Influencer Zaira Barrientos: dynamic and entrepreneurial

Interview February 2021

Could you share with us some information of your family life?
I am a 48 years old single mom and I have one other sister and brother. I was born in the Dominican Republic and when I was 6,5 years old my family migrated and came to live in Curaçao. My grandmother from my father’s side was living in Curaçao and invited our family to come and stay in Curaçao. Both my parents are still alive. Without this important decision to migrate and come and live in Curaçao, a decision my mother mostly took, my life would have had a totally different outcome. My mother instilled in us an extra motivation, because migrants didn’t had a good reputation. But migrants have a chip on their shoulder, just like people from Chinese descent, they work extra hard. So my mother instilled in us a mindset that through hard work and perseverance we would make our lives better. The moment I arrived in Curaçao, I went to primary school and immediately started to learn Dutch and read a lot of books. After finishing my High School (VWO) I went to Holland for my studies.  In the meantime, my parents applied to become Dutch and we got a Dutch passport.

Could you share something of your educational background and your experiences?
In the primary school level I was always walking with a book in my hand and I read a lot. I was like kind of a bookworm. The idea was that I was able to perform better if I would have a bigger vocabulary. So when I was at High school and with 4 of my friends at school we decided that we would start talking Dutch with each other as this would help us with our Dutch vocabulary, when we left to Holland for our advanced studies. I wanted to become a Medical Doctor. But when I participated in the lottery to earn a slot to study medicines, I wasn’t drawn in the early first two tries I made. So I had to follow my Plan B. I was good in sports and loved doing sports. Since I was 9 years old till I was 15 years old, I participated in volleyball, softball, gymnastics and competitive swimming.  So when I wasn’t drawn to study Medicines as my first two years in Holland, I applied for a slot to study at the Sport Academy. To be allowed, I had to make a film of my own sports performance, which was very amateuristic, but anyway I was allowed to start my  studies at the Sport Academy. After these first two years, I finally was drawn and allowed to start with studying Medicine. As I was studying Medicines, I got in contact with scientific research. I asked for a small subsidy to a Pharmaceutical Company and ended up during 5 years asking subsidies at the EU and Pharmaceutical Companies and I gained so much experiences in asking subsidy and in scientific research. But in my Medicine Study I had some delays, which I later made up. But the experiences with scientific research during 5 years that I was part of an international team studying a rare metabolic disorder, collecting the scarce information that was by then available and also information on medicines on one of these diseases that were patient related, was priceless. In medicines, I didn’t choose the clinical option of the study and before coming back to Curaçao in 2006 I also studied management. 

After 2006 I did some small upgrades, like becoming an export coach of the Ministry of Economic Development and the most important being a certification for First Aid in Mental Health for adults and adolescents. As a red line through my whole career, there has always been project management. I do what I like to do, and I love what I am doing now. In all the things that I have done, adult re-education is the one I love the most.

You are an entrepreneur and driver of mental health first aid in Curaçao and so far we know you were the first to have been able to collect funds for a major project from the Netherlands for projects in Curaçao, can you elaborate on the goals and impact you hope to achieve with this project?
Yes, this has been a breakthrough indeed. I am the first one offering projects related to Mental Health First Aid. I love doing these workshops. The first day, people come in rather skeptical. And after the first day of the workshop they are like WOW? Most are waiting quite some time for something and this comes up and they experience it as a fun thing to do. If I had tried to explain upfront what it would all be about, most would have reacted rather skeptical, a long the lines of “What is this?”

The impact is special, it has a low threshold. Everyone is able to participate, whether you are highly educated or if you have no medical background, we have made it accessible. It is a real Mental Health First Aid to help someone who is developing a mental problem. It is also breaking the taboo’s related to mental health problems and it breaks with stigmas. It was indeed a breakthrough project, opening up the opportunities for more projects. We are now in the 5th project in 2 years. And as we have a good track record of finishing projects with good results, we can notice that in the conversations we have donors, they are becoming more and more enthusiastic towards are new initiatives. We have broken the ice and we are in awe of this.

What is your BIG WHY or driving motivation to be whom you are right now? 
My daughter also asks me this question often. Why was I born and whom am I ..etc…I am telling her go and study Philosophy, ha,ha,ha…

For me it is simple, if you want to achieve something, you have to start with yourself first. I am a person of great Faith. And as a Believer I believe that everything will end up ok. I take small steps, even if it is only one person that I can reach at the time, that is the approach, start small and then the spin-off can spread. The power behind this approach is that you can prove to someone that they can change, that it is possible. I love One-on-One’s. I have done some change management projects in different companies. In that setting you also have a lot of people that don’t want to change. But in One-on-One ypoun enable them to make a choice themselves to change. I also makes you conscious of the fact that if they chose to change or not that doesn’t has to frustrate you. If you start small and the person changes that gives you a lot of energy. In that sense I am a coach, I am not a consultant telling people what they should do. It is up to them when you coach, if they chose to change. So my BIG WHY is to enable people to change if they chose to.

What are the challenges that you are dealing with?
The culture can be paralyzing because either you hit this huge cultural wall and fight it. Blame people and  asking them: “Why do you think in limitations? Why do you have to see the impossibilities first”

Or you do what I try to do, that is don’t be judgemental. And doing just that is my big challenge. I was raised with the mindset that by working hard, tomorrow will be better dat than today.

The challenge is to rid myself of my judgements, put it aside. I do this every time I am in a course. I am correctgn myself continously, that I shouldn’t think like that. I should see other people having their own different references. 

And how are you dealing with these different challenges you confront?
I am continuously correcting myself, when I become aware that I am being judgmental and that I shouldn’t think like that.

But you are addressing this issue through your workshops  and that is commendable.

Yes, I try to confront people in my workshops with questions like: “Why do you choose to stand still on your life? Why do you consider your work to be lousy and you don’t do anything about it? Why do you always blame the government?

I confront them with questions and tell them I am not addressing this question to the government, I am asking them. Then I see them thinking, that is special. I thus ask questions, lots of questions, and I try not to be judgemental. This how I deal with this challenge. 

Do you use your inner voice to evaluate when dilemma’s show up? How does that work for you?
Yes, I do have epiphanies. I am a quick in taking decisions. I am also very good in visualizations of the future I want to manifest, even if the situation right now is very chaotic, I am able to do that and come up with new perspectives in my visualizations.

But to solve dilemma, I will have different dialogues within myself and I am giving myself feedback from different perspectives. It is kind of a mental preparation before going into a real conversation with someone about the dilemma. Through repetition, I teach myself things, as an example is the one I mention before as my biggest challenge “not being judgemental”.

My mother tells me at times that I have a very bad inner compass, as I not always select the right persons around me, but then I have notice that if people don’t fit in my direct environment they often leave by themselves. They don’t stay long, as it see it, it is kind of God’s protection of me. So it corrects itself soon afterwards.

How are you trying also to keep up with your personal knowledge and skills levels?
I have developed and kept for long the habit to read scientific articles. The past 5 years this has become less, now I am more into webinars, online workshops, TED talks I do this a lot. I also often advise people but these days I am reading less scientific articles. Basically, I still read a lot and my eyes are at times weary from all that reading. I nowadays even need a reading glasses.

What are your strengths?
I am very good in project management, planning so that we don’t get stressed because of lack of planning, I am good at organizing events. I am not good in my administrative task, there I have a back log. I have a very good helicopter view, and this frustrates my daughter and employees at times. I also have a lot of compassion for other people and I can feel sorry for other people and try to see how I can be of help. At times this is misused. I have a high IQ and EQ (emotional Intelligence).

I am quick to give people things or to help someone out. My mother is the same. I am a very generous person. If I want to surprise a person I could bring them a cup of soup. It makes them and myself very happy.

Do you have hobbies?
I still love reading, although my time is hard-pressed these days. I do less sport because of a hip injury but I still love swimming. I wake up at 5 am and make myself a cup of coffee and just sit in silence and enjoy how the birds wake up. I love good food.

How would you describe Zaira in one word or one sentence?
Dynamic, entrepreneurial and joyfull.

Whom are the persons that have inspired you the most in your life?
My mother and also an aunt of me that is always into making fun in the things life offers, this has helped me a lot. Furthermore, some youth leader from the very dynamic church that I am associated to. They have inspired me so much that I also strive to be meaningful for others.

What is a trait that is still work in progress?
Patience with employees and patience in general. I train myself often in this but then I loose it still at times. Listening without being judgemental, not even thinking just listening, that is what I am trying to improve.

What was a defining moment in your life?
Choosing when I was a student in Medicines for the scientific research world. Choosing not for the clinical side of Medicines, this combination of having a medical background, having management experiences and project management skills is a rare combination. This is my unique selling point, and it is rare. This has opened a path that has become my personal journey.

What would you want your Loved Ones, family, friends and others to say about you let’s say 20 years from now?
That I will be seen as a good friend in all sense of the word, trustworthy with compassion, easy to deal with in the fun and the not so fun things that happen in life. When they look back, they will say that I am a good friend and they don’t have to have a lot of friends.

What makes you stay optimistic about the future of Curaçao as we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, recession and in the middle of growing environmental challenges because of the global warming consequences?
If there are enough people with small grassroots  initiatives and they persevere and synergize with one another, this could grow out to become a movement. This according to me is the only way to have impact and to maintain hope.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Every day to wake up and take notice of some things that you are thankful for. If that is the case then there is hope, then whatever you strive for must succeed and nothing is impossible.

One of the 250 Influencers of Curaçao
Zaira Barrientos, is a passionate, dynamic, driven, entrepreneurial, fun-loving person that is committed to “having impact”. Her upbringing from her parents and her background as a migrant – at the age of 6,5 years, she moved with her parents from Santo Domingo to Curaçao – has taught her the importance to “adapt”. This gave her a chip on her shoulder to work extra hard to be successful in life and her career. Reading a lot since her primary school days and working hard has brought her to Holland where, when she was studying Medicines, she got acquainted with scientific research. Having a non-clinical medical background combined with management, change management, business coaching and project management experiences, has helped her to offer a rare combination of skills that makes her unique.

Over the past 5 years Zaira has increasing been able to identify local and funds from outside of Curaçao and she has implemented projects that delivered the promised outcomes.  Her Mental Health First Aid that with foreign funds was offered to civil servants in government in Curaçao was the first in its kind and in that sense, she is doing groundbreaking work. The participants have enjoyed the content, which was accessible and it helped break taboo’s related to mental health problems. Working in Curaçao in a culture that can easily be paralyzing, because of its tendency to think in limitations, she is taking small steps preferably in One-on-One settings and striving to rid herself from judgements. With this approach and her drive we are convinced that by staying her course, her impact will even grow bigger and bigger. That is why we dearly love and deeply respect Zaira and consider her part of the 250 Influencers of the island representing the Business and Educational sector.

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