Debra Cooper, founder of the Your Career Design Lab has cultivated a team of young women who are creating accessible resources for seniors living in New York during this global Covid-19 pandemic. I sat down with Gianna Folz, Samantha Ligeti, Melanie Peterson, Sydney Wiener, Perri Kessler, and Avigail Yerushalmi via Zoom to learn about the process.
Nectar News (Gracen Hansen): First, tell us about yourself and how you became a member of this team.
Debra Cooper: I founded Career Design Lab a few years back after being 30 years in public relations, and what I wanted to do was really give recent graduates or kids in school the opportunity to find their passion and then put a career to it. So some of the ladies that I’ve worked with are just some of the smartest, brightest people I’ve ever worked with, and we have worked to craft their story and bring their story to life in order to find what they’re looking for and what they deserve to get in life. And then, of course, the coronavirus happened, so it’s switched gears a little bit, but I’m very confident that everybody will eventually find what they’re looking for to do in their lives.
Gianna Folz: My name is Gianna. I graduated from Ithaca College last spring. While I was there, I had multiple marketing communications jobs, and I started off with nonprofit organizations and other organizations that just have similar values as mine. Since graduating, I’ve been trying to use my skills in writing, marketing, and coordinating in a nonprofit environment. Senior Strong New York City was just the perfect opportunity for me to use my particular skill set on a project.
Perri Kessler: Hi. I’m Perri Kessler. I graduated from George Washington University in D.C. this past May. Well, a year ago now. Crazy. I have had my background in public relations, marketing, advertising, and I have been doing a lot of writing. I’m just excited to apply my skills of mainly public relations and outreach to this website.
Sam Ligeti: Hello. When I learned about this project, I jumped at the opportunity, because being at home during coronavirus you feel helpless, and it’s hard, because you want to help, but you don’t know what to do. I realized that probably some of my greatest assets are my digital marketing experience. I have about three years of experience now working. I was able to help lead a social media team, content creation team, digital marketing, in getting a brand up and running, a full brand created, Senior Strong NYC, a full website on WordPress that I helped design and is now fully ready for the world, which is really exciting. And, yeah, it’s really great that we have this intergenerational team, and us younger people, millennials, can come and can bring our digital native abilities to help seniors, who are just the most vulnerable population in this epidemic. So, yeah, it’s been really great.
Melanie Peterson: Hi. I’m Melanie. I graduated from Belmont University, which focuses on Music Business and Entertainment, back in May 2018. While I was there, I was the marketing director for our concert showcase series, where I learned about marketing and social media, team leadership, event set up, and so much more. I also gained team leadership experience as the President of Community Council in my dorm, where we created several educational, entertainment, and philanthropic events for our 400+ residents throughout the year, and where I learned my love of team leadership that encourages collaboration and an openness to ideas. After college, I started helping a nonprofit with marketing, sales, membership, and more. When this SeniorStrong opportunity arose, once corona had shut everything down, it seemed like an obvious choice. I thought, “Oh, this is a good way to continue learning more about social media, and expanding in that field, while also helping create something very helpful and positive, that can really help a lot of people out right now.”
Sydney Wiener: Hi. I’m Sydney. I graduated from Barnard College last May. I majored in urban studies with a concentration in art history. We don’t have a marketing major at Barnard, but I was always interested in social media and marketing and media in general. While there, I worked on a project called Meet Me at the Museum, which was founded by a couple of Barnard students a few years ago, and basically it allows underprivileged kids from all over New York City … We take them on personalized tours at the MET and the MOMA and the Cloisters I think. It’s amazing because we write the tours, we do the social media for them, so I was the webmaster at the time and I worked on the website, but I also just really enjoy working with kids and volunteering. Right now, I am at Food Network Magazine, and I’m working in the sales department, so I have a lot of experience with sales and a little bit of marketing now. Yeah, and I was just presented with this opportunity and I jumped with it. I was really excited about helping and being able to make an impact from home.
Avigail Yerushalmi: My name’s Avigail. Like Sydney, I am also an upcoming Barnard graduate. I studied economics and philosophy. During my time at Barnard, I gained extensive experience in project management, research, data analytics. Kind of like Sam said, back in March, I wanted to get involved in some sort of volunteer capacity, but I didn’t know-how, and Debra connected me to this project. I’m not directly on the social media team, but I’ve been involved with different aspects of the site, so research, gathering our resources, the social media team, web administration. And it’s been really cool to see how this whole project has come together, back in March where it was nothing to nowhere like Sam said, it’s this fully functioning site. So I probably won’t be chatting too much, but I’m really happy to be here and be on this call.
Nectar News: My first question would be: how do you make your resources accessible to the senior community while combating the technological barrier that hinders many seniors?
Gianna: The project started with two passionate leaders and groups, Jack Kupferman from the Gray Panthers and Dan Schneider from the Florence Belsky Foundation, which started with a vision for the resource page. It’s a multigenerational effort. We came in with our own knowledge of social media marketing to disseminate the information but using the channels that they already have. So they already have a network of people who are interested in the foundation, the Gray Panthers, and we’ve been pigging backing off of that just to start.
Perri: I’m not directly on the social media team. I’m mainly responsible for being the liaison between them and the people that are responsible for getting the outreach, so I’ve mainly been contacting delegates or government officials in New York City, New York state, and then press and media outlets and trying to get a response from their communications team so that they can get that information out, whether it’s online on their websites for their press outlet or in magazines, articles, whatever that may be. I think that, when it comes to social media, that’s mainly targeting their loved ones or their caretakers or people that are of a younger generation that have direct contact with seniors that will forward that information on or have it be useful. Then, in terms of the website, I think it’s just really straightforward now and very user friendly, you could say, I guess, just because it’s a few large buttons to click and get to a different route. It’s not something where someone needs to be the most tech-savvy, unless it comes to social media, and then, in that case, I think it’s mainly directed towards a circle of people around them that have access to that.
Sam: Yeah. I think a lot of our resources, some of them at least, are about how to use technology: how to use Zoom, how-to video chat with your family, online games you can play, different guides of helping them. Also, in designing the website, we designed it with an older user in mind. We made sure to make the font large and make the buttons really obvious (and you hover over them that means “a click”) and tried to keep the user journey really simple and clear. On social, there’s a ton of older adults on Facebook, so that’s been our most popular platform, and we really do speak right to seniors on there. I actually find that older adults on social, sometimes they are more involved than young people. They’re more open to commenting, talking, chatting with each other. It’s a little more of a community, which is cool. And then Instagram and the other platforms are really good for volunteers or family members who can get connected to the project and share it that way.
Melanie: A big bulk of what we do is focus on the language used in our posts. On Facebook, we try to keep it a bit more synonymous with the older generation, whereas on Instagram we try to have the language geared more toward their grandchildren. Keeping the language synonymous with the people that are most likely going to see the posts helps draw in our target audience per platform. Also, making the posts as upbeat and relatable as possible, and including relevant emojis (which have been proven to increase engagement) have been areas of focus.
Sydney: They covered everything I wanted to say, but I will give you a personal anecdote. My aunt called me totally out of the blue. I guess I had shared our Facebook page with her because I figured people over 65, I don’t know that many of them, so the ones that I do know I think are really important. So I shared it with my grandma, I shared it with my aunts, I shared it with my dad’s friends, and lots of other people in my big circle, which is super important, because I’m from New York, and I also went to college here, so I know a lot of people. She called me and she was like, “Sydney, I just want to thank you so much for sharing this website.” I was like “Wait, what are you talking about?” And then I was like, “Oh, yes.” She went on and on about someone who we had featured. She was like, “I don’t even know if you know who this person is, but he’s incredible. He’s an entertainer.” I was like, “That’s amazing. I’m so happy to have made your day.” She’s a widow. It just made me really happy.
Avi: We also do have a whole page of volunteer resources geared towards younger people who want to get involved, who want to volunteer, with different options for them. I think it’s a little bit easier to reach out to them through social media, but I just wanted to highlight that that is another part of the site, just because Sam brought it up.
Nectar News: Let’s check out our next question, which would be: how did senior resources get started, and what are your big picture goals?
Avi: I got involved in this project back in the very beginning, back in March, and it essentially started with a pretty small team of people who were gathering the resources, so researching all different resources in all different categories, creating that list, both for older people and for volunteers. That was step one, and that took a lot of time to gather all those resources to have this comprehensive list. That was really how this all got started, and then social media can come in and explain how we got this site out to the public. But that was really the beginning of this whole project, just research people, gathering all those sites, vetting them. That was really the beginning, but, yeah, you guys can take it away from there.
Sydney: But basically we built this brand from the ground up. We had to come up with color palettes. We had to come up with websites, and we had to go back and forth, and Sam, I’m sure she’ll get into it more, about the difficulties with the WordPress site. We created a logo, which Gianna, I’m sure, will go into. What I think is really cool is that we came up with this amazing organizational system between the four of us, and it’s really been working. We meet on Zoom weekly. We have writers and we have designers, and we switch roles every so often. We each take up a different platform. No one told us what to do. Sam had a couple of tools from her previous jobs, which were really helpful, but we really just kind of did this on our own.
Melanie: So far it’s been a very collaborative, easy process in terms of the team working really well together and everyone throwing in their ideas. From our first brand meeting (coming up with the color palettes, theme, “look”, etc. that we wanted), to subsequent meetings creating our strategy and individual roles, it’s been a very open, positive process. Going forward, I’d love to see SeniorStrongNYC continue to reach more people that need the resources, and I’m excited for our team to switch up roles even more.
Debra: Can I just jump in here? It’s like what everybody’s saying. Everybody’s talking. We hear on the news coronavirus, all these jobs lost. Here’s a perfect example of what these kids can do and make an impact. They’ve created an entrepreneurial environment within an intrapreneurial company. Here’s something that Belsky and Gray Panthers had, but they together collectively put their minds together to create entrepreneurship and a community among themselves to create something bigger than themselves. That opportunity does not come along in a long time, and these are the opportunities that exist in our new normal. They have taken it to such heights, and that’s what the message we’d like to get out, too, is that it’s not all lost. Look what these kids are doing. Some are at school, some are just graduating, and the fact that they’re making the impact that they’re making during this time, is quite extraordinary.
Sam: Okay. I just want to echo what the social media team said especially, but I can share an anecdote as well. When I wanted to tackle the site, it was mostly a text-based site and I wanted to add a lot of imagery to really bring it alive. I have built a Squarespace site for my own freelancing business, but I’d never worked in WordPress. I got really, really frustrated trying to mess around in there, not really knowing even the basic 101. Then I talked to my mom, and I was like, “Do you know anybody who knows WordPress who I could talk to for 15 minutes?” She sent me someone who we know in my local community here in south Florida, who’s worked on local businesses here, their sites. I emailed her (Victoria Martinez on LinkedIn) and I was like, “If you just had 15 minutes of time, that’d be so amazing. I just want to know the basic builder tool and the template I should use and some basic how-to knowledge.” She wrote me right back, and she was like, “This is such a great cause. I’d love to donate time.” For me, that was just the power of asking and how we’re so afraid to even just ask, because we’re afraid of this weird rejection, but really what we should be afraid of is not asking. It was just the power of putting yourself out there and being so amazed at what you get back, because people really are looking to help in this situation. Yeah, it was just amazing. I was really blown away by her generosity because she’s a full-blown professional who’s probably paid $100 an hour to do a WordPress site, and she just totally dived in. So, that was awesome.
Perri: I got involved back in March when I think everything was the most chaotic that it’s been, with the state of everything going on in the world. I’ve been living in New York, so I ended up coming back to south Florida to be home the day before. After being here and seeing everyone’s reaction and how chaotic everything was, I think that it was just, especially with everything going on in New York City and how lost we were feeling, especially being isolated and feeling alone or hopeless, I think that Debra, luckily for me, introduced me to this project as a way to be able to get involved and still do volunteer work from home, because I know a lot of people think about that as going out there and being in the public. Since we couldn’t do that now, I think this was such a wonderful project to be able to work on. Getting started, I think definitely what everyone else has said, that we started with basically a blank slate or the website was … It was definitely stuff that we had to work on.
Gianna: I guess in how the movement or how the social media team started was … What really sets apart the resources from other places is that it’s not just delivering updates about the virus or straight news. It’s also about living and thriving during quarantine, during this time, how to make the most out of it. We have resources for all different things, connecting to culture, anxiety reduction, love, spirituality. Specifically just coming up with everything, when I was coming up with the logo, I was trying to think of how we can show the urgency of what’s going on but then also show that it’s also about just thriving. So we all worked on the colors and the branding, the social media team, and it inspired us when we were putting together the graphics and the website, and so on.
Nectar News: Okay. We touched on this a little bit, but if anybody has anything that you want to throw in or highlight for yourself or about anybody else on your team … What unique aspect do you feel each of you bring to your team?
Gianna: I think that what makes our team really special is that we’ve figured out how to split up roles, but also we’ve been scheduling … We all know what we’re doing at all times, and it’s made the work go really fast-paced and has been really easy to just go day to day, especially when we have other things going on in our lives. Coming in, I guess I brought my experience with graphics, which I think I’ve done more than some of the other people. That’s why I helped out with the branding and everything in the beginning. But now, as we’re going on, I’ve been doing most of the … along with Sam, we’ve been splitting up doing the graphics for social, and then Sydney and Melanie have been doing more of the copy, and then we’re going to be switching positions as it goes along, because we all have a lot of similar skill sets.
Perri: It’s sort of interesting taking on this project because I think, thus far, in my background, from my experience, I’ve generally taken some sort of … There has been a delegation of different roles that were from the top down, and I think, definitely coming into this, it’s been unique and challenging to take that role on for yourself. I think, at least in my position, it’s been really interesting to have my own team because I’m not really answering to anyone in particular on who to reach out to, or contact, or these media and press lists and everything. In my background, with doing marketing, advertising, and writing, I think that’s been really useful to take a look at what they had and say, “I think that this would be a good route to take,” or, “It’d be useful to reach out to these people or tap into these resources that we have,”. Definitely bringing that to the table. I’ve definitely learned a lot along the way. I can’t say that everything that I’ve been doing has been based on experience. I think a lot of it has been figuring it out as we go along. That’s definitely been great. It’s not only been something where we can bring our knowledge to the table, but I think that we’re taking a lot from it, too, and learning more than I definitely expected that anything during this time would be like.
Sam: I’d say I have a few more years of work experience than most of this team, and that’s been helpful, because, in a really fast-paced agency setting, I was able to see how content is created and produced at a really elite level. I also have been in smaller marketing teams that were more relaxed, where we did more all-around digital marketing, SEO, ads, and all that. Then, I started to backpack through Southeast Asia and South America, and made my home in Santiago, Chile for a year. I started my own company, which is Sam Lagetti Grant, Storytelling, and Copywriting services. I have a website. I started to get clients. I got some repeat digital marketing clients actually, so agency clients. What I found, time and time again is their process for anything (these smaller agencies that I was freelancing for) was nonexistent and all over the place, because [crosstalk 00:37:12] agencies, they would have a lot of remote workers. There was not a lot of team morale. We didn’t know each other that well, and yet we had to divide and conquer graphics and copy and all of that. Even though I’d usually be hired as a writer, I would always take it upon myself to create an entire organizational system, because it made my life easier. It made everybody’s life easier, and our end product was much better when the workflow was in place. If you make a draft of content for social media, it needs to get approved, and if there’s feedback that needs to happen from the agency’s CEO or whoever, then you have to have a revision, and then you have to post it. You have to schedule it and software and post it. There’s a lot of steps involved that people don’t necessarily think about, and you have to deal with that. If there are multiple people working on it, you have to deal with all those moving parts. I think that’s what I’ve been able to bring to this team more than anything, is many years of experience organizing a small team of marketers and defining our roles, defining our workflow, and also connecting with each other, having a sense of teamsmanship and morale. Yeah, that’s been really cool. I think if I was doing this by myself, I probably would have given up at some point, but I think getting to work with this team has really motivated me because it’s been really cool to see how we’re supporting each other and how we’re really sharing the work among ourselves.
Melanie: I would definitely agree with everything Sam just said, and she has been very helpful with laying out a bunch of groundwork for our team. For instance, as I didn’t have as much experience with all of this to begin with, it was really helpful to see an example of what it’s supposed to look like and go from there. After filling in the day-to-day schedule of “who’s doing what and where it is going”, I’ve been doing a lot of the copy work for the content calendar (covering all our social media platforms). The goal each week is to get the copy for the following week’s posts done on Wednesdays, to give the team members doing graphics enough time to create the images and pull it all together. So far, we’ve been doing really well with that goal. It’s also been really fun coming up with the copy, and incorporating emojis, to help make it as interesting and eye-catching as possible. Since many of the social media platforms have low character limits, you have to get creative figuring out ways to say what you need to and get users interested, in as few words as possible. Emojis can also help create your tone, attract user attention, and drive your point home, when you have to limit your characters. Sydney’s been great in helping me out with the whole copy process, as well.
Sydney: Social is really involved. It takes a lot of moving parts. But now that we have all these separate roles and we can feed off of each other and learn. As Melanie said, the writers want to learn how to do the design, and the designers might want to do some copy. It’s amazing that we’ve all set this whole thing up. I think I just add to the whole team in that respect.
Avi: Well, first I just wanted to echo Perri’s thought. I’ve really learned so much through this project. Coming out of college, going into an entry-level job, you might not necessarily get so much responsibility or learn so many new skills right away, but I feel like that’s really special. I’ve been able to take on a really big role in this project and have a lot of responsibility, which is really cool. But something that has definitely helped me is during my time at Barnard I was part of a group where I led teams in consulting for startups. That project management experience really helped me, especially in the beginning. Like everyone was saying, we really built this from the ground up and there was no defined workflow, so that experience definitely helped me in terms of figuring out effective ways to communicate so we’re not sending 15 million emails a day and 20 million calls and defining a workflow for getting rid of resources on the site that aren’t relevant anymore, adding new ones, things like that. So, yeah, that’s what I would add.
Nectar News: What has been an unexpected challenge that you guys have encountered so far?
Avi: Sam mentioned this, or maybe Sydney, but I’ll just say it again. One of our biggest challenges was that, for some reason, for the first month that the site was built (back when it was just this skeleton site, before it was revamped into the amazing site that it is now), no one could get into the site. There were so many blocks and popups. We weren’t sure if it had to do with something internal to the site, or with our external resources. So that was really a challenge to just figure it all out, and everyone here was really instrumental in getting rid of that challenge and overcoming it. So, yeah, that was definitely one of the biggest challenges that we faced as a whole team, because Jack and everyone else was so excited that the resources were finally gathered, the social media team was finally in action, but then some people couldn’t get into the site. Yeah, that was definitely a big challenge, but it seems like we’ve overcome it or have almost 100% overcome it.
Sydney: For me, and I think a lot of people will agree with me on this, one of the biggest unexpected challenges was communicating with the older generation who heralded this project. We think about things so differently, and I even struggle with this with my own parents. I’ll try to teach my dad how to do something better on Zoom or I’ll say, “Oh, you could” … Even the other day, he wanted me to submit these paperwork things, and I said to him, “Okay, there’s a scanner app,” and he was like, “I don’t want more technology in my life.” You can quote him on that. I totally respect that, but I think what they fail to understand sometimes is, in a trying time like this, we are sadly (though it’s reality), living on our screens. I have to deal with this at work all the time when my bosses have difficulty with their computers and their keyboard shuts down or whatever it is. But I think the difference is that we’re so willing to go out there and fail and click that button and then go back. I think we’re a little bit more flexible and we think outside of the box a little bit more when it comes to this stuff. For me, creating some sort of … Even in the beginning, I said to Jack, “Okay, how are we all communicating?” That was the biggest thing I wanted to know, is “Okay, is this email? Is this going to be texting? Where are we in this?” I mentioned, “Okay, maybe we should go on Slack or Asana,” and he was like, “No.” I had to take a step back and understand that he was coming from such a different place than I was, and this project is all about bridging the generations, so I think that was a really interesting, unexpected challenge to deal with.
Melanie: One other thing, which is not exactly a specific challenge (because I think it’s just a natural process that everyone has to go through when they are just starting off), is growth and trying to develop the followers. There’s a lot of tips and tricks and different ways to do it (and we’re going through the process and gaining speed), but it’s definitely something you have to keep working on. We’ve been trying to get past that challenge by reaching out to organizations with similar goals and demographics. Beyond that, going past social media, just reaching out to any groups that we know through email, word of mouth, etc.. So just trying to really put in the work to send our message out as far as possible, in whatever way we can. But yeah, we’re just keeping on the path and going steady ahead with the plan.
Sam: Yeah. I’m very passionate about branding and brand storytelling and design, and I think we’ve all done such a great job with the visual look and feel of this project and our tone of voice. We understand the audience we’re trying to reach and we know how to talk to them. We just want as many people as possible to have access to this resource. It’s about grassroots, spreading the word by getting friends to invite friends, and understanding what kind of content each social platform promotes and values. You have to understand all the new updates on each platform. Instagram still, they like carousels, so we might start making those, because if you use the new features of the different platforms, you’re rewarded, your content. There’s a whole set of knowledge you need when you do growth marketing, so that’s really where we’re at now because we’ve definitely got hundreds of people following us, but we want thousands and tens of thousands. So it’s about scaling. We have thousands I would say, but we need tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of people.
Debra: But here’s the thing: thousands in what period of time? That’s amazing.
Perri: Definitely what Sydney said about the older generation and having that communication gap, where it’s definitely been a period of acclimation to adjust to figuring out how can we bridge the divide between what we can do and what comes so naturally to us as opposed to what is uncharted territory for people that are seniors. Personally, specifically, I think that something that’s been a challenge is honestly the fact that people have to answer. When it comes to outreach, I’m sending emails, calling a lot of these government officials or offices of assembly members that are not in the office right now, so it’s just definitely a different time and a different period where everything, it’s more online oriented and shooting emails and not getting demoralized when it’s not … I think when people are just not in the office and they’re just not as accessible. I think that’s been something that’s been a little bit tougher than I imagined, but not impossible.
Gianna: I’ve worked on social teams before and I’ve helped with advertisements for Facebook, but I’ve also been at a place that had a pretty hefty following base already. I’ve never worked at a place where we had to start from the ground up. So it’s been such a big learning process for me and I know for everyone. The fact that we’re doing this at home, too, you have to get the same feeling of being at work when we’re really just all working from our computers on our beds and our couches trying to start up what we began, to start the brand while trying to work with the people from the foundation and Gray Panthers and explaining to them that this is actually a pretty long process. It’s just interesting to learn how engaging you have to be on a daily basis to grow on different platforms. Twitter, Instagram, for example, are different from Facebook. It’s just been a big learning process for me.
Twitter and Instagram
Senior Strong NYCity
Debra Cooper: https://www.yourcareerdesignlab.com/
Sam Ligeti: https://www.samligeti.com/portfolio