UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Maria-Luisa (Lucha) Sotomayor
UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Eva Kaplan


Brian Cotter, Innovation Specialist, Vietnam

Listen to Brian’s audio profile post:

Tell us a bit about your background.
I’ve lived in Vietnam for 10 years after moving here directly after University. I initially was teaching English and discovered that teaching wasn’t a career for me so I started to build businesses. First hospitality, then retail, and finally technology where I made mobile apps.

What do you do?
In Vietnam the Innovation Lab has 3 main pillars of activity – the use of technology as a tool, the engagement of young people, and developing partnerships with existing or emerging communities (such as makers or technology startups). As Vietnam has a very strong ICT sector, we are working at the grassroots level to identify technologies and use cases that can be nurtured and grown into viable solutions over the next few years. We also look at established platforms that can be utilized for the benefit of children (such as RapidPro).  In addition I provide support to UNICEF programs to identify and validate potential approaches on challenging situations which require new or different tools or methods to resolve.

Through the UPSHIFT program we look to empower youth to realize their roles as agents of social change. Our work has very much focused on young people from marginalized or vulnerable communities and providing them the opportunities and resources to deliver entrepreneurial solutions on community issues they care about.

We are also working on activity that starts with an event called TOM – Tikkun Olam Makers. TOM is about connecting “need knowers” – in our case children with disabilities –  with multi-disciplinary technology teams to prototype solutions for challenges the children experience in their daily lives. We’re working with a wide range of partners to make this happen, and make it become a local community that can thrive and continue to make impact on children’s lives.

What’s your working day like?
As I wear many hats in my role, it is true to say that each day is different. For example, over the last few weeks you would have found me do the following activities: facilitating a design workshop, writing proposals for partnerships, designing and testing a pilot RapidPro monitoring activity for vocational training, mentoring UPSHIFT teams, speaking at the TOM Vietnam initial design workshop and so on!

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
I make sure that people get the right toys at the right time to make sure they have the most fun!

What did you want to be when you were a child?
I’ve always loved being in nature and I come from a small rural farming community, so at that point I wanted to be either a farmer or a ranger (someone who works at a national park).

How/when did you join UNICEF?
I joined UNICEF in late 2014. I had a friend forward me the description of the Innovation Lab Lead post and at the time I had no idea that UNICEF had an Innovation Lab! I read the posting and I felt connected to the challenges and the purpose. So I applied and nearly 2 years later, here I am.  

What are the most satisfying parts of your job?
On a macro scale, I feel on a daily basis that I’m working with great people for a very worthy purpose, improving the lives of children. The fact that the mission and vision is never far from sight keeps renewing the drive to accomplish results.

On a more individualistic side, I cannot remember a time that I’ve felt more satisfied than the recent exit interviews we did with our pilot UPSHIFT teams. Listening to the lessons each of them learned, and how they feel that they’ve changed and grown in just a 3 months time period really validated that the effort we’ve put into the program was worth it.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
My role in the innovation team is to look for new or different ways of approaching issues, to push the boundaries of what is possible. It’s not always easy to take the path less traveled.

What’s your best UNICEF experience/memory?
During the UPSHIFT workshop, the memories of how passionate and motivated the participants were in developing solutions. The room was teeming with energy and potential for the entire 2.5 days that they were there.

What’s one of the biggest risks you’ve ever taken in your life?
I left the US for Vietnam just 2 weeks after graduating from university.  I didn’t know what I would do, or how long I would go for. 10 years on, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What are your passions?
I’m passionate about constantly improving myself. I always look at ways I can become a better father, a better employee, a better leader; healthier, smarter, stronger. Things that I can apply to achieve the results I need to achieve. If I am not the best I can be, how can I empower others to achieve their best?

What advice would you give others who are seeking a similar job as yours?
Look at everything as a learning opportunity. You never know when or how you will use that skill or knowledge you picked up. Look at ways of applying insights from one part of your life to another.

Who do you look towards for inspiration?
My biggest inspirations are always the innovators who accomplish so much with so little. You don’t have to have huge resources or have millions of people listening to your every word to make a difference, and that always inspires me.

My colleagues don’t know that…
I’ve started producing my own podcast based on the conversations I have with inspirational entrepreneurs across Vietnam.

UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Maria-Luisa (Lucha) Sotomayor
UNICEF Innovation Team Spotlight: Eva Kaplan