What do three women from three different parts of the world have in common? On the face of it, very little.
That was certainly the case for Spanish-born Clara Mapsens, Panama-born Natalia Villarreal and Tanzania-raised Zainab Dakik.
However, the circumstances that brought them together have had a profound impact on the women’s healthcare industry.
The three met for the first time at Vlerick Business School in Belgium and they hit it off right away. Each decided to pursue a master’s degree in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
However, the paths that lead them there are very different.
Mapsons had already worked in Brussels and had a clear idea of his career goals.
Villarreal is passionate about being ahead in business – understanding the market, how to break into it, surviving financially and constantly striving to innovate.
Dakik has been working for her family business in Tanzania during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is where I started looking for a master’s degree in business, and more specifically business development for a family business,” she shares.
“What attracted me to Vlerick Business School was the hands-on learning experience it provided in such a short period of time compared to other programs I found.”
As one of the few international students in the program, the three women were introduced to each other on the first day of classes.
They feel connected to each other because of shared values and a curious mindset.
“When embarking on a project on such a specific topic, you see people are eager to explore less traditional career paths,” explains Mapsons.
“Having a similar mindset is already a strong foundation, which adds a strong passion to pursue projects with high social impact.”
Together they leveraged their Vlerick Business School education to create Maternia — An initiative to address the global tragedy of stillbirth and improve women’s health.
Creating a better environment for pregnant women, raising awareness of women’s health inequalities, and creating a better environment for all is a powerful mission.
How the Vlerick School of Business united three women in a meaningful cause
Business schools are often considered the birthplace of many of the world’s most successful companies. Vlerick Business School is no exception.
It was here that Mapsons, Villarreal and Dakik came up with the idea for Maternia.
“The program was initiated in an academic context, specifically during a startup accelerator, where students can present and develop ideas throughout the year,” Mapsons said.
This is a project close to the heart of Spanish graduates. She previously spent two years working for women political leaders in Brussels.
During this time, she was involved in high-impact programs at the World Bank, UN Women and the International Monetary Fund – which brought her into the light of pressing issues in women’s health.
“Scarce information about women and their bodies has blinded us to the science for a long time. It’s not surprising to see the women’s health industry moving slower than other industries,” she said.
“This lack of data ultimately leads to wrong policy interventions or ambitious programs with unsustainable outcomes.”
One such area is the issue of stillbirth, which Mapsons communicated to Villarreal and Dakik during the Accelerator program.
With time and research, each of them has seen how collaborative healthcare can make a real difference in resource-limited settings.
Together, they came up with the idea to develop a medical device for pregnant women with low socioeconomic status to monitor a fetus’ heartbeat at home. They call it “Materia”.
Over time, however, three graduates of the Vlerik Business School discovered that what they thought were just classroom projects couldn’t be ignored.
“The more research we do, the more we understand the reality of the stillbirth problem, especially in developing countries,” Dakik said.
“We started looking at why, and how Maternia’s device could potentially reduce stillbirth rates by providing more timely information to expectant mothers.”
According to Mapsons, they have an ambitious plan to support prenatal care in a country with alarming maternal and child mortality.
Find strength in diversity
A shared passion for improving the healthcare industry for women drove the trio to join forces.
Ultimately, though, it’s their differences that are the winning formula that makes Maternia stand out.
“Not only do we come from different places, but we also understand the world we live in and our surroundings,” Dakik said.
Originally Lebanese, she grew up in Tanzania and witnessed inequalities in women’s healthcare.
“In rural areas, many women still rely on naturopaths and community midwives. Western medicine is hardly accepted except in more urban areas,” Dakik said.
“This often results in limited safe space for women to share in the trauma of pregnancy complications and stillbirth.”
Studying politics in Lebanon further exposed her to the systems and structures that contributed to these inequalities.
Villarreal’s experience, on the other hand, stems largely from her sister, a doctor, after witnessing relatives and close friends struggle to access quality pregnancy care.
Her international business education background in Taiwan and Germany further showed her the differences in healthcare delivery across continents.
“Having a multicultural team can only add value if you’re going to innovate in a disruptive way,” Mapsons said.
Realizing this, they leverage cultural differences to achieve a strong and more inclusive program.
“We always surround ourselves with diverse races and backgrounds to ensure more voices and perspectives are included in developing tailored solutions,” Mapsons said.