…Rafael, 92 years old Cuban American in a nursing home in Little Havana, Miami. He fled his homeland of Cuba and the communist regime 40 years ago to never return. His dearest wish was to reconnect to his roots and go back where he was born and raised. Unfortunately, as a political refugee, it is impossible for him to do so in the physical world. So we took him back to Cuba in virtual reality. Finally, through technology, he could immerse himself in the historic center of La Havana, revel in the architectural wonder of El Capitolio and watch the sun set on the Malecón. He told us he felt like he was right there and that it was a one-of-a-kind experience. Virtual reality is not a gadget, it is a powerful tool that we can use to make seniors’ dreams come true.
I had the pleasure to interview Alexandra Ivanovitch, PhD.
Dr. Ivanovitch is a creative technologist dedicated to leveraging 21st century technology to enrich the lives of vulnerable populations such as senior citizens and at-risk youth. Her humanitarian VR work was covered by Forbes Magazine, WIRED, CNN and Voice of America. Her projects have received global media coverage in 32 countries on 5 continents: the US, France, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Brazil, Peru, Colombia, South Africa, Kenya, etc. She pioneered a virtual reality program to allow seniors to fulfill their last wishes through immersive technology in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and hospices in South Florida. This program is funded by the Miami-Dade County’s Age-Friendly Initiative. On both sides of the Atlantic, she has shared her design thinking and creative skills while consulting for Google and Hyperloop TT as well as innovation-driven non-profit organizations like XPRIZE and pioneering start-ups in Europe. Her work in the field of virtual reality for social impact was sponsored by the Roddenberry Foundation (Star Trek). Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek to help us envision a hopeful and inclusive future. Former research fellow in Digital Humanities at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, where she used to teach at all undergraduate levels, current adjunct faculty at Singularity University, she is passionate about harnessing groundbreaking social neuroscience studies and technology from the lab to the real world.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in Paris, France from a French mom and a Montenegrin dad who fled communism.
Fun fact: as a child and teenager, I was growing incredibly fast (thank you, Yugoslav genetic heritage!) so I actually had to undergo a treatment to stop growing as I was anticipated to be 6”6 minimum.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“The Conference of the Birds” by Farid ud-Din Attar is one of the most transformative books I have read. I have always been fascinated by the allegory of the birds embodying different human limitations and undertaking a perilous journey through 7 valleys on a quest to find their king, and ultimately the divine spark in all of them. For me, social entrepreneurship is as much a quest for social impact on the external world as an internal process of soul-searching to overcome our limitations, faults and everything that hinders the expansion of our minds.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Be like water” (Bruce Lee)
Coming to the US from France, then traveling to different cities and working in different impact areas with multiple stakeholders — law enforcement, education, healthcare, I had to learn new languages, new codes. Water is my model if I am to constantly embrace new formats, adjust my flow accordingly and erode resistance.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
I am the CEO and founder of EQLab which develops science-backed virtual reality solutions to enrich the lives of vulnerable populations such as senior citizens and at-risk youth. We have developed a pioneering virtual reality program to fulfill seniors’ wishes through immersive technology in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and hospices in South Florida. This program is funded by the Miami-Dade County Age-Friendly Initiative and recently received additional funding from The Ford Motor Company Fund’s HI-HERImpact Miami Pitch Competition. We are currently developing a virtual reality career simulator for Miami-Dade County Public Schools to allow at-risk youth to immerse themselves in the lives of various successful professionals, so they can find the motivation and confidence to pursue an education and get a career. I am passionate about harnessing the latest science in cyberpsychology and computer science to develop immersive experiences that can transform people’s lives for the better.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
2015, Paris, France. The terrorist attacks were a wake-up call. I was working as a research fellow in Digital Humanities in Paris at the time. All the knowledge we had accumulated in academia did not prevent this tragedy from happening, nor hatred to spread or intolerance to kill. How can we set this knowledge in motion and transfer it as quickly as possible from the lab to the real world to prevent other tragedies? That’s why I decided to leave the world of ideas and enter the world of impact.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Rafael, 92 years old Cuban American in a nursing home in Little Havana, Miami. He fled his homeland of Cuba and the communist regime 40 years ago to never return. His dearest wish was to reconnect to his roots and go back where he was born and raised. Unfortunately, as a political refugee, it is impossible for him to do so in the physical world. So we took him back to Cuba in virtual reality. Finally, through technology, he could immerse himself in the historic center of La Havana, revel in the architectural wonder of El Capitolio and watch the sun set on the Malecón. He told us he felt like he was right there and that it was a one-of-a-kind experience. Virtual reality is not a gadget, it is a powerful tool that we can use to make seniors’ dreams come true.
Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?
Test, test, test: when you test our product and give us feedback, you help us build immersive experiences that enrich the lives of vulnerable populations and provide essential services to those who most need it in times of crisis and beyond.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Take the first step in the dark. Be bold enough to venture where no one has gone before.
A year and a half ago, I was pitching a virtual reality program to combat compassion fatigue and burnout for hospital staff to the Innovation Board of a major private hospital in the Miami-Dade area. The question of “who has done this before?” ultimately was brought up. Here we have the opportunity to not follow innovation but BE the innovation.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Routine is everything. I have a visualization routine where I visualize the amount of people who will benefit from the products we are building in the morning and in the evening; that keeps me laser-focused on the end goal.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
From my experience, the younger generation is actually much more aware and conscious of the numerous challenges that lie ahead for us. In many regards, they act as way showers for other generations. My instinct would be to listen to them and not lecture them.
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. 🙂
Malala Yousafzai. Her life is a miracle and a testament to advocacy and forgiveness. After all she endured from the Taliban, she said: “I don’t want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban.” Education is the medicine bestowed upon us to heal our world. Malala is its most compelling advocate. It would be an honor to meet her.
How can our readers follow you online?