Jay Newton-Small: CEO and founder of MemoryWell
The #SheInnovates stories team sat down with Jay Newton-Small to discuss the role of women in innovation. Get involved at She Innovates Global.
#SheInnovates Stories: Innovation is solving the world's problems. What problem are you solving?
Jay Newton-Small: MemoryWell grew out of my experience with my father, who had Alzheimer’s. I was his primary caregiver for the last five years of his life. A few years ago, I had to move him into a community and when I did they asked me to fill out a 20 page questionnaire about his life. This made no sense to me. I was a correspondent with TIME Magazine and even I couldn’t answer some of those questions well; like describe your parents’ 50+ year marriage in four lines. And who would ever remember 20 pages of handwritten data points for the 100+ residents there? No one. Instead, I wrote down his story. I printed it out and handed it out to all of his caregivers. They loved it. They remembered it. They told each other about it. Two of his caregivers were Ethiopian and they’d had no idea that he’d actually lived in Ethiopia for four years early on in his career with the United Nations. They became his champions, asking him about Emperor Haile Selassie and showing him their own personal photos of Africa. Dad loved it as he remembered Africa from his early 20’s, even if he didn’t remember last week.
MemoryWell gives voice to the voiceless, to all those seniors entering care who find it hard to introduce themselves to new faces when most long-term care sees, on average, more than 55 percent staff turnover annually. Our stories build empathy and community and reduce isolation. Not to mention, they make amazing keepsakes for generations of families.
#SheInnovates: When did you realize your innovation was a breakthrough?
JNS: Our stories bring empathy and capture histories that would otherwise be lost. But they can do so much more. Using machine learning, we can understand health trends and begin to predict and even prevent ailments. As we do more and more of them, our stories could help us understand disease. For example, take Alzheimer’s. We now know that the disease manifests a decade before symptoms are first seen, making it difficult to know what’s triggering the epidemic. But if we can collect enough stories of those living with the disease, we can see what they were doing a decade before their diagnoses and maybe understand what’s causing it.
#SheInnovates: What were some unexpected obstacles you overcame in the innovation process?
JNS: The aging space isn’t exactly known for its innovation. Though we have created a digital platform where families can add their loved one’s favorite music, photos and movies, we’ve found that a lot of the communities we work with don’t even have wifi. So, we had to resort to a more analog version with printouts of our stories and timelines so that care staff can read and know about them.
#SheInnovates: What inspires you to love your work?
JNS: With my dad, I felt constantly guilty that I wasn’t doing enough to engage him, to improve his quality of life. Writing his story and creating his digital timeline helped with that. To give others those engagement tools is powerful. For example, we heard from one family that our stories helped connect grandkids to their grandmother. The kids hadn’t liked to visit Mary; she was hard to engage and to get a response from. But when they had her story, they’d play her favorite music and movies and she’d react. Her granddaughter realized that Mary had loved fashion, sewing many of her own clothes. A budding fashionista herself, she started to bring Vogue and other magazines with her on her visits and Mary loved them.
Our stories don’t just connect families, they create communities. Long term care can be isolating, depressing. But knowing someone’s story changes all that. I love it when communities build walls and display our MemoryWells. Families read about the other residents and form connections; one woman may have gone to the same law school as someone else’s son. Caregiving is tough and lonely, it means so much more when you know that others are going through the same thing, that they might visit your mom when you can’t, or bring her a cupcake on her birthday. All these connections; they are what drive me.
#SheInnovates: What do you hope that young women coming behind you take from your work?
JNS: I walked away from a highly successful career as a TIME Magazine correspondent to start MemoryWell. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my job, I did. But MemoryWell was a calling that I couldn’t ignore. I hope young women take from my example that it’s okay to take risks, to follow your heart. I have no regrets. Even if MemoryWell fails, I have learned so much and helped hundreds of people.
#SheInnovates: Why are women in innovation important?
JNS: I wrote a book in 2016 called “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works.” It looks at critical mass, how when women—or any minority—reach somewhere between 20 to 30 percent in any institution, whether a legislature or a corporate board, a Navy ship or an appellate court, it becomes a tipping point and they begin to change the culture of that institution. I’ve seen study after study of evidence that more diversity leads to better decision making. The fact that so few women are entrepreneurs and innovators is not just bad for them, it’s bad for innovation. We won’t reach our potential as a society unless we harness all of our population’s talents.
Interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.