In a landscape defined by ever-evolving tech—social media, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality—it’s easy for women and men from older generations, frequently unfamiliar with those changes, to feel disconnected.
Emily Hooke, a junior majoring in communications from Rexburg, Idaho, is determined to change that. And the Ballard Center for Social Impact at the BYU Marriott School of Business has given her a context to realize that goal.
Hooke was recently named a grand prize winner in Duke University’s annual New Ideas competition. The competition invites undergraduates from across the nation to submit business ideas aimed at “contribut[ing] to improving civil discourse and reducing polarization in society.”
Hooke’s winning idea? A social platform designed to help connect nursing home residents with volunteers around the world in casual one-on-one virtual conversations. Affectionately named Insta-Gramp, Hooke’s startup aims to address loneliness among this older cohort and to create opportunities for cross-generational connection and empathy.
“In 2019, we were inclined to joke ‘Okay, boomer’; but in 2023, the boomers are not okay,” Hooke says. The phrase has become an informal mantra for the social entrepreneur.
She discovered the New Ideas competition in a Ballard Center for Social Impact newsletter and refined her pitch in the Ballard Center’s Social Venture Academy.
Inspiration for her venture, Hooke explains, came from her childhood in rural Idaho. “My family has a longstanding tradition around the holidays: we visit nursing homes, sing songs, and get to know the lovely people there.”
Hooke says that, at the time, she didn’t fully appreciate the significance of that service—but her perspective has changed. “I came to recognize what my time at nursing homes did for those I visited with. Instead of focusing solely on my own emotions, I realized that even simple conversations had a visibly positive effect on [their feelings].”
Firsthand experiences with the elderly, including a close relative whose mental health declined while transitioning to a nursing home, propelled Hooke to deeper research and idea validation.
Through her research, Hooke discovered the health outcomes for seniors correlated with isolation. “A lot of studies indicate that as people are deprived of needed social stimulation, they have a higher chance of dying earlier. They also have a higher chance of contracting dementia and Alzheimer's,” Hooke says.
The research also revealed how social technology can alleviate loneliness. She began sketching out a social app that relies on two-way virtual calls to give nursing home residents a connection to volunteer users anywhere in the world. A simplified interface makes the platform accessible to users at all ability levels. “A resident can be bedridden with chronic arthritis in their hands and still effectively engage with the call interface—and multiple calls in one sitting—without having to press buttons,” Hooke explained.
The platform emphasizes video calling over other forms of communication, such as texting, in order to match the in-person experiences that nursing home residents are accustomed to. “My goal is to make this the first platform that truly accounts for the limitations and preferences of nursing home residents, simulating face-to-face conversations with as much accuracy as possible,” Hooke says.
Insta-Gramp benefits users young as well as old. “Most people have senior citizen friends and loved ones who they care about but have struggled to maintain regular contact with,” says Hooke. The app allows volunteers to directly connect to those friends and keep in regular contact.
As a grand prize winner, Hooke received an all-expenses-paid trip to Duke University and the opportunity to present her proposal alongside the winning ideas of nine other students from across the country. She also received a scholarship toward a Duke MBA program in the future. So in April, Hooke pitched her concept to a panel of accomplished Duke alumni.
“It was a really good chance just to hear the panelists’ insights on what I was working on,” Hooke says. “I think it’s so cool to see how many people connect with the issues I’m talking about.”
The trip also helped Hooke reframe her conception of what social entrepreneurship means.
“I’m a communications student with a minor in business, but I arguably lack some of the experience and know-how that many of my younger undergraduate colleagues do,” Hooke admits. “If you have an idea that you’re passionate about and you want to see positive change happen, there’s no reason you should feel limited from doing similar and greater things.”
Fresh off her confidence-boosting trip to Duke, Hooke is now interning at the Atlas Network, a nonprofit devoted to encouraging civil liberty around the globe. And she continues to build her social startup—a venture whose existence she attributes, in large part, to Brigham Young University and the BYU Marriott School of Business.
“It's thrilling to be at a university and in a school that prioritizes innovation and new ideas,” Hooke says. “It's been so great to work with other Ballard Center students and staff—to have a support network in doing something that feels a little bit outrageous.”
Written by Coleman Numbers