Seth Cochran, ORIE '00 M.Eng. '01, Establishes Social Enterprise in Africa to Deal with Obstetric Fistula

While working in private equity and telecom, Seth Cochran organized a climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro for charity. Now he devotes full time to an organization that deals with obstetric fistula, "the most devastating problem you've never heard of."

Seth Cochran was driving on a snowy road in Utah in 2005, listening to an audio book on the American Civil Rights movement, when he came to the realization that he wanted to do something that would make a positive impact on the world. At the time this graduate of ORIE's Financial Engineering Concentration - who had earlier worked in private equity - was employed by a telecommunications company, helping them transform their European manufacturing base.

Cochran went on to work in Berlin as Operations Finance Manager for the company's European, Middle East and Africa region, but began working in his spare time towards his new mission. This led to spare time corporate social responsibility work, to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to raising money for cleft palate charity Smile Train, and last year to leaving his job and setting up OperationOF in Africa.

With his background in ORIE, Cochran says he was particularly drawn to "social entrepreneurship,"  which, he said, "breaks the mold of traditional charity and approaches social value creation from a business perspective." He learned from a friend about the cause he eventually selected to support as a social entrepreneur. It is obstetric fistula (OF), a medical condition resulting from prolonged obstructed labor with inadequate medical intervention.

The problem, which can be prevented by Caesarean surgery or corrected with relatively inexpensive surgery, was eliminated in the United States in 1895 but afflicts an estimated 2 million women in poor areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa. Despite 100,000 new cases per year, there is only capacity to treat 10,000 women. "The relative cost of treatment and the staggeringly low capacity to treat were what initially attracted me to fistula. As my familiarity with the issues developed, I felt a broad and pressing need for Operations Research (OR) thinking in many aspects of health service delivery in the developing world,"  Cochran said.  

Cochran's organization, called OperationOF, began with a fact-finding mission that entailed 5000 miles of travel by public transportation on the ground in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On the trip, Cochran and his friend and colleague Shannon Dugan "reviewed various fistula treatment and psychosocial reintegration models, documented hospital infrastructure, and met key personnel," according to Cochran. 

Based on the trip and consultations with organizations such as the World Health Organization, Cochran developed the framework of an approach intended to fill large gaps in treatment, internationally. He plans to use community organizations and microcredit to help empower fistula survivors and assist in their psychosocial reintegration. By helping medical treatment organizations address psychosocial gaps, "OperationOF is well-positioned to use OR process analysis techniques to bring together prevention, outreach, treatment, and reintegration," Cochran notes.


"Obstetric fistula is a hidden and misunderstood problem caused primarily by poverty. You can find a woman suffering from this awful fate and get her to treatment, but if you don't empower her, she is likely to end up with problems again. Many of these girls and women have never had any say in their own lives. Empowerment is prevention. That is why we work to build up these marginalized women, training them and supporting their entrepreneurial ventures through economic development groups within their communities," Cochran said.

The organization will start testing their new framework in a pilot program.

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