Diversity & Inclusion
Entrepreneurs / Incubators / Startups

Blue Ridge Labs’ fellowship, focused on older adults, is a portrait of tech inclusivity

It's not the average tech event that draws in church mothers — and that's the point.

Teresa Barker, a Blue Ridge Labs fellow, presents her team's product, Our Second Act. (Courtesy photo)

It appeared to be a typical pitch event: name tags, drinks and appetizers. But as I moved closer to the main room where the Blue Ridge Labs @ Robin Hood fellowship showcase was to be held, the vibe suddenly changed.

There was a familiar voice singing jazz standards — not the typical background music for industry mixers. Then, once I walked in, I spotted a familiar face, a lady I knew from church, Connie Stewart. She asked me if I was enjoying the slice of hot chocolate cherry supreme cake I had on my plate. As it turned it, she ran a cake business, and she’d supplied the evening’s desserts. And the jazz singer? Another churchgoer, Naomi Johnson.

Funny coincidence, I thought, as I settled in for the presentations to begin. Who would’ve thought I’d run into two silver-haired church ladies at a tech showcase? But, I’d soon find out, that was precisely the point.

The first presenter, Teresa Barker of Our Second Act, told the story of a retiree who sought additional income and decided to pursue selling the cakes her friends had always raved about. That retiree, of course, was Stewart.

Barker, along with the 14 others in her cohort of fellows at Blue Ridge Labs, spent five months developing tools for adults aged 60 and older and their caregivers in New York City. Older adults, as the showcase attendees learned, are the fastest-growing age segment in New York City; by 2030, there will be some 1.9 million of them in the city. One out of five older adults in the city lives in poverty, and one out of six relies on emergency food services.

On the flip side, seniors globally are quickly developing tech literacy: they’re taking to social media and even becoming adept at emoji. So addressing the challenges of older adults through tech makes sense, Bill Cromie, Blue Ridge Labs’ director of emergent technology, told me, though it might not appear that way at first.

“There aren’t a lot of people trying to use the lever of technology to address this,” he said.

Naomi Johnson serenaded the crowd. (Courtesy photo)

Naomi Johnson serenaded the crowd. (Courtesy photo)

The fellowship produced five teams, each of which presented at the showcase.

  • Our Second Act guides retirees in launching their own businesses.
  • Masaryk Co-Lab helps community organizations create tech tools for their projects; it’s working with a housing community on the Lower East Side to develop a health stat tracker for its clinic.
  • Turnstyle runs an online platform that connects seniors to an array of public services in a friendly format.
  • Settle In NYC is a text-messaging platform that allows people to report instances of illegal housing discrimination; it’s especially targeted to older adults who have been released from prison.
  • Hello Caregiver makes a Facebook Messenger chatbot that is designed to support those caring for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Audience members voted on their favorite product from the showcase. Each team will receive a proportionate amount of additional funding based upon the vote, Cromie told Technical.ly. The following day, Turnstyle was announced as the winner.

Joe Silva, who gave Turnstyle’s presentation, heard about Blue Ridge Labs while pursuing a master’s of social work degree at Hunter College, which he completed in 2015. As a social worker, he hated having to tell clients to look elsewhere for particular services, because he knew how onerous the process of hunting them down could be. Turnstyle, he said, could help those clients connect the dots more readily.

“I realized just how ripe the opportunity is to help people who are in between services,” he said.

The team behind Turnstyle won the audience vote. (Courtesy photo)

The team behind Turnstyle won the audience vote. (Courtesy photo)

From my vantage point, the Blue Ridge Labs showcase also revealed another ripe opportunity for the tech industry at large: to harness the power of the broader community. The fellows’ research involves community outreach. It’s how Masaryk partnered with the Lower East Side housing community from which it takes its name and how Johnson and Stewart got connected with Our Second Act.

And the fellows themselves come from a variety of backgrounds. For instance, Barker, who came from San Diego to participate, is a gerontologist. Selma Jackson, one of the cofounders of Masaryk Co-Lab, has had a varied career as a teacher, author and business owner. Jenn Onyeagbako, the cofounder of Settle In NYC, is a designer. In fact, only two of the fellows are software engineers.

The presentations reflected an awareness of this unusual assortment.

“We’re a couple of low-tech experts in a high-tech incubator,” Barker remarked during her presentation.

Another presenter, Lincoln Clarete of Masaryk Co-Lab, playfully jabbed at the tech industry, at one point making a reference to Juicero, the infamous maker of an expensive (and self-obviating) juice-squeezing machine.

“I feel like we’ve been wastefully building hardware and software that is basically useless,” he said.

That’s exactly the opposite of what Blue Ridge Labs is going for. For one, Cromie said, the organization focuses on a narrow set of topics it believes it is well positioned to address. If other organizations are focused on a topic, Blue Ridge Labs rules it out. Next, the organization only addresses problems that can be adequately researched in the given time for the fellowship. How to prevent eviction, for instance, may be too thorny of a challenge, given that it’s difficult to identify precisely who is on the verge of losing an apartment but hasn’t yet been evicted.

Finally, the topic must be well suited to technology, in particular, as a solution. That may eliminate other worthy subjects that require lengthy, hands-on assistance; Cromie gave the example of assisting young adults exiting the foster care system. (We should note, however, that the city’s Administration for Children’s Services held a hackathon on this topic last year.)

“Tech as an intervention is not suited to every sort of problem,” he said.

But as this year’s fellows learned, it may well be positioned to improve the lives of this city’s older adults and, in turn, create a more inclusive community.

“It takes a village,” said Onyeagbako as she finished up her presentation. “This is how we’re building our part of the village.”

Companies: Blue Ridge Foundation
Series: Brooklyn

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