Network. If I had one piece of advice for anyone just starting out, it would be to network. Reach out to people that you want advice from. Ask people how they got to where they are. Request informational interviews. More often than not, people like giving support to others in their area of expertise, especially young, ambitious people.
As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sophie Aigner.
Sophie Aigner is the co-founder and COO of Alive, Fit & Free, where she hosts virtual experiences from instructors around the globe for people of any age or ability. She is a social tech entrepreneur who spent the first part of her career working on an agriculture technology venture in southern Africa. Her experience living abroad started as a teenager as a Rotary Youth Exchange Student, and she has lived and worked abroad for the last 7 years since the age of 23. She has had experience working on 4 continents and has made global connections which she brings together to create and build ventures that impact those who need it most.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?
I grew up in rural Arkansas on an expansive farm with a clear water creek running through it. I am one of six children, and we spent hours everyday making forts on moss covered rocks, learning to swim in the sparkling water, tending to our mom’s garden, and generally spending most of our time outdoors. For me, my childhood brings back Huckleberry Finn-esque memories — and I would not wish it any other way. We led a simple life, but one that was so fulfilling. Every day, I spent exploring and learning about the world around me, with never-ending curiosity being my dominant trait.
I also had a curious obsession with other cultures from a very early age. In particular, I was very curious about Chinese culture. I’m not sure how this developed, as we weren’t particularly exposed to diverse cultures living in rural Arkansas, but it has been there as long as I can remember. If you asked me at the age of 5 what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wanted to be Chinese, I wanted to have 20 big kids and 20 little kids, and I wanted to have a mail truck to drive all my children around in (I thought they would fit perfectly in all the cubbies). As I grew up, my dreams have since changed, but my insatiable passion for experiencing other cultures has largely impacted my journey until now.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One of my role models is Yvon Chouinard and I’ve drawn much inspiration from his book, Let me people go surfing.
I first started my career in Los Angeles at a non-profit helping homeless and low-income individuals become ready for the workplace. While I resonated strongly with the work we were doing, I ultimately knew that I wanted to work abroad to fulfill my passion of living amongst other cultures.
One day, 9 months into the job, I got invited by one of my friends on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to raft the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon on a 21-day trip. People wait years in a lottery to get the opportunity to win a launch date, and one of her friends had recently won and was putting together a trip. It came at a time where I was in the midst of my stay-at-my-job versus move abroad dilemma and it seemed like it would be the perfect way to clear my head and make my big decision. When I approached my boss to ask for the vacation time off, he all but laughed. While personally he would have loved to approve it, he said the organization would never allow anything more than one week of vacation time, and even that would be a stretch.
I chatted with some mentors that always had wise perspectives. I made a pros and cons list. I asked myself what type of life I wanted to live.
The next day, I submitted my resignation. I knew it wasn’t the path I wanted to be on. I knew that I didn’t want to lead a life where showing up at a 9–5 every day should be more important than experiencing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities and filling up your soul. I knew that I wanted to lead a life that was fully lived — every day — not just every day after you retire. And overall, I knew that it was possible to pursue a career which supported this life. These are principles which Yvon Chouinard has lived and has built his company, Patagonia, on. As the title suggests, when the surf is good, you should let your people go surfing. People are most motivated and inspired when their cups are filled — and life should be lived when we get the opportunity. I strive to live my life, and build my organization, with the same culture.
After resigning, everything fell into place. My boss recommended me to an international fellowship he had participated in years earlier and that was the beginning of my international career. The leap always looks so much scarier than it is.
You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?
In November 2019, I partnered with my mom, Vickie Aigner, to revolutionize access to global classes and events tailored for people of any age or ability. As a fitness instructor at senior living facilities, Vickie was experiencing more demand than she could fulfill for her upbeat, diverse range of classes tailored to bring health, vim, and vigor to people of any age or ability. As a social tech entrepreneur, I partnered with her to create Alive, Fit & Free, a virtual community where people of any age or ability can participate in live experiences which keep them energized and connected with community members around the world. We are focused on creating a new way to connect individuals who are most impacted by the lack of human connection, while at the same time paving a way for global creatives to scale their businesses and access the true demand for their services, using a business model that shows the world how to do business differently.
So far, we work with fitness instructors, dance instructors, international tour guides, health experts, and musicians, just to name a few. All of our experiences are live and stimulate connection between our community members and instructors around the world. Our clients include both senior living facilities — their residents join our engaging classes and events from their communities, and individuals that join our classes from their home. We have affordable packages which work with any budget — our goal to connect as many people as possible!
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
Sure. When I first left the US to work abroad, I ended up working in the agriculture industry. I worked first for a non-profit in Zambia supporting smallholder farmers before leading a social agricultural technology startup that would be the first platform of its kind to connect farmers with no internet to the market. I led the organization for 4 years before making the decision to change course. This experience gave me all the tools I needed to launch a start-up following my own passion.
In the years leading up to me partnering with my mom, I was watching her grow her individual consulting business. We had chatted for years about the possibilities, I could clearly see the business opportunity, and I was passionate about creating a new business model that helps creatives (fitness instructors, virtual tour guides, etc) step out of the traditional gig economy model and earn good livelihoods while bringing diverse engaging experiences to those most affected by loneliness and isolation. Finally, in 2019, I decided it was now or never. My mom was 66 at the time, and I thought it would be so amazing to do something I am passionate about while helping my mom fulfill her dream as well. For me, I am doubly motivated — and that is the best feeling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I am so often struck by the ‘small world’ experiences I have. Last year during the peak of the pandemic, I attended a virtual conference. One thing I am very passionate about is networking, so I was excited for the opportunity. During the conference, I made connections with people in various sectors.
This month, when starting to work on our partner relations, I noticed one of the connections was connected with one of the potential partners on my list. A simple email was all that was needed for a warm introduction.
I can’t stress enough the importance of networking — always be open to meeting and chatting with new people, because you never know when you can help each other out.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One of our most rewarding experiences we have hosted are our virtual tours. Every month, we partner with international tour guides to host live virtual tours. So far, we have been to Indonesia, Italy, Mongolia, Brazil, the Netherlands, and more. Bringing these virtual travel experiences to life for our community is so heart-warming, as many of them are past the age where they can comfortably travel abroad and didn’t think it would be possible to continue to explore the world. We hear this in their feedback where they tell us how much they loved it and give us more bucket-list destinations they would like to visit. Additionally, we are able to expand the business of the amazing professional tour guides we work with, who have been very hard hit by COVID. This makes it even better.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a Difference is simply doing anything that betters the experience or life of anyone else. I believe that a lot of times, people that have grown up in Western societies have preconceived notions about how they can or should help someone else. Living and working for 5 years in Zambia, I saw this effect in full-force. I believe that people living their lives are the ones that know best what will help them — and that we can make a difference by supporting them how they want to be supported, not by how we believe they should be supported.
The easiest way you can make a difference is to be open. Lend your support to others when they ask for it, be open to chat to people who want to learn from you, give when you are able.
If you can, define the values for your life. What is your mission? Is there anything proactive you can do to support that? In doing so, you will also contribute to building a society that you would like to see.
Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.
- Have unbridled belief in your ability to make a difference. When I look back at how I got to where I am today, I am surprised at the passion with which I told my story. I was 200% passionate about making a difference, and that came through in all the applications I submitted and opportunities I applied for. Looking back, I think there is something intrinsically valuable in being innocent enough to have unbridled belief in what you are trying to achieve. Now, at 30, after gaining more life experience and becoming (a little bit) worn down by the realities of the injustice in the world, I don’t know that I would be able to convey the same amount of sheer belief in my ability to change the world. Use the age when you have not been hardened by life’s many experiences to be confident in what you KNOW you can do — and be sure to portray that to others. I believe many people that I encountered as a student and in my early career supported me simply for the fact that I helped them recall a time when they were just as passionate. Side note: you should always maintain this passion and belief, but it gets harder as you get older!
- Go after what you want, despite what the “rules”are. So often, there are many unwritten rules that society tells you are true. I’m here to tell you that they aren’t. When I was in my sophomore year at Arizona State University, I had my eye on a Critical Language Scholarship summer program offered by the US Department of State. The problem is that it was very competitive — very few applicants typically get in, and those who do are typically PhD students with years of study in their field, honors students, or students from Ivy League Universities. I was none of those things — I had purposefully decided not to participate in the Honors College at ASU and instead decided to dedicate that time to getting real world experience. However, that did not stop me from applying. Together with my Advisor, we picked the least competitive institute (Indonesia), and I wrote a persuasive application about how participating was directly relevant to my field of study and future career. Did I get chosen as one of the lucky few? No. However, I was accepted as an alternate, and two weeks into my summer internship in California, I got a call to join the program as one of the first round participants had dropped out. If I had listened to the rules society had placed on who “typically” gets into the program, I would have never even applied.
- Network. If I had one piece of advice for anyone just starting out, it would be to network. Reach out to people that you want advice from. Ask people how they got to where they are. Request informational interviews. More often than not, people like giving support to others in their area of expertise, especially young, ambitious people. Going back to my application for the Critical Language Scholarship — while in the process of applying, I discovered that the Resident Director of the Indonesian Language Institute was actually a Professor at ASU — a huge coincidence! I emailed him and requested a time to chat. In the meeting, I discussed my application, got to know more about the institute, and answered some of his most important questions (one being why I was not in the Honors College). Seeing what his main questions were allowed me to proactively address those in my application and making the personal connection with him is one of the key factors that allowed me to participate in the program. Don’t know the next step to take? Just start talking to people!
- Self-confidence. When you are trying to break into the game, you will need endless amounts of self-confidence. When I look at my resume when I was applying for jobs just out of University versus now, there are some very key differences. Then, I was actively preparing for the “but you don’t have experience” argument and I very thoroughly put down each and every activity I did in every role I had. I made myself as well-rounded as possible to fit any potential opportunity. Now, my resume is much more refined. I know what I want to do, and I focus my resume to portray my experience in those areas. I don’t claim expertise in fields which I do not have. However, I believe that what helped me get me to where I am today was the sheer amount of self-confidence that I could do any job I was given, and that both resumes worked well during the time I was using them. I believe another factor that affected my ability to get to where I am today was my experience at home. When I was 10-years old, my father passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. From the age of 10, I experienced quite a different childhood than your typical child. One of the key differences for me was the lack of a male parental voice. Many people assume I mean this negatively, but I believe there can be a positive aspect to it as well. In current societal constructs, there is a heavy influence by older, white male voices. As a female, it is oftentimes hard to rise above what those voices are saying and have enough self-confidence and willpower to do what you know you can do, despite being told otherwise. A consequence of being raised by a strong single woman was that those male voices did not hold much power over me. I do believe that this allowed me to truly focus on my own confidence in my power to achieve something, rather than listen to other’s opinions about whether or not I could actually do it. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion make you believe that you cannot do something. As long as you believe you can do it, you can.
- You don’t have to follow the prescribed life route. A theme that may be coming across quite strongly here is that you don’t have to do what “society” says you should do. In modern day America, there is more or less a prescribed life route. After high school, you go to college. College is expensive, so you get a student loan. After college, you get a job, so you can pay off your student loan. You save money, so you can get a car. You pay off your car, then you buy a house. In this model, you always have debt of some kind. Knowing that I wanted to have the freedom to work abroad, I decided to do things differently. In high school, I took on extracurricular activities that would boost my profile for college applications. When choosing a college, rather than choosing a more prestigious private college, I chose to go in-state at Arizona State University, where they offered me a package that covered all my tuition costs. On top of that, I looked for other private scholarships and received a Horatio Alger Scholarship that covered all my living costs during my college years. When I graduated, I bought a second hand car with cash made from my part-time job during college. When I decided to take the leap to work abroad, I simply sold my car and I was ready to go. There was no stress over “How will I make my student loan payments?” I didn’t have much savings, but at least I had no debt, which gave me a level of freedom that very few of my peers had. Be confident in the type of life you want to leave, then pursue the resources which allow that to become a reality. And don’t let society tell you otherwise. 😛
What are the values that drive your work?
This is a great question. I often wonder why it’s so normal for organizations to have a mission and vision, yet it is so uncommon for people to have a mission or vision that they use to guide their lives. That being said, I still haven’t taken the time to write one for myself. However, I have three main things that I typically come back to when I feel unsure of what direction to go in.
- Would I be happy with this decision if I was in his/her/their shoes? This one question gives so much direction. At Alive, Fit & Free, our business model encompasses both sides of the market. When making a decision about the revenue model, I consider myself in the shoes of each stakeholder involved: the class instructor, the senior community using our services, and the seniors themselves. How does this one decision affect each partner? This brings clarity around what changes to make to make sure everyone benefits.
- Is this a selfish decision? I always wonder what kind of amazing business models we could build if we took out the factor of human selfishness. Imagine if Facebook’s wealth was spread across its billions of users. The world would be a completely different place. I try to make sure that every decision I make is not done out of selfishness, but is a well-rounded decision made by taking all stakeholders into consideration.
- Listen. As I mentioned before, listening is so important. Instead of doing what you think will help people, ask them what they need. Where is your support really going to be the most impactful? Do that instead and see what happens. So often, I realize how lucky I am to be born as an American citizen to a predominantly white family. Where we are born and the color of our skin should not mean that we have the power to decide how money is distributed to those in need. I strongly believe that those in need should decide how they want to be supported.
Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centered in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?
A few years ago, I did a practice which helped me determine what those things are that bring value to my life. It’s very simple. Grab a journal, and describe your ideal day, from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep. Don’t let yourself consider any limitations — this is your dream day. What came out of that practice is things which help me feel fulfilled on a daily basis. I believe that the myth that you must be passionate about your work is not necessarily true. Life is not meant to simply be your work. Work is a part of your life, but it should never be your whole life. If you have passions that fulfill you outside of work (which I believe is a big component of leading a happy life), then you won’t constantly need fulfillment on a daily basis from your work. Yes, you should be passionate about the end goal of what you are trying to achieve, but you will have days where you are not passionate about anything you are doing that day and nothing is going right. Go to one of those activities that you wrote down as part of your ideal day, refill your cup, and come back to your work tomorrow with a fresh perspective.
In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!
My vision for the world is one in which scalable business models are created which sustainably generate income for large numbers of people, rather than one where the winner-takes-all. As I mentioned before, I often wonder what would happen if people took selfishness out of the equation when creating innovative businesses. Many more people would have a higher quality of life. I would love to see a world where “selfless” business models become the norm and companies reach global scale with thousands of shareholders sharing profits much more equally than what we see today. I truly believe this will have the ability to impact global poverty on a massive scale.
We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?
Bring on tons of brilliant minds! I think the word I love the most in your question is “co-creator”. It is so, so important to work with other people to create organizations that change the world. So often, we are stuck in our own perspective, and by co-creating with others, we get pulled out of that. I also believe that so much success is tied to one’s access to a strong network, so by expanding the number of brilliant minds around the table, you are exponentially multiplying the supportive network your organization has access to.
I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?
This is a tough question. I believe access to equal education is one of the keys to alleviating income inequality, not only in the United States, but around the world. Here are the changes I would like to see in the educational system:
- Access to quality education for all. Good, quality education should be offered to all Americans, regardless or race, income levels, or location. It is hard to understand how a public school system can offer such a widely varied quality of education to students based on the above factors. This leads to perpetuating further poverty in lower-income communities, while those in higher income communities end up in higher paying jobs, making it extremely difficult to break the poverty cycle.
- A global perspective. When I studied abroad at the age of 16 in Brazil, I was surprised to learn just how much my Brazilian peers knew about my country, while I had known very little about theirs prior to arriving there. Gaining a global perspective creates a bigger sense of community and understanding about the world, so it does not seem so impossible to have an international career.
- More opportunity for real-world experience. When we graduate high school, most of us have no idea what we want to do. We choose a university degree to pursue based on what we think we want to do, but the reality is that we have had very little exposure to various professions. I would love to see more opportunities for real-world experience brought into mainstream education.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
In the US, we have a very individualistic society where the “I” is truly the center of all the decisions we make. Once you are exposed to other cultures that have more collective societies, you start to realize that considering larger world problems, such as environmental and societal problems, is part of your responsibility as a human on this planet. You may think that climate change is just something that scientists talk about, but once you go to rural Zambia and see how farmers are experiencing extreme drought and losing most of their income due to climate change, you see first-hand how everything is connected. Just because your personal “I” is not affected by an issue does NOT mean you don’t need to do anything about it. It is purely by chance that someone else is affected by it rather than you. Lastly, in my mind, making money is easy. Making a positive impact in the world is much more challenging, and thus, so much more rewarding. I encourage anyone to take the more rewarding route.
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I suppose I will go with Yvon Chouinard — he’s most likely out on a fishing trip.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I am always more than happy to chat with young professionals just starting out. I know how difficult it is to create a career that looks different from the norm. Feel free to contact me on LinkedIn here.
To check out what exciting experiences we are offering at Alive, Fit & Free, you can always find an updated event calendar here. All of our movement classes are tailored for any ability, so don’t worry about classes being too difficult for you. We would love you to try it out! You can also follow us on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, and find lots of free videos to do at home on our Freebies Page or on Youtube.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!