College Students Create Online Platform to Connect Young People With Seniors

Big & Mini helps promote intergenerational connection while combating social isolation

One of the Big & Mini pairings. Photo courtesy of Big & Mini.

OneZero: What is Big & Mini?

Aditi Merchant: Big & Mini is a nonprofit organization that works to connect young adults with seniors (typically over 60 years old) to form mutually beneficial connections and combat loneliness. It is a virtual platform, so all you need to join is a computer or phone. After going through a quick application process and background check you can be connected with someone who has similar interests and is from a different generation. The two individuals are able to talk with one another and learn about each other’s life experiences. Ultimately our goal is to promote intergenerational connection while combating social isolation, which has especially been exacerbated by Covid-19.

How did the idea come to fruition?

I am one of three co-founders (the other two individuals are Allen Zhou and Anthony Zhou). When Covid-19 started picking up in the United States in April, we kept seeing articles about seniors in senior living communities who had minimal social interaction and could not leave their residence because of heightened risk. Each of us volunteered in different nursing homes and senior centers throughout high school. We had gained a lot from the connections we were able to make with the seniors when hearing stories about their previous experiences, such as living through the Cold War.

Creating Big & Mini was our way of solving two problems at once. From the perspective of the “Big,” they are gaining companionship while on the side of the “Mini,” they are gaining access to mentorship. For example, if there is a senior citizen who was previously a nurse, we can try and match them with a young adult who is a nurse or nursing student. Big & Mini was started in response to Covid-19, but is helping to solve a problem (social isolation) which exists well past the scope of Covid-19.

We see Big & Mini as a long-term vision because there will always be individuals who are isolated and do not have the ability to meet other individuals in person. This is an easy way to connect people and allow them to give back to the community.

What is your background?

I’m a biomedical engineering major and have always been fond of the idea of using technology to create a positive impact, whether that be through human health or other avenues. I really wanted to study biomedical engineering to create something that would impact human health and quality of life for those who were older. When I came to college, I thought I wanted to do something to help those with Alzheimer’s or Dementia. Although Big & Mini is more aligned with the mental health and technology space, it is a platform that has helped many people.

Allen Zhou (left), Aditi Merchant (middle), Anthony Zhou (right). Photo courtesy of Big & Mini.

Can you tell us a bit about the team?

Both my co-founders, Allen and Anthony have always wanted to use technology for good as well. I met Allen in math on one of my first days of college at UT Austin and we have been friends ever since. He is an electrical and computer engineering major, and his role has focused on thinking about Big & Mini’s long-term vision.

When Covid-19 happened we wanted to do something to help. We kind of felt helpless just sitting at home, so we sat down one night and had a brainstorming session to come up with different ideas and thought this idea would have the biggest possible impact.

Anthony is Allen’s younger brother. He joined in and has really helped to build out the technology in a cohesive way. It’s great to have someone on the team who can really think about the technology side from different perspectives. We pitched the idea to him in the initial stages of Big & Mini and he’s been involved ever since.

I work on a lot of the day-to-day tasks, such as getting user feedback. Although roles are divided to an extent, any major decision always involves the team sitting down and talking through whatever is needed. We are united in the fact that we are all using our skills and backgrounds to create something which is positively impacting others.

How does the matching process work?

When we first started out, we used a Google form where each individual would answer some questions, type out their interest, and from there we would manually match them. It’s definitely evolved since then. At this point, we’ve set up a ranking system that automatically matches individuals based on their preferences and information provided.

Are there group activities?

We saw a lot of individuals wanting to connect within the wider community. We created group activities, which are online socials open to everyone in the Big & Mini community. We also have a nursing home that wanted a way to keep their residents engaged so we have nursing home hangouts to connect residents. We are also working on having broader matches in which a group of six people can meet weekly.

We are currently close to 1,000 active users and we’ve grown pretty steadily since starting the platform this past April. We were recently featured on The Today Show, which brought a huge boost to the number of people who are interested in signing up.

Going forward, we are looking to work with different organizations and senior living communities, rather than mainly seniors individuals who are living alone. We would also like to partner with different youth groups who may not traditionally have access to as many forms of mentorship. Overall, we are trying to build out our platform to be more accessible to different organizations who can benefit and grow our community.

Photo: Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

Can you tell us a bit about the marketing process?

When we started out, our goal was to get people on the platform who could be consistent users. We reached out to professors at our university (UT Austin) who specialize in working with older adults and asked them if they knew anyone who might be interested in joining, and they connected with us to a couple of organizations such as Age of Austin. We also did press media pushes and a couple of them picked up on it. One was the Houston Chronicle, a well-known newspaper in Texas, which propelled a lot more people to sign up. Additionally, we’ve reached out to different colleges and even have a representative at some universities to spread the word. All of this, social media, and, of course, word of mouth has helped us get to where we are today.

What challenges have come with building the platform?

The most significant challenge is to ensure we are scaling efficiently. We need to ensure there are an even number of bigs and minis who are joining the platform. Generally, the numbers have leaned to a higher number of minis due to us [the three co-founders] being in that pool and having access to a large network of individuals from our age group. Some of the ways we’ve addressed the challenges of getting bigs is partnering with different aging organizations who are able to spread the word about Big & Mini in their community. It can be difficult to get our foot in the door of these organizations, and yes there is a lot of cold emailing involved! However, we definitely try and use warm intros and have those we’ve connected with in the past make introductions for us as well.

Lastly, what advice would you give to founders or others looking to build something?

I think the hardest part is always just getting started. A lot of people have great ideas, but there may be a doubt that exists within your mind of “this will never succeed, people won’t want this, it’s going to be hard.” If you have the belief that you can start something regardless of the barriers present, that just may be the most difficult step to take in the process. Believe in yourself, and listen to what others say, but make sure you prioritize your own experience and potential which can help you get to where you want to be.

*Note: Big & Mini is an online platform. All members are required to complete the Big & Mini safety screening process, and are also encouraged to consistently use internet safety practices and precautions while using the site.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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