After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus in March, student entrepreneurs Allen Zhou, Aditi Merchant and Anthony Zhou experienced firsthand the effects of the social isolation on their mental health and saw how it affected their friends and classmates. At the same time, they realized that older adults — who struggle with loneliness in normal times — were suffering even more as retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes locked down and family and friends were denied visits. The trio decided to do something about it.
“While we didn’t have funding or medical expertise, we recognized that what we did have was experience in software development and a deep respect and admiration for senior citizens — gained from volunteering at senior living facilities when we were younger,” said Allen Zhou, CEO and a co-founder of Big & Mini. Zhou is also a sophomore studying electrical and computer engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. “We felt strongly that the intergenerational connection was very important and wanted to bridge the gap to help combat loneliness.”
Aditi Merchant, chief operating officer and a co-founder of Big & Mini, said that “the positive experience we’d had with senior citizens along with our own relationships with our grandparents who live in other countries made us want to share that with other people our age.” Merchant is a UT sophomore studying biomedical engineering.
“I think as a society, we’re very much divided generationally. We wanted Big & Mini to be a platform with an overall mission to combat social isolation and bring people together intergenerationally for anytime virtual connections,” she said.
Early on their journey, the older Zhou brother, Allen, reached out to Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences in the College of Natural Sciences and the director of the Texas Aging & Longevity Center in the College of Liberal Arts, to get her perspective on how they could help.
After their conversation with Fingerman and further research, the Zhou brothers and Merchant launched Big & Mini in April as a nonprofit organization focused on connecting older adults (Bigs) and young people (Minis) through virtual communication. They wanted to help the two groups form bonds, share stories and combat loneliness and social isolation together. “I do research on adult family and social ties, and study both younger adults and older adults,” Fingerman said, “so I understand the need for a program like this that brings them together during this crisis.”
Allen Zhou stresses that Big & Mini is not a case of young people helping lonely older adults. “It’s not just beneficial for the seniors; it’s beneficial for the youth as well,” he said. “Both are going to gain something. Seniors have had unique lives, and younger people are going to be learning things from them that they just can’t learn in a classroom.”
Given the impending spike in large-scale social isolation, the team’s biggest priority in the spring was launching the website. “Within a week, we built and launched the initial version of our website, and were able to start getting people signed up,” said the younger Zhou, a co-founder and a student at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science in Denton. Bigandmini.org is designed to be as simple as possible, making it easy to use for older adults or youth who may not be tech-savvy.
After its launch, Big & Mini was accepted into the prestigious Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars network’s Summer Startup Fellowship program. Open to all LaunchPads across 24 campuses in the U.S. and Ireland, 330 student entrepreneurs applied for 50 cohort seats. Along with three other UT startups, Big & Mini was chosen to receive eight weeks of high touch programming and mentorship from the Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Techstars, Future Founders and the LaunchPad at UT Austin as well as $5,000 in nondilutive funding.
“The encouragement and advice from all of our LaunchPad mentors have been instrumental in keeping us motivated along our journey. I would recommend the LaunchPad at UT Austin to any student who’s interested in entrepreneurship — whether they have an idea or not. They surround you with a community of people with so much experience who are always looking to help out. That’s something we’ve appreciated throughout our experience,” said Allen Zhou.
To date, Big & Mini has over 2,000 volunteers, including 1,104 Minis and 960 Bigs from all 50 states and 24 countries. Currently, the site is free for all to use, and the founders are paying for it out of their own pockets. The team has received media coverage from over 40 news outlets, including the Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News, Fox News and even NBC’s “Today” show.
That media exposure has been important in helping the team to share their stories in hopes of inspiring others.
“We think our story is one of hope and encouragement — a story of three teenagers who don’t have any background in the space. We just wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and share moments of brightness,” Allen Zhou said.
Nina Ho, the director of the LaunchPad at UT Austin, praised the team and other UT entrepreneurs. “I am constantly floored by the drive, brilliance and compassion of UT students — and prospective Longhorns, Anthony! The Big & Mini team is no different, and the tragedy of this pandemic has accelerated a solution that will be just as meaningful and necessary after the fact. I couldn’t be prouder of what Aditi, Allen and Anthony have built so far and am excited to see where they take this vision.”