June 13, 2014 4:29 pm

Mothers of innovation

Mobilise the power of motherhood and you can change the world, argues a new report

When Molly Melching’s daughter Zoe was 12, she came home asking whether she could be “cut” like her friends. Zoe is American but had grown up in Senegal, where Molly worked; she wanted to know why her mother wasn’t doing this important thing for her. Everyone said it was a test of courage; did Molly think she wasn’t brave enough?

Molly had worked in development in Senegal all her adult life but had always avoided addressing female genital mutilation (FGM), feeling that it was too secretive, too sensitive. Plenty of other people had tried to stop it without success and, as a white American woman, she felt she had no right to get involved. But the fact that her own daughter had asked about it changed that.

Melching is one of 25 mothers featured in Mothers of Innovation, a research report to be launched at a conference in London this week. I began investigating mothers as innovators after meeting women from mothers2mothers, a movement seeking to stop the transmission of HIV to unborn babies. Soon afterwards, I heard about a scheme in which mothers were getting together to improve educational outcomes for children from deprived backgrounds in Turkey, with remarkable results.

It struck me that if you invest in mothers, you get a multiplier effect; mobilise mothers and there is power to change the world. Yet innovation is typically thought of as something that happens in special places, probably involving young men. Overlooking mothers in this context matters, because innovation accounts for more than 60 per cent of growth in the UK, according to Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation, yet we are under-innovating to the tune of an estimated £38bn a year. Social innovation – in health and education, for example – is estimated to have as much potential to add value as the great social reforms of the 19th century.

Molly Melching

Molly Melching began providing information on FCG after her own daughter asked if she could be 'cut'

Once her own daughter was implicated, everything changed for Melching: she felt that she had both a reason and a right to address female genital cutting (FGC). She doesn’t call it mutilation, which she believes implies disdain and makes people defensive about what is, for them, a 2,000-year-old article of faith, without which a young woman is demeaned.

“I have lived in Senegal for 40 years and I’ve never met a mother who wants to hurt her child. When you have a social norm that people think is good, you simply make people angry if you tell them it’s bad. The reason people were cutting their daughters was so they would be loved and respected and be able to get good husbands.”

The programme Melching had been working on in Senegal, Tostan (it means “breakthrough” in the local language, Wolof), provides value-neutral information so that villagers can draw their own conclusions. She extended this to FGC. Women in rural Senegal had never had the opportunity to look at their own anatomy. They weren’t aware that using an ancestral knife that has been buried in the ground to cut a girl’s clitoris might give her tetanus. They’d had no information with which to counteract the stories that haemorrhaging was caused by illness or bad spirits.

Eventually, 37 women in one village made a public, voluntary declaration that they would no longer practise the tradition of FGC. They were not struck down by misfortune. Today, more than 5,000 villages in Senegal have repudiated FGC, and Melching’s work has spread to neighbouring countries.

Melching’s success, like that of the other women in the report (three of whom are profiled below), shows that many of the skills of motherhood are also characteristics of good innovators: strong values, empathy, the ability to make connections and build relationships. We found mothers innovating on every continent, commercially, socially and economically, in tech, as entrepreneurs, in health and education, changing the way we work.

Some are creating innovations for other mothers, like Marlene Sandberg, who set up Naty, a biodegradable nappies company. Some are innovating for the market as a whole, like Mar Alarcón, who set up Social Car, a peer-to-peer car-sharing service in Spain. Others are mobilising mothers to create social change. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu makes shoes out of recycled tyres and local cotton in her native Addis Ababa and sells them online to consumers all over the world; soleRebels, the business she started in a shed in 2004, generates $6m worth of internet sales and she has opened 11 branded stores around the world.

Mothers are at the sharp end of some of the most pressing issues we face in the 21st century: health, education and care for the old and the vulnerable. As the women in the report show, there is a need for innovation, and mothers have the capability.

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The ‘Mothers of Innovation’ report, published by Family Innovation Zone and funded by Nesta, will be launched at a conference at Microsoft UK in London on June 19. To register, go to eventbrite.co.uk/e/mothers-of-innovation-conference-tickets-10907738339

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Ronni Kahn

Australia: Founder of OzHarvest

Ronni Kahn, founder of OzHarvest©Jessica Lindsay

Ronni Kahn ran an events-management company in Sydney for 20 years and was dismayed by the amount of food she wasted and knew other organisations must be wasting too. One in 200 Australians is homeless and 60,000 low-income working families regularly go without meals. Australians throw away 3 million tonnes of food – 136kg per person – every year.

When Kahn, a mother of two, started talking to people about her idea to rescue wasted fresh food and distribute it to those who needed it, “a thousand people told me they’d thought of it and not done it”. But Kahn wasn’t afraid of failure and she was persistent.

It was hard to raise money (even though she quickly persuaded a leading bank to sponsor her) and to find organisations to distribute or use the food. Eventually, in its first month – November 2004 – OzHarvest delivered 4,000 meals. Today it distributes 160 tonnes of perishable food a month and has 550 agencies all over Australia. It uses volunteers to deliver the food – from supermarkets, hotels, catering companies and so on – and is backed by corporate sponsors and individuals.

“There is no doubt that motherhood is one of the guiding influences for me,” Kahn says. “I have two sons and one of the drivers to create OzHarvest was to create a role model, a legacy for them. What’s more, the whole culture of OzHarvest exists like a family – we are non-hierarchical, we share a lot of the best motherly instincts.”

Kahn joined the dots between her idea and practical action. From a small and far from unique idea, she has changed a system fundamentally.

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Dorcas Inyele

Kenya: HIV mentor

Dorcas Inyele

Dorcas Inyele found out that she was HIV positive at the same time she learnt she was pregnant. She was afraid for herself, for her unborn baby and of telling her husband. There was little discussion of HIV and Aids in Kisumu in western Kenya, where she lives. It felt, she says, like the end for herself, her child and probably her marriage.

That was five years ago. Inyele was fortunate; a decade earlier in South Africa, mothers2mothers had begun, a movement of mothers helping newly diagnosed women prevent transmission of HIV to their unborn babies. Even after antiretroviral drugs became available in South Africa, women often didn’t take them; there was a huge stigma attached to diagnosis. “Women needed help on their terms, not ours,” says Mitch Besser, a Harvard-educated obstetrician and gynaecologist, who arrived in South Africa in 2000.

Besser happened to see a mother who was already taking antiretroviral drugs talking to another woman who had just been diagnosed. He realised that patients could be a resource, the providers of medical care. HIV-positive women who had successfully avoided transmitting the virus to their babies became mentor mothers, working with the newly pregnant women, encouraging them to disclose their status to their families, sticking with them in the aftermath.

Despite resistance from the medical establishment, the system of mutual self-help took off. When Inyele was given her diagnosis, mentor mothers helped her disclose her status to her partner. “I thought I might die; I thought my partner would leave.” The mentor mothers talked about their own experiences, “and that gave me hope and the courage to go home and tell my family”.

Inyele’s child is now five and virus-free. Inyele in turn became a mentor mother. Today, mothers2mothers operates at 399 sites in six countries, with thousands of mothers in the field.

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Alice Taylor

UK: Founder of MakieLab

Alice Taylor, founder of MakieLab

Alice Taylor was head of digital media for teens and tweens at Channel 4 when she found herself at a conference in a New York hotel where a toy fair was also taking place. “I had one of those moments,” she says. “The toys were upstairs, the digital stuff was all in the basement.” It wasn’t just a physical separation, it was philosophical: she remembers a delegate asking Michael Acton-Smith, the man behind the phenomenally popular Moshi Monsters, if children wouldn’t be better off playing outside with a hoop and stick.

Acton-Smith pointed out that when children were outside, they might well have a screen in their pockets, just as when they were inside they might well be carrying around a toy. The industries, in other words, made a distinction where children themselves made none.

Taylor began thinking about whether she could bridge the gap. In 2011, she set up MakieLab to devise online games whose avatars could be produced on 3D printers as physical toys. As households increasingly acquire their own 3D printers, children will be able to print off their own avatars. In the meantime, dolls to a personal design can be commercially printed almost overnight.

Even before the online game is available, more than 1 million Makies, as the dolls are called, have been created; the Makies Doll Factory app, says Taylor, has been downloaded 270,000 times. Part of the thinking is that the dolls should be the antithesis of Barbie – Taylor has a daughter and was determined to make a doll that wasn’t “freaky or anorexic”. There is also a boy doll.

Bestselling dolls typically take four years to get from concept to shelf. Millions are spent on marketing and retail space. From her workshop in Shoreditch, Taylor is combining something as old as human culture – a doll – and networked technology with the aim of changing an industry.

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