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Jane Chen's invention helped 150,000 babies. Here's what's next.

"The mission of Embrace has always motivated me; its impact humbles me. But it is the strength of mothers I have encountered that continues to inspire me."

Jane Chen's invention helped 150,000 babies. Here's what's next.

The organization that I started grew out of a class, ‘Design for Extreme Affordability,’ that I took in 2007 while studying at Stanford University. The challenge: Build a baby incubator that cost less than 1% of the cost of a traditional incubator, which is $20,000.


From that challenge, our organization, Embrace was born. I had no idea how much that class would change the course of so many lives.

The Embrace infant warmer looks like a little sleeping bag, and uses an internal phase change material (a pouch of wax-like substance), to help preterm and underweight babies who are unable to regular their own body temperature. Once melted, the pouch maintains a constant temperature of up to 98 degrees Fahrenheit for up to eight hours without the need for constant electricity --which is unreliable in many parts of the world.

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This little device that we created as students in California has now saved over 150,000 infants across 11 countries, and helps 15 million preterm and underweight babies born every year. The mission of Embrace has always motivated me; its impact humbles me. But it is the strength of mothers I have encountered that continues to inspire me.

Forty percent of all the world's premature babies are born in India, so in 2008, my team launched the venture, packed our bags and headed there. In India, I met so many courageous mothers. Many of them had lost their babies in horrible ways, but were full of strength, hope and love —even after enduring one of the most painful experiences imaginable.

Over my four years in the country, I learned that a mother, no matter how poor or impoverished, will do anything to save her child. And yet millions of babies still die every year around the world because despite their heroic efforts, these mothers simply don’t have access to modern healthcare or life-saving technologies.

I am often asked if there is a woman whom I admire. There is, and she’s not a Nobel laureate or global CEO. The woman is Sujatha, a mother from a village in south India. Sujatha lost all three of her babies, one after another.

When we showed Sujatha the Embrace Infant Warmer, she wept and said, “Maybe if I had this, I could have saved my baby.” Her grief was so deep, even seven years after she had lost her children. She then said, “The world is apathetic to the birth and death of a child. It is the mother who bears the emotional burden.”

And yet rather than being swallowed by this grief, Sujatha didn’t give up her hope of becoming a mother. Instead, she adopted a baby girl. What’s more, Sujatha uses her own experiences to educate and help other women in her village to help prevent these deaths from happening in the future. The last time I saw her, I told Sujataha that her strength gives me the determination to continue to do my work.

Sujatha is shining example of a woman making a difference in the lives of other women, despite the tragedy she has experienced. My hope is that all of us can play a role in empowering and helping women less fortunate than ourselves. Because at a fundamental level, we all share the same courage, love and hope to make the world a better place for the next generation.

We’ve gotten support from Beyoncé, who made a gift to Millenium Promise to bring Embrace infant warmers to 100 rural health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as from President Obama, who had me to the White House last summer for the White House’s first-ever Maker Faire, where I got to demo the warmer to him.

I returned to San Francisco from India about a year ago, and all my friends were having babies. Hanging out with them, I noticed they were constantly worried about their babies’ temperature — is he too hot? too cold? I thought, "well, Embrace has a ton of experience with this."

Our team then decided to introduce our product to the United States and deploy a Tom’s shoe–inspired model, where each product sold helps a baby in a developing country.

With the help of a great team of designers with experience from Timbuk2, Nike, The North Face, and Maclaren, we brainstormed and prototyped and came up with Little Lotus — a line of baby blankets, sleeping bags and swaddles that, like the Embrace Warmer, help keep babies at the perfect temperature. Little Lotus is a product line of Embrace Innovations, our for-profit social enterprise (This HBR article explains our structure). We researched all the swaddles currently on the market and improved on them, like adding a bottom zipper that makes it much easier to change diapers. But what makes Little Lotus special is its proprietary technology, inspired by NASA spacesuits, which constantly absorbs or releases heat from the baby’s body, helping to keep baby at the perfect temperature so he or she can rest more comfortably. We've received amazing feedback from moms who've tried it. I really believe it's better than any other product that exists in the market today.

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.

We’re currently running a Kickstarter to fund Little Lotus, which goes through May 29th. For every product sold, a baby will be helped by the Embrace infant warmer. For every product we sell over $100 in the campaign, $25 gets donated to our nonprofit organization.

One of the things I often hear from moms here is that when they became a mother for the first time, they felt an instant kinship with every other mother in the world, and that if they saw a baby in need, they would do anything to help that child. We wanted to create a product that would not only be useful to moms here in the U.S., but that would also capture that love, compassion and sisterhood to help vulnerable babies everywhere. That's what Little Lotus is all about.

I felt lost as a new mother, but babywearing helped me find myself again

I wish someone had told me before how special wearing your baby can be, even when you have no idea how to do it.

My first baby and I were alone in our Brooklyn apartment during a particularly cold spring with yet another day of no plans. My husband was back at work after a mere three weeks of parental leave (what a joke!) and all my friends were busy with their childless lives—which kept them too busy to stop by or check in (making me, at times, feel jealous).

It was another day in which I would wait for baby to fall asleep for nap number one so I could shower and get ready to attempt to get out of the house together to do something, anything really, so I wouldn't feel the walls of the apartment close in on me by the time the second nap rolled around. I would pack all the diapers and toys and pacifiers and pump and bottles into a ginormous stroller that was already too heavy to push without a baby in it .

Then I would spend so much time figuring out where we could go with said stroller, because I wanted to avoid places with steps or narrow doors (I couldn't lift the stroller by myself and I was too embarrassed to ask strangers for help—also hi, New Yorkers, please help new moms when you see them huffing and puffing up the subway stairs, okay?). Then I would obsess about the weather, was it too cold to bring the baby out? And by the time I thought I had our adventure planned, the baby would wake up, I would still be in my PJs and it was time to pump yet again.

Slowly, but surely, and mostly thanks to sleep deprivation and isolation, I began to detest this whole new mom life. I've always been a social butterfly. I moved to New York because I craved that non-stop energy the city has and in the years before having my baby I amassed new friends I made through my daily adventures. I would never stop. I would walk everywhere just to take in the scenery and was always on the move.

Now I had this ball and chain attached to me, I thought, that didn't even allow me to make it out of the door to walk the dog. This sucks, I would think regularly, followed by maybe I'm not meant to be a mom after all.


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