Why an Opera Singer Founded a Tech Startup for Seniors

Sara LeMesh
Aug 23, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Gurusurya Khalsa

Ayuda Care represents my desire to destigmatize aging and reduce social isolation among the rapidly growing senior population. I am a trained opera singer and have been volunteering with Bread & Roses Presents, a local non-profit that provides entertainment for institutionalized and isolated people, since 2003. It is through this organization that I first witnessed profound loneliness among older adults, particularly those who are lower income and/or sick.

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate years (I earned a Bachelor of Music Degree from Rice University and Master’s Degree from Bard College) I continued to perform within these settings. These recitals allowed me to grow as an artist and share music with those who truly need the entertainment and positivity. The powerful effects of music never cease to amaze me: I’ve seen patients with tremors cease shaking for a few moments during a peaceful melody; adults with severe memory loss brighten at a familiar tune; and depressed seniors light up when I shake their hand and say hello.

Photo by Peter Merts (that’s me at age 13!)

Upon returning to the Bay Area from New York City in 2014, I wanted to not only sing but to also explore the world outside of intense classical musical studies. While freelancing as an opera singer and performing with companies like the San Francisco Opera, I worked at a record label, staffing agency, and later a digital consulting firm.

My “Aha!” moment to build Ayuda was not just one moment, but a series of moments starting in the spring of 2017. Last April, I received a call from my shocked mother while at work. She shared that her father died and was discovered by a neighbor on his living room floor. He passed away three days prior to this discovery, nobody knew. I immediately requested two weeks off work, canceled a vacation to Paris, and helped my mom arrange funeral services. I also acted as Cantor (Jewish song leader) for the burial service and performed some of my grandfather’s favorite music. Needless to say, it was an emotional time.

Me singing at Bard Music West — a contemporary classical music festival in San Francisco

After this experience, I felt compelled to learn more about social isolation among seniors. What was first a curiosity quickly became an obsession, and my spare time was soon devoted to reading scholarly articles on social determinants of health and cognitive decline. I would rush home from work to continue my research and after a few weeks, started compiling documents and spreadsheets. I enrolled in a class at Stanford called “Aging and the Brain” taught by neuroscientist Dr. Simon Tan, and attended every meetup I could surrounding caregiving and aging.

From December 2017 to March 2018, I conducted a private study on caregiving and the challenges of aging with participants from all around the United States. I set up ads on Craigslist and Google, and spent my time on weekends and evenings conducting user research interviews and analyzing responses. I also spoke with physicians, nurses and geriatric care managers to inform these insights. It became increasingly difficult to balance this project with my job, so I decided to pursue Ayuda full-time in April 2018.

Stanford Continuing Studies courses are open to the public and available during nights/weekends.

Fast-forward to today and Ayuda is an up-and-coming startup in the aging space! We are tackling social isolation by helping seniors find concerts, fitness classes, and activities created just for them by musicians, businesses, and freelancers. Our hosts get access to a market and an audience they haven’t considered before. It’s a win-win situation: we help businesses make more money by bringing seniors to their doorstep, and we guarantee seniors high-quality activities curated by reputable professionals. This is a natural fit for me as a gigging artist who understands all too well the challenges of earning an incoming as an independent contractor.

Me smiling at the camera during an Ayuda concert in Berkeley

We launched our first event series this past July and connected with many seniors both in-person and online. We are booking events for assisted living facilities and senior centers, and we are helping activities directors to source quality entertainment, making their jobs significantly more efficient. We’re launching Ayuda in New York City with our inaugural event on Saturday, September 22. It will feature live music and a presentation on fashion over 60 by influencer and fashion editor Alyssa Coscarelli (you should check out her Instagram — spoiler: her clothes are amazing).

It’s definitely challenging building a startup (no surprise there!) and we learn new things every day. It’s hard balancing many competing priorities, which for us range from app development to bringing the right guitar amps and mics to Ayuda shows. We’re a small team so we need to work both quickly and efficiently, something much easier said than done. My co-founder is also my partner, and we need to be very conscious about maintaining a healthy personal life.

Me at the Baby Boomer Venture Summit in Berkeley

It’s exciting to think about our growth over the next few years because the possibilities are endless. Ayuda maintains the potential to be a global company with physical locations which provide not only activities, but also healthcare and wellness services for older adults. Assisted living facilities with in-house activities and medical care cost at least 100K per year, a price which is out of reach for most families. With children living farther away from parents and seniors living increasingly long lives, we believe the world needs a service like Ayuda to bridge the gap.

We are so grateful to Stripe and Atlas for the online community of founders and regular dinners. It can be very isolating working on a startup, so it’s important to connect regularly with other entrepreneurs and receive objective feedback. The Atlas Community provides an important outlet for learning and asking questions. It’s also very easy to forget about important legal and financial aspects of starting a business, so every founder should check out Atlas to avoid trouble down the line. Pro-tip: file your 83B on time and get guaranteed delivery from USPS. You’ll thank me later, I promise.

This post originally appeared on Built on Stripe — an online collection of founder stories. To learn more about Ayuda Care, visit www.ayudacare.com. You can also find Sara on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Built on Stripe

Hundreds of thousands of founders around the world have used Stripe to start and grow their businesses. We've collected some of their stories.

Sara LeMesh

Written by

CEO of Ayuda Care, opera singer, mentor. Passionate about honorable eldercare, gender equality, and helping underserved communities in San Francisco.

Built on Stripe

Hundreds of thousands of founders around the world have used Stripe to start and grow their businesses. We've collected some of their stories.

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