Meet The Black Entrepreneur Working To Save The Lives Of Birthing Mothers And Their Babies

Lesliey Welch has seen it firsthand. She was in the hospital room in Detroit when her sister-in-law’s premature son died shortly after birth. Which has also experienced it himself. She had her own premature baby who survived, adding to the horror and heartbreak of a late miscarriage.

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Welch, being black, knows the grim statistics. In the for-profit, hospital-centric American healthcare system, black infants are 2.3 times more likely to die than white babies, and black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.

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Welch, a former Detroit public health official, also believes she has a solution: midwives working in free-standing birthing centers that provide pregnant women with hands-on, culturally relevant care. It’s a cheaper alternative to midwives who deliver babies in hospitals, and because midwifery is based on personal attention and advocacy for expectant mothers, it promotes healthier births. Welch co-founded a birthing center in Detroit and enlisted the help of an impact investing fund to channel capital into birthing centers across the US run by and for people of color.

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“Maternity centers and midwives treat childbirth as a normal physiological process of life that does not typically require medical intervention and surgery,” Welch said forbes. “Research confirms that 80% to 87% of us can safely give birth with midwives in a community environment. But in the US we’re doing the exact opposite, and that’s no coincidence.”

The average cost of childbirth in the United States for large insurance plans is $18,865, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, with the price averaging $14,768 for vaginal births and $26,280 for cesarean births. In birth centers, average cost is $8,912.

According to a landmark 2018 study by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, babies born in birth centers are 25% less likely to have a preterm birth than babies who receive typical Medicaid care.

Still, the vast majority of US births today take place in hospitals. Of the approximately 400 birthing centers that operate, less than 5% are run by Black, Indigenous or Colored people. There have been efforts in state legislatures and Congress to expand access to birthing centers, but today many are boutiques, with the main clientele being more white and educated.

“For too long, our reproductive health care has been inaccessible and unfair, particularly to our black, brown and other marginalized neighbors,” said US Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts forbes in an email instruction. “Self-contained birthing centers can provide specialized and culturally congruent care that is exactly what our communities need.”

Welch is taking a two-pronged approach to ensure underrepresented communities are not excluded from the Birthplace movement. The first is in her own backyard with an organization called Birth Detroit. It is currently providing perinatal care and will not begin delivering babies until construction of its birthing center is complete, likely sometime next year. Part of its commitment is that no one who needs services will be turned away, Welch said.

The second attempt takes place in the backyards of others. Welch runs an organization called Birth Center Equity, which aims to provide capital and working capital for birth centers in the United States run by people of color. Since its inception in 2020, it has spent or committed approximately $1.1 million, including funds that have helped establish birthing centers in Colorado and Washington state.

The goal is to raise $100 million over 10 years, Welch said. “Sixty million dollars could open the 19 birthing centers under development and put 11 others in a position where they don’t have to lose money to serve their communities,” she said.

There doesn’t seem to be any others National birthing centers’ efforts have focused on people of color, said Sirina Keesara, director of outpatient services, obstetrics, midwifery and gynecology at California-based Alameda Health System, who studied birthing centers as a fellow at Stanford University.

“Many people of color are most interested in out-of-hospital births, particularly because of the issues around trust and a sense of security in places of care,” said Keesara, who is not a member of Welch’s initiatives. “And so having a certain fund to open places where [Black, Indigenous or people of color] Making communities feel safe is really important, I think, and a unique aspect that needs to be encouraged.”

Welch said she’s trying to make birthing centers work without the constant fundraising. So she teamed up with an organization called Full Spectrum Capital Partners to help raise finance from parts of the finance industry that are largely lacking in this space, such as: B. Venture Capital.

Ruben Hernandez, one of Full Spectrum’s founding partners, said he met Welch in 2020. She sought advice on how startups focused on social and environmental causes could look beyond philanthropy when it comes to funding. Full Spectrum now has a $20 million demonstration fund whose investments include social justice fund managers whose top priority is impact, targeting returns of 1.3x to 1.4x over 10 years. Full Spectrum has committed to investing in a company called Orchid Capital, which will invest in Birth Center Equity.

Hernandez said investors could earn returns by, for example, putting some equity in a birthing center building or receiving a coupon on low-interest debt.

“Most of the money that goes into a community of color with major social issues comes from philanthropy, followed perhaps by federal or state grants,” he said. “How can we combine philanthropy, soft lending, private equity, venture capital and hedge funds in one space, working together and supporting people like Leseliey?”

Welch said she believes a well-diversified funding base can help improve access. She said birthing center research, as well as post-pandemic interest in culturally responsive care and post-George Floyd racial calculus in 2020, helped ignite the birthing center movement for people of color.

“What I stand for is the ever-growing mountain of data along with the authority of lived experience and the demand of the community that says, ‘This is what we want and this is what we need,'” she said.


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