In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what’s your business?
I am Meredith Oppenheim, founder of Vitality Society. For decades I have personally and professionally been passionate about and dedicated to keeping older people well. My commitment began with my cherished grandparents whose longevity became my priority. As a teenager, I started to cook for them, introducing ingredients that had been scientifically proven to have health benefits. Because they enjoyed and benefitted from what I made, I decided to start cooking for other older people at senior centers throughout my home state of New Jersey to help other people live healthier lives. I earned a US Congressional Award for this work.
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I have parlayed my 30 years of experience working with older people to create Vitality Society The goal is to build affinity around a proprietary philosophy so older people can live the most exciting and fulfilling lives and feel great in the process. We launched our successful pilot with daily fitness, wellness and enrichment programming live on Zoom. Our platform enables subscribers to benefit from the instruction of leading experts while creating camaraderie with others who share their zest for life. Our subscribers 60 and better renew nearly 100% every month and attend on average five hours of classes each week, a participation rate unrivaled and unprecedented for online programming designed for older people.
What inspired you to create this business?
Several years ago, my father was diagnosed with multiple blood cancers and blood diseases. I now know what it is like to have to fight like hell to save my father’s life and worry about my mother’s mental health — while at the same time holding down a job and parenting. We can’t do this alone. We adult children are already exhausted, and Medicare and Medicaid are already depleted. Thus, we all need to fight like hell to stay well, as if our lives depend upon it. Because they do.
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When my father was very sick, I asked my mother what she thought she would do should something happen to him. She did not know yet she made it clear she would not be moving to any senior housing community despite me working in the industry for leading owners and operators. Rather she said, “You are the expert and there are 70 million of me, so you’d better figure it out and quickly.”
I knew I had to think out of the box, that is beyond the four walls of senior housing, to give the massive maturing market another option to thrive. Baby Boomers have been game changers, so Vitality Society is catalytic in keeping them that way.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you pivot to overcome it?
I launched Vitality Society in January 2020 to provide a way for people 60 and better to stay connected and well. Little did I know, almost immediately following our launch, our online platform would become “a lifesaver” and “a lifeline” to many who were stranded at home often alone with a tremendous fear of venturing outside because of COVID.
Being a solo hands-on founder who is fanatical about knowing our members and providing the very best for them while having a child at home during the pandemic was beyond demanding. At that time, I was trying to sustain the physical and mental health of three generations – my daughter, parents and members, and also my husband and me. By Spring 2020, in my mid-40s, we temporarily moved back to my childhood NJ home from our NYC apartment, so my mother could help look after my then 9-year-old girl and me. That is, I had the very best advisor trapped at home as I built this for her, and she helped guide me to build the most relevant and important offering.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
Define your unique path that works best for your needs and vision. Raising money is challenging and demanding especially — as the data suggests — when you are female, over 40 and a solo entrepreneur. Given these circumstances, I had to figure out what I could realistically accomplish and execute. I made the decision that launching with a pilot I could bootstrap and optimize for impact rather than scale was the best answer. Ultimately, this gave me the very best opportunity and flexibility to experiment. In many ways, we have been doing a multi-year focus group and gathering invaluable insight and ideas every step of the way.
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Now we are on the cusp of forming strategic partners to fuel our growth as there is no limit to the impact of what we can do. While building the business, I became laser-focused on doing what we knew how to do best which is to engage older people. This is the holy grail of many industries including healthcare, retail, apparel and beauty. Companies are increasingly becoming aware that this older population has the time and money to invest broadly in their health and happiness. We will be the linchpin contributing our community-building and content-creation capabilities to fuel their sales activities by reaching and optimally serving the largest and most underserved market representing a $22 trillion longevity economy.
What does the word “entrepreneur” mean to you?
The word entrepreneur means pursuing viable opportunities often with insufficient resources and unlimited risks to activate my passion and purpose to improve the lives of older people. When I first launched the business in January 2020, my daughter was nine. I vividly remember her coming into my home office and wondering why I was staring at a blank screen waiting for something to happen. I told her I had organized and promoted a Zoom class and was waiting for people to join. She wanted to know how long I would wait, and I told her that you just couldn’t give up so quickly or easily.
Launching a business requires lots of patience and perseverance. With passion and grit, however, a lot is possible. Daily it feels like a sprint. Ultimately, it requires the stamina of a marathon. Yet when you strive to do something different and better than you think you can accomplish in a large and established company, you need to align yourself with advisors who believe in you and give you the guidance and confidence to propel your vision forward.
What is something many aspiring business owners think they need that they really don’t?
Initially, you don’t need a ton of money to learn lots and make a considerable impact. Start by figuring out which friends and family members can help you get the best answers in the shortest period. One example is my husband who is an engineer/MBA. When I told him I was going to build a community, he said to build on a SaaS solution and focus your time and money on creating something of significance for the people of the community that you want to attract beyond the functionality. This no-code advice has allowed me to self-fund for considerably longer than I ever anticipated or knew was possible. In the process, by starting with a pilot, I discovered what our members need and want and now we are ready to scale to have the greatest impact on those whom we serve and potential partners spanning many industries that can benefit from what we do.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
During my first year at the Harvard Business School as I was walking into my first exam visibly worried, one of my professors told me, “We strive for excellence, not perfection.” Until that point, I always strived for perfection which was often an unachievable standard. This has been the best life lesson, especially launching in the COVID context when so much is changing and happening so fast. Perfection is neither an attainable nor sustainable standard when the need is greater than ever and the timing is more urgent to help people. Keeping older people connected and well is so vitally important we need to keep going, doing the best we can and adjusting and improving as we move forward.