Jet set NYCInv member Seth Cochran discusses private equity, Cornell and the women’s health issue you’ve never heard of.
When and how did you become a member of NYCInv? How often do you visit NYC?
I guess it must have been early 2009. I come to NYC as often as possible, but at least once a quarter.
How many countries have you worked in? Which continent do you prefer?
Well, in my private sector life, I sold a company in America and managed a $160m budget in Germany. I also built a factory in the Czech Republic, expanded facilities in India and China, and shut down operations in the UK, Italy, Spain and Norway. So that is nine countries in my for-profit work. On the social side of my professional existence, I have setup programs in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Brazil and funded a program in Ghana. I have also evaluated a variety of programs and facilities in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.
So, not counting conferences and speaking, I have done work in 16 countries on six continents. The best continent to get something done is, unquestionably, North America. The best work/life balance, at a noticeable cost to productivity, is definitely Europe. At the moment, I’m sort of in a “get-stuff-done” mode. Viva NYC.
You’ve had two distinct careers. Tell us why you (a man) decided to leave private equity and focus on women’s issues.
Everyone has a mother. Lots of us have sisters and daughters and many of us have girlfriends or wives. How is the health of women not of fundamental importance to every man?
The simple truth is that a desire for meaning in my life motivated me to leave a very promising career in private equity and devote my life to righting the world’s greatest injustice. When I learned about obstetric fistula, I knew my cause had found me.
The only reason more people are not outraged by the existence of this completely preventable and treatable injustice is because no one has ever heard of it. While obstetric fistula has affected American women, it has not been a known scourge in our country since a couple years after the Civil War ended. Those who know about obstetric fistula are generally passionate advocates of its immediate eradication.
At first glance, one might think a childbirth-related injury caused by insufficient access to basic obstetric services is a woman’s problem, but this is only true if you think of women’s rights as separate from human rights. I don’t. This is not a woman’s issue, it’s a human rights issue.
How does sitting on the board of Cornell's Engineering Alumni Association tie in with your current work at OperationOF?
My work with the Cornell University College of Engineering (my alma mater) is mostly selfish. I believe Cornell Engineering is the technical world’s best kept secret, and I’m doing everything in my power to inspire the humble students and alumni to be proud and get loud, or at least louder. It’s a magical place with brilliant people and a massive potential to alter the course of mankind. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true.
As to how my participation ties into my current work, I am working with several people in the College with ambitions for social innovation that range from purifying surface water to more effectively marketing to donors. Again, it’s a magical place with brilliant people who have big ideas, and I am trying to help translate some of these ideas into more material human impact.
Tell us about your work with OperationOF. What exactly is obstetric fistula?
I am a full time mama’s boy. This means that I devote every waking hour (and at least half of my dream time) to figuring out how we can keep women from dying in childbirth. Did you know that every minute a woman somewhere in the world dies while giving life? It’s almost completely preventable death.
My work focuses on the women who didn’t die in childbirth, but who might wish they had. [These women develop an obstetric fistula].
Obstetric: childbirth related.
Fistula: unnatural connection.
So exactly speaking, obstetric fistula is an unnatural connection related to childbirth. Days of unrelieved labor cut off blood supply to the baby and to the mother’s internal soft tissue causing both to die. The dead tissue results in holes (obstetric fistulas) in the walls separating the woman’s reproductive and excretory systems. So after losing her baby, a woman must live with a never-ending flow of urine that destroys her life.
I’ve never heard of this –
Imagine five days of labor that end in stillbirth. As you try to pull yourself together emotionally after this unimaginable loss, you realize that you’re constantly wet. You don’t know why, but that five days of labor made a hole in your bladder that constantly leaks urine. This hole is also known as an obstetric fistula. You try to drink less, but that makes your wretched smell even stronger. Your husband thinks you’re cursed so he leaves. No one wants to work with you because you stink. You can’t even get water because you are the unclean. You are left alone on the margins of society begging for an end to your suffering.
My organization www.operationof.org works to get these women surgically repaired and then to build them back up socially in the communities that rejected them. We train the ladies with locally marketable skills (like selling fish) and then reinsert them back into community economic development groups that we support with
microcredit. When the community group takes the loan, we ask for volunteers who work in the community to prevent maternal death and obstetric fistula from ever happening again. So we are addressing the terrible symptom and fixing the broken system at the same time.
You mentioned that since the civil war this hasn’t been a problem in America. Why don’t American women develop obstetric fistula?
A surgery developed by an American doctor in the 1850’s is 90% effective in treating fistula. In fact, America’s first and last fistula hospital stood on the current-day grounds of the Waldorf Astoria. Widespread access to emergency obstetric services made fistula a thing of the past in the USA. Access to quality medical care would end obstetric fistula in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where maternal death and disability is a huge problem. But developing these types of health systems takes generations and there are people who desperately need help.
More than 2 million women are living with obstetric fistula and there are 100,000 new cases every year. But despite an inexpensive surgery that is 90% effective, only 10,000 women receive treatment every year. That means that this year, only 1 out of every 210 women with fistula will get life recovering treatment. We need to improve these odds by both growing treatment capacity and also preventing fistula from ever occurring in the first place
How can a New Yorker get involved with your charity, OperationOF?
We need to spread the word about obstetric fistula and talking, as we used to say back in my central Texas hometown, “don’t cost nuthin.” You live next door to a million people. Tell them about our problem. After you tell your friends about our maternal health problem, ask them to give $10 to fix it. We can completely transform a life for a $200 surgery. 100% goes to the cause. Even in this economy, that’s a really small amount of money for really big change. Host a meet-up and then pass the hat so people can fill it with crisp green bills that transform lives.
As a very small organization, we are constantly in need of professional support and are always looking for skilled professionals to lend a hand. This means accountants, lawyers, and yes, even creative folks. In fact, we have perhaps the biggest need on the creative side of things.
We need to find a way to tell the bulk of the American donating public, who does not live in New York City, about a problem a world away that might include words that make them uncomfortable. We need outside- the-box thinkers to focus on messaging and New York is full of this kind of talent. If you are such a person, please donate your brain.
Favorite NYC charity event(s)? The fundraising event I have not yet hosted. It will be an explosion of creativity and emotion that will create so much empathy that you will take a moment to call your mom and tell her how much you love her.
City? Isn’t there really only one city? As for all the others, I pick Berlin to get my creative juices flowing, Hong Kong for shear excitement and Austin to grow my garden.
Travel Destination? Southeast Asia or anywhere in Brazil
Hotel? Hotel Zum Löwen in Freiburg, Germany. It’s small, it’s simple and it’s smack in the middle of one of Europe’s most gorgeous wine regions.
Restaurant? Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas
Museum or gallery? The Louvre still blows my mind every time.
Film? Heat. To me, it’s more than a gritty crime drama. It’s about balancing ambition with family.
Book? Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s magic performed with enchanting prose.
Artist? Charles “Hank” Bukowski. This guy has helped me unlock an incalculable volume of expression.
Bar? Clärchens Ballhaus. It’s like a wedding reception every time I go and I really dig that.
Top 3 songs?
This Tornado Loves You by Neko Case
Lover You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley
17 Days by Prince