Melissa Hanna isn’t the typical Silicon Valley startup founder.
She’s a woman, and a Black woman at that, and she didn’t have the kind of connections that would catapult her company to success.
“I’d face a lot of people who took one look at me and didn’t think that I could build a million-dollar or a billion-dollar company,” Hanna said to Atlanta Black Star in a recent interview.
But that’s exactly what she built in her maternal and infant health company Mahmee.
The company has raised about $4 million in seed investments, including a $3 million investment from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and tennis star Serena Williams.
The app works by connecting new mothers and pregnant women to resource guides, web support groups and providers who can help them in childbirth and parenting processes.
Mothers and expectant mothers can search lactation consultants, doulas, doctors and therapists. They can pay $10 a session for video support groups on breastfeeding, and they can even call a number on the app to be matched with health professionals near them.
Hanna said her goal was to provide a comprehensive solution that would help improve maternal mortality rates in America.
“It’s not a one time fix,” she said. “It’s an ongoing effort that has to be focused and continued.”
Hanna cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics that show about 700 women die in the U.S. each year from complications of pregnancy. Black mothers die at a rate that’s 3.3 times greater, and three in every five of those deaths could have been prevented.
“Even though I did not have a lot of connects in Silicon Valley, I was not concerned because I knew that Silicon Valley was not going to solve this problem,” Hanna said.
Real women treating and advising other women were, and Hanna already had one of the most important connections she needed for her company to thrive. That was with her mother and co-founder Linda Hanna, a lactation consultant and nurse for 41 years.
She pioneered a breastfeeding center that, although started in an about 10-by-10 foot space akin to a hospital’s janitor’s closet, became the model for Kaiser Permanente hospitals up and down the West Coast.
Linda Hanna started the program in the mid-’80s when she noticed some mothers needed more support learning to breastfeed than they would get from a hospital lactation consultant only assigned to them a few times after giving birth.
“She really fought for this,” Melissa Hanna said.
And when she was successful, she expanded the program and connected mothers and expectant mothers with resources serving moms with everything from nutritional needs to anxiety and parenting concerns.
Linda Hanna and her team were able to build a model for comprehensive maternal health care that started with pregnant women and continued in the months after they had their babies.
The problem was it was housed in hospitals.
“My mom she’s known for taking care of everyone and anyone,” Melissa Hanna said. “Her philosophy has always been one of inclusion and meeting patients where they’re at.”
Many of her patients didn’t stay at the hospital very long.
“They’re at home. They’re in their communities. They’re at the hair salon. They’re at the nail salon,” Melissa Hanna said.
Then, she started thinking maybe an app could bridge the gap, so she launched Mahmee with her mom and engineering executive Sunny Walia as co-founders.
Only, it wasn’t nearly that simple.
Hanna and her team spent a year researching, developing and building the app.
“We didn’t launch the first version of the platform until the end of 2015,” she said.
That’s more than a year after the company was founded July 7, 2014.
“So it’s been a long process for us,” she said.
There were times when Hanna even doubted she had enough connections to pull the project off, but she said along the way she established key partnerships.
Marlon Nichols, founding managing partner of Cross Culture Ventures, introduced her to Arlan Hamilton, one of few black female venture capitalists, who would go on to become one of Mahmee’s lead investors.
Hamilton is managing partner of a joint venture investment fund with Cuban.
“For me the most validating part of this chapter of the company is that we’ve been able to bring together some of the biggest names in the country to focus on these really important issues,” Hanna said.
For her, Mahmee is about saving lives.
“We need to raise the standard of care for all families,” Hanna said, “because we’re not doing right by families right now as a country.”