Pooja Upadhyaya: Mobilizing Health Founder

As a high school student, Pooja Upadhyaya had an eye-opening experience working as a medical volunteer in Mumbai, India. While tagging along with a doctor and a nurse to set up clinics in different slum areas, she couldn't help but wonder about the people she had helped—what happened on all the other days when a doctor wasn’t present?

A few years later, as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, Upadhyaya heard about student entrepreneurs who used text messaging in developing countries for healthcare. After speaking with many of them, she was inspired to start her own nonprofit, Mobilizing Health.

Using SMS text communication technology, Mobilizing Health connects villagers to licensed medical practitioners in India.

“How it works is that we train what we call village health directors in numerous villages, and we try to find people in the village who want to give back to their community, are literate and are able to send text messages,” Upadhyaya said. “They send their text messages to a Mobilizing Health number that we have in India, and what we do is we log that on the Internet securely and forward it to an available doctor who’s in the city adjacent to their village.”

Last year, the organization piloted the platform with 8,000 people in 10 villages in Rajasthan, India, and also successfully connected 64 patients, preventing life-threatening situations.

Despite its successes, getting the organization started wasn’t an easy task, as Upadhyaya had to face a number of unexpected challenges.

“We were supposed to partner with an NGO there.” she said. “For six months before we were in constant contact with them—calling and emailing the director every other week, and making sure we were on the same page. And the moment that we reached that city and they picked us up—I don’t know what went through their heads, but I guess they saw that we were kids, [which] triggered something in their head and they didn’t want to work with us anymore.”

Despite that unfortunate obstacle, Upadhyaya refused to give up. She hired two project managers and determinedly visited hospitals in India, explaining Mobilizing Health’s platform and posing the idea to them.

“Now as we move forward, the goal is to actually make partners and create partnerships with organizations in India who work on healthcare and want to reach out to more people in their attachment area,” she said.

In terms of advice she’d give to young people with ideas, Upadhyaya says to be prepared to face skeptics and surround yourself with people who are excited about your idea. She also stresses the importance of reaching out to others.

“From the beginning until now, what I kept doing was trying to meet people who were more experienced, even in the most random ways,” Upadhyaya said. “Even if they’re just a corporate executive, trying to find them and connect with them and letting them know, ‘Hey, I’m a young entrepreneur and I’d love your advice;’ that definitely opens a lot of doors.”

Next up, Upadhyaya wants to take some time to focus on herself, albeit in the least selfish of ways.

“My future plans are actually to go to med school,” she said. “I want Mobilizing Health to be a self-sustaining organization that I can pass on to someone who is able to work full-time on it, and is also as passionate about it as I am.”