Jane Chen knew that, for her low-cost baby incubator to save lives, moms would need to love it. But she had no idea that one of the world’s most famous moms—Beyoncé—would become one of her biggest supporters.
Last week, Beyoncé announced a $125,000 donation to Embrace Innovations, Chen’s organization that makes the low-cost infant warmer, which looks like a tiny sleeping bag. The donation will fund testing of the device in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda — and could help 1,900 underweight babies survive and thrive. This donation, announced at an anniversary party for Gucci’s Chime for Change, was the domino effect of Chen stepping on to the TEDWomen 2013 stage.
At TEDWomen, Chen gave an update on Embrace — and admitted that she and her team had missed something in their original thinking on the device. Jane Chen: A warm embrace that saves lives (Watch her 2009 TED Talk, “A warm embrace that saves lives.”) At first, she and her team imagined that local clinics and hospitals would give the baby warmer to new moms. But after observing in the field in India, Chen’s team realized they couldn’t count on overworked health workers to teach new moms how to use the baby warmer. They needed to make Embrace easy enough for moms to use it on their own to protect their babies. As Chen says, “A mother will do anything to save her child.”
Chen went back to the drawing board, getting more input from mothers this time. The team simplified the directions, making them easy even for people who can’t read. They also rebuilt the temperature gauge on the device, after noticing that some caregivers, assuming that Western medicine was too extreme, were setting the temperature too low to work. As a result of this observation, they swapped out the temperature dial, and replaced it with a green ready-to-use light. Another design tweak allows a mother more skin-to-skin contact with her baby.
After presenting this reframing at TEDWomen, Chen was approached by Robert Triefus, chief marketing officer of Gucci, and Susan Chokachi, Gucci’s senior vice president of marketing and communications.“They told me they had taken a trip to Malawi with UNICEF and seen the desperate need for incubators firsthand,” says Chen. “They were interested in helping Embrace in some capacity.”
About a year ago, Gucci launched Chime for Change, a global campaign led by Gucci Creative Director Frida Giannini, Salma Hayek and, yes, Beyoncé. Chime for Change supports projects—so far, about 300 of them—that promote education, health and justice for girls and women around the world. They arranged a call with Chen.
Chime for Change uses a crowd-funding platform to raise money for projects. The group decided to post a project that Embrace Innovations was planning with the Millennium Promise, which works to untangle the interrelated challenges of poverty in villages in 10 African countries. They set their goal at $25,000 to bring Embrace to three Millennium Village sites in Mali, Kenya and Uganda.
“Susan and I had multiple calls over the next few months to move this all along. She’s been an incredible champion,” says Chen. “And Frida Giannini — Chime for Change is her brainchild. She said to me that as a mother, what we’re doing is particularly emotional for her.”
Earlier this month, Chen got word that Gucci was planning a one-year anniversary event for Chime for Change in New York City, and that they’d be donating 10% of proceeds from three days of sales in their flagship store to a group of four organizations, including Embrace’s partnership with the Millennium Promise. (The other recipients: Shining Hope for Communities, Girls for Gender Equity, and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking.) On Tuesday, June 3, Chen glammed herself up and headed to Gucci’s Fifth Avenue store. “As soon as I walked in, I noticed dozens of photographers taking pictures of someone—I couldn’t quite tell who it was,” she says. “Turned out that it was James Franco.”
But the most exciting part of the night was Beyoncé’s donation.
Earlier, it had been announced that a mystery donor was giving $500,000 to the four organizations—$125,000 of it to Embrace’s Millennium Promise partnership. The donor, of course, turned out to be Beyoncé, who arrived in a white jumpsuit. (Yes, you can care about the world and still appreciate fabulousness.)
“She told me how incredible she thought the innovation was. I think what struck me was how sweet and genuine she was—and just so excited about our work,” says Chen. “One of my most memorable moments was getting to dance with her after we spoke.”
Chen also felt instant camaraderie with Beyoncé’s publicist. “She was in tears,” says Chen. “She had a premature baby, and her sister did as well. Given her first-hand experience, she truly understood.”
With the gift, Chen will be able to pilot Embrace in seven more villages, bringing the total to 10, and bringing the device into an additional seven countries. Chen hopes that big things could come of this. “We want to get on the radar of the governments in these countries, which can help scale this even further through getting it into the public health infrastructure,” she says.
Overall, this experience has been both unexpected and delightful for Chen.
“I love fashion and have always been a Gucci fan,” says Chen. “Given the work they’re doing, I respect the brand even more now. I’m hoping I can convince them to do a Gucci version of our baby sleeping bag.”