THE BLOG

A Kickstarter For Life-Saving Surgeries

11/12/2012 04:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 12, 2013
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Over the last several weeks, I turned 30, got engaged to a great guy, and raised an investment round for Samasource, the nonprofit I founded four years ago. We have now moved over 3,200 people out of poverty through digital work and are expanding into the US.

Ordinarily, this would be a time to take a step back and celebrate.

But while these milestones feel significant, it's been tough for me to fully enjoy them. Last year, I went to Sierra Leone on a trip with the State Department and stumbled into a problem that eats away at all the happiness of the last few weeks. I learned that in Sierra Leone, one in eight women die in childbirth.

One in eight. This is the highest rate of maternal mortality in the world. Many women die in the immediate aftermath of childbirth, because they lack acute care to deal with complications.

As I started thinking about marriage and children for myself, I couldn't shake this problem.

I went back to Sierra Leone this summer and visited a hospital in the northern corner of the country, where I'd heard about a retired surgeon from Texas who was performing surgeries on women who had birth complications.

I learned that this man, Dr. Maggi, was doing 200 surgeries a year and tapping into his retirement funds to keep his operation running. I learned that he focused on a condition called fistula, a tear in the vaginal canal that can occur if a woman gives birth too young, or if she has a complication. About two million women suffer from fistula in Africa and can't afford to get a surgery to fix it.

In his clinic, I met women who had been in labor for four days, lost their children, and then lost their husbands and their earning power because of a condition that would be treated instantly in a developed country.

I thought to myself: If the Dr. Maggis of the world could spend less time fundraising and more time scaling their clinics, they'd solve the problem so much faster. I left that country with a mission to find a way to fund more of these surgeries. This month, I launched a website with two co-founders called Samahope. Samahope shares the prefix "sama," which means equal in Sanskrit, but is not connected to Samasource operationally.

The site is basically like Kickstarter or Kiva for life-saving surgeries. We allow anyone, anywhere, to fund a medical treatment for a person in need. We've started with fistula patients in Sierra Leone, and just added burn and cleft palate repair surgeries, which also have low treatment rates in poor countries. A few days ago, we were written up in Fast Company.

Though I am still 100 percent committed to my day job as CEO of Samasource, I couldn't rest until I helped get this off the ground. So I used my night and weekend time to make it happen. We've finished up a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, with an ambitious goal of $50,000 (we reached $52,342). These donations will be used to hire my two co-founders, Shivani and Shawn, who can dedicate themselves fully to this, while I take an unpaid board seat to help the organization get off the ground.

I believe Samahope can dramatically reduce the maternal mortality rate in Sierra Leone, and make a big dent in the number of women and children who suffer from acute conditions worldwide.

You are some of my closest friends, mentors, peers, and supporters. I value your opinion highly. It would mean so much to me if you'd take a moment to check out the site. I'd love your candid feedback on the model and on how to make it better.

Onward and upward!

Leila