innovate on products that help address infant and maternal mortality. In the long run, I hope I can play a role in democratizing healthcare.
In the meantime, I’ll continue meditating, surfing, and reminding myself everyday to see the incredible beauty around me.
The Little Lotus Kickstarter campaign ends May 29th. In celebration of women everywhere and Mother’s Day, Little Lotus will hold a special promotion for the first 100 customers. Little Lotus offers a way for moms to help less fortunate moms around the world. Let’s start saving lives.