Going through life-changing events can turn a not-so-great situation into a success story. Industrial Designer Alejandra Carreño Garzon wants hers to be a tribute to the power of community…
Alejandra Carreño Garzon is a 25-year-old Industrial Designer from Colombia living in Bournemouth. A few years ago, she had an accident and was diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder. After overcoming a lot of obstacles and leaving behind the life she knew, she decided to create a platform where she could help people. She’s currently finishing her degree at Bournemouth University, living a very busy life. Alejandra wants her experience to be a testament of determination, resilience and the importance of community. She plans on launching her educational app in February 2021. Her idea is to build the biggest community of learners and teachers the world has even seen, but she knows that presents a big challenge…
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN THE AREA?
I have been living in Bournemouth since 2015, so almost six years now. Moved here to go to Bournemouth University and study Industrial Design. All of my recovery happened in Bournemouth; instead of going back home my mum came to help me. I only left once, in 2018 to do a placement in China. I spent six months there, working at a design studio.
Now, my business partner and I have registered our company here in Bournemouth. We’ll definitely stay here for a while.
WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND YOUR NEW PROJECT?
It all started from necessity. I used to be a football player at BU in the Varsity team, and growing up I always wanted to be a really good football player. I started doing a lot of things, pushing my body in a way that it was just a bit much. Lifting really heavy weights and not resting enough. Long story short, I pushed my body to its limit and had some back injuries.
When I came from China, I had just come out of the shower and I put my foot on top of the bath to dry my leg. With that little stretch my back just went completely. Out of nowhere I couldn’t walk… I couldn’t move.
I ended up at Salisbury where there was a spine specialist. There, they said, “We can’t treat you. There’s nothing we can do because you have too many injuries that would cause other issues”. They found dehydrated disks, and slipped disks that were touching nerves. I was in the hospital for about a month, getting medication and physiotherapy. Then I came out of the hospital and about three weeks later I had to start my final year of university.
MANAGING THE INJURY
At the time, I was in a wheelchair and still able to feel my body, but it was really painful. My routine looked like this: wake up, (living on the ground floor with the shower on the first floor), get to the shower which was an effort, then go to university, but my spine wasn’t healed. Back then, I was on something like 22 pills a day or so. Very strong medication. I was really drugged-up, and lessons were very difficult to attend. After uni there would be an ambulance waiting for me outside to take me to Salisbury to do hydrotherapy for my back. It was not a solution, it was basically maintenance. I was still in a wheelchair.
I did that for about three weeks. Could not sleep, my routine was very tiring, I had no rest. Third year of university was a lot of work. After three weeks of that on a Friday night I realised my life was going to be like that for the following year at least. As my mum and my friend made dinner I started feeling heartburn and dizziness. Then I started slurring my words and, eventually, convulsing. I couldn’t breathe and my mum tried helping me but I couldn’t feel my extremities. The ambulance came quite quickly and they gave me oxygen and started asking a lot of questions just to keep me awake. I relaxed a little bit, another ambulance came and took me to the hospital.
My body went through the process of a stroke, and at the same time I had a panic attack. I had left hemiplegia and was diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder, which affects the signal from my brain to my nervous system. The communication fails and I can’t move whatever it is I want to move. I also had intoxication because of all the medication I was taking. Went cold turkey with that, which was a terrible month. And with all this I had to interrupt university.
During my healing, I started looking for different therapies that would help me recover in a way that I understand. Not invasive, no surgery. I looked at alternative therapy but it meant that I would have to go to a lot of different places. I found traction therapy, which is decompression therapy, but the closest one to me was in Southampton. The issue was that for me to get there, it was very expensive to hire a car service every time. Going by train affected my back a lot and I had no one to drive me there. But there is always a way.
I had a friend who was the landlord to someone who was a driver. Going through all these issues my financial state wasn’t desirable and I couldn’t afford to hire a car every time. I started offering my services as a designer to the landlord without charging him, to lower the rent for his driver tenant, so he could then drive me to my therapy sessions.
I used my skills to get around my financial situation. That ended up happening with my functional trainer too. I helped him edit videos and social media, and he gave me my training sessions.
Even at university I started this game of exchange. I wanted to learn 2D Design, and I found someone who did it. And I suggested that we could mutually teach 3D (my skill) and he could teach me 2D. They said no but he wanted to learn Spanish. Then I realized that it wasn’t just me, or just him that were willing to do this sort of knowledge exchange and with that in mind I started to do indirect focus groups. I started looking at platforms that could enable us to do that exchange. And that’s how MeiXter came to be. It came out of necessity.
HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR ACCIDENT AND HEALTH CONDITION?
Obviously as a blessing in disguise. With my health condition there are a lot of things that I had, and still have, to overcome. It was definitely not easy, but at the same time, it was very eye-opening.
Now, I don’t care about a lot of things I used to care about before. I’m not as annoyed about little things. Like when your mum has to help you to the point of even feeding you when you’re an adult. Little things like standing up or walking. Things we don’t normally notice are appreciated. At these times (which would’ve sounded insignificant before), I take a moment to just be grateful for being able to do the things I can.
There are times when you get frustrated and that’s normal. But with everything that happened to me, I just became more determined. Instead of focusing on the problem, now I take a minute to take a deep breath and carry on. Those things are part of the recovery. Learning to accept help from others, allowing people to help you out… these are not signs of your disability or your weakness. Sometimes it is good to let others help you out, because it gives them value and it allows our social connection to improve. It is nice to have that.
I learned a lot of resilience. I have to give importance to my mental health. When little things happen that are annoying or not great, I have to focus on all the great things that I do have. The people around me, my friends, my sofa, being able to be at places. I realized that there is no limit to the things that I can achieve or can do. Doctors told me I wasn’t going to walk normally for a few years or go back to normal at all. I would never wish this condition on anyone just to get that post-traumatic growth if you will. But at the same time I feel like I learned so much. I’m still learning. It’s been a blessing and a challenge.
WHERE DID THE IDEA FOR MEIXTER COME FROM?
It was last November when I first presented this idea at uni. I started wondering, “Who could be interested in this?” My business partner, Eduardo Ghini Cordero, joined me six months after I started working on the idea. He helped me see a different perspective, bouncing off ideas and support. Even though it’s great to do things on your own, I do not have all the answers. We shared a lot of the same values and we introduced them into the platform: community, collaboration, value in knowledge, accessibility, sustainability.
I did a lot of research and there was no platform where you could be a single user. Where you could offer your skill in exchange for any virtual currency or token, to then re-use it to learn something else.
WHAT EXACTLY IS MEIXTER?
The platform itself is a one-to-one tutoring platform for any type of skill. It can be an instrument, sports, or a language. We have people doing skateboarding and parkour; you can also learn with subject areas like history or art. It is the widest range available out there from a single platform. We are catering for any type of skill.
At first, what happened to me it was a perfect match because I wanted to learn what they had to offer and vice versa. Obviously it isn’t always like that. This led us to create a virtual currency within MeiXter. So that Person A can learn from Person B and then B can learn from C and then give the possibility for Person C to learn from Person A. And so all these different connections can happen.
It’s not about that perfect match. It is about going into the platform as a single user. There aren’t different sign-ups for teacher or student. Anyone can be either or both, and offer whatever skill they have. In many cases, there’s amazing and knowledgeable people but they don’t have the financial grounds to keep learning or pass on their knowledge. This platform allows them to come in and find someone anywhere in the world. It is a worldwide platform.
The virtual currency is actual money — one coin equates to $1. Once you come in and teach, you get those coins, which you can withdraw or re-use on the platform to learn something else.
We are launching in English and Spanish first, and we plan on expanding to Brazilian Portuguese and Chinese. Hopefully, if we get enough resources, we can expand to many other languages.
The beauty from that interaction is that you’re not just learning the skill. You are also experiencing their culture. The social side that otherwise you would not be able to. It’s offering you a lot more than just skills. You are being exposed in a positive way to other people, and that challenges the barriers you could have. It gives you a different perspective of the world.
At MeiXter, we wanted to create a community that cherishes differences. Encouraging connection, focusing on the value that you give through knowledge. At the same time, since it is a virtual community, we want to impact the real world. With every interaction you have at MeiXter, as a student or as a teacher, a percentage of a tree will grow (showing as an animation). Once that tree is 100% full, MeiXter will make a donation to Eden Reforestation Projects. This organization also helps locals with jobs and education, and other aspects of the community. They plant trees in strategic areas where they will have the utmost potential for the environment.
YOU HAVE A GOFUNDME PAGE… WHAT EXACTLY IS IT FUNDING?
We are creating all of this as a community-based platform. The only way we can succeed is through the community. We are nothing without the people entering the platform without teachers and without students. For this community to grow and be high-quality, and to have all the benefits that it has potential to give, we need funding.
Everyone needs to know about this project. So far, everything has come out of our own pockets. In order to create the ideal app, we need help from others. And so we created a GoFundMe. The money we get through this will be used for marketing purposes. To reach as many people as possible, so we can attract more users. After all, to have students, you need teachers. Then we will start working on all the features we want to add to the platform.
The video on the GoFundMe helps explain how I got here. It helps share and inspire anyone who might have any disability or health condition. Anyone who has been in a similar situation.
We want to launch in February 2021 and we believe that every penny counts towards being able to do that.
WHAT INSPIRED THIS PROJECT?
Literally the interactions and exchanges I had throughout my recovery. During those times, I read a lot. Books like The Power of Movement and Super Better. A mix between spiritual information and the physical part compiled to inspire me.
My biggest inspiration were the people around me. The ones who stayed, as well as new people who gave much more than a helping hand. The friends I lost because of this too. Those people showed me the importance of community and the importance of helping each other out. Obviously my family was key to this as well. Without their support, this wouldn’t be possible.
HOW HAS YOUR INDUSTRIAL DESIGN KNOWLEDGE HELPED YOU?
The app itself was created collaboratively with a team in Colombia. We call it the Frankenstein app as a joke. It is everything that works on other apps integrated into one, with user experience at the front of our minds. The design language, plus the background in technology, helped me understand much of the app’s development. We are taught marketing and management, so that helped me create the core values and the brand itself around MeiXter. Budgeting, financial sides, strategic alliances, intellectual property… all of these things are important things I learned as an Industrial Designer.
Some of my projects have led me to this as well. I did a project for my business module called Women Entrepreneurship, which actually taught me that women have a lot of challenges. But there are ways around them. I have always had the mentality of wanting to help people, and I try to do that through my projects.
My final major project is a multi-sensory tool for people with anxiety and depression. Being an Industrial Designer is finding the problem, understanding the solution, and the product comes last. That has enabled me to creatively follow through all my projects.
WHAT IS THE END GOAL FOR YOU?
Regarding MeiXter I have a few short term goals. I want to reach many more environmental organisations. We also want to be able to incorporate more features, to support the teachers as much as we can.
In general, the goal is to create a huge community through this app that can help a lot of people. A win-win situation for us all. My end goal personally is to be able to make all these things happen. I think in order to make all this a reality, we need a financial cushion first and more users. So we can improve as we see fit. There are many plans and great things to come to MeiXter. This is just the beginning.
To support Alejandra Carreño Garzon and her venture MeiXter, why not take a look at her GoFundMe page here. For more local entrepreneurial stories, click here. And don’t forget to follow us on our social channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube!