Serena Williams Invests in Organization to Tackle High Black Maternal Death Rate

American mothers are dying at an alarming rate. Despite being one of the most developed nations in the world, we have a death rate of 17.2 deaths per 100,000 live births, and around 500,000 women are severely injured due to childbirth each year. And for Black women, the numbers are even more horrific: Black women are three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related complications as white women, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC also notes that three out of five of those deaths could have been prevented.

So what can we do about it? There’s no silver bullet for solving the high maternal death rate — factors include maternal health, doctors not listening to women, structural racism, and a host of others.

However, one company, Mahmee, is trying to tackle it head-on. Founded by Melissa Hanna and recently funded by Serena Williams’ Serena Ventures investment fund, Mahmee connects both baby and mom’s health history and data. The app also connects new moms with experts they call “maternity coaches” and refers to them to doctors if any red flags come up. Williams recently joined Mark Cuban to invest $3 million to fund the start-up company.

Hanna says that while Mahmee is for all moms, there are features that she, as a Black woman, has included specifically for Black moms.

“Maternal mortality statistics in the U.S. reveal what many women have felt for a long time: Our health care system is not listening to mothers, and particularly Black mothers, which has a lot to do with differing standards of care based on race or perceived socioeconomic status," Hanna told The North Star.

“We specifically train our network of practitioners on what we call ‘culturally-competent’ care, so that our team knows how to listen to different mothers’ lived experiences, take their concerns and symptoms seriously, and escalate them to a physician’s attention so that they can get the proper care.”

Marna Armstead, Executive Director of SisterWeb, a peer doula organization in San Francisco that primarily serves lower income Black and Latinx mothers, says that the medical industry is only recently starting to understand the long term physical effects of racism on Black people. And for Black mothers, those effects can be deadly.

“We talk a lot about structural racism being a factor,” Armstead told The North Star. “Racism is experienced as a long term trauma on the body. The stress of everything caused by the umbrella of racism includes inadequate housing, food, shelter, unstable relationships, inadequate transportation.

Imagine if you lived your life in a state of stress over where you were going to live; what you were going to eat; how you’re going to get anywhere; if you could get a job; how you’re going to get to and from the job in a timely manner on public transportation that doesn’t adequately serve your area.”

Armstead’s organization works to alleviate some of that stress by providing in-person support to lower income mothers-to-be and new mothers. And Mahmee wants to support groups like SisterWeb. The platform aims to connect a woman’s entire team — from doulas and midwives to nurse and doctors to lactation consultants to social workers to anyone else involved in the long process of pregnancy, birth, and infancy — so that everyone has the same information.

“In most parts of the country, the pregnancy and postpartum experience is not actually treated as a single episode of care,” Hanna says. “What this means is that even though we all have the same goal — to ensure a healthy mom and a healthy baby — the whole process is sort of broken down into parts, rather than be seamlessly connected together. If the care isn’t connected together, the providers aren’t either, which means that no one has a ‘full picture’ of mom and baby’s health.

And, if it’s hard for those providers to see the full picture, it’s hard for them to solve medical problems quickly and prevent others from occurring.

“Because of this faulty foundation in maternity healthcare, race and class bias are absolutely magnified,” Hanna continued. “Add to the equation the findings that show that we are not listening to women, and particularly women of color, and you get these terrible statistics around maternal death and injury.”

Mahmee’s numbers speak for themselves. To date, the platform has identified and escalated over 1,0000 critical care issues, including sepsis, postpartum psychosis, and postnatal hemorrhaging. In all of those cases, the Mahmee team was able to identify the problem and connect the mother to (sometimes lifesaving) care.

About the Author

Emma McGowan is a veteran blogger, SFSI-endorsed sex educator, and Bustle's sex advice columnist at Sex IDK. Her work has appeared in Bustle,, Unbound, Mashable, Broadly, The Daily Dot's The Kernel, Mic, Bedsider, and The Bold Italic. Follow her on Twitter @MissEmmaMcG.