16xOSU helps ease impact of obsteric fistula, learns business skills

From left: Tosten Peterson, Eric Wilson, Jack Loberg, Maverick Kressman, Keenan Basug, Weston Figueroa, Jonathon Gengler and Chris Silbernagel pose for a photo in front of Weatherford Hall. The students are part of Bomani, a group in the class Innovation Nation ­­­— Ideas to Reality, which raises funds for 16xOSU. 

Brittnee Barry, News Contributor

UPDATE: Anyone who is interested in supporting 16xOSU and their mission can purchase jewelry or stuffed animals on the 16xOSU Etsy page here (https://www.etsy.com/shop/16xOSU). For more information, 16xOSU can be reached at [email protected].


OSU social entrepreneurship program funds Ugandan women’s health, rights organization

Obstetric fistula is a childbirth injury in which a baby’s head gets stuck in the mother’s birth canal and stops blood flow to tissues. This is called obstructed labor. For women in Uganda, labor can be especially prolonged because they are typically alone and far away from medical facilities when giving birth, according to Lauren Caruso, a faculty adviser for the Oregon State University social entrepreneurship program 16xOSU. 

“What ends up happening is those tissues die, and they sluff off. This either leaves holes between the woman’s birth canal and her bladder or between her birth canal and her rectum, depending on where the blood supply was cut off,” Caruso said. “After the baby comes, it is often stillborn, and the woman is left leaking urine or feces.”

According to the Uganda Village Project website, Uganda has the third highest rate of fistula occurrences.

16xOSU is partnered with an Ugandan organization called TERREWODE in an effort to help women who suffer from fistula.

TERREWODE serves as a women’s health and advocacy organization. Specifically, their mission is to help women who have faced discrimination due to having obstetric fistula.

“When I was first in Uganda, I met a woman who had suffered from fistula for over two decades. She had lived completely isolated, withdrawn from society because of this problem that, truthfully, most of the time a simple surgery can fix. And she’s not alone, there are many women who have suffered in this way,” Caruso said. “TERREWODE, using their extensive network of community volunteers, seeks out these women suffering from fistula and ultimately helps them receive the medical care they need.”

When the women who suffer from fistula are found, they are told there is a cure for their condition, and guided through the process physiologically before TERREWODE can help them fund the surgery. The procedure varies case-by-case. Some women require one surgery, others take a few and some are considered incurable, according to Caruso.

After surgery, these women are helped to re-integrate into society, being guided through how to make money and live among others again. The students in 16xOSU focus on this aspect of recovery with their partnership. According to Caruso, 16xOSU’s origins came from her trying to find a way to connect student learning and the organization’s needs.

Caruso did an internship with TERREWODE back in 2012 and kept in contact afterward. This led to the partnership with TERREWODE through 16xOSU, which began two years ago. The partnership is beneficial in tying in student interests, talents and skills to TERREWODE’s work.

“Our students primarily partner with TERREWODE on social reintegration, helping the women develop the skills they need to support themselves and integrate back into society. Often, this is through developing trade and business skills. The students help the women launch their businesses, with some of our funding going to support the start-up costs for individual women or their cooperatives. For example, we’ve been able to purchase equipment for women making jewelry to help decrease their costs and increase their productivity. And recently, we’ve launched a campaign to raise money to purchase a knitting machine for another cooperative that is currently knitting sweaters by hand,” Caruso said.

The 16xOSU program focuses specifically on the social side of business so students can learn essential skills, according Caruso. Caruso works with the students of 16xOSU in finding and learning about sustainable business models to self-support the programs.

“(It was) founded on the idea that for every dollar you invest in education, you get 16 times the return on the investment. It’s a club on social entrepreneurship,” Caruso said. “Our interest is in how we can use entrepreneurial skills and business models to help solve societal problems in a sustainable way.”

Sandy Neubaum is the director of student engagement for the College of Business at OSU. She helps students understand business concepts that use these social models on a bigger, hands-on scale. She teaches a series of business classes where students are in charge of generating profit and deciding what to do with it.

“We made the decision to select an organization that we could commit to for several years.  This allows us to not only raise funds but to support an NGO, or non-governmental organization, business model. Over the past 10 years, we have raised micro loans for NGOs in Guatemala, Nicaragua and in 2015, began to work with TERREWODE in Uganda. The project has three key components. Firstly, freshmen in the College of Business run microbusinesses during winter and spring term. Secondly, profits from the microbusinesses are used to support programs for TERREWODE including a microloan program from women suffering from obstetric fistula and thirdly, OSU students travel to Uganda over the summer to work with TERREWODE to manage the microloan program,” Neubaum said via email.

There are several different projects going on to help Ugandan women start their own businesses, through the introduction of models and product ideas. One of these projects include selling handmade elephants and giraffes stuffed with raw cotton. They are made out of a fabric that is easily accessible to Ugandans, according to club member Lily Beck.

“They are really beautiful and natural feeling. They aren’t super cuddly, but they’re durable,” Beck said. “The colors reflect the place they came from, which makes them meaningful. The fact that they are handmade makes them all unique and have a personality.”

Another item these women sell is handmade paper-bead jewelry sourced from old magazines and papers from local schools. OSU students assist in designing these pieces to make them more marketable.

“The first time we returned from Uganda, we brought back sample products to conduct market research and determine what people would purchase. We found that many of the products we brought back would not sell as is, so the students helped design styles they believed would sell here in the United States. They’ve also worked on finding secondary markets and distribution channels for these items. We purchase the products from the women, providing them with a job and then we sell them (in the U.S.), the profit of which goes back into our work with TERREWODE,” Caruso said.

They also wanted to create products to help women with fistula directly. For example, one project they are working on is creating locally sourced reusable diapers, accounting for cost and reliability for leaking, according to Caruso. This would also create another product line and source of income from families with children, elderly people and others who may need to use them. The project itself was inspired by talking to the women in Uganda. One woman in particular really influenced their thinking regarding the project by telling them all she wanted were some Pampers so she could participate in society without worrying about leaking, according to Caruso.

“That was a huge learning experience for us because the answer was surprising and unexpected. It helped expose a problem that we didn’t know existed and motivated us to potentially find a way that we could fill the need,” Caruso said.

College of Business students specifically get to handle and participate in the funding for their projects. Club member Hannah Triplett has been running one of the businesses created to help give funds to TERREWODE.

“I am very excited to see the monetary results of having all of these businesses donate toward the cooperative. Since I am also a part of 16xOSU, I have further interest in where the money is going to be used and the difference it will make among the women in Uganda,” Triplett said.

The club incorporates other colleges and networks outside of OSU as well. Any individual can get involved. They have students working from a humanitarian engineering standpoint, working on a goat’s milk project. There are also education majors giving input on a youth camp that was created to teach young girls about fistula and help them develop their own dreams and aspirations through education, according to Caruso.

The only way to make the partnership work overall is to help keep the organization going.

“TERREWODE does incredible work and we want to be able to support them. Our goal is to help find sustainable revenue streams for them so that they can continue doing the work they do,” Caruso said. 

What 16xOSU does for TERREWODE is figure out what these women want specifically and how OSU students can help meet those goals.

“We understand that the communities we are working in are not our own communities. That’s why our priorities come from the communities themselves. We work very closely with TERREWODE as our on-the-ground partner. They are the experts, we are not,” Caruso said.

16xOSU goes further, to look beyond TERREWODE’s basic wants to help them evolve further economically, according to Caruso.

“When we go, we ask questions to see if there are other needs that maybe they don’t think of asking us,” Caruso said. “Students return to campus with TERREWODE’s priorities and work on the projects year-round as part of the student club.”

16xOSU’s project lead, Erica Baldwin, is one of those developers.

“One of my main experiences with 16xOSU was traveling to Uganda last summer to work with the women and staff of TERREWODE to improve it as a business and an organization. The people are easily some of the most hardworking I’ve ever met,” Baldwin said.

Being a part of 16xOSU is helping OSU students change lives, according to Neubaum.

“The idea behind this project is to educate OSU’s business students on the impact of social entrepreneurship throughout the world.  By the end of the spring term, most teams will have generated profits close to $500. That $500 has the ability to change a woman’s life in Uganda. Understanding that business has the ability to change lives is an important conversation to be have with our students; it’s empowering for an 18 or 19 year old to realize they have the ability to affect and influence change. And while most of them will not travel with us to Uganda, the simple message that their actions can change lives is incredibly powerful,” Neubaum said via email.

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