Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Meenal Lele of the Baby & the Biome Is Helping To Change Our World
Keep meeting people. The key here is not necessarily to have an ask. Simply to meet as many people in your space as possible. Tell them what you are working on and find out what they’ve learned. One day their learnings will help.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Meenal Lele.
Meenal Lele is author of the book The Baby and the Biome, the first book to explain why everyone is developing allergies, IBD, and more, and how they can be prevented. Meenal combines her experience as a food allergy parent with her clinical knowledge across multiple areas of medicine. She has an engineering and a business degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is the founder of Lil Mixins (www.lilmixins.com) — an allergy prevention company.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Thanks for having me! I grew up in suburban NJ and had a really uneventful childhood where things seemed to go right or go well almost all the time. My friends and I had pretty blessed childhoods. We worked hard, and had few impediments in our way. Which, looking back, feels really striking. I only remember 2 kids in my high school of 2,000 needing special support. I’m sure there were some kids with asthma, but very few with ADHD, depression, anaphylactic allergies, or type 1 diabetes. In that same high school today, I bet the number suffering is closer to 400 out of 2,000.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
I grew up in the Clinton 90’s when everything was awesome and America seemed like it was on this endless upward trajectory. When I went to Wharton, everyone around me was eager to jump onto Wall St. Around that time I read Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis and it left me with such a horrible taste in my mouth about Wall St. and the financial markets that I knew I was never going to end up there.
I have a lot of friends who have had successful, happy careers in finance, so I don’t want to dig on it too much. But as I read about the Why for Lewis and his fellow bankers I knew I couldn’t stay motivated in that field, and so I opted to have my life take a very different path.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Most mistakes aren’t funny! Even a long time later. Early on, I felt really alone working on food allergy. I didn’t know anything and I didn’t know anyone. A person came along who on paper was a perfect complement to my skills. I wasted a lot of time chasing them down to get them to work with me, when despite their early enthusiasm, they really didn’t want to take the risk. I was so eager to not be alone that I was blinded to the obvious signs that this wasn’t going to work.
Starting a new company, or writing a book, is really hard. It’s really scary at times and it can feel lonely. But you have to accept that and as they say “embrace the suck.”
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
I think a lot about how spanking used to be totally common in families. In basically one generation it went from everybody was spanked to almost nobody was spanked. A few experts pointed out that violence begets violence and it just clicked for so many parents. Here was something, spanking, that parents took for granted, and once it was framed slightly differently everyone just changed their minds.
One of the biggest challenges in getting parents and the health system as a whole to deal with the diseases kids suffer from today is that we were taught that these diseases are genetic. Something that’s genetic, well, you take it for granted. The Baby and the Biome frames all these diseases differently and shows parents how they aren’t genetic — they are triggered by choices we are inadvertently making when caring for our babies. And once the diseases are framed differently, the solutions start to become really obvious. We can make different choices!
The Baby and the Biome attempts to really empower parents by showing them that they have the ability to protect their kids. They don’t have to sit in fear that their child will go into anaphylaxis at a birthday party one day, or worse. Instead, by working proactively, we can lessen fear and make our children healthier.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
One of the things I discuss in the book is how a mother’s microbiome affects her fertility. When researching for the book, I was shocked to see the data on how drastically infertility has increased in just the last 15 years or so. It’s not due to maternal age, which is what most people jump to. Infertility is increasing across all age groups. You see it in the number of companies popping up to help women measure their cycles, etc.
There’s a lot of research documenting that negative changes in a mother’s microbiome affect the success of IVF procedures, affect her ability to carry a baby to term, etc. These negative changes are complex, but one example of vaginal dysbiosis (or a distured microbiome) is recurrent yeast infections.
One of my favorite anecdotes that I share in the book is that, as I was recounting this research to a good friend of mine, she mentioned that she was having trouble conceiving. Her doctor had told her to give up. She was also plagued by yeast infections. I had no idea about the infertility and felt badly that I possibly made her feel like she was to blame. But instead she decided to work on her microbiome. She figured she had nothing to lose other than the infections!
Then, a month or so later she called to tell me she was pregnant. Of course we can’t know if it was just luck, but I’ll always smile a little wider when I see her son.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I was at a tradeshow for pregnant women talking about food allergy prevention. A mom-to-be who happened to also be a doctor came by and, after I explained the data on food allergy prevention, she said “how does that work, though, if food allergies are genetic?” My mind was blown. If this doctor didn’t understand that food allergies were mostly caused by parenting choices, how could we possibly expect it to make sense to the average parent?
I’m not totally sure how the myth that food allergies are genetic started, but it has a real grip on people. In order to get parents to change their behaviors, and lose their fear of food introduction, we have to dispel this myth.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I already shared the story of my one friend and her pregnancy, but the book has also helped a number of children I know with diseases. Here are just a few examples. One child was mistakenly diagnosed with a food allergy on skin tests alone, but I convinced his parents to try the foods anyway, and stick with them. A month later the allergy was resolved. Another infant I know had terrible colic and eczema. Based on the book, her mom used some minor diet modification and a probiotic to clear the eczema and fix a yeast infection that was causing the crying. A third example is a young girl who had horrible eczema for years. After reading the book, her parents finally began to see the eczema as a treatable condition rather than a fate to endure. They found some trigger foods and environmental triggers. With those removed, the child’s eczema was brought under control. These are just the examples in my immediate family and close friends!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
One thing that I hope the book makes clear is that there are a number of common chemicals in our environment, like sodium dodecyl sulfate, that directly damage a baby’s most important immune organs — — their skin and gut barriers. Society and politicians need to begin labeling these chemicals as “immunogens,” and force the same labeling laws that we have for carcinogens.
A second shift is for society to drop its overuse of chemicals in favor of chemical-free alternatives. Most of us don’t need sunblock. We instead need long sleeves and hats. We don’t need hand sanitizer — — we need to sit and eat, wash our hands, and use forks. We don’t need springy toxic-chemical surfaces on playgrounds. We need wood chips and clean dirt instead.
Lastly, we have to stop overusing antibiotics. Demand that antibiotics be completely banned from animal products, stop using antibacterial wipes / soaps / gels, and stop demanding antibiotics from doctors instead of allowing ourselves to recover with rest.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to guide a group of people by serving as an example and offering the support needed to get people to where they should be. A lot of “thought leadership” seems to want to “get people thinking” and just stop there. I think a good example of a true thought leader is Adam Grant. From speaking to others at Wharton, he really does keep an open door policy and tries to help everyone who asks. He also practices what he preaches.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
My current food allergy company is actually my 3rd start-up. So if I may, I’d like to give 5 lessons I learned at the previous 2 companies that I took with me.
- Keep meeting people. The key here is not necessarily to have an ask. Simply to meet as many people in your space as possible. Tell them what you are working on and find out what they’ve learned. One day their learnings will help.
- Stay small as long as possible. A small company is always going to be more nimble than a big one. We once went from a complete implosion to a new product, on shelf, in 6 weeks. There’s no way we could have pulled that off coordinating a big team.
- Don’t burn bridges. Every domain is SMALL. It may seem big from the outside, but on the inside, everyone knows each other. Make sure you are always doing right by everyone you work with. If you screw up, admit it, and fix it. I once had to renege on a contract because the winds changed. I told the other party as soon as things looked dicey, and was transparent. People are really forgiving.
- Listen to advice, but put it through a filter. The crux of a start-up is that you are trying to do something new or different. So very often, older mental models simply don’t apply.
- The most important question is usually “what am I missing?” I once had an opportunity that three people in a row agreed looked great. I kept asking “does this look good?” instead of asking “what am I missing?” and of course that’s what bites you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is a video game, not a movie.” Life is meant to be an adventure. Remember that you have control over how that journey unfolds. Don’t let someone else direct your life story.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Despite the cliché, I’m going to say Dolly Parton. I find her absolutely fascinating. I’m in awe of the way she has built an empire with unfailing grace, patience, and optimism. Imagine a world where we all were even a bit more like her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’ve done some online writing at www.fixingsick.com and I have a podcast also called Fixing Sick on all the podcast services. The Baby and the Biome can be found wherever books are sold.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Authors: How & Why Author Meenal Lele of the Baby & the Biome Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.