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Product design for nonprofit creates new potential for patients with mental disorders

February 5, 2020

Cornelia empowers its mental health patients by helping them create and sell products to their community. As the program ran out of ideas for goods, 3M employees stepped in to create a product design methodology for them.

Group sitting around a table making ceramic tiles.

A nonprofit in Brazil is using a novel approach to psychological rehabilitation for patients with mental disorders.

Cornelia staffs its 13 workshops with around 300 patients who grow vegetables and create mosaics and other pieces of art using materials such as wood, steel and ceramics. When their items are sold, the patients receive wages, enabling them to make a living.

However, Cornelia was running into a problem — it didn’t have enough new products or a way to generate ideas for new products to sustain its revenue model. It was unable to sell everything the patients were creating, which in turn affected patients’ pay and morale.

To combat this, Duminda Gunasekara, Senior Applications Development Engineer at 3M Australia, and 5 other 3Mers were tasked with coming up with a structured product design methodology, including creating the necessary tools to conduct initial market research and identify what to produce.

“Because 3M is such an innovative company, we have a defined process that I use in my current role for introducing new products,” explained Gunasekara. “Plus, I have experience finding the right people who have knowledge of and influence on consumer behaviors. My knowledge and experience benefited me greatly going into this project.”

Though Gunasekara’s work at 3M made him a great fit for the task at Cornelia, he and the team were faced with the challenge of being in a new environment with new people and working with an organization they knew little about. And the lack of familiarity with the organization was just part of the challenge. They had only eight days to deliver a solution.

Brazilian man in Cornelia workshop creating mosaic handicrafts.
Photo by Danilo Antonia Zullo

To make sure they fully understood the challenges Cornelia was facing and how they worked, the 3Mers visited all 13 of Cornelia’s workshops to observe their processes. They also met with management at every workshop to understand what was going well and their pain points. From there, through strong collaboration, the team was able to produce a new product design methodology, including several tools Cornelia could use to conduct initial market research and use the input of influencers who know a lot about those products. The Cornelia team was extremely grateful and surprised the 3Mers by learning how to say “thank you” in English and showing them a video they created of their time together. Upon finishing their time together, Cornelia’s leader even wrote an article in which he said he’d choose a pro bono program like 3M Impact over a million dollars.

The praise from Cornelia was rewarding. But the biggest takeaway from Gunasekara’s experience was the impact on his personal and professional life that was even larger than he anticipated.

“When working for a global company like 3M, being away from your normal place of work, home, family and office colleagues is something most of us are used to. However, when you travel for work you’re meeting 3Mers or 3M customers whom you’re familiar with. You know the processes, systems and what you are expected to deliver,” Gunasekara said. “The 3M Impact trip was anything but a normal work trip, because you were faced with the challenge of working with an organization that you have very little information on and delivering results in just a couple of weeks. It was amazing.”

“You were faced with the challenge of working with an organization that you have very little information on and delivering results in just a couple of weeks. It was amazing.”

– Duminda Gunasekara, Senior Applications Development Engineer

“This program was an incredibly intensive learning experience and required me to stretch beyond what I’ve accomplished before,” Gunasekara shared. “Because of this, I developed skills that would normally take months, even years, to learn in my normal job. I can already tell it has had a huge effect on how I see things, my approach and how I collaborate. This experience has made me see the capacity we have to help others if we just try.”

Woman holding hand crafted paper flower.
Photo By Decio Cesarini Jr.

About 3M Impact

When asked why they love to work for 3M, many employees, aka 3Mers, say that they enjoy making a difference in the world. To draw on this passion, 3M offers a program called 3M Impact, an immersive experience where employees travel to communities around the world to spend two weeks collaborating with a local organization to contribute to a solution for a pressing social or environmental issue.

Want to make a difference in the world by working at 3M?

Like Gunasekara, you could be part of a company that works to positively impact every life. Join our talent community to learn how your skills might be a fit at 3M when an opportunity opens up.


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