Empowering African Women To Take Control Of Their Health: A Kellogg MBA’s Mission

The 2019 VentureCat competition at Northwestern University. Sahar Jamal, founder of Maziwa, is fourth from the right. Courtesy photo

In 2018, a Kenyan woman dining at a restaurant was shamed for breastfeeding. The incident sparked a major backlash against taboo culture in Kenya. Soon hundreds marched in the streets with their babies, breastfeeding and picketing.

“I think there’s a lot of passion to combat some of the cultural taboos that there are,” Jamal says. “In general, the culture and community here is quite supportive of breastfeeding.

“But as most mothers know, it’s not an easy journey no matter where you live.”

HELPING MOTHERS SUCCEED — AT WORK AND AT HOME

Sahar Jamal, left, in Nairobi with Isabell, a construction site manager who used the Maziwa breast pump when she returned to work after having a baby. Courtesy photo

When Jamal began doing preliminary research for Maziwa, she discovered that 75% of American women use a breast pump, compared to only 7% of Kenyans. “I realized that a lot of pumps that were manufactured by global companies didn’t consider the work environment in regions like Kenya, or really in any emerging market where you don’t have a typical office-like setting.”

When she returned to Kellogg to begin her second year of studies, she was determined to find a solution. She began incubating the idea for a breast pump catered to women in emerging markets, and was fortunate to gain support and resources to pursue it. Now, as a team of nine, they’re making progress towards their product launch this spring; in the past 18 months, they’ve worked on sourcing the product from a Chinese manufacturer, built relationships with distributors, retailers and clinics who will sell their products, and finalized their packaging, branding and marketing strategy.

While barriers like refrigeration, electricity, discreteness, and affordability are important factors for mothers in East Africa, the team has designed Maziwa pumps to be battery-operated, rechargable, and include a portable storage cooler to help mothers transport their breast milk safely.

“Trying to figure out how to reach middle income and low income moms with different price points and through different channels has been a challenge,” she says. “I’m excited to gather more feedback from women on what they think of the product.”

Despite covid occurring in their first year of operations, Jamal is proud of her team’s efforts. “It’s been quite a journey. Given the circumstances, I think we’ve made pretty quick progress.”

RAISING $170,000 IN CAPITAL

Jamal was able to raise $170,000 to launch her business — mainly through Northwestern University — and the business’ entire incubation stage was funded by Kellogg. As part of the Zell Fellows program in her second year, she was provided funding to test out her idea. This allowed her to travel back to Kenya twice before graduating. The school’s Social Impact Group also provided some resources each semester, allowing her to apply for expense reimbursements in the testing phase. Upon graduation, she was awarded $70,000 to launch her business.

“Being part of the entrepreneurial community at Kellogg was really valuable to test my idea and have mentors and advisors to ask the right questions.”

In November 2020, Jamal became an MIT solver as part of the MIT Solve competition. Out of more than 232,000 applicants, the Maziwa team was selected as a cohort of entrepreneurs tackling social issues. She later received the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant for maternal and newborn health, and was granted scholarships that helped her to pay her tuition — a vital boost for someone planning a new business.

“If I had graduated with a lot of debt, it would have been difficult for me to start a business,” she says.

ALUMNI SUPPORT

Jamal’s been grateful for the ongoing support from Kellogg, even post-graduation.

“One of the advisors on my board is Kellogg Professor Kara Palamountain. She’s part of the NEST360 program, which is the Newborn Essential Solutions and Technology Program that’s focused on maternal newborn health,” Jamal says. “We’re working with some of her partners and some of her network here in Kenya.”

Not only have connections been gained through faculty, but also through other Kellogg MBA grads.

“Being able to access alumni here and gain their feedback on various retailers and distributors has been super valuable.”

ADVICE FOR FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS

Since taking a leap of faith to change careers, get her MBA, and start her own business, Jamal has several pearls of wisdom for other female entrepreneurs navigating a career change. Plus, as the world celebrates International Women’s History Month, women supporting women is more important than ever.

“I think for women entrepreneurs, there is a sense of imposter syndrome,” Jamal says. “Given the fact that most investment still does go to Caucasian men, it can be challenging to enter this space as a female, especially a minority.”

Her advice? Fake it ‘til you make it.

“Have your affirmations and intentions ready before you walk into that pitch. In this kind of environment, you need to flex your skills. When it comes to pitching, fundraising, and telling your story, go all out.”

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