While the story of charting a new path born from failure is a common experience for many entrepreneurs, Madison has faced an unusual amount of adversity in her journey. This is the story of the adversity she faced and how it helped her develop not only an unusual amount of ingenuity and resilience, but also a framework for decision-making based on second-order thinking that led her down her current path.
Iyanu and the Emergence of a Core Mission
In 2018, Madison founded a startup that aimed to help source talent from Nigeria and place them in jobs with companies abroad using information technology. Statistics showed that Africa was an underrepresented and often ignored destination in terms of US jobs outsourcing, and Madison recognized right away that sourcing skilled labor across the continent could improve people’s lives by democratizing access to greater opportunity.
Iyanu, with Madison as CEO, was completely bootstrapped and faced the quagmire of any business trying to scale human capital. Iyanyu could only operate as fast as talent could gain access to the internet and skills training.
Additionally, in talking to the many women in Lagos whom Madison was trying to help through Iyanu, she realized that the barriers were even more formidable for females taking new jobs or uplevelling skills in training programs. They were not just defying ingrained cultural expectations, but risking serious safety concerns.
Madison knew this obstacle for women was not specific to Nigeria. In the academic and tech fields that she herself had occupied, she personally felt that in order to excel or break through the glass ceiling as a woman, you first needed assurance of freedom from bodily harm.
"Women do belong in these spaces. They not only belong, but are entitled to feel safe in these spaces. And what does this safeness mean? That women are not going to be victims of belittlement, harassment, or sexual assault by nature of being there."
But how can someone tackle something so massive as the "devastatingly pervasive" violence problem against women, with global figures from the WHO citing 1 in every 3 women experiencing violence?
By thinking big. By thinking in orders of magnitude.
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Searching for Second-Order Effects
Madison looked up to other visionaries like Tesla or AirBnB coming out of tech, because the impact of their success on the business side translated beyond profitability into massive cultural and ideological shifts. These companies managed to change inherited behaviors and establish new truths. In a way, their second-order cultural effects were perhaps even more powerful than their first-order economic impact. In search of this type of impact, Madison was inspired by her experience speaking to the women she worked with in Nigeria. She realized that she wanted to build a product that could engender similar second-order effects by building a service for women to feel safer.
"I figured if you could fix the sexual assault and harassment problem, the second-order effects of it would be so huge. It would mean that women could have confidence and profound support entering workplaces they didn't historically populate."
In other words, she knew that the second-order effect of creating safer working environments for women would be to massively unlock human capital for economies and economic opportunity for women.
MeToo Kits: Timely, But Fraught
Madison’s next venture was in 2019, a year defined by swirling public accusations by women coming forward in the press about systemic sexual predation across multiple professional sectors.
The cascade of voices and stories was deafening for Madison, who connected personally with these stories as a survivor of sexual assault herself and as a determined advocate for gender equity.
It was during this period that Madison entered the Alchemist Accelerator along with her technical co-founder Liesel Vaidya from Iyanu with a new MVP in mind: the aptly named “MeToo Kits.”
They launched a Squarespace landing page to host their idea of designing self-administered DNA collection kits, much like thesexual assault examination kits (SAEKs) for survivors of sexual assault available in some hospitals. The majority of sexual assault survivors do not go to the hospital - or law enforcement - to receive care following sexual assault. Leda Health aims to address the care gap by providing more pathways to care and healing in an effort to meet survivors of sexual assault where they’re at.
While it’s routine to launch a landing page to float an idea past VCs, Madison and her co-founder got "blasted” with 16 Cease and Desist letters (from people including the Attorney Generals of Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, and New York), five subpoenas, and written opposition from 16 members of Congress long before there was any product to show for. There was an uproar on Twitter, and members of the press published thinkpieces accusing the MeToo Kits of ‘profiting off of sexual assault’ or offering a product that would make evidence inadmissible.
However, Madison would not back down from her belief that survivors have the power to take back control over their own bodies, and in doing so, take measures to ensure their own safety. With unrelenting resolve, Madison spent the last two years riding the wave of controversy while developing her kits with the help of lawyers, nurses, and fellow sexual assault survivors.
"There are many individuals who have come to me in earnest to let me know that our product, had it existed when they were assaulted, would have changed their entire perspective. These are the people I remember when our business is met with scrutiny. While I’d very much like to get on the phone and chat with all of our critics in order to hear their concerns, I’m ultimately more focused on getting survivors the support that they deserve in whatever way they see fit."
Actively attuned to feedback from survivors, Madison started to realize that fixing the evidence collection portion of sexual assault would not be enough. She wanted to build a venture-scale company and solve a big enough problem that the impact could meet her vision.
Scaling Up From Spotlight Product to Holistic Health System
Over time, Madison began to realize that she had to tackle the whole aftercare system for sexual assault survivors if she wanted to get meaningful traction and have an impact. She rebranded to Leda Health, a name that alludes to the Greek myth of Leda, mother of Helen of Troy, who was raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan.
"Leda Health is representative of an inclusive and holistic support system for sexual assault survivors. It covers a much wider array of methods to promote healing than MeToo Kits, and it represents our overall growth as a company.”
Leda Health implements technology to empower sexual assault survivors at every stage after an event. They offer a suite of products and services that support the survivor’s needs when time is of the essence.
Leda launched their first service in response to Covid-19 over one year ago. Virtual Survivor Healing Circles use telehealth to connect survivors with trained sexologists and trauma-informed holistic healers in small groups. They meet online for 6-8 weeks to explore healing after sexual assault through sex positivity, yoga, art, dance, therapy, drama, poetry, and other modalities, all under the guidance of trauma-informed healers and with the support of fellow survivors.
Leda is still developing a DNA collection kit which would help survivors who cannot access a hospital - or choose not to - to collect time-sensitive DNA after an assault.
The kit will be coupled with telehealth, extending live support to survivors immediately following their assault, in addition to access to important services, like Plan B and at-home STI testing. Leda is also developing a portal, much like Google Maps, to help survivors locate the closest in-person resources, like hospitals and domestic violence shelters, without the burden of research. Leda’s goal is to expand the options available to sexual assault survivors in an effort to meet more survivors where they’re at with meaningful pathways to care and healing.
Leda Health is also focused on transformative justice, which extends the same values of care and healing to people who have caused harm, in an effort to end the cycle of sexual violence. Leda’s Transformative Justice Support Group is open to folks who have caused harm and are looking for a safe space to explore their own healing, which involves accountability, release, and recovery. In a system where there is less than a 1% chance of conviction, these groups allow survivors an alternative way of getting justice.
“By offering accountability and therapy on the other end—not only for survivors of sexual assault, but for those individuals that are statistically likely the survivors of sexual assault themselves who may have found themselves harming someone else—we're really creating the full-order side effects of what the current criminal justice system is failing to address.”
A Global Pandemic Brings Leda to the On Deck Founder Fellowship
With its new broader mission, Leda Health was primed for Demo Day at Alchemist Accelerator in January of 2020. Then COVID-19 hit mere weeks later, and all fundraising was halted.
A colleague of Madison’s from the accelerator urged her to apply to On Deck in this precarious time. They told her that if she approached the On Deck Founder Fellowship with clear-eyed purpose, she’d be very successful.
Madison enrolled in ODF6 in early Fall of 2020, and she found that it provided a much stronger network of supportive and ambitious founders than the Alchemist Accelerator. Alchemist Accelerator was vital to Madison in refining her pitch and strengthening her ideas. On Deck, though, offered an environment much more conducive to relationship-building and continuous support navigating her roadmap.
On Deck’s ten-week Fellowship provided the structure that Madison needed to access the mindset of securing a major raise. Because it was time-bound, she was able to navigate the program, community, and the ongoing conversations with clarity around a very explicit target.
"I fully signed on with a sense of urgency so that I was prepared. Say I needed to raise $100,000 in eight weeks. By setting that goal and then accounting for reaching it, the purchase price for On Deck is insanely useful, nearly instantly. And that's just the First Order Effect. What On Deck does really well is the Second-Order Side Effects if you're willing to put in the first-order work. You're immediately able to see the ROI from that first order of your own work.”
Second-Order Effects of Fundraising at On Deck
Since the time Madison first introduced herself in the ODF slack, Leda Health has raised over $2 million.
She used the help of the On Deck Fundraising Concierge that paved the way for many lucrative conversations with investors who believed in her mission. Hundreds of investors in the On Deck network are interested in meeting with On Deck Founders, and the Fundraising Concierge helps facilitate introductions while supporting the founder in iterating on their fundraising approach.
“On Deck Fundraising Concierge provided actual investment, and an actual pipeline to procure more investment. Three to four months later, there are conversations and introductions and raises that have come about because I participated in On Deck. It's now over a year later and I'm still seeing the Second-Order Effects come in, measured in investment. It's worth ten times more than even the program was in the initial eight weeks. It's not about On Deck writing a check on $80K. It’s because On Deck wrote a check on 80K, that we’re now talking to their LPs that then write a $10 million check.”
The fundraising support Madison received from On Deck didn't stop with her time in the Fellowship. The need for fundraising support remained high, even while hitting major targets because building a comprehensive system of care that complies with existing institutions is costly and resource-draining.
ODF had another unexpected second-order effect on Madison, which was to help her realize the size and scale of what she had to build and therefore push her to reframe the vision in a new way: as a health care platform. Something she might not have landed on independently.
“On Deck set us up to realize that it's okay if our vision emerged as really big. The community has reinforced my determination to proceed with this idea, and on the precise course that I am on currently. To be able to cross these chasms of fundraising, or reimagining the product in a new way, was too big to think about without this experience.”
Leveraging the Knowledge of the ODH Community
Six months after Madison enrolled in ODF, she decided she would seek out another On Deck Fellowship as a member of the first On Deck Health cohort.
“I knew that it would be a great opportunity to receive insight into approaching the intersection of sexual assault aftercare and business. This has been a significant pain point for us as a company. We’ve been criticized for choosing the for-profit route rather than not-for-profit or non-profit, and it is indeed a delicate conversation. I truly believed that the answers to this issue could be found within another supportive On Deck community.”
ODH is a program devoted to the future of healthcare and participants bring a savvy blend of either navigating the complexity of building a healthcare platform, or already working within it.
Given that Madison did not have firsthand experience working in the healthcare business day-to-day, ODH provided a new, deeply knowledgeable community that wasn’t hypothetical about the challenges she was about to face.
“There were many areas that I had not fully taken into consideration that are now allowing me to further refine Leda Health’s operations overall. Joining ODH was indeed strategic, as it is helping to achieve the 2nd Order Effects of providing long-term care for the wellbeing of sexual assault survivors.”
The Future of Healthcare
After immersing herself in the health sector through ODH, Madison had a clearer understanding of where the space was headed. She is aware that there are a lot of eyes on Leda right now, as a reflection of a larger interest in FemTech.
“What is currently happening is that predominantly male-run teams or male-driven companies are now buying out FemTech companies because they finally realized that women are an economic force. I'm ready for women’s health care companies to get to an inflection point where we can make acquisitions of men's health care and then become a primary health care provider. That's one thing that I don't see happening yet.”
For Madison to keep pioneering in search of the Second-Order effects she wants to see in the world, she has intrinsic and consistent support from both the ODF and ODH communities.
“For a long time, we were met with a lot of doubt. This doubt often put a monkey wrench into what we thought we could or could not do as a company. Rather than dismissing our ideas or plans and encouraging us to abandon such a controversial topic, the On Deck community, in general, has been incredibly supportive. They have made sure to let me know that they believe in the idea and have given input as to how we could better work toward fulfilling it. They have even connected us to valuable resources that have made our journey so much smoother. I’m forever grateful!”