Jean-Paul Laurent is an award-winning entrepreneur, founder of the Unspoken Smiles Foundation (USF) – an impactful nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting both long-term oral health and economic security in the most disadvantaged regions in the world.
Q. It’s been five years since you started the USF. What is it about? What brought you to it?
If you’d told me five years ago this is what I would be doing with my life, I would have told you this was not the direction I wanted to move in. But in life, there are circumstances that happen and shift one’s focus from the initial goal.
Initially, I was in the NYU College of Dentistry studying dental hygiene with the goal of going to business school. Then the 2010 earthquake happened in Haiti. A year later I went there, and traveled to communities where my father’s house was located, in Haiti. There was destruction and death all around, but I saw that the children there were still smiling. That’s where the idea for USF came from. The problem was I didn’t have the skills or the money to launch a nonprofit organization, I didn’t know what I was doing. Also, it was a difficult challenge for me to figure out how to go back and help these children because I knew the issues were going to be there for a long time.
Most people in the humanitarian world focus on giving clothing, food and other medical supplies, and dental care is always neglected. That’s why I saw an opportunity to use the skills I had acquired in school to bring something new to the world of nonprofits.
With this idea in mind, I decided that I instead of dental school I would learn the right skills to make this happen. I ended up going to Columbia to get my master’s in public administration and focused on learning how to manage. I got into programs with that goal in mind. All the courses were about leading an efficient and effective organization.
We officially registered the organization in 2016. And in the two years, from 2015 to 2017, when I was doing my master’s, we grew into a global platform. We launched a pilot program across four continents and served over 6800 children. We went to India, Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Iraqi Kurdistan, and also the US
That’s a general overview of how this program started because people started reaching out from different countries. That showed this is not just a problem in Haiti, it’s global. There are around 2.5 billion people currently affected by oral disease, and six million children with untreated tooth decay. I saw this opportunity to go global, leveraging the professionals that already exist in each location. So instead of bringing dentists from the US to other communities, we wanted to use the resources locally.
It makes no sense for a local dentist in a place like India, for example, to spend five years studying dentistry and then have nothing else to do after they finish. They don’t have enough practice, they cannot serve the community as well. We give them the resources they need to provide care within their own communities.
Q. What started in Haiti, your home country, is now spreading all over the world. It’s no surprise that oral health is correlated to better standards of living and better school performance, for example — what’s unique about your approach is that you engage local dentists to provide dental care, you are strengthening the community by training the local specialists, generate employment and a sense of belonging.
Absolutely. Our model is not only very cost effective, it’s also sustainable. It costs a lot of money to get insurance for airplanes, food, and book lodging to bring people from the US to other communities. Our model is very simple – all the money that would go to that, we spend it in the local communities to empower them and give them the resources.
The organization started with a seed grant of $1500. Everything else beyond that was about building the public-private partnership to get resources to help us get off the ground. There is a good and a bad side to this model, but it definitely allows us to do more with less. And I think moving forward the program beyond the private phases that we already initiated. But to get where we are, we maximized all the resources that were available to us. Whether it’s pro bono services, solutions, or dental supplies from our partner, the American Dental Association, or getting the structure of the organizations, like the Clinton Foundation that connected us with young professionals who already have experience with the specific skills and the helping build the structure of organization, and other basic things that we needed to make things run more efficiently.
We pride ourselves in working with this approach. I personally didn’t want to start asking people for money until we knew that our model would be successful and that it was going to make a difference. That’s why we’ve spent the first ten years building momentum, collecting baseline data and making sure the program is really working and can be sufficient. For each country we have to take into consideration it’s environment and culture – because if you’re in Haiti, it’s completely different from the situation than in India, or any other places that we’ll go.
That’s why we pride ourselves on using this model, and so far it has paid off. One of the most exciting things was getting feedback from the local dentists. Someone told us that this was the first time they got to interact directly with an international organization. Typically they don’t get to have those kinds of interactions, because most of the time those organizations go to communities and they stick to their own licensed professionals. But by using the local skills of people who are not only talented, they’re super smart, and it was a good idea to do it.
Q. How does the model vary between different countries? Has it changed substantially, or is it more about the way that you communicate in?
Our main model is the school-based model, which is a partnership with local schools or communities. That portion is very sustainable, and it can reach out to a larger number of children. The school-based approach focuses more on behavior change than on treatment and everything else other organizations work on. You can treat a child today, and six months later he can develop another cavity. That’s why it’s important to educate kids to develop healthier habits for life. We do that and if you take into consideration this country’s diet in some places. In India, for example, we focus more on the issues that affect the curriculum content. The content is the only thing that’s different, but the structure of the school-based program is still the same.The second model is the fellowship program. In many of these locations, education alone won’t solve the problem, because many of those communities don’t have access to the services – dentists’ fees and the cost of operations are huge. What we’re doing is bridging the gap between dentists and people in the population by training new local health care professionals to serve the population on an ongoing basis. This is a whole new level of solution to the issue because it tackles the social determinants of the main issue rather than just the issue itself.
One of the social determinants that cause people to have bad oral health for no reason is not having money to pay for treatment, and our model would be very active in solving this problem. Also, people have a fear of dentistry, so the fellows will educate people about the importance of it. When you see that the people providing the service are from the community, that makes it more appealing for the rest to come and join them. It also generates women empowerment and gender equality.
Q. To sum up: it all starts with a school that signs up to the program. You promote the program with the kids and their families so they sign up as well; then, you identify the fellows you’ll train to become local dental professionals and once the program is created, they form a relationship with the school, the students and their families so the project can continue. Is that how it works?
Yes. Our initial program is always the school-based one because it’s the most effective. The school sends us an invitation letter with all their information – their location, the number of faculty members and students, their age range, etc. Those details are important because it helps us be ready even before we really get to the school, we already know about the community and the children.We bring a year’s worth of dental supplies to ensure they will not only learn about these things but they also have the resources to put them in practice. Once we get into that school we provide education. The goal is to train the teachers to use the curriculum because it’s made in a way that anyone can use it – volunteers, teachers, and fellows. Anyone who’s got access to the program will get trained. Then the program is not just a one-time thing, while most organizations are there for one week, leave, and often never come back.
Our model, on the other hand, can stay in the schools for generations. We want to incorporate this curriculum into the schools’, so for a period of 12 weeks, every kid can learn about the importance of having good oral health. And in the next semester, they continue.
The second aspect of working with schools is that it allows us to know exactly how many children have existing infections. We don’t want to leave them in that condition, so we use our fellows to provide the ongoing cleaning within the school pharmacy. Also, the children can get treatment through partnerships that we have with other organizations and institution.
Q. Can you share any type of results on the impact that this has had on the schools, the fellows and the communities?
The fellowship program is not fully evolved yet. Over the past few months, we’ve been talking with the NYU College of Dentistry to see how we can become a pathway for them to put their structure within the fellowship program – that way every woman that trained for the Unspoken Smiles program could get an official certificate from the NYU for this challenge. This is very important because these women who are living in India don’t have the money to come here to the US to study. We bring the curriculum, and then with the certificate from NYU, they could reach for that. In a little time they could end up coming to the US, and maybe they’ll want to become dentists or dental hygienists. This also gives them the opportunity to grow.
It’s still in the planning phase, but we’re finalizing everything. We hope to train 20 fellows on an annual basis and reach 10,000 by 2030. The long term goal in India, Haiti and beyond.
Q. This means right now you want to expand your operations in those countries, rather than adding more to the list?
That’s right, and even though we still have to put in place the right structure. That takes a lot of resources and funding, to have the data collection we want to have. Everything is already in place in those countries, so we are in a major fundraising phase. Once we raise that money we can implement those programs, including the way we measure?