At its core, leadership is the ability to inspire others to be better and stronger, which requires an openness and also vulnerability. This requires, for one, making your team a top priority and treating everyone as a peer who’s encouraged to contribute to the company’s direction and vision. I’ll be the first to admit that there are things that I do not know, but I do know that a leader is only as good as the people around you, and it’s imperative to always treat them with respect. Even if your team makes a misstep, you have to turn that on its head and find the opportunities to help them improve. I’m also vulnerable with my team and that allows them to support me as much as I support them. Also, many company leaders often fear sharing information as it limits control, and I understand that mindset. But you have to let that fear go, because the strongest leaders are the ones who build strong teams by including them, sharing details with them and allowing them to understand their contributions in a bigger picture. I strive to make transparency and collaboration within teams core tenets of my business leadership approach.
As part of my series about “companies and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendi Burkhardt. Wendi, in her role as the CEO of Silvernest, is responsible for driving the company’s overall direction and strategic growth, as well as overseeing day-to-day operations. She boasts more than 25 years of technology experience working with venture startups, emerging technology companies, rapid-growth tech firms and Fortune 500 corporations. Her history also includes working with Home Instead, a $1 billion in-home, senior care corporation. She is a seasoned entrepreneur, as well as a mentor and coach to social ventures.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Wendi! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to start on your career path?
The concept of Silvernest emerged through personal experience, having aging loved ones in my family, as well as through our early co-founder’s experience in the aging industry. We recognized that this aging generation really wants to redefine the way that they age, and that includes changing the physical space they age within.
Many people have been in a position where they’ve watched their family and other loved ones age and have to move out of their home, and I think what’s happening with boomers and empty nesters is that they’re realizing that they want an alternative. They want a place to stay where they’ve lived for a long time, to remain in their communities and they aspire to age in place. The Silvernest platform was born to help address that need.
Silvernest is my fourth startup and the second company that I’ve co-founded. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in the technology industry for most of my career focusing on disruptive technologies. And now I get the opportunity to bring a disruptive new concept to market with the biggest demographic disruptors in our history — the Baby Boomers.
Did you set out to start a movement? If so, what was your vision? If not, what did you imagine would be the impact of your work?
When starting Silvernest, we knew that the concept of roommates was not a new concept — most people have shared a home with someone that they define as a roommate at one point in their lives. However, the idea of sharing space with someone later in life who is not a family member or loved one can be perceived as “unusual.” We knew that the concept would be disruptive because it is not how we are currently conditioned to think about our aging lifestyle or housing experience. Yet, as we age, our natural communities begin to diminish, our families move on or become busy, and often times we are living alone — at exactly the point in time that we need to connect with someone else. Shows such as The Golden Girls showed us how alternative living arrangements could offer us friendship, companionship and extra income, while having some fun in the next chapter of our lives. So, while we did not set out to start a movement, we are determined to make homesharing a new norm for many folks who may not have considered having a roommate as they get older. Much like Airbnb and Uber, our hope is that a long-term homesharing lifestyle can become commonplace and another solution that fits the needs of many boomers and beyond.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, we probably don’t have enough time to capture the many, many mistakes that I have made in both my career and journey of building Silvernest — the road of mistakes is long! But I am grateful for the mistakes because it’s the failures — big and small — that offer you the greatest opportunity to learn and course correct. I also think that having a strong sense of humor and the ability to laugh at yourself is crucial when you are building a company is essential. It’s important to never take yourself or the business too seriously.
Now then, I will tell you that most of our funny incidents were generally related to situations where we were trying to save money and, often times, this resulted in some extreme travel options. In one particular situation, I remember driving a crazy off-brand rental car that was missing several hubcaps and had dents in the side, and I had to pull that car to a meeting at The Four Seasons. Lesson learned? Saving money (in this case, $50) at any expense is not always the best decision. You get what you pay for in more ways than one.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Silvernest is an online homesharing platform that pairs boomers, retirees, empty nesters and other aging adults with compatible housemates for long-term living arrangements. Through homesharing, homeowners earn extra income, remain in their homes and communities longer and keep isolation at bay. Meanwhile, their housemates benefit by paying far less than market rent. Both enjoy the companionship and efficiencies that come with sharing a space.
Our home-sharing model stems from our belief that aging in place, in a stable and safe home, can fulfill all of the key social determinants of health. It also provides independence and financial gain to homeowners with spare rooms, and opens up more affordable housing options in crunched markets.
Studies show 90% of those 65 and older want to age in the homes and communities they love, however, many are on fixed incomes and are vulnerable because they’re underprepared for retirement. Silvernest enables them to leverage their homes — which are often their largest assets — to generate extra income that can be put toward their nest eggs, home modifications and other living expenses. What’s more, sharing a home reduces bills and other costs, allowing both parties to spend more on food, medical expenses, transportation and other costs.
Beyond financial gain, homesharing can help America’s aging population avoid social isolation, which is shown to be a key factor in healthy living. The number of people over the age of 75 living alone is set to nearly double — from 6.9 million in 2015 to 13.4 million in 2035. Research has found living alone increases the likelihood of mortality by 32%, and can also ignite stressors related to financial burden or frequent moves.
At macro level, Silvernest is making great strides in helping communities contend with their housing crises by increasing safe, affordable options for non-owners in communities that may presently be unaffordable. Homesharing introduces more spare rooms to the market that can typically be rented for below the market average.
Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?
We have so many to choose from, but one great one that comes to mind involves a homeowner named John and his housemate Sally. John is an 85-year-old widow who has owned his Colorado home for more than 40 years. After his wife passed away and his kids left, he didn’t want to downsize and lose the home he loved. It was actually his daughter that helped him find Sally on Silvernest, and they get along exceedingly well. John’s daughter appreciates the safety aspects of him living with a housemate. And, a big benefit for Sally is that she gets to pay about a quarter of what she was paying in apartment rent.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Cities and states can institute age-friendly initiatives that allocate funds and resources to help our nation battle one of its most pressing challenges — affordable and stable housing for our aging population.
- They can also create tax legislation that allows for new tax credits to be applied to homesharing.
- Help generate awareness throughout the community about homesharing and work to establish it as a norm.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
At its core, leadership is the ability to inspire others to be better and stronger, which requires an openness and also vulnerability.
This requires, for one, making your team a top priority and treating everyone as a peer who’s encouraged to contribute to the company’s direction and vision. I’ll be the first to admit that there are things that I do not know, but I do know that a leader is only as good as the people around you, and it’s imperative to always treat them with respect. Even if your team makes a misstep, you have to turn that on its head and find the opportunities to help them improve. I’m also vulnerable with my team and that allows them to support me as much as I support them.
Also, many company leaders often fear sharing information as it limits control, and I understand that mindset. But you have to let that fear go, because the strongest leaders are the ones who build strong teams by including them, sharing details with them and allowing them to understand their contributions in a bigger picture. I strive to make transparency and collaboration within teams core tenets of my business leadership approach.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1.It will take twice as long as you think it will to hit your goals.
There are many variables that influence success and, somedays, despite our best efforts and plans, there are variables out of our control such as macro-economic conditions that impact our results.
2. Fundraising is based on a very specific formula — your job is to follow the formula!
In the early days, I had numerous conversations with investors before I was able to discern that there is a very specific formula that VCs require for a business to be funded. After 100+ meetings and discussions, I finally understood the key metrics and elements of the formula.
3. Aging is not sexy.
The aging and longevity markets have only recently begun to gain traction and attention as boomers have begun to age more rapidly in the past few years. However, in a world that favors apps and innovations targeted to the millennials and younger audiences, “aging” can be a tough category to both recruit for and in fundraising conversations. Over a glass of wine, I could share some entertaining stories about our journey.
4. Early stage startups are not a good fit for everyone.
Working for a startup can sound extremely appealing to many individuals, however, a unique constitution and tenacity is required to survive and succeed in the early years. The hours are long, the failures are frequent and the pay is low — not the most appealing language on a job description! And, while many people are interested in the option of working for a startup, the day-to-day demands and realities can be difficult for those who have not worked in this type of environment previously. You therefore have to screen and hire carefully to ensure that the early stage team is self-sufficient, curious and able to continuously solve problems without personalizing the outcome.
5. You won’t take a vacation for the next 5 years.
I believe firmly in the concept of work/life balance and, when I started Silvernest, I was adamant that “this time, it would be different.” I had built a business previously and I was determined to prove that I could keep healthy boundaries on time, sleep and my personal life. And then there’s the truth about what REALLY happens to your boundaries when you are building a startup.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes, and one that I aim to embody is “Do good, have fun and the money will come,” which was famously said by Sir Richard Branson. I aim to be compassionate and conscious not just in my personal life, but also as a business leader. And ultimately, if you are going to pursue the world of entrepreneurship, do it from a place a of passion — focus on a cause, mission, service or a problem that you are deeply passionate about. Be kind, treat people well and build a business that speaks to your soul, and the rest will ultimately fall in to place with the right effort and team.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I would welcome the chance for them to follow and interact with me on any of my social channels. My Twitter handle is @WendiBurkhardt, or you can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/wburkhardt and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/wendi.burkhardt
Your work is making a massive positive impact on the planet, thank you so much!