By Priya Iyer
Our partner, Everyday Ambassador, originally published a modified version of this post.
I come from a family of pioneers. Similar to the American pioneer, my family moved west, but from India to Kansas.
My sister and I were born and raised in Kansas, and we lived with my maternal grandparents and parents, unlike the nuclear families in our neighborhood. Although we were one of the few immigrant families, I was oblivious to the ways we were different until I started school. Kids mocked the color of my skin and the ‘bindi‘1 I wore, a relic of the lives my parents had left behind. One family at our school even left copies of the Bible on our driveway in the hopes of converting us. As an extremely shy and introverted child, I internalized this treatment and began to view myself as “an other.” My feelings of being ostracized evolved into an empathy, and then a drive to uncover the potential of marginalized communities.
I followed this drive to find my career path, despite strong protests from my parents. They thought I should choose a career that offered economic stability. This singular focus is what allowed them to create opportunity for us in America. However, their hard work gave me the luxury of choice. I eventually pursued my own interest, a career in global health.
My career first took me to Guyana where I ran a national health program at the Ministry of Health. I often spent hours talking to people in remote communities to understand how they lived and interacted with health services. In one community, I learned that pregnant women with complications were being sent on hours-long boat rides to the nearest hospital while in excruciating pain. Ministry of Health officials hadn’t interacted with some of these communities to improve services for years, yet money was readily available. Several aid agencies worked with the Ministry, but rampant corruption and bureaucracy prevented this money from reaching its intended beneficiaries. Under-served communities seemed to be an invisible factor in the equation of aid. They were being treated as the “other” with no say in shaping their own lives.
Time and travel taught me that this did not have to be the status quo. I decided to take action, and Tulalens was born.
Tulalens, in a nutshell, is a Yelp for health clinics in under-served communities. If organizations such as Yelp and Amazon successfully crowdsource information on restaurants and clothing for upper- and middle-income communities, we wondered why we couldn’t do the same for critical services in low-income communities.
Our ultimate aim is for communities to be part of a solution that helps them make informed choices on where to seek health care. Our focus is currently pregnant women living in urban slum areas in Chennai, a city in my ancestral state in India. So far, we’ve reached 900 women. 80% of these women were aware of only one health clinic in their community, and none of these women had information on the quality of clinics in their community. They often returned to clinics where they received poor care.
One young woman we spoke to told us that a security guard at the health clinic took her infant from her. He forced her to pay a bribe–her entire life savings–in order to get her baby back. Despite this, she returned to the same clinic for care because she didn’t have information on the location or quality of other clinics in her area. I was appreciative of her courage to tell strangers her story. She didn’t want our pity. She wanted a solution, and we were able to provide that.
This solution is the crowdsourced information we share with women on the overall quality – infrastructure, access and provider quality – of the clinics in their communities so they can seek care at better clinics in the future. Within a month, 20% of women who used our service have switched to a higher quality health clinic, 41% have advocated for better services at their current health clinic, and 92% have discussed the information with their husbands.
We have no roadmap on how to build Tulalens. Instead, we’ve built and will build based on listening and experimentation. We use our values as our compass.
1 A ‘bindi’ is a red dot worn on the forehead of women in South Asia. It can have many meanings ranging from decorative to religious.