Alumni Profile: FemTech Founder Kimberly Seals Allers (CAS ’96) [She/Her/Hers] is Taking the Bias out of Birth
July 15, 2021
Kimberly Seals Allers (CAS ’96) [she/her/hers] was enjoying a successful career in journalism when she became a mother. After experiencing firsthand the racial disparities in maternal health and wellness, Allers began examining pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood through her journalistic lens.
She authored three books geared toward women and mothers. She became an internationally sought after speaker. She became an advocate, creating on-the-ground, community-led solutions to birth and breastfeeding disparities, such as co-founding Black Breastfeeding Week (link opens in new tab). But the more stories she heard and told, the more she wanted to do.
With support from her STEM-inclined teenaged son and app development classes at NYU Stern, Allers founded the media and technology nonprofit, Narrative Nation, Inc. From that venture, she created Irth (the name derives from the word “birth” but dropped the “b” for bias). Irth is a review and rating app for Black and brown women and birthing people to find and leave reviews of OB/GYNS, birthing hospitals, and pediatricians. The app’s goal is to address racism and bias in maternal and infant care and bring transparency and public accountability to the medical system.
Allers, who as a student was one of the first-ever Black editors for the Washington Square News student newspaper, has long been a trailblazer. During her tenure, she started the first column focused on Black issues on campus. Thus, it’s no surprise she’s continued to use her skills to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“I still remember being on the crowded elevators in the CAS building going to class and seeing people reading my column or talking or debating about what I wrote. It gave me my first taste of speaking up for my community and how I could use my writing skills and my voice as a platform to advocate for change. That thrill never left me!” (Links below open in new tabs)
Tell us about Irth and how you shifted your career as an author and journalist into the tech space.
I think one of the most important things we can do with our education is to create the life we want for ourselves—including off ramps, on ramps, and pivots.
I had a great career in journalism. I was a writer at Fortune magazine, I covered Wall Street at the New York Post and later at Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Times, in London. I was also senior editor at Essence. But like many women, when I became a mother, everything shifted for me.
When I was pregnant, I became very interested in the socio-cultural landscape for pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, especially around Black women and the racial disparities in pregnancy and breastfeeding outcomes—not to mention the maternal mortality and morbidity rates. So for me, I applied a journalistic framework to these issues and started asking questions and researching answers; that inquiry led to my first book, The Mocha Manual to a Fabulous Pregnancy (Harper Collins, 2005). I left Essence to pursue this work and create digital products and services for Black mothers.
I started with a parenting website and editorial consulting work, then later developed community-based, participatory-research projects in several U.S. cities with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Over the span of eight years of running these projects (for me participatory research is like reporting; I knocked on doors with a team and asked questions!), I began hearing frequent stories of Black mothers who died during childbirth, nearly died, or experienced a spectrum of disrespect, poor treatment, and trauma. I heard these stories in Detroit, Birmingham, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York City; every place I worked, it was the same. I knew that I had to do something.
As a journalist, my first thought was to create a story bank to capture these experiences and share them publicly. But I thought back to my own birth experiences and decided to think even bigger. So I founded Narrative Nation, Inc. and through it, created Irth. Irth has dual market uses and on the back-end, we turn qualitative experiences into quantitative data to identify patterns and trends and work directly with hospitals and providers so they can improve their care of Black and brown people.
Interestingly, when I had the idea for Irth, it began as a “mommy & me” project with my son, who is a huge math, science, coding, and engineering kid. We do not speak the same language! But I thought this would be a good way to bridge our worlds and for him to teach me coding and app development. In return, I could show him how his skills could help mothers and families.
We started by attending free app development classes at the NYU Stern School of Business and those classes helped us develop our first wireframes. Next, we used those wireframes to start pitching in competitions and hackathons. Our first hackathon win was at MIT in 2018. My son, who was 14 at the time, was there pitching and working with me and, from there, we were able to get support and funding. So I am thankful to NYU for helping my son and me on this journey!
How did you become interested in the socio-cultural and racial complexities of birth, breastfeeding, and motherhood?
The health and well-being of mothers and babies are a reflection of society: its values, norms, and principles. When you look at the landscape of America as it relates to maternal health, policy support for mothers, etc., none of it looks good. We live in the only industrialized nation that still doesn’t offer a federal paid leave and our overall maternal mortality rates are on par with third-world countries. I often say, motherhood changed my life, and now I work to change the motherhood experience for all. Especially for Black mothers, like me, who have the highest risks and worst outcomes, even regardless of education and class.
As I mentioned, when I was doing research during my own pregnancy, I was shocked by the statistics I discovered. I was shocked to learn that education and income are not protective factors for Black women as they are for white women. Black women, regardless of socio-economic status, are twice as likely to have a low-birth-weight or preterm birth. Black women are 243% more likely to die during or after childbirth, and the Black infant mortality rates are equally unacceptable.
At the time that I was researching, the answers were quite inadequate. And I was scared. In New York City, the Black maternal mortality rate is currently up to 12 times that of white women. Twelve times! Then I ended up having my first child while I was finishing up grad school at Columbia. I thought I did a lot of due diligence on where to deliver, I checked media reports on "Best of" hospitals, I looked at local parenting blogs and listservs, I spoke to work colleagues; I was excited about my first birth. But I ended up leaving the same hospital so many raved about feeling traumatized and disrespected. I had a C-section I still can't fully explain, my baby was given formula against my wishes when I repeatedly said I was breastfeeding, and I had to fight to have my baby with me. All things that I was told were the standard practice of care, but I had to fight for them.
Yet at that time in my life, I was not yet married and I was in grad school and therefore on student insurance. And I was treated like an unwed Black woman with basic insurance. It was really a gut punch because it never dawned on me that people were not being treated the same way, even at the same place, and that reading the recommendations of a group of predominantly white Upper East side moms would not be helpful to me as a single Black mother.
By the time I had my second child, I began to write books on the issues of pregnancy and childbirth and later led participatory research work in Black and brown neighborhoods across the U.S. I realized that my experience was like so many others and that too many Black women were dying because of who they are, and even more were nearly dying and being treated disrespectfully. I created Irth so we, as a community, could see how others like us reviewed a doctor or hospital as a tool to inform each other and to start holding doctors and hospitals publicly accountable for our care.
Quite frankly, I created Irth because I wish I had it when I gave birth. On a broader level, as a business journalist by training, I am fascinated by the intersections of economics, commercialization, societal norms, and how they impact all areas of motherhood. My fifth book, The Big Letdown: How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding explores how these issues intersect to influence how women choose to feed their babies and the implications of that.
How did your NYU education contribute to how you approach your work?
Being trained as a journalist on the streets of New York City; working at Washington Square News, which at the time when I was there, was a 100% student-run daily newspaper; writing for Brownstone (the African American magazine); and having access to great professors—all of these experiences gave me the grit and skills to not only be a determined journalist but also the confidence to be anything I wanted.
How do you stay motivated to advocate for maternal and infant health? Also, how did the events of 2020, among them the focus on social justice and the Covid-19 pandemic, impact your work?
I admit, sometimes it is tough. I think what really inspires me is knowing that Irth is an anti-racist tool. It is designed to identify, address, and dismantle racism and bias in maternity and infant care. To be building a product that is so needed right now is incredibly motivating.
Every day, I am reminded why we need Irth and far too often there is another headline of a Black maternal death, many right here in our own city and especially during the pandemic. That keeps me motivated to push past barriers and challenges and keep looking for more grant funding, donations, and everything else I need to take Irth to the next level.
The other great impact for me as a leader was learning how to lead through the twin pandemics—Covid and the racial protests—I am proud that Irth was built by an all femme, people of color team, with 90% of my staff being Black. But with the pandemic disproportionately hitting our communities and then the murder of Ahmad Aurbery and George Floyd, etc., I could not continue with “business as usual” as a founder and leader.
So the first thing I did was shut down work for two weeks. My team needed restorative time. I too, as the mother of a Black son and a daughter, was traumatized and chose to lead with honesty and vulnerability. I learned my greatest lessons as a leader through managing my Black and brown team through this unprecedented time. (I wrote more about this for LinkedIn during Black History Month.)
What are you most proud of, and what’s one thing you haven’t tackled yet that’s still on your to-do list, short- or long-term?
While creating the Irth app, I am so proud to have created the first national database to house the birthing experiences of Black and brown women. And that I get to live a life of service to my community and the motherhood experience.
But I am most proud that my children have witnessed me charting my own path. It hasn’t been easy. They have seen me bounce back from divorce and build a business that supports us while doing work I love. They have traveled the world with me as I do this work. That gives me immense joy.
Short-term, I’m still working on that elusive work-life integration and more consistency on my self-care routine. Also, on my short-term to-do list, I have yet to travel to Africa and I want to do that. Long-term, I hope to work myself out of a job. Meaning that the racial disparities that I work to eradicate will be eliminated and my daughter and my daughter’s daughter will one day know these issues as part of history.
My mid-term goal is that Irth becomes the "good housekeeping seal of approval" for Black and brown women, such that doctors and hospitals desire to or are required to earn Irth approval. And Black women will be able to leverage their consumer power to, whenever possible, use doctors and hospitals who are Irth-approved. Although we are prioritizing Black and Latinx birthing people in the app right now, one day soon, I hope that all women, and especially white women, see Irth as a tool for allyship. I hope that they too will use Irth reviews in their own decision-making—letting their providers know that if they are not treating Black and brown folks well, they refuse to go there either. Hopefully, all women use our collective consumer power in service of those who are being disproportionately harmed and killed by the medical system. That is my long-term vision.
The world looks much different for today’s college students than when you graduated. If you could give one piece of advice to NYU’s newest alumni, the Class of 2021, what would it be?
The world looks incredibly different, including the world of journalism, which looks completely different.
I would say, create work that means something to you and remember that your degree opens up the possibility of many paths. What you chose is up to you. When people say, “I can’t believe you left Essence magazine or such a great career to be an entrepreneur,” I say, ‘Yes, I used to be the editor of a magazine, but now I get to be editor-in-chief of my life.’ My advice: Go for being editor-in-chief of your life.
Share your most memorable moment(s) from NYU.
Actually, my greatest memories of NYU began in high school. NYU hosted an Urban Journalism Workshop that was led by the National and the New York Association of Black Journalists for high school journalists. I was on my high school newspaper at Cardozo High School in Queens when I applied and was accepted.
That meant I got to live on NYU’s campus for several weeks over the summer producing a newspaper. At that time, it was the greatest experience of my life and gave me my first taste of NYU. I knew after that summer program that I wanted to attend.
Years later when I was accepted, it was great to see NYU journalism professors that I had met in high school. I was able to walk in buildings I already knew because of those weeks I spent on campus. Later, at a high point in my journalism career, I was invited back to be an adjunct professor in the Journalism school and this became my greatest memory. Now, I stood in front of the same classrooms I sat in when I was in high school teaching others—that was amazing!
During my time as a student, my greatest memories were all the stories I wrote for Washington Square News, the way I fought for myself in the student newsroom that had zero diversity—that was hard but it made me tough and it gave me a dose of what I would face in the real newsrooms and magazine offices as a Black woman. So when I look back, I am thankful.