*published on 17 May 2014 in the NYT by Marci Alboher
Credit Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
IN her late 50s, Wickham Boyle left her job as an editor to pursue a project she was passionate about, producing an opera about 9/11 based on a book she wrote. A few months later, when she was ready to go back to work, she discovered it wasn’t so easy to find her next gig. “Our play closed on the day Lehman crashed, and my world dissolved,” she said, recalling the start of the financial crisis in 2008.
But then she met Danielle Grace Warren, who, at 25, was involved in a project to improve conditions and business prospects for the 600,000 women in Ghana who work in the global trade of cosmetics and cooking products made from the nut of the shea tree.
The two discovered they were a perfect team, despite the differences in their ages. Four years later, Ms. Boyle, now 63 and vice president, and Ms. Warren, 31 and president, are the driving force behind Just Shea, a for-profit social business based in New York that markets shea products. The profits go to a related nonprofit, which provides, among other things, equipment to protect women who harvest shea nuts from snake bites, and microloans secured by crops stored in a cooperative silo.
They also defy the persistent stereotype about younger and older people battling over jobs in the still-shaky economy.
When these multigenerational ventures succeed, if is often because of the different sets of skills and perspectives that an older and younger person can bring to solving a problem.
Lara Galinsky, senior vice president of Echoing Green, which provides seed funding to emerging social entrepreneurs, says she frequently sees such partnerships. Though the average age of their applicants is 29 to 32, she explained, “When you unpeel the layers, there’s often someone older who’s been guiding them in a mentor role or as part of the founding team.”
According to Nancy Henkin, executive director of Temple University’s Intergenerational Center, this kind of working and thinking can be applied in ways that even go beyond a specific venture or project. “How do you build communities that are welcoming for people of all ages, and how do you engage people of all ages in a collective effort to make the community a good place for growing up and growing older?” she said. “Instead of a senior and a youth center, why not a vibrant community center where people come together and intentionally foster trust, empathy and interaction?”
Ms. Boyle said she felt an immediate connection to Ms. Warren and her project. She grew up traveling often to Ghana and other parts of West Africa and had spent most of her career in the nonprofit sector. Initially, she volunteered her time, making introductions to her network of contacts. After about six months, the two secured an angel investment from a family friend of Ms. Warren’s, which turned their cause into a venture. The two are paid the same salary, which rises and falls based on how fund-raising is going.
The company’s products are sold in stores like ABC Home and through the Just Shea website. Though the venture is gaining traction, Ms. Boyle still takes on outside freelancing work. “I do worry constantly about paying the bills, but I’ve had an incredibly interesting chock-a-block full life,” she said. “And I do have this loft, which is my pension, 401(k) and I.R.A. It’s a sadness, but at some point I will have to move out of the loft so that its sale will care for an old me.”
Ms. Warren says working alongside someone twice her age feels natural. She learned about being an entrepreneur from her father, who has run a series of small businesses, including a tropical flower farm in Florida and reforestation project in Haiti. When she was in college, her father invited her to Haiti to help develop an idea he had for a women’s resource center, to provide classes in sewing and other skills and information about health and nutrition. Ms. Warren’s family wasn’t rich, but playing this kind of role was a part of her upbringing. Ms. Boyle feels a similar comfort in the team. Her daughter is the same age as Ms. Warren.
When Ms. Boyle and Ms. Warren describe their respective contributions, they explain how their ages and life stages complement one another. They use Ms. Boyle’s loft as an office and meeting space, even as a place to hold fund-raising events. “I also have tons of contacts from a life lived across careers,” Ms. Boyle says. She found a chemist who turned the raw shea into a marketable product, for example. Ms. Warren, by contrast, has relationships with funders of organizations like theirs and with others working on similar globally oriented social ventures. With no children tying her to the United States, she can travel to Ghana for long periods of time to focus on local fund-raising opportunities and to work with their employee on the ground. “We share like mad,” Ms. Boyle said.
Housecalls for the Homebound, another venture led by people of different generations, is a medical practice serving geriatric patients in Brooklyn and Queens. It began four years ago because of conversations at a family dinner table. Daniel Stokar, now 26, was preparing to graduate from college. His grandfather, Samuel Lupin, now 75, was talking about retiring after more than 40 years as a physician. Most of his patients had aged along with him. Over time, he dedicated more of his practice to house calls, so his less mobile patients would not have to travel to doctor’s appointments. “This was an example of a glaring medical need not being met by very many doctors,” Dr. Lupin said.
Mr. Stokar proposed bringing on some younger physicians and medical staff and training them in Dr. Lupin’s approach to care. “When Daniel talked about ‘taking my practice to scale,’ so that we could help hundreds, perhaps thousands more patients, I had never even heard that phrase,” Dr. Lupin said. “That’s not a term my generation used.”
Each family member has a well-defined role. Dr. Lupin interviews and hires other doctors, and serves as a mentor to them. Daniel Stokar runs the business of office. And Daniel’s father, Avi Stokar, who is a software engineer and computer programmer, is the resident technology expert. He created the electronic medical system used by the practice to track patient data during the house call visits.
“It’s a real blend of the old and the new,” Dr. Lupin said. “What we are doing medically — the actual rendering of bedside care — is very old. But every other aspect of the delivery is modernized.”
Since its start (originally as Brooklyn Housecalls), Housecalls for the Homebound has brought on six additional doctors and a nurse practitioner and has provided care to about 800 patients. They have a model that provides doctors with a competitive salary, without requiring them to run a back office or do hospital rounds. And they are proud that they have been able to deliver good care at a low cost. “If we needed to, we could visit a patient in this category even weekly, for an entire year, for less than it costs in New York for a single hospitalization,” Dr. Lupin said. The group also provides consulting services to hospitals and other practices that want to emulate their model.
Two years ago, Dr. Lupin stopped going out on house calls, maintaining his role in managing the medical staff and consulting on difficult cases. On average, he says he is working about 15 to 20 hours a week. After 50 years practicing medicine, Dr. Lupin says this work is the most gratifying of his career. And he hopes it will be his legacy. “I can’t pass on my medical slot to my son-in-law and grandson, but I can pass on the project.”