For years, Black women and birthing people have been disproportionately dying during and after childbirth in a medical system that is rooted in racism. For almost as long as the disparities have existed, the problem has not received mainstream attention, sufficient philanthropic and research funding, or any corporate investment. Meanwhile, community organizers, birth activists, and others have been making a way out of no way to create and sustain community-centered solutions—from training and deploying doulas, to creating childbirth centers, reviving Black midwifery, and developing other community resources to help save Black women.
Now, at a watershed moment for racial injustice, and after an unprecedented media spotlight on this issue, which has been led by organizations such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA)—a national network of black women-led organizations and multi-disciplinary professionals who work to ensure that all Black Mamas have the rights, respect, and resources to thrive before, during, and after pregnancy—the issue of Black maternal mortality is finally top of mind. So are corporate interests.
As a maternal and infant health strategist who has spent 10 years working on the ground in our communities across the U.S. and speaking on the issues of racial disparities in birth and breastfeeding internationally—and as a founder myself—I thought it important to examine this dynamic and speak to my sister leaders in the space to get their feedback. Because whether community-based solutions or profit-motivated solutions are being centered by corporations merits deep consideration, or else there’s a real danger of perpetuating the same systems of oppression that have led to the Black maternal mortality crises simply being replicated in other fields. Instead of partnering, supporting, or funding the many community-led solutions out there, some corporations have decided to use their vast financial resources and corporate heft to create their own commercial ventures—in the name of saving Black women.
“I have lots of concerns and fears with large corporations entering the Black maternal health space,” says Angela Doyinsola Aina, co-founding executive director of BMMA. “While it is appreciated that corporations and large-scale businesses are wanting to take action to improve maternal and infant health outcomes, using racist, capitalistic tactics, that further perpetuate the notion of deficiency or cause more distrust between maternal health stakeholders who do this work on a daily basis does more harm than good. In their attempt to understand the complexities of the maternal mortality crisis in the U.S., they are actually adding to the system's problems that contribute to this issue.”
To be fair, some commercial interest can be good. More venture capital funders and community development organizations—like LISC and Kapor Capital—are now looking to invest in Black-woman led enterprises after years of neglect by the VC worlds, and some corporations are looking to partner with, invest in or amplify the work of Black woman-led efforts and organizations. For example, Paypal recently announced it is investing $50 million into Black and LatinX-led businesses. As a former business journalist, I know all too well that our society is indeed a capitalist one. As such, identifying problems and then creating a product or service solution for profit is as American as America gets.
Far too often, however, it is the backs of Black women on which those profits are made, but Black women are rarely the primary beneficiaries of any investment. Our collective lived experience has yet to substantially improve. On average, Black women in the U.S. are still paid 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women. And when it comes to health outcomes, from childbirth to breast cancer, Black women have higher mortality rates. Black babies are also dying disproportionately. So when corporations want to truly address any problem within the Black community, they need to listen to and center Black women in that process. Or as the saying goes: “Nothing for us, without us.” Otherwise, there are serious ramifications.
When a large corporate entity is behind a solution, it puts existing, community-driven ventures at risk.
“When a large corporate entity is behind a solution, it puts existing, community-driven ventures at risk,” says Ashlee Wisdom, co-founder and CEO of Health in Her Hue, an app that creates a digital platform connecting Black women to culturally competent healthcare providers, telehealth services, and health content. “This is problematic because these community-led solutions are not built solely for profit, but to drive impact.”
Yet many have yet to read the full memo. For example, earlier this year, pharmaceutical and healthcare behemoth Johnson & Johnson (with a market capitalization of $360 billion), partnered with the white female-led Founders Factory New York studio to “search” for a Black CEO to lead a new J&J-backed venture to address Black maternal mortality. The post promoting the job search (which was recently removed) touted the Black maternal health “market” as a $59 billion industry. The description called the opening a “unique opportunity to build a business with Founders Factory and the support of Johnson & Johnson” and highlighted the opportunity for “stability and resources of a large organization.” In my conversations with Founders Factory, it was revealed that the chosen figurehead would have a salary north of $100,000 and significant funding from J&J investment. Founders Factory denies that they shared specifics about salary range in those conversations. They also seemed caught off guard at Twitter pushback this summer.
To many of the Black female founders in the maternal health space, myself included, this reeked of the same privilege white women have wielded for centuries, having decision-making power over our maternal authority, our money-making ability, or our communities with no track record of ever working in or with our communities. It’s the type of corporate takeover of Black people (and their problems) and financial exploitation that are being protested right in this moment of racial reckoning about ongoing police brutality and systemic oppression. After decades of Black people working on the issue in earnest and more recently, a new crop of Black female founders rooted in the community developing technology and design solutions showing there was viability and profitability in our ideas, even without the same access to capital, Black maternal mortality is now apparently being gentrified.
“This type of relationship is problematic because it assumes that simply because of their capital and resources they could suddenly function as an authority on a problem that has been plaguing the Black community for years, and has been largely overlooked until now,” notes Wisdom. “It seems that the true intention was to capitalize on a problem that has in recent years gained a lot of attention and as a result a market opportunity.”
“With corporations now becoming miraculously hip to the ways in which the Black community has been harmed, there must also be this realization that ‘helping’ can do further harm. I’m personally interested in seeing corporations fund ecosystems led by Black and Brown folks,” Whitney Robinson, Founder and product manager of The Renée, a lab focused on applying design and agile principles to improve maternal experiences in our lifetime, shares.
Even more concerning, in my conversations with the Founders Factory, I asked specifically and repeatedly if they would confirm that the J&J-backed company would not be a direct competitor to any of the Black-woman led companies already in development or at market to address the issue. They did not confirm.
With corporations now becoming miraculously hip to the ways in which the Black community has been harmed, there must also be this realization that ‘helping’ can do further harm. I’m personally interested in seeing corporations fund ecosystems led by Black and brown folks.
When recently asked to directly respond to the concerns of the Black maternal health founders, Founders Factory NY, Partner & CEO Maya Baratz Jordan offered this general statement:
“It’s completely unacceptable that in 2020 women are vastly underserved in healthcare. Black women in the US have worse health outcomes than any other group. At Founders Factory New York, we are passionate about supporting founders who are using technology to put an end to these preventable healthcare issues. To date, FFNY has supported a portfolio of 100% female founders, a third of whom are Black women, and many of whom are working on solutions in women’s health.”
In addition, Founders Factory NY has since removed the job post and confirmed that they hired a Black female CEO, who according to my sources, is someone who spent years in Big Pharma. Not exactly community experience.
“The obvious implication is that businesses that were built from genuine connection to the problem will have to work harder. Black women in particular will do what we always have to do: work to prove we belong in this space and create a product that is relevant and valuable to the communities we serve,” adds Robinson, who has led hackathon-style “jam sessions” country-wide to understand how Black and Brown women experience pregnancy.
While Johnson & Johnson has recently made new commitments to maternal mortality, including providing funding to the Black-woman led National Birth Equity Collaborative, it is not to be forgotten that one of the many “smoking guns” revealed in over 1,000 lawsuits brought against J&J over claims that its talcum powder caused ovarian cancer and mesothelioma (one case in St.Louis resulted in a $4.69 billion payout to 22 plaintiffs) was evidence that J&J targeted Black women, and particularly overweight Black women, for marketing its powder while knowing it contained carcinogenic asbestos.They also hid that information from regulators and the public. (J&J has maintained that its products are safe but discontinued sales of its talcum powder in the U.S. and Canada. Recent news reports say J&J will settle over 1,000 talcum powder lawsuits for $100 million and it faces a $2.12 billion settlement verdict in Missouri that was recently upheld by the state’s highest court.)
Johnson & Johnson did not respond to direct email requests for comment.
“Many large corporations that have made billions of dollars selling products to our communities that we have now learned contain toxic substances, seem to be more interested in fixing their brand image than they are with truly learning, supporting, and investing in maternal equity with community-based solutions,“ says Doyinsola Aina, whose organization also hosts Black Maternal Health Week.
Ultimately, the Black maternal mortality crisis is not for sale. In this crisis, Black women must be the solution creators, not just the consumers of corporate offerings. The Black women leaders in the community of Black maternal health say authentic listening, relationship building and investment in Black-led solutions including critical awareness initiatives such as Black Maternal Health Week and Black Breastfeeding Week, are welcome from deep-pocketed corporations and well-resourced businesses. Gentrifiers and colonizers are not. (Cue barking sounds)
Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist, former senior editor at Essence and founder of Irth (as in Birth but without the B for bias)—a “Yelp-like” app for Black and brown women to find and leave reviews of maternity and infant care providers and hospitals, launching soon. Learn more at www.BirthWithoutBias.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @iamKSealsAllers.