One out of every 10 babies in the world is born premature. One million die each year, many due to lack of warmth. Jane Chen, who earned her MBA in 2008, wanted to change that. “No baby should die from being cold,” she says.
This core value was the center of her team’s project for Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Design for Extreme Affordability class in 2007. Chen and her team designed an inexpensive incubator that offered a low-cost way to keep premature babies warm. Their inspiration came from the concept of a tiny sleeping bag that heats up to regulate a baby’s body temperature. Embrace Innovations, born out of the Center for Social Innovation, has saved more than 200,000 premature babies and hopes to increase that number to 1 million.
But from the start, Chen faced challenges. First, her team’s truck got a flat tire on the way to a small Indian village where they planned to share their product. Next, Embrace Innovations nearly lost its funding. And working with foreign governments proved difficult. But Chen took a “never give up” attitude that has helped her company prosper.
At an eCorner discussion at Stanford School of Engineering, Chen discussed persistence, the power of serendipity, and why she chooses to see the beauty in the world.
We Are Defined by Values, Not Successes
Chen believed in a cause greater than herself — that no baby should die from being cold. When challenges of design, distribution, and finances faced Embrace Innovations, Chen made it a point to continually return to this foundational value. “Being really rooted in your purpose will get you through your toughest moments,” she says. Connect to the why of what you’re doing, she adds, and it will give you the tenacity to keep going.
Step Back and Reevaluate
When things get tough, change your perspective and realign with your goals, she advises. As Embrace Innovations grew, Chen was spending much of her time writing government contracts. The long procedures often left Chen feeling mired in bureaucracy. But she noticed that by going into the retail market, Embrace Innovations could still support its primary humanitarian efforts.
“We thought, ‘What if we could leverage our technology and create a product for the U.S. market?’” she says. The team drew inspiration from other one-to-one giving models, in which companies match each purchased item with a free or donated one for someone in need (think Tom’s shoes or Warby Parker glasses). Embrace Innovations used its design and thermal wax technology to create Little Lotus — temperature-adjusting blankets and swaddles to sell domestically. With each sale of Little Lotus in the U.S., the company was able to send an Embrace warmer to a premature baby in need abroad.
It's the Courage to Continue That Counts
Recently, Chen took up surfing, a sport where, she says, she spends more time falling off her board than staying on. “It’s so humbling,” she adds. Having the courage to “get back out there,” whether it’s for the next ocean wave or the next wave of enterprise, is the sign of a strong entrepreneur. “You will inevitably fail,” says Chen, “and you need to have the courage and the persistence to get back out there, learn from your mistakes, and try again.”
Believe in Something Fully
Chen takes this idea from Paulo Cohelo, one of her favorite writers. Cohelo champions the idea that when you follow your dreams, you’re helped in unexpected ways. For example, just after learning Embrace Innovations had no more than one week of funding, Chen called on Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, someone she’d coincidentally met at a meditation session nine months earlier. The chance connection lead to Benioff funding Embrace Innovations.
Choose How You See the World
Social entrepreneurs are often exposed to extreme poverty, violence, and disease. “After living in India for a few years, I could see myself becoming really jaded and pessimistic,” Chen says. But choosing to see the beautiful things — a doctor’s commitments to his patients, a parent’s love for a child — kept her going. “I encourage you to see the world through a lens of beauty, because that will give you the optimism to keep changing the world.”