Turning Infertility into a Fruitful Opportunity
Elyse Ash couldn't find the network she needed. So she built it herself.by Cliff Dahlberg
Elyse and Brad Ash were like many young couples.
Married with stable jobs and a charming home, they had a large friend group in Minnesota's Twin Cities, and spent their down time eating out, going to ball games and taking Insta-worthy trips.
Gradually, their married friends starting having kids. It felt like the perfect time to start their own family.
Then, they were unexpectedly confronted with infertility.
"I was really buying into the optimism of the fact that this would work out for us," Brad said. "'Cause why wouldn't it? You don't think that there's a problem with anything in life until you are actually have to confront the problem."
The Ashes took to their battle with infertility head-on, carefully planning every move and mapping medications and schedules with the rigor of a project manager with a bullet journal. But as with all health challenges, enthusiasm and pluck could only take them so far.
"I think one of the hardest parts about infertility, is just getting your hopes up," Elyse said. "Every single month you think, this is the month, this month we did everything. I didn't drink alcohol, I didn't drink caffeine, we had the timing exactly perfectly, we did our ovulation predictor kits, and we hit the exact window, and then I sat with my legs up, and we did all the things. And then I did yoga, and acupuncture, and you just think you can manage this thing."
After investing money, time and dreams into a round of in vitro fertilization, the process failed to return any viable embryos. They were back at the start with nothing to show for their efforts except more confusion and feelings of isolation.
"And I just thought, 'God, if I am struggling with this— and I am actively seeking support, I have financial resources to deal with this, I have a pretty supportive partner who's awesome— and I have all these things and it's still so hard?'" Elyse said. "And that was when I thought, 'This is totally unacceptable.'"
If you can't find it, build it
As Elyse's friends transitioned into their new roles as young mothers, her struggle with infertility seemed to drive a wedge through their relationships. She didn't feel they could relate to her worries and she had trouble being there for them emotionally.
For additional support, she sought out an infertility group but found that, too, to be rife with unexpected triggers. Seeing members of the infertility group go on to have children while she only returned negative pregnancy tests exasperated her feelings of helplessness.
It was in those darkest moments that inspiration took root.
"There are millions of people going through this, and just because you feel alone doesn't mean you are alone, and is there a way where we can connect these people?" Elyse said. "Wouldn't it be cool if there was some kind of service where you could get a fertility mentor? Kind of like an Alcoholics Anonymous -- you could have a sponsor."
Desperate for connection and aching to make a difference, Elyse and Brad initiated Fruitful, their startup.
On the Fruitful website, people who have experienced infertility and have reached some sort of resolution on their journey— IVF, children through adoption or fostering or deciding to live child-free— can sign up to become mentors. People who are in the throes of infertility can sign up to find a mentor to connect with. Both parties complete a questionnaire that includes information about their history and if they're looking for someone to meet up with in person, or via the phone or email.
An algorithm suggests matches, but Fruitful's success lies in the personal attention each application receives. All matches are hand-finalized so that applicants are paired with a mentor whose profile and journey are a match.
Four months after launching Fruitful, the Ashes took the next step in their own fertility journey.
"After our first round of IVF hadn't worked in the summer of 2016, we did another round in the fall of 2016," Elyse said. "And, we'd had three genetically normal embryos that we froze. Fruitful had launched, we were making matches, we were on the news, things were happening, we're getting momentum, we were showing up in different start up showcases and panels, and then all of a sudden it was time for us to take that step, and have our first transfer, and that was a really challenging couple of months because I didn't wanna get my hopes up."
But they got the news they had been longing for— Elyse was pregnant.
These days, the couple splits time between raising Abby, their daughter, and growing their startup. Life as an entrepreneur is surprisingly like life as a new parent— both are a challenge and full of exciting highs and frustrating lows. And both are totally worth it.
"I think because of my experience, my relationship with Brad and his experiences, I felt very called to create this community," Elyse said.
"Even if we shut down tomorrow, we've helped 3,600 people, and that's good enough and that's awesome. And it doesn't need to be Facebook, or have some big crazy exit to be successful. That as it is now, it's enough, and it's just gonna get better and better."