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Getting older can be challenging for many senior citizens and their families – the physical and mental ailments that come with aging can take an emotional toll that prevents many senior citizens from enjoying their retirement. Oklahoma City native and recent George Washington University graduate Carleigh Berryman had an idea to change that.
With the development of virtual reality technology, Berryman realized she could brighten the lives of the elderly through virtual reality programs that transport them from their retirement communities and into the virtual world. Founded in 2017, her company, Viva Vita, uses virtual reality to help seniors enjoy many of the things they can no longer physically do, opening up the possibilities of their world and empowering them to no longer feel confined to their communities.
As part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneur Series, we spoke with Berryman about her experiences running a startup, her perspective as a young business leader, and the impact she hopes her company will have on the quality of life for senior citizens. Here is what she had to say:
Q: Tell us a bit about your business and why you started it.
A: Viva Vita brings virtual reality experiences to seniors so that they can travel and explore the world virtually. Even if they live in a retirement home or their physical health prevents them from doing what they love, the technology can help. Viva Vita was in part inspired by my grandmother, Glenda. She has traveled around the world and lived a full life, but the difficulties of getting older have kept her confined to her retirement community. It did not seem right. Glenda had worked so hard so that she could enjoy retirement. Yet, she was powerless to do what she loved when her golden years did arrive.
I introduced my grandmother to virtual reality. When I saw how much being able to return to places where she had fond memories or to explore places she has not visited impacted her life and mental well-being, I knew that the technology must be shared with as many seniors as possible. I launched Viva Vita with the vision of bringing exciting and therapeutic virtual reality technology to seniors across the country so that they too could continue to live life to the fullest every day.
Q: Did you ever picture yourself running your own company?
A: I had my first business at age eight when I learned how to make soap and began selling it to my friends and teachers at school. Since then, I have owned and operated a few businesses including a successful residential painting company in Oklahoma City and pop-up shops in Washington, D.C. Over the years, I have come to discover that my passion lies in creating something new and watching it grow as I build it from the ground up. Now, I can't picture myself doing anything else.
Q: What made you want to start your own business versus working for a previously established company?
A: While there are many companies tackling important challenges that the world faces today, working for an established company means that you must fall in line with a certain vision laid out for you by your employer – whether or not it aligns with your own vision of the future. I wanted to pursue my own idea of a better world, specifically, one in which old age is not something to be dreaded but to be celebrated and enjoyed. By creating my own business, I find the freedom to create and pursue my vision for the world.
Q: Have you had any mentorship or a business network to help you start your company?
A: I am fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive professional network, which has been crucial to starting my business. I have gained mentorship from previous employers, many of which are in the startup space themselves, from individuals I have met through my university, and from local resources like the DCRA Resource Center. Hera Hub in Northwest D.C. has also been an invaluable resource to connect with other women entrepreneurs in the area.
I would encourage all entrepreneurs to explore what resources and funding opportunities are available with local programs, accelerators, and their local government.
Q: What are the biggest challenges to starting a business at a younger age?
A: The biggest challenge with starting a business at a younger age is being taken seriously by industry establishments. You are often underestimated as a young person, and people are quick to write you off as naive and inexperienced. However, being a young business owner has its advantages – for one, there is a lot of room to exceed expectations!
Q: What are some of the standout lessons you learned from building a business at your age?
A: As I have built Viva Vita, I have become aware of the responsibility that as young business people we have to carry our generation forward. As young people, we do not always have the opportunity to make our voices heard. When we have the opportunity to do so in a business setting, we must take full advantage of our platform to push for positive change for the generations that follow us. I’ve learned to look out for opportunities to advocate for my generation and for the future of our economy and environment.
Q: What are some of the biggest achievements your business has had so far?
A: One of our biggest achievements this year was being named a finalist in the 2019 New Venture Competition at George Washington University. This is one of the largest collegiate business competitions in the country, and our team’s hard work over several months propelled us to achieve the initial funding and recognition we needed to launch Viva Vita. Since then, we have been able to acquire our first customers in the senior care industry, another huge milestone for us. As we continue to create a presence in the DMV, we look forward to reaching future milestones of further customer acquisition and expand into greater Virginia and Maryland.
Q: What advice would you give to any other younger entrepreneurs who are considering starting their own business?
A: Test your idea by creating a minimum viable product that is functional enough to demonstrate to potential customers, but that doesn’t exhaust your startup funds. If you rush to create the final product, even if you’re sure customers will love it, you’ll likely waste resources because you’re likely wrong. For example, as part of Viva Vita’s offering we survey senior users on their feelings of energy, positivity, and other metrics of wellbeing to provide regular reports to the communities we service. This allows the retirement communities to see how virtual reality is benefitting residents, and to monitor feelings of depression among their residents – which allows them to intervene when necessary.
We want to automate this service so that the data can remain completely anonymous and be summed up in reports instantly, but before investing our budget in hiring an employee to build out this platform for us, we do all the data collection by hand. After getting the permission of the respondent, we help them to fill out a survey and record the results manually. Once we can validate our assumption by demonstrating our survey methods are working, we will make the big investment to automate the process!
Q: How do you perceive small business today?
A: Small businesses are the core of American innovation. Each small business has its unique culture and a specific energy, which is almost impossible to find at large companies. I believe people our age have greater trust in small businesses because they are seen as more genuine and passionate about solving the needs of those that they work with, whether it be customers or employees. We can trust small businesses to do the right thing for people.
Berryman’s story of entrepreneurship truly embodies the meaning of “business for good.” By marrying disruptive technology like virtual reality, with a mission to improve the wellbeing of others, Berryman’s company has the opportunity to drive a positive impact for seniors everywhere. The U.S. Chamber’s Young Entrepreneur Series will continue to highlight businesses, like Viva Vita, that are harnessing creative solutions to solve social problems and forging new pathways to innovate our world. Check out other young entrepreneurs in the series, here.