Q&A with Resolution Fellow Maura Alvarez

Social enterprise is an emerging field. How do YOU define social enterprise?

Social enterprise is a way to link industry with social impact. Social enterprise is the practice of taking volunteerism to a macro level by giving aid to a community through business.

Describe your history and relationship with social innovation, including your inspiration for your current venture.

I have always believed that everything is possible. And for that reason I got involved in social innovation. It all started during my 4th year of medicine in a meeting of the University’s Scientific Organization called SOCIEM (Sociedad Cientítica de Estudiantes de Medicina). I was in charge of International Affairs. At that time, the Latin American Scientific Society for Students  (FELSOCEM) launched a competition to decide which country would receive permission to create a volunteering project for that year. That meant that medical students from Latin America would have the opportunity to come to my country and help. When I talked with the girl in charge of volunteering she said “we have never done that; it is almost impossible.” My answer was: “I’ll do it.”

In 2014, the first CUMIS (Campamento Universitario Multidisciplinario de Investigación y Salud) was held in my university. We had 50 students and several doctors from different areas participate. We went to the community of Maniapure where indigenous groups live. At that time, a friend named Pablo Medina told us about the many problems these people face and encouraged us to do something about it. Isolation was one of the main problems that he identified. Communities have difficulty accessing medical care. This means that when an accident occurs, they have to either walk for hours, take a boat or wait for an airplane to bring them to the nearest hospital.

This year will be the 4th year that we have held this Campamento that has helped more than 1000 people.

Tell us more about your current venture.

Proyecto Shaman was born as a way to help those who live in remote areas where one of the biggest problems they face is the lack of medical assistance. Now, can you imagine being in a place where the only way to get there is by plane? A place where communication is limited? A place with no phones or computers? Now imagine having an accident or requiring medical assistance in such a place. For you, this may sound like a nightmare, but for many people in my country, this is their reality.

The mission of Proyecto Shaman is to deliver a five-step program in basic medical support to indigenous groups, including programming for first aid, trauma, drowning, burning, and poisoning (the most commonly needed areas of medical care). This gives them the opportunity to get to the nearest hospital quickly, lowers the risks that come with acting without knowledge, and ultimately reduces mortality rates.

The volunteers are senior medical students that are doing their 4th month internship in remote areas. They receive training in the aforementioned areas. The project started in 2015. We are working in the Venezuelan states of Amazonas and Bolivar, and have delivered the knowledge to more than 50 people from different communities and have had more than a thousand beneficiaries.

One of the objectives is to create a group of first response volunteers in every community for when an accident occurs.


Meet the Lifelong Learner

What is the most important lesson that you carry with you and reflect upon often?

The most important lesson that I carry is that there will always be people willing to help you. Throughout the process of launching and sustaining this venture, I have found the most incredible teachers, tutors and friends–from doctors that have helped us reach isolated communities to businessmen that have donated courses to educate students.

What has been the most significant obstacle that you have faced while launching your social venture?

The most significant obstacle was adapting the programs to each community, based upon their language differences. In order to do this, we first had to train translators and then go to each community with them to teach the indigenous volunteers.

Can you tell us about a time when you faced failure and had to rise to the occasion?

The first time we intended to launch the project was in Amazonas. We were very excited to start. When we pitched the project to the doctor who supervised us, she said it was worthless and that no one would pay attention to it. We were devastated; we thought we had an incredible idea that was going to help millions. We decided to pursue the project anyways. In the end, she wasn’t right. During 2016, I spent a year living with the pemones in a community called Wonken. I was in charge of 16 communities. My team of interns and I delivered a couple of courses in the communities and a larger course for which we invited people from all of the adjacent communities. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to convince them to come, so I offered the following: each community that sent a volunteer to attend the course would be given a first aid kit. Once again, we were right: people came to Wonken just to learn about medicine.

What has been the most memorable milestone for you personally in launching your social venture?

In 2015, I went to Amazonas to do my internship, which meant living with the Yanomamis for 4 months. The most memorable milestone was empowering them to redefine cultural norms. Their beliefs are different. To them, medicine is mystical; everything has to do with spirits and little with medication. So, how were we going to tell them that our project would benefit them if it didn’t include mysticism?

We decided to understand them. We started learning from them. We asked them everything that we could about shamans and pusanas (the poison they use), about plants and how they used them, and about yopo (the substance that they consumed to have hallucinations). We even learned their language. At the end, they started asking us questions, wanting to know about our magic, and trying to learn from us as we had been from them. In Amazonas, I realized the importance of working together, the value of understanding one another, and how people can always complement each other.


Meet the Visionary and Mentor

What are the 3 most crucial traits of any social entrepreneur?

– Persistence: It may not be an easy path, and it may even take longer than what you planned, but don’t stop working.

– Humility: You must know that asking for help is good and that actions speak louder than words.

– Teamwork: If you want to create impact you must know how to work with others; search for a group with complementary skills.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a budding social entrepreneur?

Don’t give up–the project that you develop will be appreciated by a lot of people! Also, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you ever need it.

What do you envision are some of the challenges facing your focus area?

The most important challenge is accepting our cultural differences: each indigenous group has a different language and traditions. Students must first win the trust of the community in order to create impact. Another challenge is making students believe that their actions are in fact having a positive impact in the community, because often times the results of their actions are only visible in certain instances (in our case, when accidents occurred).

What is the balance between growth and sustainability in the field of social enterprise?

The balance is found by creating realistic goals that may change with time and can adapt to the variations produced by the economy and societal factors. It is important to understand that social enterprise is the link between business and social aid and that they should always complement one another.

Maura Alvarez Baumgartner was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and completed her medical training from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Her time in University allowed her to hone in on her social entrepreneurship and leadership skills through the Students’ Council, International Congress for Medical Students, Harvard Model UN, and the Scientific Society of Medicinal Students. During medical school, she launched her social venture the Shaman Project, a program that allows Venezuelan medical students to deliver a five-step program in basic medical services such as first aid, trauma, and drowning to residents of the Amazonas region of Venezuela. Her venture also aims to train local villagers on providing these services in order to improve survival rates of residents and to enable them to reach distant hospitals in time. Maura is currently a practicing community doctor in Bolivar.