Yohanna Alvarez
“I’m just doing what my heart guides me to be right,” says Yohanna Alvarez, who is raising awareness about challenges for people with disabilities.
Yohanna Alvarez
“I’m just doing what my heart guides me to be right,” says Yohanna Alvarez, who is raising awareness about challenges for people with disabilities.

All business is personal.

If an employee or potential client has difficulty simply entering a workplace—perhaps because there is no wheelchair ramp or sign with raised letters or braille—then it becomes very clear how personal business can become.

In Costa Rica—where about 11% of the population are considered people with disabilities (PwD)—Yohanna Alvarez, a digital marketing operations manager for IBM, led the creation of a business resource group to bring greater awareness to issues facing PwD.

In a short period of time, Yohanna and your colleagues have brought positive attention and greater sensitivity to supporting PwD. This past April, she received an IBM Volunteer Excellence Award for his work.

IBM Volunteers spoke to Yohanna about her motivation for participating in the project and several of the activities her team has led.

Yohanna, congratulations. First, what is a business resource group?
Thank you very much! At IBM, business resource groups (BRGs) are volunteer employee-led groups that are formed around common interests, issues, bonds or backgrounds. BRGs are based on providing support, enhancing career development and contributing to personal development in the work environment.

What was your motivation to form a BRG for, and about, people with disabilities?
I've been involved in BRGs since I started at IBM in 2013. Initially I was the lead for the Women's BRG, where we created development initiatives for women in STEM. Then I accepted the challenge of creating a new BRG in Costa Rica for PwD in 2017.

It was really significant to me because in 2012 I had a serious surgery where it looked like I was going to need a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Fortunately, I recovered and can walk and dance (I’m a ballet dancer). That experience helped me come a little closer to identifying with people with disabilities and their day-to day-challenges to find growth opportunities. I also have a niece-in-law with Down syndrome and she is really special to me.

What were your priorities with the BRG and how did people react when it started?
Our priorities were to provide information about various disabilities and create spaces for PwD development and growth. We’ve received excellent support from colleagues across the company. They’ve become aware of the challenges faced by this population because of the information and sensitization campaigns, events and initiatives we ran over the past two years.

Tell us about some of your activities.
First, we had to create the PwD BRG team. A lot of IBM Costa Rica people answered a massive communication requesting volunteers to join the team.

Then, with a wonderful team, we put together a series of events to raise our profile and bring important topics to others.

For example, in 2018 we hosted the Señatón event at our IBM facilities in Costa Rica, promoting the use of an avatar translator of sign language. People with hearing impairments were asked to watch the avatar execute various signs and then validate its accuracy and understandability. More than 100 people participated. Our partner for the event was Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica and the entire day was covered by more than 50 members of the media. We also had more than 65 IBM volunteers helping, and they were trained in sign language—it was incredibly valuable to reinforce our diversity and inclusion values within IBM Costa Rica and the country.

Also, late in 2018 we ran a sensitization campaign at IBM to raise awareness of the challenges for PwD. We brought masks and wheelchairs to our building’s entrance and invited our colleagues to try to enter the facility using them; helping them appreciate the challenge of the task if they couldn’t see or walk. Many hadn’t considered how difficult it would be.

Those are just two of the activities we’ve had.

You also held an inclusive soccer match.
Yes, this was one of our big activities in 2017 and it was timed for the International Day of Disabled PwD playing inclusive Soccer PwD playing inclusive Soccer Persons (3 December). We invited the Costa Rican national soccer team with disabilities to play the IBM soccer team. The challenge generated huge awareness as the IBM team played without disabilities but had a very difficult match because the national team is very competitive! America Free Zone provided the facilities for the game and the captain of the national team said playing against those without disabilities was excellent practice for the tough matches they had coming up.

It’s clear you’ve had many IBM volunteers help with these activities.
You are very correct! No words exist to thank all of our volunteers for their hard work. Their collaborative hearts are incredible, and no event would have been possible without them, not only for what they did but for how they did it—with the best attitude and love available. Our volunteers’ willingness to help, to share their knowledge, skills and even bring resources from their own pocket to support and sensitize the entire IBM Costa Rica community has been amazing.

What organization will receive the IBM grant from the volunteer excellence award?
It is San Pablo Inclusivo, an NGO that leads projects to improve conditions and quality of life, and the participation of people with disabilities in San Pablo de Heredia.

One of my favorite moments since forming the BRG was seeing the face of the president of San Pablo Inclusivo when she heard about the grant with the award. She is blind and an extraordinary woman who will make the most of the donation to improve PwD development and support. We all cried because we know how much this grant means to them.

What is most personally satisfying to you about this volunteer work?
It has given me a louder voice. Now more people are listening when I say we need to promote equity; we need to invest in inclusive projects, and we need sensitive managers to recruit PwD who are ready for an opportunity.

I was not expecting to receive an award; I’m just doing what my heart guided me to be right. I know there are a lot of unsolved problems, but if each of us can do a little bit it will add up.

My thought is that we can do whatever we visualize. That we don’t think in limits or challenges and we encourage others join us on the journey.

Yohanna Alvarez is among 15 IBM teams and individuals who are recipients of the fourteenth annual IBM Volunteer Excellence Award. The award is recognition from IBM Chairman and CEO Ginni Rometty and is the highest form of global volunteer recognition given by the company to employees. It includes an IBM grant for the associated not-for-profit partner or school.

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