The Best Decision I Ever Made as a College Student
This article was published in the Spring 2019 edition of Silicon Slopes Magazine.
By Mohan Sudabattula, Founder and Executive Director of Project Embrace
As a student in college, I often make decisions which I either regret immensely or take pride in. For example, I regret having yet another meal of fast food, I regret having too much coffee or energy drinks, I regret cramming for that final I had weeks to prepare for. However, founding a nonprofit with the chance to create social good…best decision I have ever made.
Sophomore year of college, I had the idea of creating a group dedicated to reducing health care disparities and increasing access to healthcare for those in need. As lofty of a goal as it is, our way of approaching it is rather simple; we collect previously owned durable medical equipment, sanitize and refurbish it, then send them to patients in low-resource settings. The types of devices we collect are noninvasive and are typically used for acute rehabilitative purposes like crutches, walkers, medical boots, and wheelchairs. As a Utahn, it’s not uncommon to hear about hiking and skiing accidents. The question becomes, what happens to your medical equipment when you are done mending? We have found that many devices are used once, and put away to collect dust, or thrown away to make room for something new. These devices may still be as good as new, they just aren’t given the chance. We tend to treat durable medical equipment in the same way as disposable medical products, such as gloves and medical wrappings. Our goal is to advocate for the reuse of these durable medical goods, to reduce waste in one community, and fulfill the needs of others. Project Embrace is a simple idea with a humbling origin.
I’m a first generation American and come from a lineage of farmers. 30 years ago, my parents immigrated from Hyderabad, India, to Ennis, Texas, where I was born (yeehaw!). I’m the oldest in my family and growing up was complicated; my parents had to grapple with the strong dichotomy of raising an Indian boy on southeastern tradition, in a new western environment. Before I learned to say “cowboy” we moved to Lexington, Kentucky and then on to the Greater Salt Lake area. I’ve been here in Salt Lake City ever since. Prior to launching Project Embrace, I traveled to India on several occasions. There was one trip in particular, when I was 10 years old, that I’ll never forget.
My parents took me to an orphanage located in the outskirts of Hyderabad, but this wasn’t a typical orphanage home like many others in the area. The Vegesna Foundation was created specifically to serve children with disabilities, to provide them with educational opportunities, physical and cognitive therapy, and a place to prosper. It was an incredible environment, staffed by incredibly caring individuals. However, as a 10-year-old, I had never seen children my own age and younger living with such circumstances. I was profoundly moved, terrified, and overwhelmed with a sense of guilt all at once. I didn’t know how to process the situation. I asked my parents why they brought me to the foundation — the orphanage founder stepped in to say my parents had donated to help build a new school for these children. My parents went on to say “the sole purpose in life is to serve others,” something that I carry with me to this day.
Jump forward ten years, to my sophomore year of college. I volunteered at a local hospital with a friend (who would go on to become a team member of Project Embrace) and noticed a good deal of excess in the form of durable medical equipment. I immediately thought back to the Vegesna Foundation and all the children they served, noticing the medical devices being thrown out were the same kind of devices that the children had a need for. It was a really simple thought: why throw these things away when there are others that could use them? Could we reuse these devices to serve others?
After a year of research, testing, and evaluating, I decided to officially launch Project Embrace. Since our beginning 18 months ago, we have collected over 900 medical devices from our local community and served hundreds of patients worldwide with our first donation campaign (the Vegesna Foundation). But it hasn’t always been that easy. As any entrepreneur will tell you, making your business a reality took a lot of patience, failure, persistence, and determination — compound that with being a fulltime student, and you can imagine just how challenging getting Project Embrace off the ground was.
What I Learned
Despite living off a diet primarily of carbs and sodium, and perpetually running on an average of <5 hours of sleep, the biggest difficulty wasn’t running a startup out of college, it was a mix of two things: one, not having any prior skills or knowledge on how to run a business; and two, convincing our community what we’re doing is worth pursuing. My team of one slowly grew to a team of eight and with all of us being full-time students, what we lack in formal training we make up for in sheer will power and passion for our cause. Between all of us, there is nothing our dynamic team can’t handle and we’ll take on every problem with a smile (and a cup of coffee in hand).
At this point, we really needed to find a way to spread our message. As a nonprofit, we couldn’t turn to the idea that we would make a significant amount of money from our cause, but instead concentrate on changing lives for the better around the world. However, trying to sell the “warm fuzzies” is difficult and can only get you so far. What we needed to do was show a real social impact that is driven by our community. People always get caught up with, “How can we make ourselves more marketable?” but rarely think about how the community feels when they use your product or service. The only reason why Project Embrace has been able to succeed is because we empower individuals in our community to make a difference, and show our community how their contribution has a direct impact on those we are serving.
Often times when it comes to healthcare innovation and design, people tend to opt out of professional conversations because they don’t feel qualified enough to contribute to the discussion. This is ironic because access to healthcare (and healthcare innovation) affects everyone — naturally, everyone should then be involved. We give our community an opportunity to get involved and by tracking where individual donations end up going, we can show our community exactly where their impact is being made. This model has helped us scale to new heights and grow at an incredible rate. As an organization, we are aiming to have a continued global impact while also focusing on how to help those in our own backyard, increasing access to quality medical for all who need it.
There have been a lot of slip ups along the road, but founding a cause where everyone feels welcome to contribute to greater health will always be the greatest decision I’ve ever made as a student.