“It’s a snowball effect.” with Fotis Georgiadis & Courtney Werner

I think it is safe to say that constant access to people doesn’t equate to increased connection. It’s a snowball effect. Loneliness impacts our overall connectedness and ability for depth at a larger scale. One of our basic needs is to feel known, without meaningful relationships we lose our ability to thrive. As a part […]

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I think it is safe to say that constant access to people doesn’t equate to increased connection. It’s a snowball effect. Loneliness impacts our overall connectedness and ability for depth at a larger scale. One of our basic needs is to feel known, without meaningful relationships we lose our ability to thrive.

As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Courtney Werner.

Courtney is one of the co-founders of KOYA Innovations, a company aiming to initiate moments of intentional connection. She is also a samba admirer, marketing fanatic, and adventure enthusiast with a background in Psychology and Global Communications. Courtney believes that life is a gift and she is determined to live it with zest.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Courtney! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

InMiddle School I tested out of two grades and graduated High School early as a bright-eyed, frizzy-haired 16-year-old. Albeit nerdy, my much cooler and older sister, Caryn, kept me socially astute. The summer after graduation I was offered a full ride to a private school and promptly chose a concentration in Psychology. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Looking back, it was almost a natural progression. I’ve been curious about the human psyche my entire life.

My last year of College, I spent time on various college campuses mentoring students. Upon graduation, I moved to California and did more of the same. I was struck by the plight of incoming students whereby their hunger for connection was paired with an immense pressure to perform. All the while, social media was on the rise and the comparison game was beginning to escalate. It was interesting to observe the impact.

After five years in San Diego, I was offered the job of a lifetime alongside my older sister Caryn, a humanitarian photographer. We were given the opportunity to help shape the communication department of a global nonprofit. They took a massive chance on us while providing a safe environment whereby we could learn and develop new skills. For a few years we traveled abroad with this nonprofit documenting various NGOs as well as freelancing for socially conscious companies. Traveling opened my eyes to not only a different way of living, but a relational richness that I began to see lacking whenever I returned home.

In many ways, my years spent abroad created in me the resilience needed to embark on my recent venture. Last year, I transitioned from the not-for-profit sector into tech when I co-founded a startup. While I am still primarily focused on marketing and communications, my career has definitely been more of a winding journey than a straight and narrow path.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

According to Mark Twain, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” On my first work trip, I was in a near fatal car crash careening down the Himalayas in China. For most of the drive there were no guardrails. We turned a corner, hit black ice and ran into the mountainside, which propelled us toward the edge of a cliff. Miraculously, in that stretch only, there was a cement guardrail. The car was totaled, but everyone was okay. This was definitely a pivotal moment in both my career and life, because it pushed me closer to discovering my why. It was almost as if someone woke me up. A natural follower, I no longer felt satisfied sitting on the sidelines of my own life, which led me out of my comfort zone and into 20+ countries in less than two years. I am still discovering my why, but I am doing it with my heart and eyes wide open.

Can you share a story about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting?

I have made many humorous mistakes. None, however, surpass my decision to get a perm in China on my day off. Let me set the stage. My sister and I arrived in China a bit sore from the long flight and indulged in a deep tissue massage. The following morning our bodies remembered the massage like a heart remembers a fresh breakup. Our muscles were aching. To ease the pain, we popped some Tylenol and went to explore. First stop, the hair salon. For some reason, it felt appropriate to get a perm. So we did. I found it odd how relaxed I felt when the stylist hacked off the top layer of my hair — my fresh layers reminiscent of a bowl cut. Up until that moment, I had proudly rocked the same blunt haircut for five years. A few hours later, they took out the rods and, mercyme, I was a different woman. It was in this moment that my sister began to howl with laughter. She pulled out the Tylenol bottle and realized that she gave both of us a dose of Tylenol PM. No wonder I felt so tired and strangely apathetic. Six hours into this hair debacle, I looked like a brushed poodle with a botched haircut. I Immediately washed out the perm and rocked frizzy hair my first two weeks on the job. To say that bobby pins and a ponytail were my friends during this trip would be an understatement.

Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

Don’t make choices while jet-lagged. In all seriousness though, this moment served as an opportunity to laugh at myself and live the phrase “Que será, será.” The rest of the trip, and every trip thereafter, provided ample opportunity to iron out the true meaning of this Italian expression. Abroad, things rarely go as planned and this laid back approach to work has helped me remain sane and grounded as an entrepreneur. Whatever will be will be.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

As I previously mentioned, I recently co-founded a company called KOYA (Kindness On YA). What I didn’t mention is that the other three founders are blood relatives. In June, we released the KOYA app on Android and iOS. Having lived apart from one another and other friends and family, we experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to care for loved ones when there is distance.

Try as you might, you can’t attend every birthday party, promotion, graduation, or major milestone that you are invited to. And even if the intention is there, it isn’t always feasible to be present in the smaller moments of life such as “a case of the Mondays.” We created KOYA to bridge the distance.

It is our hypothesis that KOYA also has the potential to help alleviate loneliness for both the giver and receiver. For one, acts of kindness have been shown to reduce cortisol levels by 23%. Research also indicates that kindness releases serotonin, which can help regulate your mood and social behavior. For those experiencing loneliness, reduced cortisol levels and increased serotonin are extremely beneficial. Along with all of this, KOYA makes it possible to send meaningful video or audio messages discoverable at chosen locations. This means that when a KOYA is discovered, not only will the recipient know that they were thought of but should the KOYA be discovered at a memorable place, the recipient also has the potential to feel known. Feeling known and understood is the first step towards reducing the impact of loneliness. It is our hope for KOYA to initiate moments of connection that gradually produce similar exchanges in real life.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

During my time both on campus and abroad, I saw firsthand how loneliness impacts and takes lives. With constant access to both people and things, technology has turned our generation into an all-you-can-eat experience. Enticed by ample distractions, I have found that people aren’t as intentional in real life. In most social settings, everyone whips out their phones. Why is this noteworthy? According to social science researchers, loneliness isn’t determined by the quantity of friends one has. Loneliness is an emotional state initiated by fewer quality relationships and less social contacts than one would like. Everyone has a deep desire to feel understood and known. With phones added to previously sacred conversations, meaningful interactions are declining alongside our shortened attention spans. Many social interactions involve people sitting together on their phones. Together, yet alone. I experience this almost every time I enter a social setting. It is challenging to break through the noise and have an uninterrupted and in-depth conversation. Personally, to help foster intentionality, I keep my phone on silent and either in my pocket or turned over. I would love to see a shift in how people engage with one another. I can’t alter culture as a whole, but I am passionate about shaping KOYA as a platform to initiate change and I am dedicated to showing up in my relationships and social interactions with my phone down, my heart open and my eyes up.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

  1. On a physical level, loneliness has been shown to increase stress, which leads to an all-around lower immune system. If left unchecked, chronic stress introduces additional health issues including insomnia, depression and substance abuse. 2) Researchers at UCLA found that social isolation can trigger biological changes that result in chronic inflammation. In turn, chronic inflammation has been linked to serious health issues like metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and heart disease. 3) Loneliness and isolation have also been linked to higher mortality rates. A study by Brigham Young University, in 2010, found that loneliness can shorten a person’s life by 15 years. Sadly, there are more alarming statistics just like this one that are slowly being released.

On a broader societal level, in which way is loneliness harming our communities and society?

I think it is safe to say that constant access to people doesn’t equate to increased connection. It’s a snowball effect. Loneliness impacts our overall connectedness and ability for depth at a larger scale. One of our basic needs is to feel known, without meaningful relationships we lose our ability to thrive.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

1) Constant access: Pre-cellphone, if you needed something you asked a neighbor. Fast forward to today, if you need something you ask Google. We have shifted from interdependence to independence. 2) Perfection over vulnerability: It has never been extremely popular to lead with vulnerability, but now more than ever, there is pressure to perform. This pressure isn’t just perpetuated within family systems or smaller social circles, it is prevalent in social media. If social media is a platform, millennials and Gen Z are the performers. 3) Myopic vision: With eyes glued to devices, it takes intentionality to make eye contact these days. People have been known to fall into manholes, run into poles, and trip off of curbs because their eyes are looking down instead of up. The saddest part about this is that there is a world of incredible people waiting for connection if only we would stop to look up.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

1) Pay it forward: Pay for the coffee behind you, look up and acknowledge the people around you, or leave an encouraging note for a stranger to find. Simply look for practical ways to make people’s day. 2) Tell people what you think about them: This may seem small, but your words carry weight. When you notice something beautiful about someone, tell them. A few years ago, I told an older woman at the grocery store that she was beautiful, and she cried in the spice aisle. Later, I found out that no one had ever told her that before. 3) Actively listen: Ask your partner, co-worker or even the cashier how their day is going and make sure you actively listen. Instead of offering up immediate advice or trying to fix what is being shared, ask questions about the situation and continue to listen. 4) Offer your time: Your time is a gift and where you choose to spend it speaks volumes. I recently moved and one of my new friends offered to help. I didn’t end up needing help, but his offer meant the world to me and made me feel super supported. 5) Practice self-compassion: It’s only possible to give away something that you have. Spend time cultivating compassion for yourself and you might be surprised by how much compassion you suddenly have for others. Self-compassion also makes it easier to acknowledge your needs and feel comfortable communicating them to others without the fear of messing up. In turn, vulnerably sharing your needs can initiate relational depth.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, I would inspire generosity. Compounded generosity leads to human flourishing. It only takes one person to change another person’s world. All we have to do is look up, which has the potential to alleviate loneliness. KOYA aims to create intentional connection through habitual generosity. In time, I believe that touch points like these can draw lonely and isolated people back into meaningful relationships with themselves and others. It just takes one person. Be that person.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have breakfast with Ellen DeGeneres. Maybe a little cappuccino and an almond croissant from Bien Cuit, my favorite bakery in Brooklyn? Regardless of the morning offerings, it would be a dream to sit with Ellen and discuss what it would look like to make the world a kinder and more generous place. I have been inspired by her for a long time for the ways in which she effortlessly embodies these two characteristics. I also love how she encourages people to lay aside their differences and move towards one another. From where I sit, this is what love looks like.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/hello.courtneyruth/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/courtneywerner/

Medium: https://medium.com/@courtneyruth

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

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