When Emily White started her first company she was already a grandmother by Silicon Valley standards. She founded OnlineHR, one of the earliest social networks, in 1999. Then 47, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” she says.
Not an engineer, not a technology specialist, and a first-time entrepreneur, White ran the company for eight years. Though she won five patents and a wealth of invaluable experience, White terms the endeavor a financial failure. The experience, however, laid the groundwork for what would come later.
“To be an entrepreneur, you have to be able to solve a problem that no one else is solving,” she says. “But it’s not like there’s a list somewhere of problems in need of a solution. Often, people don’t even know that they have this problem until you show them a solution.” Or they know they have a problem, but they’re looking for a better solution.
In search of that next unidentified problem and solution, White returned to social work 30 years after earning a masters degree. Working for five organizations—all of them related to geriatrics, a personal interest and expertise—over the course of seven years, she “saw the problem was in care transition.” As people moved from hospital to home, for instance, or into skilled nursing, or from one caregiver or physician to another important information wasn’t moving with them. At the same time, White mentored young entrepreneurs in a high-tech accelerator to learn about the tech landscape in the field of aging.
All of that led her, at the age of 61, to two 20-somethings, both MIT graduates, with a big idea. In 2014, White joined GeriJoy as co-founder and vice president of strategic alliance. GeriJoy is a tablet-based chronic care management and virtual caregiving tool backed by real health advocates. Bottom line? GeriJoy leads to lower hospital readmission rates. With a healthy sense of her own abilities and limitations, the financial scars from her first entrepreneurial endeavor, and an understanding of the energy it takes to start a company, White knew a partnership was the right idea. “I learned the hard way what mistakes to avoid.”
Senior Entrepreneurs: A Growing Group
Leaping in to entrepreneurialism as an older adult, White is not alone. According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, 1996-2011, 23.4 percent of American entrepreneurs in 2013 were people between the ages of 55 and 64, up from 18.7 percent in 2003. At an age when many people think of slowing down, more and more mature Americans are speeding up—to realize a lifelong dream, as the culmination of a diverse career, or, like White, to look for solutions to problems they are passionate about.
White’s interest in solving geriatric care problems isn’t just professional. Her mother is in her 90s and White says, “Now that I’ve worked in elder care, I know what’s coming for me and it’s terrifying. It’s a gift to have something you’re passionate about.” She knows that GeriJoy the company she helped co-found will, for many people, take some of the terror out of aging by allowing people to age more comfortably at home.
The first time Victor Wang, one of White’s partners and GeriJoy’s CEO, showed White his demo, she knew that she’d found her care transition solution. “We’re sitting in Starbucks,” she says, “he’s got these two laptops, one with an animated cat and one with an animated dog and they were talking to Victor. They could see him. OMG, this could help so many people!”
To call GeriJoy a “digital healthcare solution” takes all the fun out of it. In a company video, a 93-year old woman sits in her living room talking to her virtual dog. An onscreen animated dog visits every few minutes or hours, or wakes up if there’s a loud noise. The woman can call him with a tap of the screen and a trained remote health care advocates can see her via the tablet’s camera. Using a text speech program, the advocate “speaks” through the onscreen pet. As the two of them chat, “Poochkie” can remind her to take her medications or eat some lunch, to drink more water or check her blood levels. He helps her manage any chronic conditions, provides companionship and keeps her engaged—and can serve as a watchdog over in-home caregivers.
GeriJoy has already successfully reduced emergency room readmissions for users and, in tests, had good results with people who are experiencing various forms of dementia. The combination of a human interface and artificial intelligence puts GeriJoy at the forefront of healthcare tech start-ups.
“If I didn’t love this product so much,” White says, “well, let’s just say, I never thought I’d do this again.” Single, self-supporting and expecting no big inheritances or lottery winnings, White laughs, saying that reality keeps her hungry for the next challenge—but cautious. “If you’re betting everything, everything’s on the line. A lot of older people can’t afford to do that.” When her first company failed, she “spent three months in bed.” That fear of failure and the financial consequences, however, transformed her into “an entrepreneur who won’t quit.”
White has been able to combine her wealth of Silicon Valley contacts, and her connections in social services, geriatric and health care and with investors to form strategic alliances for the fledgling company. One important thing White brings to the table is that she is all too aware of the potential pitfalls of any start-up. That past struggle provides a necessary balance of youthful energy and an experienced reality check.
White sees all kinds of applications for GeriJoy’s technology for managing chronic care conditions of both children and adults. The possibilities are endless, as entrepreneurs of any age will tell you, and dreams never get old.