Marta Milkowska, CEO & Co-Founder, Yoni.io
“Technology can’t solve everything but, if used well, can scale up impact.”
Marta is at Civic Hall this summer as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence, as part of her work on operationalizing yon.io – a digital guide empowering women to take control over their sexual and intimate health and wellbeing. She describes the focus of her fellowship, as “using design thinking to conduct research with women and medical practitioners in order to understand the behavioral, sociological and emotional healing journey of women experiencing pain with sex and map gaps in the system across the continuum of care.”
Marta has over eight years of experience in building and implementing technology and social enterprise innovations in the service delivery space. As a former Social Enterprise Specialist at the World Bank Innovation Labs, she was instrumental in designing innovations in ~$330M investments in education, healthcare, and financial inclusion across Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Marta also founded several social ventures leveraging technology and behavioral economics for social good, including Dignify, a mobile platform linking refugees to digital micro-work which was a global finalist for the $1M Hult Prize. Her portfolio includes a machine-learning risk prediction tool for HIV and TB patients in South Africa and Lesotho (with a health-tech start-up Dimagi) and a fintech mobile app leveraging behavior insights to help young U.K. citizens save money.
Marta is currently a MBA – MPA Candidate at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Harvard Kennedy School, where she pioneered the first Harvard Social Innovation Studio.
What Does She Do?
“The personal is political.” Out of a feminist manifesto first published nearly fifty years ago in February 1969, the phrase is often misconstrued to narrowly refer to electoral politics. According to its author, Carol Hanisch, the “personal” informs our power relationships.
Marta is the CEO and co-founder of yon.io – which she launched in response to her own experience. Since the onset of menstruation she recalls, “I had been experiencing pain with sex since I can remember — I couldn’t use tampons — in my genital area. And, going through OB-GYN’s, they all said that I’m crazy and that it’s in my head.”
After years of suffering in silence, she met a sexual health doctor in D.C. who diagnosed pelvic floor dysfunction and referred her to a physical therapist. After 4 months of physical therapy and self-work, she was completely treated.
“Over the last four years I had been gathering women all over the world — since I am lucky to have friends in other countries — and I began to realize that this problem is grossly underreported and massively undiagnosed. Doctors don’t know how to diagnose, and women don’t speak up either because of stigma, or wanting to protect their partners. What I also learned is that this is a global issue. Everyone — either in Chile, Poland, India, or here in the U.S. thought, “It’s only because I am [insert your culture].”
Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that up to 75% of women experience pain with sexual activity at some point in their lives: “Pain with sex is up there in prevalence with migraine and low back pain, and yet it is woefully understudied and rarely discussed.” This summer, as part of a fellowship with Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program (and support by the iconic Our Bodies Ourselves ) Marta’s been interviewing women in order to study their psychological and emotional journey’s and begin a conversation that touches most women.
The goals of yon.io are both poignant and tangible: “Help every woman to understand that she is not alone and broken. Help women who don’t need clinical help, but can be empowered to help themselves through access to technical information, breathing, stretching, and mindfulness exercises.”
A quick shout out from Marta for “Come As You Are”: “I buy the book for everyone I know!”
How Did She Get Into This Work?
Marta was born in the late 1980s, marked by the ascension of Solidarity and Polish independence in 1989. Her father was one of Poland’s first wave of entrepreneurs. At the 25th anniversary of his company, she heard their first-hand testimonials. How her father had paid for their out-of-pocket medical costs and had offered many employees second chances. She understood, then, that he wasn’t just about giving people jobs, “He was changing community.”
While her DNA for business was likely passed on from her father’s side, her mother was a tireless advocate in the church, and an activist. Marta remembers holding her first fundraiser for a dog shelter – at the age of seven. While Poland is currently again at a precipice — back then it had aspirations to give everyone an “even starting point” where healthcare and education are concerned.
“At the age of 7, I decided I wanted to work in Africa because of the missionaries in my Church. In a weird way, I never strayed. For me, I went to business school to understand the world better.” Marta did ultimately find herself working in Africa, although it was at the age of 23. For 8 years she worked with the World Bank on local social innovators in Africa and South Africa.
What Project(s) Is She Working On?
With yon.io, Marta is keen to leverage her work in social innovation — specifically, to find the intersection of behavioral change and technology: “Technology can’t solve everything but, if used well, can scale up impact.”
Through hundreds of interviews, Marta has learned that there are many journeys for women: “Most talk (if they even do) to an OB-GYN or see a primary care doctor first. Many get a dismissive answer. Other specialists that are (and in some cases should be) engaged in the diagnostics can include urologist, GI specialist, uro-GYNs, as well as nutritionists, and fertility specialists.”
Marta points out that while Dignify was easy to fund, yon.io — which she thinks has a better business model — has been far harder to raise capital for. She is a great fan of New York’s Women of Sex Tech Meetup, and notes that since most of the investors are male, that yon.io confronts “the challenge of working on an issue which men will never be able to experience.”
How Did She Come to Civic Hall?
Marta learned about Civic Hall though Prof. David Eaves at KSG, who served as the first Director of Education for Code for America. He, in turn, introduced Marta to Civic Hall co-founder Micah Sifry.
Last month Marta was able to attend Organizer-in-Residence Aneta Molenda‘s Digital Organizing workshop: “I am a HUGE fan of hers! It was extremely useful to learn about the tools of digital organizing, especially the role of Facebook. How can we use FB to find, support and organize women who suffer? She had a followup meeting with me as well, where she kindly advised on the narratives, marketing, website design, and some organizing toolkits.”
What Is Her Ask of Civic Hall?
Marta will be offering an upcoming “hands-on” workshop, Reclaim Your Sexual Health. The workshop will include exercises designed to reconnect to the body and around communication, including art activities, where participants can literally draw their experiences, including their pain. If you are interested in participating, you can write Marta here and will be contacted when there is a confirmed date: email@example.com
On the more granular level, Marta has two asks: She welcomes any contacts to major media for yon.io’s public awareness campaign. And, she’d appreciate website feedback from one of our community’s many graphic designers as her org prepares to launch its NGO-side website to raise awareness.
Finally, Marta makes this tender: “If anyone — woman or man (some clinics report that as much as 40% of their patients are male) — has pelvic floor pain, or just pain during sex, please feel free to reach out to me in confidence.” Please reach out to her directly.