Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling women entrepreneurs who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways. Video by Sue Williams.

It was a low moment for Laura Stachel. She was lying on the couch, in so much pain that she could no longer eat dinner sitting up, let alone continue her career as an obstetrician.

“Basically, I had this incredibly busy life, with waiting lists of patients to see me and doing deliveries through the night,” says Stachel, who was diagnosed with a degenerative spinal condition. “I was very active, and everything stopped.”

Lighting Childbirth

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Laura Stachel.

That was in 2002. Today, Stachel is the globe-traveling co-founder of We Care Solar, a social enterprise that manufactures solar-powered suitcases that provide power to maternal health facilities in Africa, Asia and other regions of the world that lack reliable electricity.

Her nonprofit organization aims to prevent the loss of mothers — and babies — who “are delivering in conditions that would be unimaginable to most of us,” she says. To date, We Care Solar has lit the birth of about 2 million babies, saved countless lives, and won numerous accolades for its humanitarian mission.

[Related: Listen to podcasts about women in social entrepreneurship]

A Career Change

All of that might not have happened if Stachel had been able to simply continue her career in obstetrics. After experiencing “searing pain” while performing a Caesarean section, doctors told Stachel, then 40, that the bones in her spine were like those of a 70-year-old woman — and to boot, were pinching the nerves to her arms. She was forced to quit work and began trying physical therapy, acupuncture, massage — anything that would help her regain function.

After about a year, Stachel was able to sit up. Getting back to her old job wasn’t in the cards since use of her arms was compromised. Instead, she decided “to pursue something that had been a dream,” she says, and enrolled in University of California-Berkeley’s School of Public Health, specializing in maternal health care. “I had no idea that at that time, 500,000 women were dying every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth,” she says. The revelation “was something that was very, very troubling, and something that I wanted to learn more about.”

While at Berkeley in 2008, she was invited by an anthropologist to join a project studying hospitals in northern Nigeria to figure out why the country has one of the highest maternal death rates in the world. In general, women in developing nations face higher death rates because they often attempt to give birth at home. Then, when complications arise, they might not immediately recognize that there are problems, and when they do, they may be too far from a facility that can help. An early decision to seek medical help is a critical one, but “in Nigeria, a woman doesn’t have the power to make that decision,” Stachel says. “It’s actually her husband that needs to make the decision.”

The Berkeley project in Nigeria was further investigating why so many pregnant women, once at a hospital, were still dying — as many as 8 out of 150 who delivered per month. “I was told, ‘you’re already a doctor … just sit and observe and see what you can see,’” says Stachel, who flew to Abuja, Nigeria, and spent 10 to 14 hours a day watching high-risk deliveries.

The conditions shocked her. “I hadn’t anticipated … that a hospital serving a city of 1.5 million people couldn’t have electricity more than 12 hours of each day,” she says. “Midwives were trying to perform life-saving care using candlelight or kerosene lanterns.” She witnessed health workers sticking cell phones in their mouths so they could have a source of light and keep their hands free.

One particular night remains seared in Stachel’s memory, when midwives tried to save a pregnant women experiencing eclampsia, a condition where high blood pressure causes seizures. The woman’s lungs rattled with each breath, and her kidneys were shutting down. “And the room was in pitch darkness,” says Stachel, who sat in a corner, wondering why she was there. “It occurred to me that these women are basically dying in silence, that nobody’s telling their story, and that maybe the reason that I was there was because I do have access to resources and I could tell their story.”

[Related: How to Seriously Make a Difference Through Your Work]

Designing a Solution

Stachel consulted with her husband, Hal Aronson, an environmental sociologist who had an interest in renewable energy. He offered to design a large solar electric system to help the hospital workers. Less than 2 weeks after she returned home from Nigeria, Stachel entered a Berkeley competition that offered a grand prize of $12,500 for a technological solution to a social problem. “We needed funds,” she says.

They didn’t win. But one of the judges was impressed. He called Stachel and asked how much she’d need for a solar electric design for the Nigerian hospital. “I immediately doubled the amount that the competition was for, because I knew that wasn’t quite enough to do the whole project,” she says. Within 3 weeks, the judge had secured $25,000 in funding from the university’s Blum Center for Developing Economies. “And we were on our way,” she says.

The couple designed a small demonstration kit that could fit into a suitcase to show Nigerian hospital workers what a large-scale solar power system could do for them — and much to their surprise, the doctors immediately asked for the kit. “They said, ‘you don’t understand. This could help us save lives right now,” Stachel says. She left the kit behind. 

Nearly a decade later, what was once a demonstration kit has become We Care Solar’s Solar Suitcase, a portable unit that has been used to power critical lighting for deliveries in more than 3,500 health centers around the world. Each bright yellow suitcase comes with solar panels, a lithium battery, LED headlamps, a phone charger and a fetal Doppler. We Care Solar works with partners to install the systems and train health care workers on how to use and repair it.

Managing Health

Despite her own health issues, Stachel has worked doggedly to scale We Care Solar, which today has a 12-person staff and $5 million annual budget. In the beginning, she had friends come over to her house, to assemble suitcases in her backyard. As a doctor, she had little experience in managing a business, let alone building a nonprofit committed to fixing conditions in obstetrics units in more than 30 countries around the world.

Like many entrepreneurs, she learned quickly to be relentless about raising money. In 2010, after being rejected the first seven times she applied, Stachel finally won a $725,00 grant from the MacArthur Foundation to develop a Solar Suitcase that could be replicated at scale. She used the funding to hire an engineer and began working with a factory near San Francisco to manufacture the suitcase. Funding comes from individual donations, foundations and corporations.

Dealing with degenerating discs in her back hasn’t been easy: “I have a very strange way of sitting in airplanes” that basically involves curling into the fetal position, she says. But the work has provided more than enough reason to keep going. Early on, We Care Solar was one of three winners of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s “Half the Sky” contest. Stachel was named a CNN Hero in 2013 and has been featured on ABC News, PBS Newshour and other programs.

“I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world,” she says. “No woman should die giving life. We Care Solar is changing that.”

[Related: Why a Lawyer Quit Her Job and Built 72 Schools for Kids Living in Poverty]

Read Full Transcript

Laura: Around the world, 300,000 women are dying every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. They are delivering in conditions that would be unimaginable to most of us.

TEXT: Laura Stachel – Co-Founder + Executive Director – We Care Solar, Berkeley, Calif.

Laura: We Care Solar is bringing a reliable, sustainable source of electricity packaged in a small suitcase. It has lighting. It has power for communication devices. It has a fetal monitor.

SOT: This is a solar panel that fits inside the solar suitcase.

Laura: It has everything that's needed by midwives and doctors to be able to perform care around the clock.

Laura: My first passion was actually in the arts. At a very young age I was taking dance classes, piano lessons. There's a funny story that one day I came home and tried to sing for my mother, and I said, "Mom, don't I have a great voice?" And she said, "No, thank God, we can't afford any more lessons."

TEXT: Laura went to Oberlin College to study piano.

TEXT: But in her first year, she had an ovarian cancer scare that changed her life.

Laura: As an 18-year-old, that was a pretty traumatic thing to go through. And I just kept asking questions. At one point my doctor said to me, "If you have so many questions, why don't you become a doctor?" And literally, the next semester I took my first premed class.

TEXT: Laura went on to medical school in San Francisco.

TEXT: In 1985 she became a private obstetrician.

Laura: I met Hal Aronson in 1999. It was complete chemistry from the moment we met. He was creating solar education programs for youth. He was always experimenting. We had solar equipment from one end of the house to the back.

TEXT: In 2003 severe spinal problems forced Laura to stop practicing obstetrics.

TEXT: After a year of rehab, she decided to study public health at UC Berkeley.

Laura: I entered a program for maternal and child healthcare. I had no idea at the time that so many women were dying from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

TEXT: In 2008 Laura conducted research on maternal mortality in Nigeria.

Laura: I had anticipated that the hospital might not have a lot of the supplies I was used to. What I hadn't anticipated was that a hospital couldn't have electricity more than 12 hours of each day. It means that midwives were using candlelight or kerosene lanterns. It meant that doctors were rushing to do C-sections during daytime hours.

Laura: There was one night where I was watching as a woman was fighting for her life. Her kidneys were no longer functioning. She was unconscious and the room was in pitch darkness.

Laura: And I was in the corner of the room saying, "Why am I here right now?" And it occurred to me that maybe the reason that I was there was because I do have access to resources and I could tell their story.

TEXT: When Laura returned home, Hal offered to design a solar electric system for the hospital.

Laura: He created a kit that was pre-wired that I could pack in my suitcase and basically take back with me as a demonstration kit to show the doctors, "Here's what we're thinking. These are the kind of lights we're thinking about. We're going to bring walkie talkies. What do you think?" And so he had to make it small enough that I could smuggle it through customs in Nigeria, and that's how we started out making a suitcase-size system.

Laura: Well, I unpacked the suitcase, and the doctors not only appreciated it, they said, "Can you leave this here?" I said, "No, no, no." And they said, "You don't understand. This could help us save lives right now."

TEXT: Laura left the prototype behind.

TEXT: Word about the suitcase spread fast.

TEXT: More clinics and hospitals asked for them.

TEXT: Hal and Laura kept adjusting and improving the design.

SOT: And this is the plug we usually use.

Laura: In 2010, I got a call from the World Health Organization, and they said that they were doing a project in Liberia, and they needed to equip 20 health centers with lighting and power, and they asked whether or not we could bring the Solar Suitcases. Now, I was thrilled that the World Health Organization had called us, but we had never made 20 of anything.

TEXT: Laura incorporated We Care Solar as a not-for-profit the same year.

TEXT: She found an engineer to design a suitcase that could be replicated and manufactured at scale.

SOT: These lights have been designed to be good enough to do surgeries, and they’re very powerful.

Laura: We make a really robust product, but we need to think about the people part of the equation. How do we make people not afraid of this technology? How do they use it? If they can't fix it themselves, who can they call?

SOT: If you want to put it and you have to off the switch, why?
-Why? To make it more safe.

TEXT: A solar suitcase costs about $3,000 per clinic.

SOT: This light uses four watts.

Laura: We provide the education. We provide the training, and then we provide the support so that after we go we'll know these solar electric systems will be lasting for years to come.

TEXT: Laura raises the annual budget of $5 million from individual donors, foundations, and corporations.

TEXT: We Care Solar has 12 staff in the U.S. and Africa.

Laura: Each time there's an issue, we get to make a decision. Can we help? Somebody said, "Well, what about the earthquake in Haiti?" Then someone said, "Well, what about Rwanda? What about Nepal? What about the typhoon in the Philippines?"

TEXT: The organization has equipped more than 3,500 health facilities.

Laura: I want to get to the point where we no longer need a We Care Solar, where every health center has the power that's needed to save lives and that women can have safe childbirth wherever they live. I feel like I'm the luckiest person in the world, trying to solve a problem that I believe we can solve in my lifetime.

TEXT: We Care Solar has lit the births of nearly 2 million babies.

SOT: There you go, you’re getting all wrapped up. So this baby is about five minutes old. Yeah, welcome to the world, little one.