Meaningful Business (MB:) Please tell us a bit about your background.
Mariana Negrao (MN): I am an Electrical Engineer, from Brazil. I graduated from the University of Sao Paulo, with an MBA in Social Enterprises at Colorado State University. Before joining Vitalk I worked on the development of medical devices for emerging markets at Philips Healthcare.
I joined Vitalk in 2017. Since then, I have worked in different text messaging automated patient outreach projects to populations in Brazil, including the deployment of a chatbot for the Brazilian Ministry of Health to help identify COVID-19 cases. Now, I am mostly focused on developing digital mental health programmes.
MB: What led you to work on SDG-focused initiatives at Vitalk?
MN: I volunteered for the International Development Innovation Network for over ten years, where I organised multiple summits focused on design and International Development. In 2014 I got an MBA at Colorado State University (formerly Global Social and Sustainable Enterprises, now Impact MBA). So, after getting back to Brazil, I looked for a start-up in the healthcare technology sector, where I could leverage technology for SDG-focused initiatives. That was when I joined Vitalk.
MB: What is the problem you are trying to solve?
MN: At Vitalk, our goal is to bridge the massive gap in primary care by putting a “virtual health assistant” in the pockets of millions of underserved patients around the world, thereby freeing up resources for human healthcare professionals to focus on those who need them the most.
MB: What is your biggest challenge right now?
MN: We are mainly focusing on behavioural health disorders, which are an epidemic in Brazil. Millions are without access to treatment – 40 million Brazilians (~20% of adults) suffer from a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, or insomnia. Only 10% have access to treatment. Vitalk brings automation and data to behavioural health.
MB: What more can companies do to help achieve the SDGs?
MN: One thing I learn every day at Vitalk is how difficult it is to balance profit and purpose for a start-up, when we are struggling to survive and not run out of cash. At the same time, being focused on the SDGs has not only made our work very significant, but also allowed us to attract and retain amazing people with whom I am really proud and happy to be working with. So, I guess my advice here is for start-ups to look beyond what is obvious about working on SDG-focused initiatives.
MB: What is your advice to other leaders who want to combine profit and purpose?
MN: Maybe this will feel idealistic, but why not? I feel that the whole reason why we organise ourselves in a society and why companies should exist in the first place is to make the world better. So, as leaders, I feel that part of our jobs is to lead others into making the world better.
This is my advice: ask yourselves: what can I, as a leader, do to improve the lives of as many people as I can?
MB – What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
MN – My boyfriend and partner in life once told me, “your job is going to be challenging no matter what you do, so you should work on something you want to build”. So when things get difficult I always remember why I chose this path.
MB – Who inspires you?
MN – This will sound cliche, but my mother is very inspiring to me. She is very inventive, and I feel I get this will of solving problems from her.
MB – How do you define success?
MN- I still feel I am learning that. But having a life where I can be happy and healthy the majority of time, be with friends and family, and feel I am contributing to a better world – this is my definition of success.
MB – What is something you wish you were better at?
MN- I wish I was better at telling stories. I feel I meet so many interesting people and work with so many wonderful individuals that I wish I could share with others what I am experiencing. Also, as Chief of Product, I feel this skill would help me share with the world what we are doing and inspire others. I also like to read a lot and admire those who are very good at storytelling.
MB – What is the one book everyone should read?
MN- There is this new bestseller Brazilian book called “Torto Arado“, by Itamar Vieira Junior, about the reality of Black, Indigenous, and Quilombola communities in Brazil and their fight for their land rights for hundreds of years. It is a very interesting and important book about the reality of many Brazilians, even nowadays. I don’t think it has been translated to other languages yet but once it is, I definitely recommend reading it.
MB – What do you do to relax?
MN- I spend a lot of my free time reading, mostly novels, but also nonfiction. Recently, during COVID, and because I didn’t go out much, I started to crochet to relax, which I learned from my mother. I like doing it while listening to audiobooks, or even during online meetings as it helps me focus and relax. It is really satisfying to see the yarn turning into products.
Discover the other MB100 leaders recognised for their work combining profit and purpose to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2020, here.