- An Interview with Stefano Selorio, AgeTech Innovator and CEO-Founder of Carevocacy
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An Interview with Stefano Selorio, AgeTech Innovator and CEO-Founder of Carevocacy
Stefano Selorio: Learning is ageless. That’s something that we definitely encourage or we tell our team, and we even have to tell our own learners that learning is a journey. Learning is ageless. Your age does not define whether you stop learning how to use the iPhone, the Excel, or the browser, or the internet, or whatsoever. Even though others may have unfortunate stigmas and perspectives that are very negative towards this older population, but I do think it’s very possible for anybody to learn or pick up something new. It is just like picking up a bicycle and doing a lot of practice and riding the bike all the time.
Adam Wilensky: Welcome to the Canopy IQ podcast. In this episode, we’re joined by Carevocacy founder and CEO, Stefano Selorio. Carevocacy is a learning platform that matches older adults with online tutors. It’s interesting stuff. Today’s Canopy IQ podcast is sponsored by Digital Alchemy, a digital marketing agency specializing in award winning SEO and state-of-the-art website development. Check them out at godigitalalchemy.com. Welcome, Stefano. Great to have you.
Stefano: Thank you so much for having me, Adam. I’m happy to be here.
Adam: It is absolutely my pleasure. I want to start off by saying congratulations. You were selected as a finalist in the 2023 Age Tech Challenge. You founded Carevocacy back in 2020 during COVID, and just three short years later, you’re presenting at the On Aging Conference in Atlanta. How does that feel?
Stefano: I’ll say it’s pretty surreal still. Every time I do a public event or anything that I’m actually out at a conference or a pitch event, I still get nervous. I still get in that kind of mode of like, man, do I really know what I’m doing? [laughs] It’s been an exciting three years, especially starting this back right when the pandemic happened, and then having to learn to pivot, to create, and to basically think of different ways to approach digital literacy gap.
It’s been a really cool experience, and especially that conference, which was an awesome opportunity to be able to meet so many people, founders like myself, to actually share ideas and share some of their experiences, and especially the fellow founders that I was with, competed against. It was really great to hear a lot of their pitches, and I’ve learned a lot from how they were going about the problems that they were trying to solve.
Adam: Oh, terrific. It was really, for me, just to see so many young people on that stage with innovative ideas, taking a fresh approach and really challenging problems, not just coming up with cool solutions to things that maybe aren’t a priority for seniors. You’re actually out there doing something that solves a challenge. You launched Carevocacy as a way to help solve the digital literacy challenge, and for older adults, that’s a major issue. You also want to reduce the negative impacts of social determinants of health. I want to ask you how that works in practice, and maybe you can speak a bit more to what exactly is meant by social determinants of health.
Stefano: I’ll give you the statistic that every person loves to give, which is, almost every single day, especially in the United States, there are about 10,000 people that turn 65 years old. Every time we age, there’s always a new form of technology that we have to learn and adapt, but especially now when we’re talking about individuals who are aging into their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and even to their 100s, unfortunately, we’re not exposed to technology like my generation was. I’m in the Generation Z/ Millennial category, and obviously, we grew up with a lot of amazing technology, but that isn’t the case for this aging population.
What we’re really trying to do is bridge the digital literacy gap. I like to start by sharing how it all started. First, I’m a CEO, yes, but most importantly, I’m a caregiver. I’m a caregiver to my grandma who has Alzheimer’s. That’s really what started this whole journey. That’s why I was interested about the space, and more specifically what were the current problems and what were the solutions that were actually working within the age tech space. I saw that there were not a lot of people who were trying to think about solutions for digital literacy.
There were a lot of nonprofits and organizations, and grants, and things like that, but why was this still a recurring issue for people? I think because it’s unfortunately not an easy solution to create. It’s also one of the arduous categories I think, to think about, especially when you’re having to create an experience, an education system, trying to figure out ways to engage and encourage the older population when it comes to technology. It’s really difficult but I love the challenge. I told myself, I was like, I love that I get to be part of something that actually creates a big difference in people’s lives and you immediately see the result, what we call the light bulb moment in Carevocacy.
As you mentioned, we talked about social determinants of health. Social determinants of health in itself in the most basic terms, it’s basically these are categories that our healthcare system has identified that has stated that, look, these are the categories in a person’s life that determine their health status. Unfortunately, for example, one of these social determinants of health is access to healthcare, food, education, which if you think about it nowadays, all of those require a form of digital literacy, especially during the pandemic, even before, even post-pandemic.
A lot of them required a form of digital literacy. What does that mean? You can take education or take classes online now. Now, imagine for an older adult who doesn’t have that experience or that ability to do that. That limits their ability to access education in that form. Same thing with healthcare. We’re talking about telehealth, talking to your physician, accessing your patient portal, especially to see your data, your test results, all those things, that requires a form of digital literacy.
Unfortunately, if you don’t know that, that can affect your social choice of health, and unfortunately really affect a lot of the things you have access to. We’re here to address that, we’re here to improve those things, and we’re here to be an opportunity where we can improve your social determinants of health. We can help you access those categories that you may be limited to because of the lack of digital literacy.
Adam: In many instances, I think as you just alluded to, older folks have spent most of their lives learning. They’re lifelong learners and they’re faced with a really steep hill when it comes to figuring out living a life in the digital age. For myself, I’m 57, I do remember a time that was analog, so to speak. Back in ’94, we were suddenly granted access to something called the internet, and it was a breakthrough thing. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for many of the folks you’re working with who are still quick studies.
Many of them are working through health issues, frankly, but many of them also are very keen to continue learning, but that barrier to entry can be steep and it changes constantly. I think it’s amazing that you figured out a path forward and that what you’re doing is making a real impact for them. Can you speak a little bit more about your grandmother’s journey and maybe some of the insights that you’ve learned just from experiencing from her healthcare journey, and the way you’ve been able to support her?
Stefano: Thank you for that question. I totally agree with everything that you’re saying. I’ll answer by saying that learning is ageless. That’s something that we definitely encourage or we tell our team. We even have to tell our own learners that learning is a journey, learning is ageless. Your age does not define whether you stop learning how to use the iPhone, the Excel, or the browser, or the internet, or whatsoever. Even though others may have unfortunate stigmas and perspectives that are very negative towards this older population, but I do think it’s very possible for anybody to learn or pick up something new.
It is just like picking up a bicycle and doing a lot of practice and riding the bike all the time. Because I can share with you that we have learners that are all the way from 92 years old learning how to use TikTok, to early as 65-year-olds learning how to be more competitive in the workplace, right? That means using Excel or using the features on the browser, or exploring different options on the iPhone that they never really used before because they only really knew how to use phone calling and texting. There’s so many things to learn.
I think at the end of the day, we just need people, like our team members, our tech tutors, or what we call our care advocates to understand to approach this in a very much encouraging and empathetic, and really, really, kind way about when it comes to tech literacy, especially with older adults. Then you mentioned about my grandma. Before her Alzheimer’s, I remember when we visit her in the Philippines, I sat down next to her, and she showed me her iPad that she was learning how to get used to it with, and she was playing all these brain games.
She was also playing games on Facebook, and she also made friends on Facebook. If I knew, I would’ve probably taught her a lot around online safety too, especially making online friends. That was really a pinnacle moment for me where I recognized that my grandma, she was at that age of she was already retired, but she continued to explore technology and use technology to continue to be socially active with people and to keep her mind active, too, as well, especially with the games and things like that. Those are the opportunities that we’re able to provide for older adults when they work with us. I will say that we may not be able to work with every older adult.
We definitely work with older adults who have the amazing mindset to learn because that’s really important, right? We don’t necessarily want to take on somebody who has been forced to learning something because that already creates a negative environment for that person. It really has to have some buy-in from the individual learner to be able to really say, I want to learn how to use technology. I want to be different from the average person who does not like technology sometimes. I think that’s really part of the awesome stuff that we do. My grandma, to give you a little bit of background, she was an educator back in the Philippines, so I feel like it’s come full circle to what I do now.
Adam: I love that. I love that your personal journey has impacted the direction you’ve taken in terms of making tech accessible. I want to talk that subject in a little bit more detail. There’s a stat that I– it’s a go-to stat for me because I think it’s relevant across the board. The AARP’s 2023 tech trends for 50 plus adults found that 68% of seniors don’t believe tech is designed with them in mind, and smartphones are indispensable to modern life, but only if you can actually use them. You said something before that struck a chord of me. I was working on this assumption that so many of these folks are retirees and they don’t want to live in solitude, and so there’s a way of facilitating a connection for them, an emotional connection through technology.
I had not even considered the fact that many of these folks are still in the workplace and want to be in the workplace, and in some instances, they have to go back to work. Technology is just an intrinsic part of life in this day and age. It’s fascinating to think about this delta between the modern-day workplace, the need to have a technological background, at least, some level of familiarity with technology that makes you a viable candidate in a workplace. You brought up Excel. Fascinating.
Stefano: As I said, it’s all about giving yourself the opportunity to explore things that you probably have never done before. I think, especially as we age, as I mentioned before, there are so many stigmas and perceptions and stereotypes when it comes to that. My team, I firsthand see the impact that digital literacy has on individuals who probably, unfortunately, didn’t have people in their lives to believe in them that they could learn technology. We have had people who even had gone as far as requested to be a tech tutor themselves.
Our learners have asked to be a tech tutor themselves because now they can not only get paid to teach technology, but they learn on the job as well. We’ve offered that opportunity for them too. Then also just in general where, as you mentioned about being socially active with people is something that’s really important. That’s one of the things around social terms of health, is making sure that we address the loneliness epidemic that’s happening with older adults. Not just talk about it, but actually do it too.
Actually, introduce it. I think digital literacy is part of that movement of addressing those needs and addressing those things that older adults sometimes may not actually share with people because it’s something that they fear or because they don’t want to let anybody know, and just the whole judgment around that. In reality, digital literacy bridges that opportunity for them. While I do think that some technology or most of the today’s technology is not designed for older adults, and the only reason for that is because not a lot of companies or product builders talk enough with this aging population.
What’s so unique about what we do is that we firsthand see how it feels like to even introduce and teach this piece of technology. We take a lot of the notes and data from those interactions and think about approaching technology in a way that would be easier for older adults to understand, and we’re able to use that data and that knowledge, we potentially build products down the line.
Really make sure that products that we build as a company, are actually keeping older adults the hero of the story, the focus center of the product, instead of just thinking about assumptions that they might actually use it for or just shoving a new technology in front of their faces. I think that statistic is unfortunately, yes, true in the case for that, but I think there are definitely a lot of companies like myself who are hopefully and are continually building products, keeping the older adults in mind.
Adam: You’re doing a lot of storytelling on TikTok and your videos are really fun. They’re very authentic. They’re very genuine. Not only do you have some fancy dance moves, but I see you get some of your fellow performers regardless of age getting them into the game. I love that TikTok, which is so often considered a platform for younger people, is going to become increasingly accessible to seniors. There’s one video that really touched me. You were helping a gentleman figure out how to set up his Chromebook, how to use it.
That connection with the Chromebook with his physical object was going to open this gateway for a connection with his family. That’s a powerful mission to take on. It’s really easy to point people towards YouTube, but we all know what that can be like. You can get lost. It’s hard to navigate YouTube. Sometimes the video you’re searching for doesn’t come up. Are you finding that a platform like TikTok is going to become increasingly important in the way you communicate with seniors?
Stefano: I feel like that’s what I’ve been known for [laughs] in this space, for my TikTok videos, which by the way, is half intentional/not intentional. To give everybody some context, my background before starting Carevocacy was in marketing. I actually used to be I guess you could say a marketing manager before I launched Carevocacy. I was 19, 20. I was working at a scrap metal company up in mid South Florida area. I was running a small team of two, which was the CEO and his second command.
I was doing a lot of marketing. That’s how I learned a lot about taking something like scrap metal and turning it up to 150% or more of how can we communicate, even though there’s a standard way to talk about scrap metal, but how do you communicate in a way that is exciting and engaging and tells a whole story behind that? That’s what I did for that company and I loved the CEO of that company gave me the opportunity to just explore that and test and just throw out ideas out there. I took that learning and brought it to what I’m doing now.
Because part of it, I’m not naturally a camera person. I am definitely a good person in front of camera and all those kind of things, but if anything, I am definitely more of like a natural/introvert/extrovert person. For a while, I wanted to speak the tone and language of Carevocacy from a very third person view, where I would always say we, we are Carevocacy, we are this, because I just didn’t want to be in front of the camera at the time. I wanted to use illustrations, stock images, all these things just to prevent any face with that. There was so much, I had this idea like, oh, I’m doing a startup, I know it’s just going to be me in the beginning of the few years, but I don’t want it to seem like it’s just me.
This weird viewpoint of being a founder, but then you also want to sound like you’re really up there. For a while I struggled with that. I think I was just inspired over time with the increasing videos of TikTok and Instagram reels and also other brands who were just saying, I just want to be myself. That’s where I started using TikTok and also Instagram reels. It was first Instagram reels, then TikTok, but started to get myself a little bit more comfortable in front of the camera and just saying, look, I also want to introduce to digital literacy in older adults and the whole journey to broader audience, but also make it a much more relatable and fun and genuine way.
I’m sure there are so many moments that we all share with our elderly loved ones are really fun and really engaging. We don’t necessarily share that with other people because it’s very personal, but it’s a very common thing. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to do so much of that with my grandma because of her Alzheimer’s, but I get to do that with a lot of our learners and the people that we work with, and the members and the patients to actually see those moments come to fruition.
You mentioned about the early days I was helping this gentleman navigate through his new Chromebook that he bought himself, but he just didn’t know how to use it, which is, see, a great indicator of someone who actively wanted to learn but just did not know how to go about it or approach it. If he did not know that I was an available resource at the time, I’m sure he would’ve just bought that Chromebook and never probably turned it on just because he was probably discouraged about how to go about it. Going back to whoever does this gives that opportunity for individuals who actively want to learn.
With that specific video, it was just I set my phone down, I said, look, let me just record this whole experience. I’m going through that process with that and I had a lot of people really, really resonate with that situation because helping older adults with technology is such a common thing to do, but it’s just not so documented, and it’s because there are so much stigma around it again, and I wanted to break that. I guess I wanted to take on that challenge to say, look, we can make people dance in front of a TikTok video, and guess what? Our learners are the ones that actually encourage it too.
Most of the time now, I’m not the one asking any of our customers or members or even our partnerships to do a TikTok video with us. They just slide in and say, “Stefano, are we going to do a TikTok video?” They’re not begging or demanding or anything like that. They just don’t want to sound like they want to be in it, but in reality they do. It’s so funny because I used to be so nervous to ask people to do this video with me, but at the same time, you have to get out of your comfort zone. Nowadays it’s like almost an expected thing out of–
It’s like every time I walk into a room, if you’ve ever seen my video, there’s an expectation that eventually I’m going to make a video of it or some sort of TikTok form. It’s a really interesting experience. I don’t know if I shared this with you, but we landed our contract with Humana, which is one of the nation’s largest health plan, to work with their subsidiary called Conviva Care Centers because of a TikTok video that I posted on LinkedIn and that one of their representatives saw that and they create the snowball effect of working with them.
I even made a TikTok video with their team, and also on the day that I pitched Carevocacy in that little boardroom meeting that they had, and I did a TikTok video with them. That’s not something that business school teaches me. To go into a sales pitch and basically do a TikTok video, and not even sure if we landed the pitch or anything, but at least we created the experience for them and hopefully the little social guilt to say, we just did a TikTok video, you might as well work with us. It’s opened up opportunities for me. It’s opened up ways where, also as a founder, It opened up opportunities for me to speak at events.
Because they understand the leverage I can bring when it comes to content creation and marketing, and what it does for people in the environment of creating fun and engaging content that also reaches a broad range of audiences. I will say that TikTok may have a huge, huge presence with younger generations, but it also has a growing presence with older generations. Because it’s a place for learning too. TikTok is a place for learning. It’s not just for entertainment. It’s a place to share those experiences, know what’s going on in your community.
I’m not the type of person that, and I tell my team, we’re not trying to hit people on the nail on what we do exactly. Because I think that’s what how traditional marketing is. I think what we should do is tell a story and then let people imagine what actually happens with those videos. What it takes to go through to create those videos. It’s all that learning that we don’t necessarily show out there because it’s too obvious, but we create that experience because the TikTok videos are fun and engaging, and just creates an opportunity for others to even learn more about what we do.
Adam: This is almost like a masterclass in how to leverage a platform like TikTok to bring your authentic self to not hold back, and really to use it as a conduit, not just for engagement, but for potential new business development. Congratulations on acquiring such a terrific partner for Carevocacy all through TikTok. That’s incredible.
Stefano: [laughs] And LinkedIn.
Adam: And LinkedIn. Can’t forget LinkedIn.
Stefano: Look, I am one of the few founders that post silly, but fun yet engaging, yet hopeful content. I say these words because these are words directly pulled from people that directly message me, by the way. To this day, I’m still surprised anytime somebody messages or reaches out because of a video, because I never know who’s watching. It’s because of, again, same thing with LinkedIn. LinkedIn has a traditional way of how you’re supposed to talk in LinkedIn. I knew that that was a stigma, and I knew that was a stereotype.
I also know that I’m a young person and I play into that too, so I use that to my advantage.
It is an opportunity to put yourself out there and especially with a person who didn’t have a background in aging or senior living, or senior care, how was I going to be any different from anybody else? How did I really have a perspective that was different from anybody else? I thought, let me use my marketing background, or at least my social skills to be able to do that. Yes, it has been a wild experience. I was going to mention to you too that we currently have this video that’s like going viral right now. It’s reaching up to 450,000 views just on Instagram alone, and so many comments, hundreds of comments of people resonating with the work that we do.
Some of them are negative comments because of their unfortunate experience helping old adults learn, which is perfectly valid. Not everybody’s easy to work with, but it’s bringing out this common experience from people, and putting into a format that, that is accessible to a lot of people if especially when they’re on social media. Leveraging social media to showcase something such a common thing to do is such a powerful tool and such a powerful thing that we’re trying to do with how we put ourselves out there.
Adam: 11,000 boomers are retiring every day. You mentioned 10,000 before. I know that number is between 10,000 and 11,000 boomers retiring every single day of the week. That is an audience for you that that numbers in the hundreds of thousands over time, and those are people who do want to learn technology, they want to embrace technology. You’ve got a growing cohort of folks who really need your services. What’s coming up next for Carevocacy? What do you see on the horizon?
Stefano: That is a ongoing statistic and it’s still very relevant with everything that’s going on, especially when it comes to the digital health literacy space. Especially when we talk about, or adults who have either access to the internet, to technology, and things like that. While a lot of them are retiring, a lot of them don’t really have access to basic technology needs like most other people do. That’s an ongoing situation problem that people will face. I’m happy to say that there are organizations similar to mine, whether it be the nonprofit or for-profit side that are coming together to solve that.
There’s also legislation as well coming into place to address those situations. Whether it be providing funding for people who don’t have access to the internet or providing some a way to provide digital literacy for older adults. There’s so many ways coming down along the line for us. We’re really excited about working with healthcare providers, specifically Medicare Advantage plans providers, primary care providers, people in the healthcare space who’ve worked with older adults for a very long time, and unfortunately have introduced or purchased technology like telehealth, but have never had a chance to really educate the patient on how to use things like that.
Because, let’s be honest, a lot of them don’t have the digital literacy to be able to access technology like that. We’re really excited about working with groups like Humana, Conviva Care Centers, health plans that really understand the value of digital literacy for older adults, understand how that central focus of taking that patient to understand the context behind telehealth where the patient portal is important in order for them to be able to access healthcare. Some of the things that we’re trying to create right now actually is leveraging OpenAI’s ChatGPT to create an accessible chatbot to help older adults learn about technology.
Our product is called ApoAI, which is A-P-O, which is actually the Filipino word for a grandchild. It’s basically a simple chatbot that older adults can text to a number that we own, or an application that they can access on the internet that you can text and ask questions towards you. You don’t have to necessarily bother your loved ones anymore. You can take ownership of the way that you learn and ask questions to this chatbot that will give you step-by-step guides on how to actually learn or use technology in that form. That’s an exciting project that we’re working on that’s currently on a wait list.
If anyone is interested in signing up for that, that’s something that we’re really looking to work with senior living, healthcare partners to work with to explore that type of technology. Then exciting things like, what I just found out about a week and a half ago, that the Center of Medicaid and Medicare services have created new policies to require all Medicare Advantage organizations to provide digital health literacy for the enrollees, which is an exciting opportunity for us because that’s what we currently do right now with a small group of about 500 older adults every month.
That’s something that we’re excited to talk with health heads about. I think it’s an exciting opportunity for especially those who have been working in this category, in this space for a very long time, who’ve wanted this type of legislation, this type of policy that encourages, that incentivizes people and requires organizations to really think about digital literacy. That’s something we’re really excited about.
I think it’s a huge opportunity for us. I have a new hobby now. [laughs] I read policies and grants now for fun. I say that because obviously it’s relevant to my work. This policy where if you met me three years ago, I would never probably read a piece of policy from CMS, now I do because it’s part of my job and it’s part of what we do, and part of the opportunity that we hope to take on in the coming years.
Adam: It is fascinating that you’re at this crossroads of technology. You’re fulfilling a very specific need, which is frankly been a long time coming. Hearing that there is now actual policy dedicated to helping solve this challenge means that you are incredibly well positioned for growth and that your heart’s been in the right place. This is a labor of love at Carevocacy.
Stefano, I want to thank you for the time you spent with us today. Absolutely fascinating. I look forward to having you back. I want to hear more about your adventures on TikTok and the things you’re doing out there, not just with generative AI, but the relationships you’re forging. You’re a really fascinating human being. I love that we’ve connected, and I look forward to future discussions.
Stefano: Likewise. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate anybody that engages with the stuff that we do. If you don’t hear it from me personally, you’ll probably see it on a LinkedIn post. Thank you so much, Adam. I appreciate it.
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